EESE 4/2009


     Hannah Arendt on

     on the Insecurity and

     Vulnerability of Human Life

     Christoph Werth (TMWK, Erfurt)



Hannah Arendt inspired many philosophers and other academic teachers to an ongoing debate of the origins of modern totalitarianism. Violence, terror and "the fragility of human affairs"1 have been widely given attention in academic circles raising the issue of liberty and political civilization. Arendt's views were shaped by her underlying zest for life, seriousness and moral integrity, which gave a long-lasting momentum to the debate. Generally, she rejected conformity as well as any appearance of hierarchy which was based on the concatenation of command and obedience, although the necessity and the compulsion for it seem to be rooted in society itself and in the different movements fighting for their respective causes. Hannah Arendt had never been in phase with the rest of academia, as she would proudly emphasize that she had lost belief in any of the various "isms" and that she was ready to acknowledge only the individual subject in his or her traditional independence from being taken in by, nor serving for any ideology.2

1. The notion of the political

As K. D. Bracher suggested, Hannah Arendt's notion of the political sphere grew out of the experience of the totalitarian regime which she considered the ultimate stage of political degeneration, for these systems abolish liberty in order to coerce mankind into a destiny the ideology of which is rooted in a particular vision of history. Arendt argues that the Greek polis represented for the first time in the evolution of human society the idea of the political, which, to her, is identical with freedom. Political action derives from the insight into human plurality,3 that politics have to take account of the order of society based on human diversity.4 Human beings converse freely and come to some agreement and establish a few operational rules. To them, politics emerge not from within man, but in-between men. To make politics possible at all, freedom and spontaneity among the different members of society are necessary for the creation of the space shared by all members of the human species. Accordingly, each member of the community is expected to act and to take the initiative in order to make a new beginning.5 Contrary to current assumptions in systems theory, Arendt's leaning towards anarchy and her penchant to the outbursts of spontaneity will deny any sense of regularity with regard both to the past and to present times. It is legitimate to conclude that the collapse of the neo-liberal economy corresponds with the failure of systems theorists, who, in their soullessness and superficiality, had suggested the practicability and quick feasibility of their assumptions in steering clear of the intricacies of this world's complex structures. The proof of concept has rather demonstrated the speculative nature of Luhmann's philosophy.

2. The polis – the space of freedom

To Hannah Arendt political action can only mean acting on an equal footing in a space of freedom. All participants are allowed the same degree of freedom and they converse freely and equally. Equality is only limited by keeping intact the other's identical range of freedom to which the "equal rights mutually guaranteed correspond". 6Undivided freedom can only reign where all citizens are equals, as they are in their diversity and multiplicity protected form any sort of transgression and, similarly, not forced to commit any act of violation or to suffer from any himself. For the ruler is subject to the same degree of unfreedom as the ruled themselves and no effective system of domination will ever permit an exemption from this law.

Arendt believes that the economy, which is a fetter that ties labour to the pressures from necessity, is the greatest menace to freedom. So that within the economic system freedom permits the strong to infringe the rights of the weak. In her philosophy, freedom means that human affairs must be regulated by discussion and negotiation and not by force of necessity, command and practical constraint. Arendt emphasizes that the state has to be independent from the impact of economic influence groups. In order to guarantee freedom, political participation and the res publica, the state must not fall prey to the dictate of economic pressure groups.

3. The public

Arendt’s notion of legitimate political behaviour is embedded in her vision of the Greek polis, which combines ideas of human freedom with spontaneity and which requires sufficient space for deployment, i.e. a place for politics. This approach is to be distinguished from the common understanding of politics centering solely on bureaucratic organisation and power. Legitimate political behaviour means that human beings freely converse with each other in a public space irrespective of violence, coercion and intimidation. Equal among equals, people manage all affairs by negotiation and by mutual persuasion rather than by force.

Free action is public action, for the public is the original space of the political, where human society will have to prove their worth in freedom and spontaneity and in mutual commerce.7

However, according to Arendt, man as such is a-political. Political action arises in-between human individuals, which means outside human nature. The political ensues from mutual and reciprocal relation and is thus established as interrelationship.8

By contrast, violence remains voiceless,9 and the totalitarian system will destroy this relationship and abolish any public sphere, for it is the tyrants' nature to separate their citizens from each other in order to prevent any communication and agreement. However, even in mass society this may happen in a similar way.10

In Arendt's political philosophy the notion of the public refers to two connected phenomena: firstly, that whatever appears to the general public will be visible and audible to every citizen, which creates the greatest possible audience.11 Only the presence of other people will confirm to us that the perception of the world as well as of ourselves is anchored in reality.12 Secondly, Arendt's notion of the public denotes the world itself as common property and as such to be distinguished from what is private.13 In her philosophy, political thought is focused on what she calls the contentment of the public.14

4. The citizen - power as political ability

The citizen incorporates the character of the civis, a political figure who shapes the form of government in public affairs. But the citzen does not exist on his own, but acts together with many others. He mounts the stage in multiple roles; both citizens and political personalities are always the many. The persons who step into the political limelight, talk with each other, they quarrel and reach an understanding how to mould life and civilization together.

By the convention of the many, power is established. Hannah Arendt has formulated a theory of power of her own that originated in her deepest republican convictions. Traditionally understood as a legitimate part of power, force, whenever applied, is not only fundamentally destructive, as she believes, but it extinguishes power as well. In her theory, power corresponds to the human ability not only to act or to achieve something, but to convene with others in order to act by mutual agreement. There is never an individual wielding the power which is held by the group and will only be in existence as long as the group is able to keep their ranks closed. If we say about somebody that he wields power, in Arendt's theory this is to refer to the fact that in reality a given number of persons have empowered him to act on their behalf. She calls this procedure the potestas in populo. Without any people or group there will be no power, because power always depends on consensus and not on obedience: The institutions and laws of a country are made valid by the agreement of the people, which is just a continuation of the original consensus which had called into life the institutions and laws. Even the strong and intellectually superior individual must comprehend that he has to rely on the support and cooperation of his fellow human beings.15

5. Democracy

"Working back through the centuries to the remotest antiquity, I see nothing at all similar to what is taking place before our eyes." This is the encomium on American democracy written by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1840.16 Arendt understood democracy as the achievement of freedom and the constitution of a public sphere where it can come into being.17

In Arendt's conclusion nobody can be called happy who has not participated in public affairs and who is not free who does not know from his own experience what public freedom means, and nobody will be free and happy who has no power, namely no share of public power.18

She believes that the ideal implementation of the democratic principle, which comes closest to the polis of antiquity, may be achieved in the American townhall meetings, in the elementary republics or in the republics of councils, which Thomas Jefferson had also called 'wards'.19 These patterns of organisation had been emerged from the people itself.20 Equally, Arendt discovers obvious parallels between the councils and the urban communities of the Middle Ages and the Swiss system of cantons.21

In the Hungarian revolution of 1956, too, she notices the spontaneous emergence of councils. Like in a political test arrangement she perceives how the totalitarian system was temporarily affected by the breakthrough of freedom: The ultimate aim of totalitarianism is the atomization of society. The succes of totalitarian government depends on the control of communication, as any kind of communication between citizens is to be interrupted.22 The antidote to the lethal ban of apathy are clear words which help distinguish fact from lie. Thus the concerted action in public by the Hungarians serves to experience the power and the elementary force of the people. To her it is of the utmost importance that the people clarify their own and articulate intentions in public.

The only soviets which had been in existence in 1956 were the councils of the Hungarian revolution. With them the original system, of soviets, the councils, had re-entered the stage of history,23 as she suggests that the totalitarian rulers of Russia are afraid of nothing more than of the elementary force of the people.24

Until today Arendt has considered the republic of councils, due to being the only democratic form of government in modern times, the only alternative to the party system. Councils are not anti-parliamentarian, but they propose another system of the people's representation. Accordingly, the councils are by nature directed against parties, for they oppose any form of representation that is determined either by class interest or by ideologies and concomitant convictions.25
Councils solely originate in the interaction of the citizens and, through acting, they represent the spontaneous requests by the people. Arendt argues that wherever councils come into existence, they have been violently opposed by the party bureaucracies both from the radical right and the left wingers. Nevertheless, the spirit of the councils has always been, in Arendt's view, truly democratic.26

About the councils she notices that there were always members of different parties sitting together peacefully and that party membership does not play any role at all and no factions will come up. The councils have been the only political organs in which people can effectively participate without any adherence to a party.27 To Arendt, this openness establishes the democratic nature of the republic of councils or of what was called by Jefferson the elementary republics of the wards.

In the spirit of Jefferson Hannah Arendt complains of the American constitution's deficiency that the old 'town-hall meetings' as the old communities, which were the realms of immediate democratic experience, were incorporated neither in the constitution of the federal union nor of the individual state. Accordingly, she describes the serious failure of the new republic as freedom granted to the people without allotting the space to practice it properly. It was not the people but only their elected representatives who had the opportunity for political action, which means that it was only them who could be taken as free in the positive sense of the word.28

If, however, the constitution had itself restricted the public sphere to the representatives elected by the people, lethargy and a growing disinterest of the people in public affairs naturally ensued from it.29

Originally, the urban and rural communities with their townhall-meetings had been the spring of all the political activity nationwide. But now they were suffocated under the crushing weight of the constitution causing an apparently paradoxical development. As Arendt argues in her disillusioned summary of the consequences, the American constitution, i.e. the greatest achievement of the American nation, would deprive the people of their chief and proudest inheritance.30 The principle of representation is thus reduced to pure fictitiousness. In parliament, the people will express their will only indirectly, which had already been complained of in Thomas Paine’s critique of representation.

Arendt has a number of reservations about party democracy, for she believes that this system just pretends to represent the people for the very first time in recent history, although the people themselves were very reluctant to have ever any faith in it.31 She equally complains about the parties’ practice under the current party system to impose their candidates upon the electorate from above. The nomination of candidates depends on the party programme or on the party’s ideology and on the relevant hierarchies of power within the party. If the party machine forces a list of candidates upon the voters, their nomination is thus removed from the citizen's influence.32 In Arendt’s philosophy, democracy must be more than an ideological farce which leaves not much to the voter apart from the election machinery.

6. The perils of democracy

This system of party politics jeopardises democracy by encouraging the ruling oligarchy to entrench themselves.33 The voters come together only periodically in order to rid themselves of their own power, while public affairs have become the privilege of the few.34

Arendt spots another menace to democracy in the rule of bureaucracy, what she calls 'governance through anonymous offices', which she considers despotic and even worse, for nobody is able to talk to anybody or to see him.35 In this situation, the dialogue among equals, which is the true nature of the polis, has been abolished. Like de Tocqueville before her, Arendt notices with great anxiety how isolated and powerless people are in mass democracies, for any kind of isolation will deprive them of the ability and opportunity to act.

Thus disillusioned, Arendt also recognizes that in the public space of the polis only those do act who are actually present. Similar to the population of slaves and strangers in the environment of the ancient polis, those are to be excluded from it who belong to the part of the working population36 that is only caring for their means of subsistence. Factually they are excluded from political power.

7. The fragility of human affairs

The existence of a public sphere in the world and the process that ties together its citizens require continuity beyond the human life span.37 However, Arendt's sense of continuity does not overcome the 'fragility of human affairs'.38

The tension between individual experience and the continuity of the nation ensures from the insatiable desire inherent in action.39 Acting is able to found relationships, for it has the tendency to break down barriers and to extend the boundaries.40 Without boundaries or barriers, no meaningful social interaction would be possible, even if these boundaries and barriers erected by institutions and laws are a framework which can never be relied upon. Nevertheless we continuously try to stabilise the field of human affairs with them.41

The reason for this insecurity, however, is not the fragility or sinfulness of human nature, but the fact that ever new people spread in this field and have to impose upon it their fresh start by word and deed.42 To this deficiency the problem must be added that nobody will ever be able to foresee the consequences of his own actions.

8. The sphere of civilization

In Arendt's view the public produces a civilizing effect, for the public space and the world common to us all assembles people and at the same prevents them from falling upon each other, from laying about with fists and weapons.43 Civilization equally requires moderation as one of the 'classical political virtues'44 (while hubris continues to be one of the principal temptations of the man who acts).

In her eyes a good commonwealth has the power to garantee the freedom of the citizens who have both the faculty of judgement and a public sphere to form their opinions without guidance or pressure. The commonwealth has to ensure that their interests and rights will be asserted and that they avail themselves of the opportunity to participate in politics.45

To cnclude: from Arendt's political philosophy the necessity arises to practice policies friendly to life and to civilization (Renate Genth), so that future generations can be made familiar with the relationships of their predecessors. It is thus of the utmost importance to shape the public space - the mimetic sphere of civilization - more friendly to life.


1 Hannah Arendt, Vita activa oder Vom tätigen Leben (1958) (12th ed., Munich, 2001), p. 234. The translation was published as The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958). In 2000 Hannah Arendt was elected a due subject for the Cambridge Companion series and lined up with the greatest minds in Western philosophy (edited by Dana Villa).
Another helpful survey for the spread of her thought in English has been provided by John McGowan, Hannah Arendt. An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998). Christoph Werth's essay makes use of her writings in German.

2 Cf. "The World of Hannah Arendt" by Jerome Kohn. See in general Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982); Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1996); Christoph Werth, "Denken ohne Geländer - Hannah Arendt. Grundlagen politischer Urteilskraft," Die politische Meinung H. 459 (Februar 2006), 47-51.

3 Cf. Hannah Arendt, Was ist Politik? Fragmente aus dem Nachlaß (2nd ed., Munich, 2005), p. 9. Freedom is supposed to be more than free trade or the laissez-faire state.

4 Was ist Politik?, p. 9.

5 This can be assumend to be an elemt of anarchy, for it means that spontaneous initiatives will not follow any rules, although in Lehmann's systems theory this is supposed just to be the case. The failure of the neo-liberal model of economy is anticipated by the failure of political-economic thought in the logic of the soulless systems theory which had claimed to have gained, superficially at least, an insight into the basic do-ability of things in this world and to have reached a (mindless) optimization of structures.

6 Trans. from Arendt, Was ist Politik?, p. 11 (English translation)

7 It is significant that Arendt takes 'the curse of slavery' to be both the loss of freedom and its 'visibility'; cf. Arendt, Vita activa, p. 69.

8 Was ist Politik?, p. 11.

9 Arendt, Vita activa, p. 36.

10 Vita activa, p. 72.

11 Vita activa, p. 62.

12 Vita activa, p. 63.

13 Vita activa, p. 65; Arendt even speaks of a public space of the whole world, ibid., p. 67.

14 Über die Revolution (4th ed., Munich, 2000), p. 300 (On Revolution, New York, 1963).

15 Vita activa, p. 234.

16 Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (London 1968), II.913.

17 Über die Revolution, p. 328.

18 Über die Revolution, pp. 326 ff.

19 Über die Revolution, pp. 302, 326, 328.

20 Arendt also discusses the incompatibility of councils with the party system, which was the reason for lenin's decision in the Russian Revolution to rapidly deprive the councils ("soviets") of their power, for they threatened to undermine the predominance of the Bolshevik Party; see Über die Revolution, p. 331.

21 See Über die Revolution, pp. 335 ff. By the way, Konrad Adenauer repeatedly referred to the democratic experience of German cities in the Middle Ages.

22 Cf. Arendt, Die ungarische Revolution und der totalitäre Imperialismus (Munich, 1958), pp. 16 f., 31 ff. (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1958, including her essay "Totalitarian Imperialism: Reflections on the Hungarian Revolution.

23 Cf. Die ungarische Revolution, p. 40.

24 Arendt refers to an article by Silone, Die ungarische Revolution, p. 40.

25 Die ungarische Revolution, p. 42.

26 Die ungarische Revolution, p. 43.

27 Arendt, Über die Revolution, p. 305.

28 Über die Revolution, p. 302.

29 Über die Revolution, p. 306.

30 Über die Revolution, p. 306.

31 Arendt, Was ist Politik?, p. 16.

32 Arendt, Die ungarische Revolution, pp. 43 f.

33 Über die Revolution, p. 305.

34 Über die Revolution, pp. 304 f.

35 Was ist Politik?, p. 14.

36 Vita activa, p. 250.

37 Vita activa, p. 68.

38 Vita activa, p. 234.

39 Vita activa, p. 237.

40 Vita activa, p. 238.

41 Vita activa, p. 238.

42 Vita activa, p. 238.

43 Vita activa, p. 66.

44 Vita activa, p. 238.

45 Über die Relution, p. 298.