Arendt’s On Revolution and Its Implications for Political Science
March 5, 2009
In the post-World War II world, the practice of politics increasing emphasized effective administration rather than the participation of citizens in governance. Hannah Arendt responded to this trend in On Revolution, which attempts to explore the central role of politics in facilitating and perpetuating a good life and society. According to her book, these two aims can only be achieved if citizens create an atmosphere of public freedom in which they can engage in political activity and inquiry inspired by an originating revolutionary spirit. Harkening back to the republican ideals of Thomas Jefferson, she asserts, “No one could be called happy without his share of public happiness, that no one could be called free without his experience in public freedom, and that no one could be called happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public power.” However, her vague terminology begs important questions. What is public freedom? What is public happiness? How does public happiness resulting from the practice of public freedom create a good life and society? In this examination, my aim is to address these questions in addition to explaining how the three outcomes of public freedom suggested in Arendt’s text form a good life and society. Then, I will conclude with an exploration on the implications of her arguments on the discipline of political science. But, before continuing, a quick summary of her work is in order.
Essentially, Arendt argues that revolutions – that is political upheavals aimed at securing liberty and, more importantly, freedom – foster a revolutionary spirit that energizes the masses into pursuing a pluralistic system of political deliberation and governance. Here, it is important to note the distinction Arendt makes between liberation and freedom as it is essential to her argument. She writes that liberation is merely the freedom from tyranny whereas freedom refers to participation in public affairs via unfettered speech, thought, association, and assembly. This freedom, imbued with the revolutionary spirit, is then applied in the public sphere; thus allowing for the creation of a society in which individuals are active in political life. As a result of the energized political atmosphere, citizens generate public happiness resulting in a good life in a good society. In other words, On Revolution argues that the establishment of a revolutionary inspired form of governance is the primary means through which a good life and society can be attained. One means of achieving this end is the institutionalization of town hall meetings where the revolutionary spirit can be sustained through deliberation. According to Arendt, a good life and society is not significantly influenced by the successful management of what she labels the “private welfare” of individuals. Rather, these two goals can be achieved only when citizens attain a certain level of public happiness via their activity in political life. Additionally, it is important to note that Arendt’s definition of a good life and society is cyclical; this idealized life is both the facilitator and product of public happiness. In order to make sense of the self-determining nature of these terms, an examination of the beneficial outcomes of public freedom must be undertaken.
From On Revolution, I have identified three ends that follow from the existence of political freedom in a society: public equality, public accountability, and a sphere in which private happiness can be attained. Consequently, these products of public freedom are the means though which a society can attain public happiness. The foundational elements of public happiness and public equality are, for Arendt, linked to the social capacity of all individuals to participate in public life. Arendt suggests that pubic equality can overcome the social divisions existing due to the differing socioeconomic conditions private welfare creates among individuals. Referencing the meaning of the term freedom in ancient Greece, she discusses the issue of no-rule, or isonomy, which describes a republic in which there is no distinction between the ruler and the ruled. This component of public happiness is vital to the formulation of her argument. It supposes that citizens are equal self-governing agents that are mutually responsible for the actions of government. Arendt labels this alliance of people for rule by the people the “mutual contract.” Second, the capacity of the public to hold the government accountable for its decisions is crucial to the production of public happiness. While it is commonly assumed that public accountability refers to “representatives,” the Arendtian view of “public” – strongly influenced by the idea of isonomy – is more expansive. Arendt contends: “Corruption of the people themselves – as distinguished from the corruption of their representatives or a ruling class – is possible only under a government that has granted them a share of the public power.” Or, to put it differently, an isonomic society, which promotes the active use of public freedoms, must ensure that the people themselves do not become corrupted by the power inherent in practice of public freedom. The absence of public accountability in the Arendtian sense undermines the evaluative democratic function that citizens perform when participating in the various activities of public life, including political deliberation and the electoral process. Public apathy among citizens produces a space in which certain individuals can utilize the public interest to pursue private means. The remedy to this looming specter, she argues, is the practice of public freedoms. Hence, a dearth of public accountability is indicative of a society that lacks the ability to utilize its public freedom and, as a result, is unable to fulfill the fundamental precepts of public happiness.
While Arendt expresses her suspicion of the threats posed by private interests to the sanctity of the public realm, she concedes that after the people have gained liberty and freedom private interests play an important role in preserving the revolutionary spirit. Hence, the final benefit of public freedom is its ability of citizens to pursue private happiness unimpeded. Even though she writes that “under no conditions can [economic factors] either lead into freedom or constitute a proof of its existence,” Arendt juxtaposes this statement with a contradictory argument. To explain this occurrence, she believes private happiness should never be considered above public happiness, as public happiness is the foundation upon which all other goods are pursued. But, as she puts it, “Wealth and economic well-being are the fruits of freedom” – albeit ones that are subordinate to the real benefits of public freedom. As noted previously, private interests can corrupt the isonomic order. This disruption of no-rule presents an opportunity for freedom to be lost or, in the worst case scenario, the return of tyranny. Yet, a certain level of private contentment must be produced by public freedom to ensure that the revolutionary spirit is maintained. As noted by Arendt, a lack of private happiness invariably introduces the “social question” which asks how to provide for the private welfare of citizens into public discourse. In handling this concern, the importance of public freedom in constructing a good society is marginalized due to the need of administrative functions to produce acceptable private welfare. A further examination of the tensions existing between the advantages and disadvantages posed by private happiness to the achievement of public happiness will be addressed later.
Despite explicating the intricacies of Arendt’s argument, On Revolution fails to submit claims that are empirically assessable or defensible in light of critical observation. Even when attempting to explore her line of reasoning regarding the influence of the three products of public freedom on public happiness, the explanations end with a process of cyclical self-justification. These shortcomings ultimately minimize the applicability of her to work to the discipline of political science.
To begin, Arendt’s use of hazily-defined terms and concepts necessitates some standardization of understanding and, thus, a framework of understanding needs to be formulated. To illustrate, if it were quantifiably possible to rate public happiness on a scale of one to ten, with ten being ultimate public happiness, would a rating of seven or above equate to the presence of a good life and society? Even more, there is the problem as to how the appropriate level of public happiness is determined. In other words, what method would be utilized to measure the abstract level of public happiness or its constituent parts? Arendt’s inferences, while logically valid and beneficial to the study of political science, rely solely on a philosophical understanding of the issues surrounding public freedom, which, unfortunately for interested political scientists, renders empirical testing almost impossible. To borrow Gary King, Robert O. Keohane, and Sidney Verba’s observations in Designing Social Inquiry, “[Social scientists] should choose observable, rather than unobservable, concepts wherever possible. Abstract, unobserved concepts such as utility, culture, intentions, motivations, identification, intelligence, or the national interest are often used in social science theories. They can play a useful role in theory formulation; but they can be a hindrance to empirical evaluation of theories and hypotheses unless they can be defined in a way such that they, or at least their implications, can be observed and measured.” Instead of providing political science with inferences that are testable, On Revolution forces individuals into a logic-based determination of the practicability of attaining public happiness. Of course, this can only be achieved by examining public freedom via a subjective examination of its ill-defined parts.
Not only are Arendt’s positions almost impossible to test quantitatively or qualitatively, her view of human nature is arguably idealistic. A major criticism of On Revolution addresses her assumption that a great majority of individual citizens will embrace the foundational spirit of public freedom and actively participate in the deliberative processes that are central to her position on public happiness and a good life. This belief is difficult to justify on two accounts. First, its contention that all citizens share the same interests and values is unsubstantiated. Often, individuals such as artists and the devoutly pious derive immense satisfaction when pursuing a life that includes little participation in the public sphere. While some political scientists have attempted to methodologically determine the validity of the claim that value plurality is subservient in the presence of public freedoms, Arendt’s text poorly supports this point. Second, implicit in this reasoning is the belief that the invisible hand of the revolutionary spirit will guide individuals away from pursuing private welfare in order to secure public happiness. Again, Arendt produces little evidence to justify these claims. Rather, in both of these cases she returns to a cyclical style of argumentation, asserting that the participatory elements of public freedom generate a good life and vice versa. Stemming from this vein of analysis, she fails to fully address the reasons why individuals should spurn private interests in deference to public freedom. In fact, an argument can be made supporting the belief that a certain level of private welfare and participation in public freedoms are connected. If, for example, an individual finds it difficult to secure their basic means of existence it is naïve to assume that their priority would be political participation. Conversely, individual’s whose private welfare has achieved a certain level of satisfactoriness and consistency can entertain a plurality of concerns, including public activity. Ultimately, the Arendtian counterpoint that public freedom will provide a sphere in which private welfare concerns can be addressed is too utopian. Individuals will always be in a position in where they must find a suitable equilibrium between activity in the public and private spheres.
In light of the individual’s natural struggle between the pursuit private and public happiness, Arendt’s insistence that the existence of public spheres, such as town halls or soviets, where the people can continue to cultivate the revolutionary spirit in an environment promoting and protecting isonomy in order to achieved public happiness is undermined. Despite recognizing that all individuals are publicly equal, the differences in public welfare among individuals produce inequalities regarding the ability of some citizens to gain access to these public spheres. Without the active participation of all elements of society in the public sphere, public accountability through a deliberative processes imbued by the revolutionary spirit is absent. Consequently, this provides privately privileged individuals with an opportunity to circumvent the isonomic order by pursuing private interests within the public sphere.
As a work of political philosophy, On Revolution attempts to promote the idea that the study of politics is a tool through which public freedom can be achieved because the idea concerns the well being of the community. However, it fails as a work that can be used within the constructs of social science for two grounds. First, Arendt’s use of cyclical argumentation to substantiate concepts that lack any viable method of examination via the standards of the social sciences renders any of application of her ideas impossible. Second, further examination of Arendt’s work becomes difficult due to her idealist interpretation of 18th Century revolutionary history to actual patterns of individual decision-making. For these reasons, it becomes difficult for political scientists to verify her theory through the observation of replicable data. Instead, in many cases it is more likely that any empirical attempt to verify her claims would undermine Arendt’s thesis. This is not to insinuate that On Revolution is without any value to the study of politics. While its ambitious aim of directing the discipline of political science towards molding a more perfect society through the recognition of public participation as life’s central good does not succeed, the book is still a philosophical text that students of politics can explore to build future theories. In sum, On Revolution is simply a text that stimulates political inquiry within the profession.
 Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 225.
 Arendt, 170.
 Arendt, 252.
 Arendt, 217.
 Arendt, 217.
 Gary King, Robert O. Keohane, and Sidney Verba, Designing Social Inquiry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 109.