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Aristotle's Politics after Arendt: Action and the Appearance of Political Community

In the Human Condition, Hannah Arendt distinguishes the political action of self-disclosure from the non-political work of communal formation.  She writes, “[T]he Greeks, in distinction from all later developments, did not count legislating among the political activities” (Arendt 1958, 194).  The one who formed the laws of the city was no different from the one who built the city’s walls – both established what was necessary for political life to begin.  Since the legislator’s work was pre-political, he need not be a part of the community.  Creating the polis, Arendt tells us, could be done by anyone with the knowledge of law, but governing the polis could only be done by citizens.  “To them,” Arendt tells us of the Greeks, ‘the laws, like the wall around the city, were not results of action but products of making.  Before men begin to act a definite space had to be secured and a structure built where all subsequent actions could take place, the space being the public realm of the polis and its structure the law; legislator and architect belonged in the same category” (Arendt 1958, 194-95). 

I argue in this paper that the distinction between political activity and political formation that seems to follow the user / maker distinction is a distinctly modern political opposition.  It is possible that such a division may have been apparent among some Greek poleis and in the work of some sophists, but I resist the conflation of all of Greek political life and theory into a monolithic mold in order to present the distinctly Aristotelian insight that the manifestation of the polis is itself exemplary political action. 

            I rely on Arendt’s account of action as the introduction of something new to show that political community comes to appear as itself each time it reconsiders its end.  Hence, Aristotle argues that the polis is a different polis when it has a new constitution (Pol. 1276a40-76b6).  The constitution is the order of the community that follows from the polis’ deliberation regarding living well.  But I read Aristotle in light of Arendt’s account of action that the polis itself is manifested by deliberation rather than following from it as as if deliberation is a technical know-how.  In this sense, the polis is not formed prior to action as a condition for action, but appears in this action. 

            I argue that we can use Aristotle to support Arendt’s view of the plurality of sovereignty, a view that I argue is only possible if there is no pre-political existence and hence if the polis is not artificial.  Where the polis is artificial, we presuppose some nonpolitical moment or actor who is prior to the polis and brings it into being. Such an actor, in whatever form it takes, is the sovereign.  This is the account of sovereignty that Arendt forswears in her account of modern freedom (see “What is Freedom?,” On Revolution, and Life of the Mind).  

            Aristotle, I argue, offers an account of political life that denies pre-political existence and its concomitant issues of sovereignty.  By showing that the community itself is manifested in the concern for living well (Pol. 1252b31, 1280a32)—the activity that marks that community as political—I argue that Aristotle offers resources to think political action as the forming of the community.  In this way, action manifests the new in Arendt’s sense of natality, but not only of individuals but of communal life itself.  Arendt’s account makes sense of what appears to be the contradiction in Aristotle’s Politics: that the polis is natural and yet the one who founded it is greatly praised (1252b)  Natality shows how political existence can be natural and given yet always remaining a concern, always already the way in which human beings are oriented in the world and yet newly appearing in the work that makes life political.  

I make this argument through Aristotle account of the relation between the polis and the citizen (Pol.III.2.1275b16-20), an account that renders unsatisfactory any notion of community formation that is artificial or otherwise opposes political activity to the polis’ founding.  I explain political activity in Aristotle as deliberating over what is good rather than merely pursuing what is pleasant (1253a6-18), showing that such activity forms the community by leading to a certain organization of citizens and also forms it in that in this activity this organization appears as constitutive of the polis (1278b9-11, 16-27).