I want to start by saying that I am smitten with Arendt’s book. It might be the most elucidating and confirming book I’ve read since the first volume of Capital. There is so much I want to talk about in this book, I am having a hard time limiting myself to just the first chapters. Consider yourselves duly warned that I may at times leap ahead. Just in the introduction and first chapter alone, we find so many threads to pick up. To enumerate them: violence as a necessary condition of revolution (8); crime as the basis of community, [which smacks of Civilization and It’s Discontents] (10); the rooting of politics in experience (12); the nature of equality and its history (21); the nature of politics and political space (21); positive versus negative freedom (22); the human need for full political engagement (24); distinguishing rebellion from revolution (24); the secular revolution (26) and the peculiarly secular problem of founding (29); the etymology of revolution (32), restoration vs. creation (34), and irresistibility (37); Hegel and the historical view (42); and the model of revolution [French vs. American] (46). Where to begin with so many important points? For me, the questions concerning the nature of equality, politics as relations, political space, positive and negative freedom, the need for engagement, and the secular problem of founding outweigh the others because they contain a strong practical concern as well as a pedagogical one. However, an anterior determination of politics as human interaction should be first because all that follows it will be observed in the color of that light.
The idea of government is hard to separate from its long association with politics. For example, Merriam-Webster defines politics as “the total complex of relations between people living in society,” (Online Ed.) fifth of five definitions, all prior relate to governance. But if we take the fifth definition as our starting point, we can see at once the over-whelming choice of potentialities that confronts us. Government, we realize, is only one concern among many; economics is another; family a third, and so on; a myriad of concerns, each housing infinite particular choices. It’s so much as to over-whelm, reduce us to procrastination, and cultivate in us an insatiable desire to divest ourselves of the responsibility of choosing; for we know that no matter what decision we make, doubt and regret will haunt us evermore. It is enough to make one accept tradition and relieve the unceasing burden of critical thought. The question of politics, we convince ourselves, is best left to someone else; preferably an expert, an elder, a hero but anyone not us will do. This is the common experience of politics for most Americans I know, at least what they think of when they think of politics (most artificially separate the private relations out from the political, which for them can only be public). But it doesn’t have to be experienced that way, with the proper foundations the experience of self-determination can be invigorating. (A topic I am barely able to resist talking about here!)
Relations have two sides, and thus politics has two questions: How will others act towards me and how will I act towards others? The latter question is the realm of ethics, but the former cannot have an ethic because its subject is plural. There is no one way for everyone to treat you; each relation must reflect the standing of both parties: for a teacher who treated us as an equal would be worthless and an ignoramus who did the same, exasperating. Here is the problem of politics: its relative nature. Politics absolutely demands to have no absolute demands made of it. This, paradoxically, includes treating it as absolutely relative, for in a single moment it is fixed, only promising change in the next moment which may never come. Understanding that anything humanity can do it may do, leads us directly to Hobbes and the seeds of strife: equality, liberty, and individuality. How these three constitute virtues for every individual but exact catastrophe in a society is the Gordian knot of politics. Individuality, seemingly fixed by nature, allows choice only in the suppression of freedom or of equality, and so it is I think that most political divides are found to be characterized as favoring one or the other.