Hannah Arendt’s freedom concert

Published: April 1, 2009 - 13:31 Updated: July 14, 2011 - 12:36


Professor Csaba Olay of Budapest University recently lectured at Vienna's Institute for Human Sciences on Hannah Arendt and the German Jewish thinker's views on power and revolution. The daughter of middle-class parents of Russian descent, Arendt died in New York in 1975 after having spent an entire life trying to make sense of Nazism and Stalinism, the two great evils of the last century.

At the centre of Arendt's work is the nature of both power and freedom. Arendt's political theory makes much sense considering that modern societies continue to struggle with states that increasingly use ideology and terror to control people.

Arendt's stress on civic engagement and the idea of active citizenship is inspiring. As Prof Olay laid out lessons in power, revolution and freedom, thoughts transported seven seas across to India, a country in the grip of a hectic election campaign.

On the eve of the 15th Lok Sabha elections, the crucial question remains: will the majority of people play a greater role in the politics of the country apart from just voting?

The mandate, therefore, is in search of representatives who honour principles of equality, secular pluralism and social justice. Those who do not just profess love of principles but manifest them in action. Those who will provide a public space and stand by the will to live together with others in both speech and action. That is, the contestants must have a mentality enlarged enough to look at things from the other's point of view. Those who are able to abstract from personal views and interests in order to represent those not present.

Representatives to Parliament must be able to take into account multiple political perspectives. They must reflect the most radiant of human conditions like freedom of action and plurality of thought with the promise to indulge in a rational (and not violent discourse) to solve disputes and to guard the political sphere from individual dangers and institutional wrong-doing. They must like to think, to remember and be ready to forgive. There has to be a willingness to repeatedly re-enter the sphere of political debate with former enemies and combatants, forsaking all apolitical methods of vengeance and violence.

Think before anything else, prods Arendt, so that the emptiness of stock phrases and clichés is revealed. Think, to be able to resist the urge to mindlessly imitate and to prevent the dehumanisation that follows thoughtlessness. Think, to find worldly rather than divine solutions for the human predicament, unlike the despot who believes in absolute goodness and
absolute truth.

Arendt's view of politics makes the spirit soar. Politics is defined as an activity that provides room for human existence to grasp itself. In the political sphere, human beings are provided time and space to understand the self in order to understand everyone else. Arendt defines politics as the distinctive feature of human life, pivotal to understanding individual human beings and the human species, and a golden opportunity for people to become a person.

A revolution is best described as "natality" or the birth of ideas, a new beginning towards political freedom. A revolution is not all riots, street fighting and violence. The freedom to sow the seed of natality is synonymous with collective political action among equals and remains the soul of a revolution.

Power is concentrated in the public realm, the potential space for showcasing speech and action. The public space is where I appear to others as others appear to me. However, this precious space does not exist automatically but has to be consciously created. It is a misunderstanding on the part of the people that power resides in the palace. Power, in fact, is where the public is. A single person never possesses power. Power is given to institutions like Parliament by people.

Arendt's critique of modern politics points out that the State is out of sync with the people. The State is corrupted due to lack of governance and deformed by too many regulations imposed by those no longer masters of their own deeds. Governance and regulations are at the core of the crisis of the modern State that is shy of a lasting relationship with its citizens. For the same reason, perhaps, governments around the world have little control over violence.

The vote today is for a "moral personality"- not a moral absolute who does not listen or concede to the opinion of others. But one, who is grounded in amor mundi, or, the love of a world where human plurality is freely shared by people who act in concert for the good of everyone.



This story is from print issue of HardNews