Summary: Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution chapter 1, The Meaning of Revolution

This chapter summary is part of my reading summaries series. Click here for more information on the series. Click here fore more chapter summaries from On Revolution.

I

Antiquity knew well that “tyrants rise to power through the support of the plain or the poor people, and that their greatest chance to keep power lies in the people’s desire for equality of condition.” Prior to the modern era, political overthrows and upheavals, “prompted by interest… depended on a distinction between poor and rich which itself was deemed… natural and unavoidable in the body politic.” In the modern age, however, “men began to doubt that poverty is inherent in the human condition,” and the “social question”, the question of poverty and inequality, began to play a revolutionary role.

America, in particular, became “the symbol of a society without poverty.” The prior regimes viewed “labour and toil” as the “appanage of poverty.” But these became viewed as “the source of all wealth”, challenging the distinction between the working poor and the land-owning aristocrats. American society, even before the American Revolution, challenged ancient distinctions and brought about a new revolutionary spirit.

After discussing these changes, Arendt challenges the claim that “all modern revolutions are essentially Christian in origin.” She argues that secularization, “the separation of religion from politics and the rise of a secular realm with a dignity of its own,” is crucial in revolution. Thus, revolution may be “that transitory phase which brings about the birth of a new, secular realm,” and that secularization itself, rather than Christian teachings, constitutes the origin of revolution. Indeed, “no revolution was ever made in the name of Christianity prior to the modern age.”

The modern view of revolution seeks to establish an entirely new world order which, in history, “resolves” the “social question.” History in the Christian view, however, remains “bound with the cycles of antiquity—empires would rise and fall as in the past—except that Christians, in the possession of an everlasting life, could break through this cycle of everlasting change and must look with indifference upon the spectacles it offered.” In this way, Christianity had “ a greater affinity with classical Greek… philosophical interpretations of human affairs than with the classical spirit of the Roman res publica.” The Greeks were convinced that changeability was an essential part of mortal affairs. The Romans emphasized a continuity of affairs in using education to “bind the ‘new ones’ to the old, to make the young worthy of their ancestors”, while the Greek philosophers experienced the “inherent changeability of all things mortal… without any mitigation or consolation” and were persuaded that they need not take human affairs too seriously.

II

According to Arendt, the modern concept of revolution includes the notion that history begins anew, and this new beginning coincides with an idea of freedom. Indeed, in the Free World, “freedom, and neither justice nor greatness, is the highest criterion for judging the constitutions of political bodies.” So Arendt turns to the “aspects under which freedom then appeared.”

She distinguishes between liberation and freedom, though liberation “may be the condition of freedom.” The distinction if “frequently forgotten”, since “liberation has always loomed large and the foundation of freedom has always been uncertain, leading political theory to “understand by political freedom not a political phenomenon, but… the more or less free range of non-political activities” permitted and guaranteed.

“Freedom as a political phenomenon” arose with the Greek city-states and was first understood as “a form of political organization in which the citizens lived together under conditions of no-rule,” called isonomy. Those proposing democracy criticized this as the worst form of government, “rule by the demos.” The equality founded under isonomy was not equality of condition, but political equality. Men were not equal by nature, but became equal through the law of the polis.

Social life was essential for freedom, according to the Greeks. No man could be free except among his peers, so rulers could not be free. “The life of a free man needed the presence of others. Freedom itself needed a place where people could come together—the agora, the market-place, or the polis, the political space proper.”

This is in contrast to the modern idea of freedom, which we today identify as those liberties associated with constitutional government and call civil rights. Freedom, the liberty of revolutions, “meant no more than freedom from unjustified restraint, and as such was fundamentally identical with freedom of movement.” These liberties are “essentially negative”, in contrast to classical political freedom, which was “participation in public affairs, or admission to the public realm.”

There is a difficulty, however, in that modern revolution has been concerned with both liberation and freedom. It is difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. It is important to note, however, that liberty could be established under a monarchy, while political freedom could only exist under a republic.

So the revolutions brought about a new experience of being free, unknown since the fall of the Roman Empire, and this new experience was also “the experience of man’s faculty to begin something new.” This pathos of novelty connected with the idea of freedom is necessary for the idea of revolution. Though the ancients had experienced insurrections, this pathos sets apart revolutions. Though these insurrections share with the violence included in revolutions, “only where change occurs in the sense of a new beginning, where violence is used to constitute an altogether different form of government, to bring about the formation of a new body politic, where the liberation from oppression aims at least at the constitution of freedom can we speak of revolution.” And this is “unprecedented and unequalled in all prior history.”

III

The word “revolution” did not exist in the ancient or medieval world. It was even absent through the early Renaissance in Italy. Machiavelli uses Cicero’s mutatio rerum, as mutazioni del stato, in discussing the “forcible overthrow of rulers.” He sets himself from other thinkers, however, in that he “was the first to think about the possibility of founding a permanent, lasting, enduring body politic.” Even more important, he was “the first to visualize the rise of a purely secular realm whose laws and principles of action were independent of the teachings of the Church in particular, and of moral standards, transcending the sphere of human affairs, in general.” Thus, Machiavelli argues that those entering politics should first learn “how not to be good.”

He is not a revolutionary in the modern sense, however, because his foundation was a “renovation”, an “alterazione a salute, the only beneficial alteration he could conceive of.” The modern revolutions started as such renovations, but in the course of them the “revolutionary pathos of an entirely new beginning was born.”

Still, Machiavelli was, in a way, the “spiritual father of revolution.” In his writings we see an “effort to revive the spirit and the institutions of roman antiquity”, as well as an insistence of the role of violence in politics. The latter departs from Roman antiquity, however, since the Roman republic saw authority, rather than violence, as the ruler of citizens’ conduct.

His insistence on violence arrives as the direct consequence of a twofold theoretical perplexity. First, the task of foundation “as such seemed to demand violence… the repetition, as it were of the old legendary crime… at the beginning of all history. Second, there was the task of lawgiving and giving men a new authority “designed in such a way that it would fit and step into the shoes of the old authority that derived from a God-given authority. This latter as insoluble “because power under the condition of human plurality can never amount to omnipotence, and laws residing on human power can never be absolute”, though Machiavelli attempted “to escape this difficulty” with his “appeal to high Heaven.” And “by the same token, his insistence on the role of violence… [comes from] his futile hope that he could find some quality in certain men to match the qualities we associate with the divine.”

The medieval and post-medieval world knew of rebellion, the aim of which was to substitute an authority. Revolutions, on the other hand, sought to make all mankind sovereign. The medieval and post-medieval world did not seek to give all a role in government, but to establish the proper ruler.

IV

 In describing the “revolutionary spirit”, Arendt distinguishes the spirit “which actually grew out of revolution” from the “modern yearning for novelty at any price.” The men of the first revolutions had a disinclination for novelty, which “came to the fore only after they had come, much against their will, to a point of no return.”

“Revolution” was originally an astronomical term, whose Latin meaning designated “the regular, lawfully revolving motion of the stars which, since it was known to be beyond the influence of man, was… characterized neither by newness nor violence.” Likewise, the word “revolution” as a political term in the seventeenth century indicated a revolving back to a preordained order, as it was used in 1660 after the overthrow of the Rump Parliament and the restoration of the monarchy.

The seventeenth and eighteenth century revolutions were all intended to be restorations. The French and American Revolutions were initiated by men who sought to “restore an old order… that had been disturbed and violated by the despotism of absolute monarchy or the abuses of colonial government… [and] the movement which led to revolution was not revolutionary [in the modern sense] except by inadvertence.” Paine felt absolute novelty would be an argument against, rather than for, the rights he promoted, and he hoped to do more than “revolve back to an ‘early period’, when [men] had been in the possession of rights and liberties which tyranny and conquest had dispossessed them.”

No such period had existed, as he understood it. “Former centuries might have recognized that men were equal with respect to God or the gods”, as the Romans had understood. However, no period understood that all men had inalienable political rights by birth.

Novelty and newness had existed prior to the revolutions, particularly among scientists and philosophers. But it “was only in the course of the eighteenth-century revolutions that men began to be aware that a new beginning could be a political phenomenon, that it could be the result of what men had done and what they could consciously set to do.” This idea then became a new story “to be augmented and spun out by their posterity.”

V

 The year 1789 saw the first use of the word “revolution” with an “exclusive emphasis on irresistibility and without any connotation of a backward revolving movement.” Prior, “revolution” as an astronomical term had always been understood to be irresistible, though this force which could not be altered by human action was understood as a cyclical movement. But from the beginning of the French Revolution, with the storming of the Bastille, revolution has been seen as an irresistible movement of historical necessity. “For the mighty current of the revolution, in the words of Robespierre, was constantly accelerated by the ‘crimes of tyranny’, on one side, by the ‘progress of liberty’, on the other, which inevitably provoked each other, so that movement and counter-movement neither balanced nor checked nor arrested each other, but in a mysterious way seemed to add up to one stream of ‘progressing violence’, flowing in the same direction with an ever-increasing rapidity.”

Thus, all revolutionary and counter-revolutionary upheavals since the French Revolution have been seen in terms of “continuation” of that initial movement. Many think of a “permanent revolution” and believe, as Theodor Schieder has written, that “there has never been such a thing as several revolutions, that there is only one revolution, selfsame and perpetual.” Those viewing the French Revolution as spectators saw that “none of its actors could control the course of events”, which moved on by historical necessity. This is in contrast to the American Revolution, where the sentiment ran strong that “man is the master of his own destiny.”

Hegel’s modern concept of history is, “theoretically, the most far-reaching consequence of the French Revolution.” The Revolution gave birth to the view that “the old absolute of the philosophers revealed itself in the realm of human affairs, that is, in precisely the domain of human experiences which the philosophers unanimously had ruled out as the source… of absolute standards.” Politics became a philosophy of history.

Arendt points out a fallacy in this view, which “consists in describing and understanding the whole ream of human action, not in terms of actor and agent, but from the standpoint of the spectator who watches a spectacle.” There is a truth in this view, in that the true meaning of a story can unfold only with its completion, so it appears only the spectator can truly understand the event. Thus, the French Revolution’s lesson seemed to “spell out historical necessity” more forcefully to the spectator than the actor. And a paradox arose from this view, that “instead of freedom, necessity became the chief category of political and revolutionary thought.”

Arendt points out that the French Revolution may be the reason why philosophy has attempted to concern itself with seeking absolute truth in human affairs. “World history” is political in origin, “preceded by the French and the American Revolution, both of which prided themselves on having ushered in a new era for all mankind, on being events which would concern all men qua men.” The universality made history, “if it was to become a medium of the revelation of truth”, into “world history, and the truth which revealed itself had to be a ‘world spirit.'”

Another aspect of Hegel’s teachings arose from the French Revolution, the idea that historical motion “is at once dialectical and driven by necessity.” This idea arrives from and shares the paradox of the Revolution, that “freedom is the fruit of necessity.” The French Revolution, necessary to bring freedom, was driven by necessity and not by action. So the views of politics changed as views of nature changed, from a cyclical and “ever-recurring movement” to a rectilinear process of development.

Arendt notes that the French, rather than American, Revolution set the world on fire. This is so, even though the French Revolution failed in its initial aims, while the American Revolution resulted in “perhaps the greatest, certainly the boldest, enterprises of European mankind.” There is a trouble understood with revolution, however: “those who went into the school of revolution learned and knew the course a revolution must take.” Revolutionaries must follow the courses of events, rather than revolutionary men, knowing that “a revolution must devour its own children,… that a revolution would take its course in a sequence of revolutions. or that the open enemy was followed by the hidden enemy under the mask of ‘suspects’, or that a revolution would split into two extreme factions… and that the revolution was ‘saved’ by the man in the middle, who… liquidated the right and the left.” Revolutionaries could not be agents of their own fates, but agents of necessity, who took up a part, even, if history so required, the part of the villain. Arendt argues that there is “some grandiose ludicrousness in the spectacle of these men… they were fooled by history, and they have become the fools of history.”

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