Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?”

This is our reading for Saturday, August 26.  You can find the location and other details at our meetup.com page.

The word freedom has two common senses: the philosophical idea of free will, and the political idea of action.  Arendt argues that free will as a property of individuals is a relatively recent invention, having been created by Christians for theological reasons.  Freedom as a matter of action in the world is the original sense of the term, stemming from the Greek and Roman experience of public life.  Given the endless philosophical problems with the idea of free will, Arendt argues that we ought to think of freedom as political first and foremost, not as a property of individual will but as the human capacity to interrupt old processes and begin new ones.

1. Accounts of freedom have to deal with a basic contradiction between our consciousness and our conscience; we believe we are free and so responsible, but in our everyday experience, we seem to be entirely led by causality.  In politics, we take freedom to be self-evident, and this assumption guides our laws, communities, and judgements.  However, in science and theory, we take it to be obvious that everything has a cause.

2. Kant faces this contradiction head-on, and says that freedom cannot be an object of introspection.  He accepts a split between practical freedom and theoretical non-freedom as axiomatic for ethics and science, respectively.

3. The original attack on freedom did not come from science but philosophy.  As soon as we consider an apparently free act, we see two forms of causality.  First, inner motivation, and second, the causality of the outer world.  Kant does not fully solve this problem. His division between a “pure” theoretical reason and a  “practical” reason centred on free will implied that the free-willing agent never appeared in the phenomenal world.  While this move might preserve a moral law which is as significant as natural law, it does not solve the problem that thought, in both its theoretical and pre-theoretical forms, is incompatible with freedom.

4. Arendt’s basic thesis that this problem arose because philosophy took freedom out of its native home, politics, and placed it into the individual as free will.  The initial justification for this statement is that freedom is the youngest subject of metaphysics; its first appearance before modernity was in Paul and Augustine as they tried to work out the problem of religious conversion.

5. The field in which freedom has always been an issue is politics.  Our capacity for action always has to be tied to the problem of freedom; as Arendt says, “for action and politics, among all the capabilities and potentialities of human life, are the only things of which we could not even conceive without at least assuming that freedom exists, and we can hardly touch a single political issue without, implicitly or explicitly, touching upon an issue of man’s liberty” (146).   There are other political issues such as justice and equality, but freedom is the one reason that “men live together in political organization at all … The raison d’être of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action” (146).

6. The freedom which all political theory, even tyrannical theories, must take for granted is the very opposite of “inner freedom,” the inward space in which man escapes coercion and “feels free.”  This inner freedom has no outward manifestations and is politically irrelevant.  It is always derivative, in that it is always a retreat from the world.  It cannot be confused with the heart or the mind, which always function in concert with the world.

7. The derivative nature of inner freedom is more obvious if we go back to its origins.  It is not the modern individual defending himself from social conformity, but the ancient Greek and Romans and their public actions.  The appearance of freedom in Augustine was preceded by attempts to divorce freedom from politics.  Epictetus’s claim that freedom is being free from one’s desires is just a straight reversal of the ancient political notion that freedom came from power over others.  Freedom was only possible if man owned a home in the world, a place in which all the necessities of survival were taken care of.  Epictetus moved these worldly relationships into the self.

8. Despite the influence this idea of inner freedom has had, it seems clear it would never have appeared if people had not already had an experience of political freedom as a worldly, tangible reality: “Before it became an attribute of thought or a quality of the will, freedom 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” (148).  This freedom was preceded by liberation from the necessities of life, but further required the company of other free men.

9. Not every human relation involves freedom; freedom is only possibly in a politically guaranteed public realm.  She says, “Freedom as a demonstrable fact and politics coincide and are related to each other like two sides of the same matter” (149).

10. The problem today is that we can no longer take this coincidence of politics and freedom for granted.  Totalitarian governments are capable of subordinating all spheres of life to politics and a nonrecognition of civil rights, such as privacy and the right to freedom from politics.  This can make us doubt the connection or even compatibility between freedom and politics.  We end up believing that freedom begins where politics ends.

11. The idea that political liberty is a potential freedom from politics has its roots in the 17th and 18th centuries, who often identified political freedom with security.  The purpose of politics and government was to guarantee security, and this security made freedom possible (defined as activities outside the political realm). This essay wants to defend the claim that the whole point of politics is freedom.

12. Freedom in the context of politics is not about the will.  It is not about a freedom of choice which decides between two things, one good and one evil, a choice which is predetermined by an existing motive.  Rather, it is “the freedom to call something into being which did not exist before, which was not given, not even as an object of cognition or imagination, and which therefore, strictly speaking, could not be known” (151).

13. Action, to be free, has to be free from two things: motive and intended goals.  Motives and goals are involved in every single act, but they are determining factors, and free action has to be able to transcend them.  Arendt says, “Action insofar as it is determined is guided by a future aim whose desirability the intellect has grasped before the will wills it, whereby the intellect calls upon the will, since only the will can dictate action …” (151).

14. To recognize an aim is not a matter of freedom, but of right or wrong judgement.  The power to dictate action is not freedom but strength or weakness. Free action is not under the guidance of the will or the intellect, though it needs both to execute any particular goal.  Instead, it is guided by what Arendt calls a principle.  Principles do not operate from within the self, like motives do; they inspire from without.  They are too general to prescribe particular goals, though every particular aim can be judged in the light of its principle once the act has begun.  Unlike the intellect’s judgement which is prior to the action, and unlike the will which initiates the action, the inspiring principle only manifests in the act itself.  The judgement can lose its validity, and the will exhausts itself in the action, but the principle loses nothing in strength or validity throughout the course of the action.

15. Unlike a goal, a principle can be repeated, and unlike a motive, a principle can be universal, unbound to any particular person or group.  Principles can be things like honour, glory, love of equality, or excellence, but also fear, hatred, or distrust.  Freedom, or its opposite, appear wherever such principles are actualized.  Men are free, as opposed to only have a capacity for freedom, as long as they act.  To act and to be free are the same thing.

16. It feels strange to derive freedom from politics because we are used to thinking of freedom in terms of the will.  We think this way not only because all acts have to be preceded by a cognitive act, but because of the implicit liberal belief that “perfect liberty is incompatible with the existence of society.”  This claim entails the further claim that only acts, as opposed to thinking, are dangerous, and this is one of the fundamental tenets of liberalism.  Liberalism, despite its name, as worked hard to banish freedom from the public realm because it thought politics was exclusively about the maintenance of life and the safeguarding of its interests.  However,  “where life is at stake all action is by definition under the sway of necessity, and the proper realm to take care of life’s necessities is the gigantic and still increasing sphere of social and economic life whose administration has overshadowed the political realm ever since the beginning of the modern age.” (155)

17. Despite all this, Arendt insists that freedom is the raison d’être of politics.  This claim about the interdependence of freedom and politics contradicts modern social theories.  However, it does not follow from this that we need to return to older theories.

18. Older traditions of freedom rely entirely too much on privacy and religious conversion.  It was Christianity that introduced the idea of freedom being a property of the will; the Greeks and Romans had no notion of this.  Further, Greek philosophy was developed in almost complete opposition to activity within the polis.

19. After Paul and Augustine, freedom and free will became almost synonymous, and freedom was something experienced in solitude, “where no man might hinder the hot contention wherein I had engaged with myself,” as Augustine said, a conflict in the “inner dwelling” of the soul.  The will has a self-paralyzing effect which Paul summed up in his lament, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

20. This conflict between what one consciously wills and what one does is a rock that traditional accounts of free will have floundered on.  These accounts, in effect, thought freedom was a property of the “I-will,” when they should have seen it as a political property of the “I-can,” of capacity for action.

21. For us, will, will-power, and the will-to-power are nearly identical; the seat of power in the person is the faculty experience as will.  For the sake of this will-to-power we have reduced the role of reason; we feel gripped by a necessity which turns us away from the right and the beautiful:

The necessity which prevents me from doing what I know and will may arise from the world, or from my own body, or from an insufficiency of talents, gifts and qualities which are bestowed upon man by birth and over which he has hardly more power than he has over other circumstances; all these factors, the psychological ones not excluded, condition the person from the outside as far as the I-will and the I-know, that is, the ego itself, are concerned; the power that meets these circumstances, that liberates, as it were, willing and knowing from their bondage to necessity is the I-can.  Only where the I-will and the I-can coincide does freedom come to pass.”  (160)

22. When we talk about the limits on will-power, we tend to think of powerlessness with respect to the surrounding world.  We need to remember that in the earlier accounts of will, the defeat of the will was not by circumstance.  Rather, the older accounts have it as a conflict within the will itself:

“Christian will-power was discovered as an organ of self-liberation and immediately found wanting.  It is as though the I-will immediately paralyzed the I-can, as though the moment men willed freedom, they lost their capacity to be free.  In the deadly conflict with worldly desires and intentions from which will-power was supposed to liberate the self, the most willing seemed to be able to achieve was oppression.  Because of the will’s impotence, its incapacity to generate genuine power, its constant defeat in the struggle with the self, in which the power of the I-can exhausted itself, the will-to-power turned at once into a will-to-oppression.  I can only hint here at the fatal consequences for political theory of this equation of freedom with the human capacity to will; it was one of the causes why even today we almost automatically equate power with oppression or, at least, with rule over others.” (162)

23. Arendt has already said that philosophy discovered freedom once it was no longer associated with acting with others.  Freedom ceased to be about public action and became sovereignty, “the ideal of a free will, independent from others and eventually prevailing against them” (163).

24. Rousseau is an example of this.  He argued that power had to be sovereign and indivisible, because “a divided will would be inconceivable.”  In an ideal state, “the citizens had no communications one with another” and to avoid factions “each citizen should think only his own thoughts.”  Arendt thinks such a community would be built on quicksand, since all political business is done in networks of people.  A state without communication between the people would be tyranny.  She continues,

“Politically, this identification of freedom with sovereignty is perhaps the most pernicious and dangerous consequence of the philosophical equation of freedom and free will.  For it leads either to a denial of human freedom—namely, if it is realized that whatever men may be, they are never sovereign—or to the insight that the freedom of one man, or a group, or a body politic can be purchased only at the price of the freedom, i.e. the sovereignty, of all others.”  (164)

25. Sovereignty can only be maintained by violence, which is essentially unpolitical.  Freedom and sovereignty cannot coexist: “Where men wish to be sovereign, as individuals or as organized groups, they must submit to the oppression of the will, be this the individual will with which I force myself, or the ‘general will’ of an organized group.  If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce” (164-165).

26. Since our common idea of freedom rose out of religious concerns and an anti-political philosophical tradition, it is difficult for us to imagine a kind of freedom which is not an attribute of the will, but of doing and acting.  The Greeks and Romans had two verbs for what we call “to act.”  One had the sense of “to begin, to lead, and finally, to rule,” and the other was “to carry something through,” or continuing something which had begun.

27. In both cases, action has two stages.  First, a spontaneous beginning in which something new appears.  Freedom was about spontaneity.  The word is also attached to ruling; only someone who already ruled, such as household heads freed from economy concerns by their slaves and family, could be free for life in the polis. Once freed, they were rulers among rulers, among peers, whose help they enlisted to begin new enterprises.

28. As for the Romans, Augustine’s theology had an account of individual free will.  However, in his political work The City of God, he spoke more from a Roman background: “freedom is conceived there not as an inner human disposition but as a character of human existence in the world.  Man does not possess freedom so much as he, or better his coming into the world, is equated with the appearance of freedom in the universe … God created man in order to introduce into the world the faculty of beginning: freedom.”  (167).

29. Augustine was left with a tension between his theological account of free will and his account of political freedom as the capacity for beginnings.  Arendt thinks he could have avoided this if he had paid more attention to some of the things Jesus said.  Arendt sees in the Gospels a strong account of the power of human freedom, not as will but as faith.  She offers an idiosyncratic idea of miracles as the interruption of the natural series of events, or the disruption of an automatic process.

30. Human life is surrounded by automatic processes, and this extends into the political realm.  Automation is a part of all processes, no matter their origin.  Begun in freedom, historical processes can become automatic and lead to death as surely as biological processes.  The periods of being free have always been relatively short.  Cultures grow and then decline into petrified automation.

31. In those periods of decline, freedom continues to exist, but is hidden and not worldly – it is unactualized. She says,“Every act, seen from the perspective not of the agent but of the process in whose framework it occurs and whose automatism it interrupts, is a ‘miracle’—that is, something which could not be expected” (169).  It is in this sense that humans are capable of miracles, of “infinite improbabilities.”  History, unlike nature, is full of unpredictable events, but they do not appear because of automatic processes.  They appear because man is an acting being.  She continues,

“Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for an to expect ‘miracles’ in the political realm.  And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favour of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear; for it is disaster, not salvation, which always happens automatically and therefore always must appear to be irresistible.”  (170)

32. The final paragraph is great:

“Objectively, that is, seen from the outside and without taking into account that man is a beginning and a beginning, the chances that tomorrow will be like yesterday are always overwhelming.  Not quite so overwhelming, to be sure, but very nearly so as the chances that no earth would ever rise out of cosmic occurrences, that no life would develop out of inorganic processes, and that no man would emerge out of the evolution of animal life. The decisive difference between the ‘infinite improbabilities’ on which the reality of our earthly life rests and the miraculous character inherent in those events which establish historical reality is that, in the realm of human affairs, we know the author of the ‘miracles.’  It is men who perform them—men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.” (170-171)


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