I also want to blog a bit more when GF and I are in France later this week. Our Germany trip this winter was fantastic, but we kind of lost track of time. And daylight. This time, we’re just bumming around central Paris for six days, not going back and forth from Amsterdam to Berlin.
I feel like this will be the first contemplative getaway I’ve had since I was in Calgary a couple of years ago. And the first such getaway I’ll have had with GF Gilly.
philosophical journalism I’ve wanted to try out.
But work on my larger projects is still rolling along. I’ve gotten plenty of ideas down about Arendt’s most philosophical masterwork that I still want to discuss.
More than discussing it, I want to figure them out with you. The Human Condition is a book that’s dense with ideas, and while I know those concepts are important for the political thinking I’m developing for Utopias, it’ll be tough getting everything sorted.
I’ll start with one thing that puzzles me about this book. Arendt refers back, all the time, to the ancient Greeks. When I first read The Human Condition ten years ago, I couldn’t understand why she did this. Also, I thought that she did so in a way that valorized the Greek way of life, that she wanted us, somehow, to return to Greek existence.
Reading the book again now, I understand better what she was doing. For one thing, it’s much too simple to read her account of the polis-era Greek identity and concept of community as wanting our return.
Only a year after thinking this about Arendt, I was defending my interpretation of Nietzsche against a peer review critic who said the same thing about him. No, of course Nietzsche never wanted to return to polis Greek ethics and sense of selfhood. He understood that this was impossible, that you can’t return to something that’s been broken down.
|When I was younger, I was never very fair to Hannah Arendt.|
Not many people were.
Anyway, there are a lot of different reasons why her work concentrates on the polis-era Greek conceptions of political life. Those reasons are threaded through the whole book, and deeply connected to her critique of contemporary life and the conditions of 20th century capitalist existence.
But that’s a bit of a heavy topic to take up in a 600-ish word blog post that I write as a philosophical exercise and to unwind at the start of a busy week. So I’ll make a few initial reflections and move on.
There’s a lot to love in the political philosophy and culture of polis-era Greek society. When you look at the history of the West,* Greece is where that civilization began. Greece developed the most valuable idea of modern society – democracy.
* In this context, when I’m talking about the West, I mean the civilization that began from the waves of Greek settlement around the Mediterranean and later Roman Empire. So this includes the Latin, Germanic, Slavic, and Arab cultures.
Sounds great! Greece invented democracy. But it wasn’t the modern democracy that foregrounds individual rights. Greek democracy would never have had space for anything like Robert Nozick’s radio show argument – that our necessary liberties include the freedom to renege on our promises and obligations.
|A lot of our popular conceptions of polis-era Greek culture are filled|
with oversimplifications and misconceptions. Hell, until recently, we
didn't even realize that they'd painted their statues.
But that wasn’t true for the polis Greeks. They were communitarians, but the values of the community were subject to change. That was literally the activity of the polis squares. People went there to face off and debate the moral values of their community, and the leadership decisions they should make when dealing with neighbouring nations.
It was an atmosphere of friendly rivalry. Individual ideas could square off and argue over a ton of different visions for how the community should live. Leadership proceeded by consensus, and consensus was achieved by convincing all the other community leaders of your path.
Most of the time, it was a matter of negotiation. Some ideas fall by the wayside and some are adopted. Some put away for a while to re-emerge later. Some outright rejected.
That old society where our first values of democracy began was a curious and fruitful combination of communitarian solidarity and individual freedom to contribute to the decision-making process of your whole community.
That’s a vision I think 21st century social democracy should work to restore in our public morality and politics.
But Greek civilization isn’t something we should resurrect. Nor should we want to.