The political realm in antiquity was the realm of a kind of freedom which could not belong to everyone, as some have to labour, including the labour done by slaves. The political sphere was one of equality, but qualified by aristocratic suspicion of free labourers, an equality of liberty from coercion by a tyrant in every case, but ambiguous about how far those free relations could extend amongst the population. The sphere of the home was a place of non-freedom. Men ruled the home and themselves only became part of something where there was freedom on leaving the home to participate in public affairs. The suggestion is that even the male patriarchal ruler of the home was preoccupied there with business which had nothing to with freedom, managing the family, slaves and the wealth/property of the family.
In her understanding of antiquity, Arendt sees wealth as something separate from property. Property was not separable from the family and was essential to political elite status. Wealth refers to all the things owned by the family, and its income which be lost. That idea of the permanence of property was essential to how the ancients thought of what was proper to a governing class, and that assumption lingered into the 19th century, when capitalism undermined the idea that any kind of property could be separated from the world of exchange where it acquired a contingent status in relation to the owning family. The non-political sphere of household family affairs became the basis of polities, which moved away form discussion of matters of purely public interest to maximisation of everyone’s wealth. Equality and justice moved from being questions largely for the elite class in its awareness of itself, to the main concerns of politics in promoting the welfare of all.
This is part of Arendt’s picture of the emergence of economic and social goods for all as the centre of modern politics, a process she does not reject, but which inspires reservations about the loss of political questions within the political world. Again her supposed nostalgia for Athenian republicanism must be heavily qualified by her capacity for sketching out economic, social and political shifts since then. There is a desire for moments of political participation but this does not so much involve Athenian nostalgia as idealisation of the early stages of the American, French and Russian revolutions.The interest in both the virtues of participation and of aristocratic excellence draw on Tocqueville, whose work is part of the 18th and 19th century attempts to reconcile antique republican political liberty with modern individualistic commercial liberty. One of the sources for Tocqueville here is Benjamin Constant’s essay on the difference between the liberty of the ancients and the moderns, which draws on Athens as the most ‘modern‘ of ancient republics. The Pettit style of distinction between neo-Roman liberty and civic humanism, Athenian and Roman republicanism does not really account for this.
There is a drive in Arendt towards separating politics from the kind of welfare concerns that have absorbed politics since the 18th century, though this just as much as about hanging onto non-Kantian and non-Utilitarian notions of the good, so what hanging to what is normally called virtue theory, though she does not use that phrase. In other words, she defends a version of eudaemonism which is not just about immediate pleasure, but about excellence, distinction and becoming worthy of history. The being worthy of history establishes a political goal, the birth of political institutions and laws that will be remembered and last. Arendt has a disruptive perspective here, since the agonistic element of her view of republicanism, the aristocratic struggle for excellence spread widely in the population, also undermines the Roman and Spartan, what Nietzsche called the Doric state, image of marmoreal permanence. The ancient aristocratic writers preferred the permanence and solidity of Rome and Sparta, that is the meaning of the rejection of Athens then and more recently, as in the criticisms of democracy by the Founders of the American republic, who in large degree tried to established an unchanging Lycurgian constitution, run by an oligarchy protected from the passions of the public. Though Pettit and Skinner would not define themselves in that way, they are positioning themselves in the same territory. Pettit’s work on Hobbes in which he implicitly finds the Hobbesian sovereign to be the centre of Rawls and Habermas style rational discourse goes even further in the direction of power for those who head the institution and make the laws which claim to be guided by reason, and what the people would want if they thought about it long enough under ideal conditions. That includes schemes of redistribution, of state enforced patterns of income and wealth which are in tension with the unplanned nature of the most productive economic activity. There is no such constraint on Arendtian political judgement, which makes judgement a matter of conceiving common goods and gaols without an inherent bias towards state power over the economy, in norms that demand government designed economic patterns.