Hannah Arendt is perhaps most highly regarded for her insights into political authority and totalitarianism, her critiques of Western philosophy and modernity (especially her blistering criticism of the “social sciences”). Hannah Arendt’s defense of politics as uniquely humanizing and ennobling rests on her conviction that, for “the realm of human affairs,” opinion is more fundamental than knowledge and on her understanding that the very existence of freedom requires participation in a public space—i.e., participation in political activity and especially decision-making.
But it is Arendt’s account of moral equality as the determinant foundation of political freedom through action that matters most to the vicissitudes, crises, and challenges that Americans and America face in 2019.
Arendt’s ideas can be stated simply and straightforwardly. Political freedom is only possible among moral and political equals. She asks and answers the question: What is political power and where does it come from? Different from physical strength, brute force, and violence, political power appears only when equals share their honest opinions in open discussion and debate to arrive at a decision to act. When this happens, a space is created in which the participants experience tangible freedom but, like the validity of the principle of equality, this freedom is only temporary: it disappears when the joint discussion and action cease. This is an entirely different animal from micromanaged focus groups, staged “town meetings,” polls, and “photo ops” to suit the professional needs of some elected officials or vested interests.
But what is equality? Some even deny that equality exists. Arendt’s answer is unequivocal. The only respect in which all human beings are equal, apart from man-made positive law that is enforced, resides in our shared moral dignity, which Kant held to be a permanent possession of all autonomous beings capable of acting freely, that is, in accord with first-order moral principles like the Categorical Imperative or the Golden Rule. This dignity you can never lose, no matter how deplorable your actions; it is also the reason that torture is morally wrong (besides being notoriously counterproductive from the standpoint of eliciting valuable information from interrogation). Our shared natality—the fact that we are all born into this world—and shared mortality—the fact that we shall all die within a span of roughly 100 years—are the unique sources of our moral and political equality, on which the Constitutional notion of equality before the law rests; the only equality that could possibly matter since there is no other. This reflects the truism that qualities or attributes such as talent, wealth, intelligence, education, class, charisma, good looks, physical strength, great-heartedness, wisdom, and social status are not evenly distributed across any population. This state of affairs is in fact the reason that equality before the law is enshrined as a principle of justice.
Let me repeat: What makes us all moral and political equals is our natality—the fact we are all born into this world—and our mortality—the fact that we must all die and can’t predict when. Political freedom is only possible among equals.
Whenever citizens meet as equals in a public space to engage in free and open discussion to share and modify opinions and reach judgments for the purpose of deciding on collective action to be taken on some particular issue, they create a space of freedom where they can recognize and acknowledge the intrinsically political principles of equality and authority and identify the ten strictly political passions or virtues that are most desirable in prospective leaders; the ones Arendt identifies in the final pages of On Revolution: “courage, the pursuit of public happiness, the taste of public freedom, an ambition that strives for excellence regardless not only of social status and administrative office but even of achievement and congratulation.” To these I would add, along with honesty or truthfulness, understanding, compassion, and a sense of justice, impartiality, which Arendt defines as the ability to “distance” ourselves from that “which is too close … so that we can see and understand it without bias and prejudice,” and empathy, the ability “to bridge abysses of remoteness until we can see and understand everything … as though it were our own affair.” As to the significance of this vital capacity, Arendt is unequivocal: “Without this kind of imagination, which actually is understanding, we would never be able to take our bearings in the world. It is the only inner compass we have.”