Hannah Arendt, one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century, wrote a chapter with a rather peculiar title at the end of her book, The Promise of Politics, that reads, Introduction into Politics. In it, Arendt provided an account of what politics today is and her view on whether politics has any meaning at all still.
What is Politics?
Philosophy, theology and science, Arendt believes, all fail to provide an answer to the question of what politics is because they neglect one crucial aspect of men, our diverse plurality.
One of the most original forms of political body is kinship. While it is able to unite individuals with extreme differences and to offer shelter in a world which is organised in a way that there is no place within it for individuals of plurality, its very nature contradicts the fundamental of politics, for it abolishes the basic quality of plurality. This renders political organisation based on kinship infeasible.
Arendt further suggests two reasons, for why philosophy has never found a place where politics can take place.
- The assumption that there is something political in man that belongs to his essence.
- Men are repetition of man created by God.
Both of them are false beliefs. On the one hand, man is apolitical. Politics arises between and outside of men, as relationships. Some thinkers, like the 17th Century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, understood this, most however do not.
On the other hand, man created in the likeness of God’s solitariness, is destined to be in the Hobbesian ‘state of nature’, of ‘war of all against all’. Man is without meaning for he is created in the likeness of God’s aloneness. To allow for politics to arise among men under the Western creation myth, politics is transformed into history, which brutally melts the multiplicity of men into one human identity, of humanity, which is ironically and utterly inhuman.
Prejudice Against Politics and What, in Fact, Politics Is Today
The most prominent political issue of Arendt’s time is the prejudices that people have against politics. Underlying which Arendt identifies both hope and fear, the fear that humanity could destroy itself through politics and the hope that humanity will come to its senses and rid the world, not of humankind, but of politics through the means of force now at its disposal.
A world government is therefore envisioned. One that transforms the state into an administrative machine, that resolves political conflicts bureaucratically, and replaces armies with police forces.
This, Arendt argues, would end up simply being a despotism of massive proportion.
Also envisioned is bureaucratic rule, the anonymous rule of the bureaucrat, for it is less despotic because of its anonymousness. Arendt believes such a rule is, on the contrary, more fearsome, for precisely because no one can speak with or petition this anonymous ruler.
Since party-driven democracy was born, and fuelled recently by the recent imperial expansions driven by national economic interest, there have been mistrust in and prejudices against politics. John Dalberg-Acton captured this in a famous quote that reads ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’.
Nietzsche, Arendt notes, recognised the problem of such critique of power, for he rejected it as yet unarticulated yearnings of the masses. He however was not able to see still, the difference between power and force, which Arendt clarifies, that power is in the possession of no individual, since it can only arise out of the cooperative action of many i.e. from politics, whereas force is the means of which an individual can seize and control.
The prejudice that people have against politics, therefore, originates from the then-present use of force as means to certain ends.
Prejudice and Judgment
Arendt then moves on to take a closer look at prejudice and judgement. In the social realm, prejudice plays a crucial role. The use of which however is dangerous in the political realm.
Prejudice contains past judgment which is dragged through time without being reexamined. Prejudice therefore, with its anchor in the past, blocks judgement of the present.
There are two types of judgment, Arendt identifies. One is an assessment by applying an established standard, which itself can be the result of a prejudice. The other, an original judgment as it is then referred to, is made without an established standard and requires only our faculty of judgment, which has far more to do with our ability to make distinctions than with our ability to organise and subsume.
This type of original judgment without relying on an established standard is, Ardent notes, quite similar to judgments about aesthetics and taste, which, as the central figure in modern philosophy, Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential philosophers in modern Western philosophy, once observed, we cannot ‘dispute’.
In every historical crisis, it is the prejudices that begin to crumble first and can no longer be relied upon. This crumbling of prejudices lead to a failure of the established standards which in Arendt’s time is described as a nihilism inherent in her age.
Arendt reminds us that, established standards, with their ground on prejudices, inherit no compulsory proof. Its validity resides only in our recurring use of them. The falling of established standards is not, as some would describe as catastrophe, because with our faculty of original judgement, we can rebuild standards, and this time with every underlying prejudice, resulting from past judgment, reexamined. This faculty of original judgement renders men as active agents that author demonstrable events in the world.
The world and the catastrophes that occur in it should not be regarded as a purely human occurrence, nor should they be reduced to something that happens to man or to the nature of man. They are not the expression of human nature but rather are results of the fact that men produce what they themselves are not, be it machines of production or of mass destruction. It is within this world of things that men act and are themselves conditioned, and because they are conditioned by it, every catastrophe that occurs within it strikes back at them.
Arendt believes, the reason men will then perish is, therefore, not because of themselves, but because of the course of the world over which they no longer have mastery, and from which they are so alienated that the automatic forces inherent in every process can proceed unchecked.
What Is the Meaning of Politics?
Arendt believes that the meaning of politics is freedom. That is however not the question of her time. The question is, because of totalitarian government and state-controlled nuclear weapon capable of mass destruction, whether politics still has any meaning at all now that the very survival of men is at risk.
The hope and the solution lie in miracle. A miracle not of the religious sort, but of ‘action’, of the power of men, as active agents, acting together to accomplish the improbable and the unpredictable. Such action is where the meaning of politics i.e. freedom lies.
The Meaning of Politics
Since the ancient Greek, politics has been defined and justified as means to some higher ends, be it to make possible for a few to concern themselves with philosophy as the Greeks thought; to secure life, livelihood, and a minimum of happiness for the many; or as the American Founding Father James Madison envisioned, to hold a monopoly on brute force to prevents the war of all against all.
The problem here is that wars of annihilation, brought about by the rise of totalitarian government and state-controlled nuclear weapon capable of mass destruction, threaten the space and the relationships between men and between nations where politics resides.
Does Politics Still Have Any Meaning at All?
With wars and revolutions as the most common political experiences of Arendt’s time, one cannot help but to wonder whether politics still has any meaning at all, and whether political actions simply mean violence, which commands material means to the ends of conquest and domination.
If politics is a means to certain ends that are not political in themselves, Arendt argues, then the proper and expedient means for achieving these nonpolitical ends will inevitably be violence, and it is in the nature of ends that they justify the means necessary to achieve them.
Arendt reminds us that politics ought to pursue goals instead of ends. Goals are guidelines and directive by which we orient ourselves, and whose concrete realisations are constantly changing because we are dealing with other people who also have goals.
The only meaning that can be realised by means of brute force is coercion by violence. Even if the end is freedom, as one of the most influential figures associated with the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre suggested, such action will simple replace the despotism of kings with the tyranny of freedom.
Here Arendt introduces ‘principle of action’ as a forth element to the analysis. Principle of action is the fundamental conviction that a group of people share. Examples include honour in monarchies, virtue in republics, and fear under tyranny as well as fame in the world of Homer and freedom in the classical Athens. They do not simply move men to act but also provide constant nourishment for their actions.
Insofar as we can keep violence out of the political space within which meaningful conversations can be attained, the goal of politics i.e. peace, will transcend and orient means and ends, and the meaning contained in politics i.e. freedom can be realised as we, as active agents, participate in it.
An End Note
One of the most remarkable elements of Arendt’s Introduction into Politics, is her affirmation of the innate power of men, as active agents, to achieve the improbable and the unpredictable.
Politics organises men of diverse plurality, with a view to our relative equality, and in contradistinction to our relative differences, into a network of cooperative actions and relationships. From this network, power, that can accomplish wonder, arises. Insofar, as men remain as active agents, willing to distinguish and recognise the prejudices that are underneath the standards of today, and to make original judgments for a better tomorrow, this power of us will not be seized or controlled by any individual or institution.
The goal of politics is to create and maintain cooperative actions and peaceful relationships between men, and its meaning is freedom, as men participate and deliberate in politics. Arendt believes, insofar as we have this in mind and are willing to act on it, which is also why she is inviting us into politics with her writing, we will be able to, one day, attain the goal and realise the meaning of politics, to achieve peace and freedom.