Just Wanna Know

Revolutionary Propaganda Organ

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Freedom and Equality

Usually I shy away from such big words, but here's an interesting discussion from Hannah Arendt. She's arguing that for the ancient Greeks, equality was not inherent in humanity but rather the proper goal of a civilized society, to engineer political equality. (The blanks are words in Greek type, which I can't pronounce let alone reproduce here.)

Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. Penguin, 1985 [1963]. Pp. 30-31.

"Freedom as a political phenomenon was coeval with the rise of the Greek city-states. Since Herodotus, it was understood as a form of political organization in which the citizens lived together under conditions of no-rule, without a division between ruler and ruled. [1] This notion of no-rule was expressed by the word isonomy, whose outstanding characteristic among the forms of government, as the ancients had enumerated them, was that the notion of rule (the ‘archy’ from ----- in monarchy and oligarchy, or the ‘cracy’ from ----- in democracy) was entirely absent from it. The polis was supposed to be an isonomy, not a democracy. The word ‘democracy,’ expressing even then majority rule, the rule of the many, was originally coined by those who were opposed to isonomy and who meant to say: What you say is ‘no-rule’ is in fact only another kind of rulership; it is the worst form of government, rule by the demos.[2]

"Hence, equality, which we, following Tocqueville’s insights, frequently see as a danger to freedom, was originally almost identical with it. But this equality within the range of the law, which the word isonomy suggested, was not equality of condition—though this equality, to an extent, was the condition for all political activity in the ancient world, where the political realm itself was open only to those who owned property and slaves—but the equality of those who form a body of peers. Isonomy guaranteed -----, equality, but not because all men were born or created equal, but, on the contrary, because men were by nature (-----) not equal, and needed an artificial institution, the polis, which by virtue of its ----- would make them equal. Equality existed only in this specifically political realm, where men met one another as citizens and not as private persons. The difference between this ancient concept of equality and our notion that men are born or created equal and became unequal by virtue of social and political, that is man-made, institutions can hardly be overemphasized. The equality of the Greek polis, its isonomy, was an attribute of the polis and not of men, who received their equality by virtue of citizenship, not by virtue of birth. Neither equality nor freedom was understood as a quality inherent in human nature, they were both not -----, given by nature and growing out of themselves; they were -----, that is, conventional and artificial, the products of human effort and qualities of the man-made world.

"The Greeks held that no one can be free except among his peers, that therefore neither the tyrant nor the despot nor the master of a household—even though he was fully liberated and was not forced by others—was free. The point of Herodotus’s equation of freedom with no-rule was that the ruler himself was not free; by assuming the rule over others, he had deprived himself of those peers in whose company he could have been free. In other words, he had destroyed the political space itself, with the result that there was no freedom extant any longer, either for himself or for those over whom he ruled. The reason for this insistence on the interconnection of freedom and equality in Greek political thought was that freedom was understood as being manifest in certain, by no means all, human activities, and that these activities could appear and be real only when others saw them, judged them, remembered them. The life of a free man needed the presence of others. Freedom itself needed therefore a place where people could come together—the agora, the market-place, or the polis, the political space proper.

"[1] I am following the famous paragraphs in which Herodotus defines—it seems for the first time—the chief three forms of government, rule by one, rule by the few, rule by the many, and discusses their merits (Book III, 80-2). There the spokesman for Athenian democracy, which, however, is called isonomy, declines the kingdom which is offered him and gives as his reason: ‘I want neither to rule nor to be ruled.’ Whereupon Herodotus states that his house became the only free house in the whole Persian Empire.

"[2] For the meaning of isonomy and its use in political thought, see Victor Ehrenberg, ‘Isonomia,’ in Pauly-Wissowa, Realenzyklopadie des klassischen Altertums, Supplement, vol. VII. Especially telling seems a remark of Thucydides (III, 82, 8), who notes that party leaders in factional strife liked to call themselves by ‘fair-sounding names,’ some preferring to invoke isonomy and some moderate aristocracy, while, as Thucydides implies, the former stood for democracy and the latter for oligarchy. (I owe this reference to the kind interest of Professor David Grene of Chicago University.)"


At 4:24 PM, Blogger Jamie Brandon said...


Good stuff (but you know I like historical topics)....I too usually shy away from big words...Yet I now find myself faced with the prospect of co-writing a book on the idea of "freedom" in the 19th C.....you never can tell.

At 11:22 AM, Blogger John Schaefer said...

No, I'm right behind you--it's actually very important for us to be able to talk about subjects that the masses are interested in...

What got me started on freedom was a class that Barb (on my blogroll) was teaching about imprisonment--Mumia, MLK, etc.--and she got into freedom as a result...

At 2:57 PM, Blogger CJD said...

Hey, next time you run into Greek, just ask your neighborhood seminarian to take a gander…

At 6:03 AM, Blogger John Schaefer said...

I probably could have figured out how to type it in MS Word, using "Symbol" fonts, but I'm not sure how it would have transferred to HTML fonts on the blog... But thanks, I'll use your help next time.


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