The Public and the Private Realm

Here is the reading for Saturday, February 13.  We will meet here at 4:30.  A printable copy is here.

Man: A Social or a A Political Animal

Last week, we saw the basic distinction between labor, work, and action.  First, labor produces the necessities of life which are things to be consumed.  Second, work produces lasting objects that make up the human world.  Third, there is action, the words and deeds that make up the world of interactions between humans.  All three human activities are conditioned by the fact that men live together, but only action cannot be imagined outside relations with others.

Arendt begins by tracing the history of how Aristotle’s term zoon politikon, typically translated into English as “political animal”, was altered by Latin speakers first into “social animal,” and then “man is by nature political, that is, social.”  The problem with this is that Greek has no word for “social”, which for the Romans was an alliance between people for a specific purpose.

In contrast, Plato and Aristotle thought the fact that we had to live together for practical reasons was an afterthought; it was only a response to biological needs, just like it was with many other animals. The human capacity for political organization was something entirely different from  those biologically-centered forms of organization, namely the home and the family.   Outside of the home, man had a second life, his bios politikos (political life).  Every citizen had two orders of existence: the life that was his own, and his communal life.

Aristotle thought only two activities were political: action (praxis) and speech (lexis); out of these things comes the world of human affairs, which excludes things which were only “useful” or “necessary”.  As time went on, action and speech became more separated.  The emphasis turned from action to speech as persuasion.  To be political was to affect change through persuasion, not violence.  To force someone to do something by violence was pre-political, relegated to the home where the household head was a despot, or in dealing with barbarians.

So Aristotle’s “political animal” was not only unrelated to natural associations like family life; it could also only be understood by adding to it his second definition, “a living being capable of speech.”  Latin translated the Greek term  into “rational animal”, which is just as much a misunderstanding as “social animal” was.  Aristotle was not trying to define man in general, or even man’s highest capacity, which to him was not logos (translated either as rationality or speech), but nous, the capacity for contemplation, “whose chief characteristic is that its content cannot be rendered in speech.” (184)  Everyone outside the polis was deprived not of logos, speech, but of a way of life in which speech and action made sense.

The final Latin conflation of political and social comes when Aquinas compares the head of the household to a political ruler; he thinks they are basically the same, but the father’s power is less complete.  The Greeks would have thought it obvious that the reverse was true.  It was not because the political leader’s power was contested; rather “because absolute, uncontested rule and a political realm properly speaking were mutually exclusive.” (185)

The Polis and the Household

The confusion between politics and society is even more obvious in modern society.  The distinction between public and private, politics and household, have dissolved into the social realm, which is neither strictly public nor private.  The main difficulty we have is seeing the line between common activities and activities done for the sake of the maintenance of life, a difference that ancient political thought considered obvious.

For us, the line is blurred “because we see the body of peoples and political communities in the image of a family whose everyday affairs have to be taken care of by a gigantic, nation-wide administration of housekeeping.” (186)  

Historically, it is likely that the rise of the city-state came at the expense of the private household.  But “the old sanctity of the hearth” was never entirely lost, even in Rome.  The polis did not violate the private lives of its citizens not because of a respect for private property as we understand it, but because without a house a man could not participate in politics because he had no location of his own.

The distinctive trait of the household was that men lived in it together because of wants and needs;  “Natural community in the household therefore was born of necessity, and necessity ruled over all the activities performed in it.” (186) On the other hand, the polis was the sphere of freedom.  Mastering the necessities of life in the household could be seen as a condition for the freedom of the polis. Arendt says all Greek philosophers took it for granted that freedom was found in the political realm, and that necessity is prepolitical, part of the private sphere, in which violence and force are justified because force is required to master necessity and become free: “Because 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.” (187)  This freedom was an essential condition for eudaimonia, which Arendt renders as felicity.  It was an objective state which depended upon wealth and health.  To be poor or sick was to be subject to necessity, and to be a slave was to be subject to man-made violence.  

The prepolitical force that the household head used to rule over family and slaves was not the chaotic state of nature from 17th century political thought, a state which could only be escaped by establishing a government with a monopoly on force.  The whole idea of ruling and being ruled would have been considered to be prepolitical and to belong in the private sphere.

Another distinction between public and private is that the political sphere knew only equals, while the household had strict inequalities: “To be free meant both not to be subject to the necessity of life or to the command of another and not to be in command oneself.” (188)  Now, that idea of equality had little in common with ours.  That idea was about the capacity to live among and have to only deal with one’s equals, and it presupposed the existence of unequals who were actually the majority. Equality was not connected with justice, as it is for us; rather, it was connected with freedom: “[T]o 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.” (188)

With feudalism, the household model stretched into all life; the Feudal lord could rule like a head of a household.  This was a major step of the dissolution of public and private into “society”.

The Rise of the Social

With the rise of the social, the stuff of the household, the stuff necessary for life, entered into the public sphere.  It also changed the meaning of private and public.  For us, privacy is a sphere of intimacy.  In Greece and Rome, privacy was privation.  It was a sphere in which one’s highest capacities could not be exercised: “A man who lived only a private life, who like the slave was not permitted to enter the public realm, or like the barbarian had chosen not to establish such a realm, was not fully human.” (191)

We do not think of deprivation when we think of privacy, partly because of the richness of modern individualism.  Modern privacy as intimacy is opposed to the social realm.  The first real thinker of intimacy was Rousseau.  He did not primarily rebel against the state, but against “society’s unbearable perversion of the human heart. . .” (192)  The romantic reaction against society was about the levelling demands of the social, what today we would call conformism.  This rebellion took place before the principle of equality became commonplace, which is important because conformism is often blamed upon equality.  Whether a nation consists of equals or non-equals is not important, because societies always demand that their members act as members of one enormous family with one opinion and one interest.  The modern dissolution of family ties shows that what happened was that the family unit was absorbed into other social groups.  Equality is now not so much between peers as between members of a common household under a despotic household head, except that in society one-man rule has changed into no-one man rules:

“But this nobody, the assumed one interest of society as a whole in economics as well as the assumed one opinion of polite society in the salon, does not cease to rule for having lost its personality.  As we know from the most social form of government, that is, from bureaucracy (the last state of government in the nation-state just as one-man rule in benevolent despotism and absolutism was its first), the rule by nobody is not necessarily no-rule; it may indeed, under certain circumstances, even turn out to be one of its cruelest and most tyrannical versions.” (193)

It is very important that society, on all levels, excludes the possibility of action.  Society expects certain kinds of behaviour, the following of various rules, all of which tend to normalize people.  Spontaneous action and outstanding achievements are excluded.  In fact, behavior has replaced action has the primary human relation.  It is very different from the equality of Greece.  To be a Greek equal was to be allowed to live among one’s peers in the polis, but that polis was fiercely antagonistic.  Everyone always had to distinguish themselves from others.  The public realm was the place of individuality. This is tied to the birth of the social sciences; their presupposition is that men behave but do not act, and hence statistics is the social science tool par excellence.

Economics could only really rise when men became social beings and followed expected patterns of behavior.  Statistics are only valid over long stretches and with large numbers, where acts or events appear as deviations or fluctuations.  The basic belief of statistics is that acts are rare.  But the meaningfulness of everyday life is disclosed in acts.  The application of statistics to politics and history ends with the destruction of politics and history, since “everything that is not everyday behavior or automatic trends has been ruled out as immaterial.” (194)   The unfortunate truth is that the more people there are, the more likely they are to behave and less like to tolerate action.  A complete victory of society will always result in rule by nobody.

“To gauge the extent of society’s victory in the modern age, its early substitution of behaviour for action and its eventual substitution of bureaucracy, the rule of nobody, for personal rulership, it may be well to recall that in its initial science of economics, which substitutes patterns of behaviour only in this rather limited field of human activity, was finally followed by the all-comprehensive pretension of the social sciences which, as ‘behavioural sciences,’ aim to reduce man as a whole, in all his activities, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal.  If economics is the science of society in its early stages, when it could impose its rules of behavior only on sections of the population and on parts of their activities, the rise of the ‘behavioral sciences’ indicates clearly the final stage of this development, when mass society has devoured all strata of the nation and ‘social behaviour’ has become the standard for all regions of life.” (196)

With the growth of the social, even the space of the intimate has become “public”.  This growth of society, which has been basically constant, gets its strength from the fact that through society it is the life process itself which has been channeled into the public realm.  The private realm once contained the necessities of life; once of the characteristics of privacy, prior to the creation of the intimate, was that man in that sphere was not exactly a human being but instead a “specimen of the animal species man-kind.”  And that is quite society is so conformist today.  Conformism is rooted in the fact that we are the same species and do have the same needs; this oneness is not a fantasy.

The clearest sign that “society” is our primary form of organizing is that modern communities are made of laborers and jobholders; society is centered around the activity necessary to sustain life.  Society is the form of life in which mutual dependence for the sake of needs connected to survival is the only form of public significance. What we might normally call an increase in the productivity of labor, Arendt calls an “unnatural growth of the natural”.  She says, “In no other sphere of life do we appear to have attained such excellence as in the revolutionary transformation of laboring . . while dire necessity made labor indispensable to sustain life, excellence would have been the last thing to expect from it.” (198)  Excellence – arete for the Greeks, and virtus for the Romans, was always for the public realm.  Excellence required the presence of others, while private activities did not.

The Public Realm: The Common

The term “public” involves two things.  First, those in public can be seen and heard by everybody: “For us, appearance–something that is seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves–constitutes reality.” (199)  Private matters have a more shadowy, less real existence.  To make them public involves changing them: for example, an artist drawing upon their own life.

The public realm, as the common world, gathers people together.  What makes mass society terrible is that it can no longer gather people together; it actually separates them.  Arendt compares society to a seance in which people sit around a table; the table disappears through a trick, and suddenly they are not separated but not connected either.

Historically, we have an example of something that was to bind people together in a community that had lost interest in the common world.  To find a bond like that was the main political task of early Christian philosophy.  Augustine tried to do it with with charity. To found all human relations on charity.  Augustine said, “Even robbers have between them what they call charity.”  This example is well chosen; it could bond “worldless” people together, either saints or criminals. That un-political, non-public Christian community was defined in the demand that it be a body, a family.  “The structure of communal life was modeled on the relationships between the members of a family because these were known to be non-political and even anti-political.” (202)

The idea that the human world is as mortal as its makers might lead one to Christian abstention, but it is not the only possibility: it might also lead to an intensification of enjoyment, of hedonism.  However, a public realm requires a sense of permanence; “If the world is to contain a public space, it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life-span of mortal men.” (202)  Without that transcendence, no public realm is possible.  

The Private Realm: Property

To live an entirely private life is to live a life deprived of things essential to a human life: the reality of being seen and heard by others, of the objective relation with them that comes from living in a common world of things, and to achieve something more lasting than life itself.  Private man is without consequence to others..   

The privative nature of privacy was almost extinguished by Christianity.  Christian morality insisted that people mind their own business, and that “political responsibility constituted first of all a burden, undertaken exclusively for the sake of the well-being and salvation of those it freed from worry about public affairs.” (206)  That attitude survived even into Karl Marx, who Arendt thinks only really codified modern political thought by hoping for the “’withering away’ of the whole public realm.” (206)   The difference in the Christian and socialist viewpoint was not about the public realm, but about humans: for Christians they are fallen, and for socialists, it should be abolished.  Arendt thinks that even in Marx’s day the public was withering, and that the government was being reduced to “housekeeping”, and from housekeeping into mere administration. The final stage is the end of the private realm.  It is not an accident that a major topic of debate is private property.  Connecting “private” to property takes away its privative character and therefore also its opposition to the public:

“The profound connection between private and public, manifest on its most elementary level in the question of private property, is likely to be misunderstood today because of the modern equation of property and wealth on one side and propertylessness and poverty on the other.  This misunderstanding is all the more annoying as both, property as well as wealth, are historically of greater relevance to the public realm than any other private matter or concern and have played, at least formally, more or less the same role as the chief condition for admission to the public realm  and full-fledged citizenship.” (207)

So we should not forget that wealth and property are not the same thing: the wealth of a single individual consists in their share in the annual income of a society of a whole.  Prior to modernity, property was sacred, while wealth was not.  Property was the source of citizenship, to belong to the public realm, to have a location within it.  The piece of the world the family owned was so identified with them that expulsion would often include the destruction of the home, and no matter how wealthy a foreigner or slave was, it could not substitute for property.

The sacredness of property was linked to”the sacredness of the hidden, namely, of birth and death, the beginning and the end of mortals who, like all living creatures, grow out of and return to the darkness of an underworld.” (208)

It was not the interior of the household, but its exterior appearance, that was important for the public.  It appeared in the city as the boundary between one household and another.  The law was originally identified with the boundary line between households.

“The law of the city-state was neither the content of political action (the idea that political activity is primarily legislating, through Roman in origin, is essentially modern and found its greatest expression in Kant’s political philosophy) nor was it a catalogue of prohibitions, resting, as all modern laws still do, upon the Thou Shalt Nots of the Decalogue.  It was quite literally a wall, without which there might have been an agglomeration of houses, a town, but not a city; a political community.” (208)

So it is not quite true that private property was a self-evident condition for citizenship; privacy was the other, the dark side, of the public realm.  To be political was man’s highest capacity, but to have no private place (like a slave) was to no longer be human. If a property-owner choose to get more property over leading a public life, he was acting just like a slave.  The enormous accumulation of wealth began with expropriation has never shown respect for private property when it conflicted with accumulation.  

The Social and the Private

The ownership of property has changed: property owners once claimed access to the public on the basis the their property.  Now they demand protection from the public for the sake of more accumulation.  Citing Jean Bodin (who Schmitt also quoted), “government belonged to kings and property to subjects, so that it was the duty of the kings to rule in the interest of their subject’s property.” The commonwealth largely existed for the common wealth.  When this common wealth took over the public realm, private possessions (which are less permanent than the common world), began to undermine the durability of the world.  While it is true that one can have so much wealth that they can never use it up, wealth is to be used and consumed.  It was only when wealth became capital, whose function is to make more capital, did private property come to equal the permanence of the common world.

But this is a permanence of a different kind: it is a process rather than a stable structure.  Without the process of accumulation, wealth would fall back into the process of consumption.  Both the public and the private are submersed into the social.  We can see the consequences of having lost both the public and private sphere: “the public because it has become a function of the private and the private because it has become the only common concern left.” (211)

From this angle, the modern discovery of the intimate is a flight from the outer world into the inner subjectivity of the individual. The dissolution of the private into the social can be seen in the transformation of immobile property into mobile property, that is, the loss of the distinction between property and wealth.  Every tangible, “fungible” thing has become an object of consumption.  Everything is interchangeable; a firm location is no longer part of the equation.

So property lost its worldly character and became located in the person themselves—in what a person could lose along with their lives.  Locke’s statement that the labor of one’s body is the origin of property is probably historically false, but it is true for us.  Our only reliable property is our skill and labor power. The big problem, however, “ is not the abolition of private ownership of wealth but the abolition of private property in the sense of a tangible, worldly place of one’s own.” (212)

In order to understand the danger of the loss of the private realm, for which the intimate is not a good substitute, look at the non privative traits of privacy which are older than and independent of intimacy.  The first difference between what we have in common and what we own privately is that our private possessions are needed for daily consumption and are much more urgent than anything in the common world.  Those biological needs, which appear to be only a deprivation of freedom, also force us into activity: “Necessity and life are so intimately related and connected that life is threatened where necessity is altogether eliminated.  For the elimination of necessity, far from resulting automatically in the establishment of freedom, only blurs the distinguishing line between freedom and necessity.” (212)  

The second non-privative trait of privacy is that the four walls of private property offer a hiding place from the public.  There are two dangers when this is lost.  A life spent entirely in the public becomes shallow. Second, if the private itself is not protected, then the only thing left is an accumulation of wealth.

The private/public distinction, seen from the perspective of privacy, is the distinction between things that should be hidden and things that should be shown.  The modern rebellion against society shows how rich the hidden can be in the sphere of intimacy, but it is interesting that it is always bodily functions that are hidden: the labor of slaves and women giving birth. That fact that the working classes and women began their emancipation at about the same time came about because society no longer held bodily functions and material concerns as things to be hidden.

The Location of Human Activities

Each human activity points to its proper location in the world, to be hidden or shown.  This is true for labor, work and action.  One particular example plays a big role in political theory, goodness.  She says, “Goodness in an absolute sense, as distinguished from the ‘good-for’ or the ‘excellent’ in Greek and Roman antiquity, became known in our civilization only with the rise of Christianity.” (214)  With Christianity, good works have become an important part of human action.

There was a major antagonism between early Christianity and the public; the church father Tertullian said “no matter is more alien to us than what matters publicly.” Early Christians, because of the need to do good works, lived outside the public.  Arendt says it is obvious that “the moment a good work becomes known and public, it loses its specific character of goodness, of being done for nothing but goodness’ sake.  When goodness appears openly, it is no longer goodness, thought it may still be useful as organized charity or an act of solidarity.” (215)  Hence Jesus’ line to not pray in public. Just like Socrates’s wisdom grew out of his statement that no man can be wise, Jesus’s goodness grew out of his statement that no man can be good (“Why do you call me good? None is good, save one, that is, God”).

Love of wisdom and love of goodness, if they resolve into philosophy and good works, come to an end; they cancel themselves whenever it is assumed one can be wise or be good.  “Attempts to bring into being that which can never survive the fleeting moment of the deed itself have never been lacking and have always led into absurdity.” (215)  Take philosophers who claim to be happy when being roasted alive, or Christians who take “turn the other cheek” as an actual way of life, rather than a metaphor.  But the similarity between wisdom and goodness ends there.  Goodness has a much more extreme opposition to the public realm; it is much more fragile.  The philosopher, if he leaves the cave, does not have to hide from himself.  In the dialogue between “me and myself”, Plato saw the essence of thought.  A thinker is never without company. The person “who is in love with goodness” cannot lead a solitary life, but his actions are essentially unwitnessed: “He is not solitary, but lonely; when living with others he must hide from them and cannot even trust himself to witness what he is doing.” (216)  

Goodness is not possible as a way of life in the public realm; it can even be destructive of it.  Machiavelli want to teach men “how not to be good”, but he did not need to teach them how to be bad.  The criminal act must also be hidden.  Machiavelli’s criterion for political action was glory, just like in antiquity, and badness cannot shine in glory any more than goodness can.  “Therefore all methods by which ‘one may indeed gain power, but not glory’ are bad.” (217)  Badness that comes out of hiding is impudent and destroys the common world; goodness that assumes a public role is no longer good.  The church was a corrupting force in Italian politics not because the Bishops were corrupt, but because it was public goodness.


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