Hannah Arendt

“…The end of war is revolution, and that the only cause which possibly could justify it is the revolutionary cause of freedom.”

— Hannah Arendt

La Liberté guidant le peuple,” Eugène Delacroix, 1830
“Surrender of Lord Cornwallis,” John Trumbull, 1819-20

In her book ‘On revolution,’ Hannah Arendt argues that the American revolution was more of a success that the French Revolution, despite the relative ignorance of the former and the greater emphasis on the later. She justifies her position by explaining that a certain point the French revolutionary leaders gave up on the idea of ‘freedom’ in order to address the poverty of the French people. In contrast, America’s Founding Fathers never lost sight of the goal of Constitutio Libertatis – the attempt to establish a political space of public freedom in which people as free and equal Citizens would take their common concerns into their own hands.

This position can also be explained in terms of Arendt’s previous writings, namely The Human Condition. In this book she divides the life of humans into three spheres: labour, work and action. ‘Labour’ encompasses for all reproductive tasks, everything it takes to stay alive and produce further generations. This is the lowest form of human activity, and of which all living creatures are capable of. ‘Work’ is the creative act, like a painter creating a work of art. ‘Work’ as such can be an immortalising activity, allowing people to be remembered after their death – although it is still perhaps the work that is remembered more than the author. Finally ‘action’ involves interacting with others in public space. For Arendt only through ‘action,’ in doing something truly memorable in a public form, can one hope to achieve immortality.

Arendt believes that the Founding Fathers of the American revolution were truly ‘actors,’ and that with the constitution they created ‘publics’ that allowed for further ‘action’. The French revolutionaries, never reached the level of ‘action’ because they were too focused on the ‘labour’ required to bring the French people out of abject poverty – what Arendt calls their ‘demands for bread’.

According to Arendt, for a revolution to be considered successful it must allow – perhaps even demand – that these new publics be created. The leaders of the American Revolution created a public and acted in that space; their names are remembered. The leaders of the French Revolution got their bread; their names have been forgotten.

It was in the creation of these ‘publics’ where one was able to enjoy freedom – more specifically, public freedom – something very different to the free will or free though know by philosophers before.

“Freedom for them [the philosophes of the Enlightenment] could exist only in public; it was a tangible, worldly reality, something, created by men to be enjoyed by men rather than a gift or a capacity, it was the man-made public space or market-place which antiquity had known as the area where freedom appears and becomes visible to all.”

The idea of public freedom evolved and later was called ‘public happiness,’ consisting in “the citizen’s right of access to the public realm, in his share in public power.” Arendt continues by arguing that by using the word ‘happiness’ and relating it to public power, it reveals that such a thing as ‘public happiness’ existed before the revolution, and that men knew they could not be altogether ‘happy’ if their happiness was located and enjoyed only in private life.

“… No one could be called happy without his share in public happiness, that no one could be called free without his experience in public freedom, and that no one could be called either happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public power.”

In the search a radical new forms of living, one can learn a lot from Hannah Arendt’s research on the revolutionary spirit. Her insistance on freedom as the ultimate goal of revolution, with its implicit connections public power and (public) happiness, offers us a source of inspiration when attempting to imagine new futures yet to be written.