Arendt, the Problem of ‘The Absolute’ and Revolutionary Fascination by Antiquity

There are many, many remarkable passages in Hannah Arendt‘s On Revolution, which forms part of my reading list for this fall semester’s Political Philosophy seminar. In particular, there is a profusion of them in Chapter 5, ‘Novus Ordo Saeclorum’. Here Arendt offers an analysis of the problem of legitimacy of post-revolutionary government i.e., the problem of ‘the absolute’, which confronts any system of power that dispenses with transcendent and transhumane sources of sanction (like those relied upon by the Church and monarchies) and concentrates on seeking foundations in the secular, the mundane, the profane, the earthly, the human. Arendt, in attempting to show how this problem might have been addressed by the American revolutionaries, goes on to note the inspiration that Roman antiquity provided to American and French revolutionaries alike, and provides an understanding of ‘revolution’ as ‘restoration’; it is a treatment remarkable both for its erudition and insight and should be required reading for any student of political theory. This chapter should be required reading, too, in any Philosophy of Law course for the keen understanding it displays of the natural and positive law debates. The relationship of law to political power, which is often missing in standard philosophical takes on these, is front and center in Arendt’s analysis.

I hope to write a more detailed analysis of this chapter sometime soon; for now, here is a tiny sampler, one which picks up on the perplexity that might be occasioned by noting the enthusiasm revolutionaries had for the ancients, and which, I think, is still relevant, as is most of Arendt’s analysis, for our day and age:

It has often been noticed that the actions of the men of the revolutions were inspired and guided to an extraordinary degree by the examples of Roman antiquity, and this is not only true for the French Revolution, whose agents had indeed an extraordinary flair for the theatrical; the Americans, perhaps, thought less of themselves in terms of ancient  greatness – though Thomas Paine was wont to think ‘what Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude’ – they certainly were conscious of emulating ancient virtue. When Saint-Just exclaimed, ‘The world has been empty since the Romans and is filled only with their memory, which is now our only prophecy of freedom’, he was echoing John Adams, to whom ‘the Roman constitution formed the noblest people and the greatest power that has ever existed’, just as Paine’s remark was preceded by James Wilson’s prediction that ‘the glory of America will rival- it will outshine the glory of Greece’. I have mentioned how strange this enthusiasm for the ancients actually was, how out of tune with the modern age, how unexpected that the men of the revolutions should turn to a distant past which had been so vehemently denounced by the scientists and the philosophers of the seventeenth century. And yet, when we recall with what  enthusiasm for ‘ancient prudence’ Cromwell’s short dictatorship had been greeted even in the seventeenth century by Harrington and. Milton, and with what unerring precision Montesquieu, in the first part of the eighteenth century,  turned his attention to the Romans again, we may well come to the conclusion that, without the classical example shining through the centuries, none of the men of the revolutions on either side of the Atlantic would have possessed the courage for what then. turned out to be unprecedented action. Historically speaking, it was as though the Renaissance’s revival of antiquity that had come to an abrupt end with the rise of the modern age should suddenly be granted another lease on life, as though the republican fervour of the short-lived Italian city-states – foredoomed, as Machiavelli ,knew so well, by the advent of the nation-state – had only lain dormant to give the nations of Europe the time to grow up, as it were, under the tutelage of absolute princes and enlightened despots.

However that may be, the reason why the men of the revolutions turned to antiquity for inspiration and guidance was most emphatically not a romantic yearning for past and tradition. Romantic conservatism – and which conservatism worth its salt has not been romantic? – was a consequence of the revolutions, more specifically of the failure of revolution in Europe; and this conservatism turned to the Middles Ages, not to antiquity; it glorified those centuries when the secular realm of worldly politics received its light from the splendour of the Church, that is, when the public realm lived from borrowed light. The men of the revolutions prided themselves on their ‘enlightenment’, on their intellectual freedom from tradition, and since they had not yet discovered the spiritual perplexities of this situation, they were still untainted by the sentimentalities about the past and traditions in general which were to become so characteristic for the intellectual climate of the early nineteenth century. When they turned to the ancients, it was because they discovered in them a dimension which had not been handed down by tradition – neither by the traditions of customs and institutions nor by the great tradition of Western thought and concept. Hence, it was not tradition that bound them back to the beginnings of Western history but, on the contrary, their own experiences, for which they needed models and precedents. And the great model and precedent, all occasional rhetoric about the glory of Athens and Greece notwithstanding, was for them, as it had been for Machiavelli, the Roman republic and the grandeur of its history.

Note: The problem of the absolute is a familiar one: it appears in another form in discussions of the foundations of ethics, in the problem of finding an absolute authority to back up moral obligations when belief in divine commands is lacking; in The Brothers Karamazov it is what perplexed Dimitri when he heard Father Paissy recount Ivan’s argument that immorality follows without belief in immortality.

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