Distinctions are at the heart of how Hannah Arendt explores political issues, and one key example is that of the public realm versus the private realm. Possessing an erudite knowledge of history, Arendt is able to explore changes in subtle perspectives throughout Western history, often by examining the use of language in different accounts. Usually, subjects are traced back to an origin in ancient Greece, and Arendt provides many examples of ideas still extant in modern thought that originated in the Greek polis, or city-state.
However, in the modern age we have seen
something emerge which is neither private nor public, namely the social
realm, the political form of which is the nation-state. Arendt suggests
that what we call “society” is akin to a “collective of families economically
organised into the facsimile of one super-human family”. She ties the rise of
society to an emergence of housekeeping activities from the “shadowy interior
of the household” (the private realm) into “the light of the public sphere” –
resulting in a blurring of the borderline between private and public, since the
social realm stands between the two, unable to be either.
Arendt claims that the rise of society
corresponds to the decline of the family; people have become absorbed into social
groups (nations) which have taken the traditional role of the family. And much like
the members of a household in ancient
With the rise of society, it is bureaucracy
that has emerged as the dominant ruling system, which Arendt terms “the most social
form of government” and accuses of being rule by no-one. She notes: “But this
nobody, the assumed interest of society as a whole… does not cease to rule for
having lost its personality,” and warns that “the rule by nobody is not
necessarily no-rule” – indeed, she notes, it can be one of the cruellest and tyrannical
forms of government.
Arendt is often criticised for her reliance upon the distinction between private and public. Modern feminists complain that constraining the political to exclude the private realm has been part of the manner in which women’s concerns have been dismissed from political importance, and Marxists make similar claims about placing economic concerns in the private realm and not the public (and hence political) arena. These criticisms have some validity, but do not blunt the core concerns that Arendt is raising.
If we allow our lives to become secondary
to society, we in effect lose the capacity for action associated with the
public, and hence political, realm, and we equally lose the privacy inherent to
the notion of a private realm. By regaining these distinctions, we can
reconsider the nature of modern life, and judge to what degree we are willing
to surrender our political freedoms to the rule of no-one implicit in
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