Hannah Arendt and the Greek Polis: An Attempt to Rediscover Politics

“Our tradition of political thought had its definite beginning in the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. I believe it came to a no less definite end in the theories of Karl Marx” (Arendt, “Between” 17). According to Hannah Arendt, what distinguishes this tradition, which spans over two thousand years, is that it “is rooted in a hostility to politics” (Villa 262). This hostility discloses itself in the tradition’s beginning when Plato, in The Republic’s allegory of the cave, views politics “in terms of darkness, confusion, and deception which those aspiring to true being must turn away from and abandon if they want to discover the clear sky of eternal ideas” (Arendt, “Between” 17). The same hostility towards politics appears again at the end of this tradition of Western political thought when Marx declares that “philosophy and its truth are located not outside the affairs of men and their common world but precisely in them, and can be ‘realized’ only in the sphere of living together, which he called ‘society,’ through the emergence of ‘socialized men'”, he then predicts “that under conditions of a ‘socialized humanity’ the ‘state will wither away'” (17-18). This prediction clearly shows that the realization of philosophy in the emerging “socialized humanity” comes together with the decaying of the state. This “gulf between philosophy and politics opened historically with the trial and condemnation of Socrates, which in the history of political thought plays the same role of turning point that the trial and condemnation of Jesus plays in the history of religion” (Arendt, “Promise” 6).

For Plato, the trial and death of Socrates means, simply, that the Athenian polis is not a safe place for philosophers, and this is what causes his despair “of polis life and, at the same time, [makes him] doubt certain fundamentals of Socrates’ teachings” (6-7). Thus, he decides to turn against the polis in order to transform it not into a safe place for the philosopher to live, but rather to rule. As a result, the tradition of political thought begins carrying within it a whole system that degrades not only politics but whole of human activities in favor of a contemplative way of life, where the life of the philosopher and truth are located. Plato’s philosophy, alongside Aristotle’s philosophy, develops into a foundation of  the Western philosophical tradition  and remains as such until this tradition’s breakdown in the Modern Age. This fundamental view of philosophy, would not have continued to reign over Western tradition if the Romans, with their “sanctification of foundation as a unique event”, had not considered it “as the unquestionable, authoritative binding foundation of thought” (54). Thus, the price that Rome’s acceptance of the Greek philosophy as their own tradition had to pay was to  become impotent to “develop a philosophy, even a political philosophy, and therefore left its own specifically political experience without adequate interpretation” (54). Not only was Rome’s own experience left without interpretation, the sanctification of Plato and Aristotle’s philosophies, with their inherent hostility toward politics, as a tradition also made “whatever experience, thought, or deed did not fit into its prescribing categories and standards, which were developed from its beginning, was in constant danger of oblivion” (44). One of the experiences is the Greek polis which Plato turned against and plays a critical role in Arendt’s thought as she returns to it in attempt to overcome the conflict between politics and philosophy, between action and thinking. This paper is an attempt to rebuild the image that Arendt draws for the polis and to shed light on its impact on her exploration of the essence of politics which she aimed to be free from the inherent conflict between philosophy and politics in the Western tradition of political thought.

Hannah Arendt states that the Greek city-state was divided into two realms: the private realm and the public realm. Distinguishing between these two realms, “between the sphere of the polis and the sphere of the household and family, and, finally, between activities related to a common world and those related to the maintenance of life”, is difficult (Arendt, “Human” 28). The reason for this difficulty is, Arendt claims, the original understanding of political entities was “in the image of a family whose everyday affairs have to be taken care of by a gigantic, nation-wide administration of housekeeping” (28). Arendt points to the fact that, contrary to this image, historically, the rise of the polis and its public realm comes into being “at the expense of the private realm of family and household”, and “what prevented the polis from violating the private lives of its citizens and made it hold sacred the boundaries surrounding each property was not respect for private property as we understand it, but the fact that without owing a house a man could not participate in the affairs of the world because he had no location in it which was properly his own” (29-30). This interdependent relationship between the two realms becomes clearer when the role of each realm is analyzed further.

Arendt considers the characteristic attribute of the private realm as follows:

In it men lived together because they were driven by their wants and needs. The driving force was life itself … which, for its individual maintenance and its survival as the life of the species needs the company of others. The individual maintenance should be the task of the man and species survival the task of the women was obvious, and both of these natural functions, the labor of man to provide nourishment and the labor of woman in giving birth, were subject to the same urgency of life. Natural community in the household therefore was born of necessity, and necessity ruled over all activities performed in it. (30)

On the other hand, the public realm or the sphere of the polis is “the sphere of freedom” (30). If there is any relation between the two realms, it certainly is “that the mastering of the necessities of life in the household was the condition for freedom of the polis” (30-31). Therefore, necessity becomes “prepolitical phenomenon” located in its private realm, and “force and violence are justified in this sphere because they are the only means to master necessity – for instance, by ruling over slaves- and become free” (31). Since “all human beings are subject to necessity, they are entitled to violence toward others; violence is the prepolitical act of liberating oneself from the necessity of life for the freedom of world” (31). Thus, the private realm is where the head of the household rules its members and slaves with both force and violence. Only when this head exits from his household to the public realm, does he find himself surrounded by equals. For the public realm only identify equals, whereas the private realm is the realm of inequality. This equality, founded on the Greek public realm, is strictly different from the modern notion of equality which is connected with justice, since it, according to the ancient Greeks in Arendt’s interpretation, is:

The very essence of freedom: to be free meant to be free from the inequality present in rulership and to move in a sphere where neither rule nor being ruled existed. (33)

In order to determine what kind of activities are performed in this public realm, a necessary return has to be made to Arendt’s famous distinction of the three fundamental human activities.  These activities correspond to the human condition on this earth. For life itself is in the human body, men are forced into labor. Also, since they do not inhabit lairs and dens like animals, but rather houses, they are forced to make their own world. Finally, since ” men, not Man, live on earth and inhabit the world”, they act because of this plurality (7). Labor, work and action are what Arendt considers the fundamental activities that form the vita active (human condition). Labor is defined as the activity that fits fulfilling the necessities of the body’s life, its development and survival, such as providing food. While work is the activity that transforms nature into artifacts and things from which the world of humans is built, such as sculpting a statue. Finally, action is “the only activity that goes directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter” and corresponds to their plurality (7). And, “While all aspects of the human condition are somehow related to politics, this plurality is specifically the condition… of all political life” (7). All of these activities “are intimately connected with the most general condition of human existence: birth and death, natality and mortality. Labor assures not individual life, but the life of species. Work and its product, the human artifact, bestow a measure of permanence and durability upon the futility of mortal life and the fleeting character of human time. Action, in so far as it engages in founding and preserving political bodies, creates the condition for remembrance, that is, for history” (8-9).

It can be observed that the Greeks did not build  their public realm for labor or work. This is due to the fact that labor enslaves the person to his life’s necessities and so it finds its place in the darkness of the private realm. Thus, one who spends his life as a subject to this activity, such as the slaves in antiquity, will not be distinguished from other living animals and hardly considered human. Whereas, work, performed by the maker in solitude, requires that when he has finished, he must appear to the public in order to display his products and exhibit it among human artifacts. This process of displaying products occurred in the exchange market, which can be considered a public realm for the makers, where they can show their products and communicate with others through them (160). The maker, however, will be excluded from the polis, the political public realm ,even though he is the one who builds it. In other words, he will not be admitted to citizenship because he is not a free person. Freedom here is not from state coercion, but rather freedom from his necessities and poverty. Only who is free from necessities- since they are taken care of by his slaves- and from poverty- so he will not spend his life in making things to make a living- will be admitted into the polis, which is the realm of action.

According to Arendt, the Greeks founded the polis, as a solution for a frailty inherent to the very nature of action and speech. Before describing this frailty, an explanation of what Arendt considers action and speech to mean and their corresponding significance is in order. People need to act and speak because they are conditioned by their plurality, which “has the twofold character of equality and distinction” (175). Action and speech would be meaningless if people were not equal, since there would be no understanding between them. They would also be superfluous if people were similar, since signs and mere sounds would be enough for their communication (175-176). The only way that people can  distinguish themselves, reveal their “unique distinctness”, and express to others who they are, not “what” they are, is through acting and speaking. Hannah Arendt emphasize the role of action in her assertion that “a life without speech and without action… is literally dead to the world; it has ceased to be a human life because it is no longer lived among men” (176). To act is to begin something unexpected and new, something that cannot be related causally with what happened before it. This unexpectedness inherent in action, distinguishes it from work whose end product is known before the process of fabricating begins, and the image of this product justifies and guides all the means that the maker will use in order to reach it. Due to this unexpectedness, Arendt sees each act as a “miracle”, since it is an interruption to the automatism “of the process in whose framework it occurs” (Arendt, “Between” 169). Since the closeness between speech and revelation is obviously much higher than the closeness between action and revelation, action must therefore be accompanied by speech in order to disclose the identity of the actor. This is why Arendt says that “speechless action would no longer be action because there would no longer be an actor” (Arendt, “Humane” 178). This revelatory character of action and speech can easily be lost when people cease to be together; i.e. this togetherness will be lost when one is not with others, but either for or against them (180). For Arendt, the only way to grant this togetherness is to be preserved in a public space (180).

Although through action and speech people disclose who they are, these activities are the most futile human ones because they “leave no trace, no product that might endure after the moment of action and the spoken word has passed” (173). According to Arendt, the Greeks’ vision toward all things is that they “come into being by themselves without assistance from men or gods”, that they are immortal (Arendt, “Between” 42). Furthermore, “all living creatures, man not excepted, are contained in this realm of being-forever” (42). Although mankind, as species, is included in this immortality, the individual man is mortal, and this specific mortality “became the hallmark character of human existence”. Thus, people are the only mortals in a surrounding of immortal things, and their mortality springs from the very fact that each one of them has his own story. This story is the product of their capacity to act and speak from their birth to their death, and something different than the mere biological cycle of life which all living beings, human and animal, share. However, the story of individual’s deeds and words is also ephemeral, and the only way to immortalize it is through inserting it into memory. Arendt sees that “with Herodotus words and deeds and events- that is, those things that owe their existence exclusively to men- became the subject matter of history. Of all man-made things, these are the most futile” (44). Since, through work, one is making his products from the eternal nature, these products can outlast the maker himself and his immortality. On the other hand, story, the product of man’s actions and “what goes on between mortals directly… would never leave any trace without the help of remembrance” (44). This help of remembrance comes from the worker “in his highest capacity, that is, the help of the artist, of poets and historiographers, of monument-builders، or writers, because without them the only product of their activity, the story they enact and tell, would not survive at all” (Arendt, “Human” 173). The perplexity here is that, although it is possible to overcome the futility of action through the help of a historian or a poet who can immortalize one’s story by making it, it becomes clear that not every deed or word will win this “immortal fame”. Rather, only the extraordinary people, such as Achilles “the doer of great deeds and the speaker of great words” (Arendt, “Between” 46), whom a historian or a poet can decide that they deserve to be immortalized.

To Arendt, it was not only in order to solve this perplexity of futility of action that the Greeks founded the polis, but also to offset two characteristics inherent in action: its boundlessness and unpredictability. When we act, we start a story which as Arendt says:
is composed of its consequent deeds and sufferings. These consequences are boundless, because action, though it may proceed from nowhere, so to speak, acts into a medium where every reaction becomes a chain reaction and where every process is the cause of new processes. Since action acts upon beings who are capable of their own actions, reaction, apart from being a mere response, is always a new action that strikes out on its own and affects others. Thus action and reaction among men never move in a closed circle and can never be reliably confined to two partners” (Arendt, “Human” 190).

This boundlessness of action has another side which is its “tremendous capacity for establishing relationships” which makes action have “an inherent tendency to force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries” (191, 190). Thus, laws and boundaries, although Greeks saw legislating and city-building as prepolitical activities and not actions but mere works, in body politics play a decisive role in providing a sort of balance among “human affairs precisely because no such limiting and protecting principles rise out of the activities going on in the realm of human affairs itself” (191). Besides the boundlessness of action, there is its unpredictability, which laws are incapable of protecting human affairs from. Action is unpredictable not because we cannot determine all its possible consequences; rather, it is unpredictable because the story that action starts does not reach its full meaning until it reaches its full end, so the actors themselves do not know this meaning until their actions are done (192).

The frailty of human affairs comes from the futility of action, its unpredictability and boundlessness, and the Greek solution for this frailty, as Arendt shows, is the “foundation of polis” (196). Arendt concludes that:

The polis… namely, “the sharing of words and deeds”, has a twofold function. First, it was intended to enable men to do permanently, albeit under certain restrictions, what otherwise had been possible only as an extraordinary and infrequent enterprise for which they had to leave their households. The polis was supposed to multiply the occasions to win “immortal fame”, that is, to multiply the chances for everybody to distinguish himself, to show in deed and word who he was in his unique distinctness… The second function of the polis, again closely connected with the hazards of action as experienced before its coming to being, was to offer a remedy for the futility of action and speech; for the chances  that a deed deserving fame would not be forgotten, that it actually would become “immortal”, were not very good. (197)

What is most striking about this journey through the image of the Greek’s polis, as presented by Arendt, is how she derives from it completely different insights into politics and related political notions. For example, the prevailing liberal concept of freedom is normally conceived as freedom from coercion of others, society, or the state; that “freedom begins when politics ends” and “politics is compatible with freedom only because and insofar as it guarantees a possible freedom from politics” (Arendt, “Between” 149). Yet, to Arendt, this negative concept of liberty, as Isaiah Berlin calls it, is not political freedom; it is also not “the nonpolitical aim of politics, but a marginal phenomenon- which somehow forms the boundary government should not overstep unless life itself and its immediate interests and necessities are at stake” (150). Instead, Arendt, believed that freedom becomes the “raison d’être of politics”, and it “was understood to be the free man’s status, which enabled him to move, to get away from home, to go out into the world and meet other people in deed and word. This freedom clearly was preceded by liberation: in order to be free, man must have liberated himself from necessities of life. The status of freedom, however, did not follow automatically upon the act of liberation. Freedom needed, in addition to mere liberation, the company of other men who were in the same state, and it needed a common public space to meet them” (148). It is obvious how the experience of the polis is present here, and how its impact on Arendt’s thought led her to this entirely different notion of freedom.

Although many of Arendt’s critics see in her glorification of the polis a sort of nostalgic return to the past or a mere fantasy, their different skeptical views regarding the reality of polis are, in my perspective, immaterial to the conclusions that Arendt derives from it. The emphasis on the role that the polis plays in giving individuals the chance to disclose themselves through action and speech is, for Arendt, the real essence of politics. Actually, Arendt herself describes the polis as follows:

The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be (Arendt, “Human” 198).

However, it is specifically out of this understanding of politics, Arendt’s pessimism regarding its fate in the Modern Age is sprung. This is because of our modern tendency to look at politics merely as means, a “necessarily evil”, to an end, which is in itself a good thing (Jiang 10-11). Consequently, this tendency implies the potentiality of inserting violence into public affairs simply because it appears as though there is no other peaceful means available to achieve the desired end (10-11). This modern view of politics is rooted in the tradition of Western political thought from its beginning when Plato politicized the notions of “rulership” and “domination” after they had been prepolitical notions located in the private realm. Despite her pessimism towards the possibility of founding a new polis, where politics can retain its meaning, Arendt notes occasions when public spaces emerged in the Modern Age.  These events are, specifically, when temporal councils, where people act and speak together with neither rule nor being ruled, come into being spontaneously as a result of modern revolutions. For Arendt, a public space is not necessarily a political space, because the public space can open whenever people come together. A public space becomes a political one, only when “it is secured within a city, is bound, that is, to a concrete place that itself survives both those memorable deeds and the names of the memorable men who performed them and thus can pass them on to posterity over generations” (Arendt, “Promise” 123, Jiang 10-11). Hence, Arendt held that it is possible for public realms, but not political spaces, to emerge in Modern Age, since such secured and permanent spaces within the modern states are not available.

Although Arendt asserts that individuals in the Modern Age, by lacking a political space, lose their capacity to disclose themselves through acting and speaking together, she points that their capability of action has shifted to be applied to nature. Arendt considers this shift is dangerous since it carries action, with all its unpredictability and boundlessness, to nature, providing humans with capabilities for acts of destruction that can destroy the earth itself. However, what we are witnessing today, as an unpredictable consequence of human’s action on nature, is the development of the Internet, and specifically Web 2.0. This modern development has made the establishment of virtual public spaces (e.g. Twitter, YouTube…etc), where individuals reveal themselves through action and speech, a reality. If we apply Arendt’s own description of the polis to one of these social networks we find it almost identical, particularly when we see the simultaneous communication that it provides as a substitution to the togetherness, the condition of the public realm, which requires a common physical place. The dangers that Arendt warned of, which came into being as a result of the application of human action to nature, turns to be miracles. What Arendt considered to be  the lost public realm in the Modern Age is now recreated as an unpredictable consequence of human’s action upon nature.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future, Six Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Viking, 1961. Print.
—, The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998. Print.
—, and Jerome Kohn. The Promise of Politics. New York: Shoken, 2005. Print.
Jiang, Yi-huah. Hannah Arendt’s Idea of Politics Revisited. National Taiwan University. Online.
Villa, Dana R. The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt. Cambridge [etc.: Cambridge UP, 2006. Online.

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