What is Freedom? Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: What is Freedom?

This chapter is a companion essay to the preceding chapter, What is Authority? in Hannah Arendt’s book, ‘Between Past and Future’.

For Arendt, the problem of freedom is the problem of how human beings live together; it is political freedom, the freedom to start something new, the freedom to be human. Freedom is the reason men live together in politics. To be free is to act. This makes you unique. Through your actions people notice you and you become meaningful.

But Arendt says, science tells us that everything has a cause, so everything is determined. Does this mean that freedom is an illusion?

“In all fields of scientific and theoretical endeavor …. we proceed according to the no less self-evident truth of nihil ex nihilo, of nihil sine causa, that is, on the assumption that even “our own lives are, in the last analysis, subject to causation” and that if there should be an ultimately free ego in ourselves, it certainly never makes its unequivocal appearance in the phenomenal world, and therefore can never  become the subject of theoretical ascertainment. Hence freedom turns out to be a mirage….” (p.142)

Then she goes on to write that the most dangerous difficulty is ‘that thought itself, in its theoretical as well as its pre-theoretical form, makes freedom disappear.’ (p.144)

All of this emerges because of a misunderstanding of what freedom is; it comes from thinking of freedom as inner freedom, freedom of the will, but Arendt says that this is not what freedom is about. Freedom as the will is a modern invention. She attributes the idea of freedom of the will to Christianity, St Paul and Augustine.

Historically, men first discovered the will when they experienced its impotence and not its power, when they said with Paul: “For to will is present with me: but how to perform that which is good I find not.” (p.160)

For Arendt, freedom is never internal, never a retreat from the world, never a freedom of will (which is the mainstream, traditional idea of freedom), but instead a freedom to act. She points out that whilst for Thomas Hobbes safety and security were the highest values, these values lead to a retreat inwards. For Arendt, the highest political value is courage, which is indispensable for political action.

“It requires courage even to leave the protective security of our four walls and enter the public realm, not because of particular dangers which may lie in wait for us, but because we have arrived in a realm where the concern for life has lost its validity. Courage liberates men from their worry about life for the freedom of the world. Courage is indispensable because in politics not life but the world is at stake.”( p.155)

Lack of courage and the desire for safety and security encourages men to see freedom as an inward power, not as an outwardly action.

In addition to Christianity and philosophy, and Hobbesian liberalism, a third real danger that results in the reduction of political freedom today is from the social sciences.

“The rise of the political and social sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has even widened the breach between freedom and politics; for government, which since the beginning of the modern age had been identified with the total domain of the political, was now considered to be the appointed protector not so much of freedom as of the life process, the interests of society and its individuals.” (p.148)

Arendt thought that the rise of the social sciences resulted in a loss of authority. See her essay ‘What is Authority?

A government begins to be governed by social science when it tries to make life safer and so regulates life and human behaviour. This threatens the possibility of freedom as a political act. We need to return to thinking that politics is about courageous action, that it seeks something new, not simply security and safety.

Freedom is not acting under the guidance of the intellect; freedom is not acting under the guidance of the will. Freedom is the acting that actualises a principle, which is external, such as honour, glory and virtue, not a dictate of the will which is internal. If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty that they must renounce. Freedom is a meaningful performative act, good or bad; an action in the world that people will see, where people are trying to work out how to live together in this complicated world without authority. Freedom makes possible new beginnings, the freedom to start to do things and make something new.

To be free and to act are the same.

“… freedom, which only seldom – in times of crisis or revolution – becomes the direct aim of political action, is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action.” (p.145)

Freedom is a central and important idea in Hannah Arendt’s work, because freedom allows us to act and be meaningful; it allows us to be human.


To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. The freely accessible video presentations and discussions produced by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, have been very helpful, thanks to Roger Berkowitz .

  • Arendt, H. (1961). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics

Source of image: http://www.dhm.de/blog/2020/05/14/hannah-arendt-only-within-the-limits-of-nature-is-freedom-possible/

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