Arendt, Equality and Justice. Ancient and Modern

Some thoughts about Arendt and distributive justice as a I prepare for a conference paper on that topic (Pluralism and Conflict: Distributive Justice Beyond Rawls and Consensus, Fatih University, Istanbul, 6th to 8th June, 2013). Mostly drawing on The Human Condition and ‘Introduction into Politics’ (published in The Promise of Politics) with regard to the historical development of political concepts.

Amongst other things, Arendt shows the broad history and conceptual transformation which led from an Ancient Greek understanding of equality and inequality in justice to modern assumptions regarding those issues. One small but significant point struck me in recent reading, which is the a reference to Ancient Rome as the most political of communities. Arendt is sometimes seen as nostalgic for Ancient Athens, and as preferring Athens over Rome as the model of republicanism. The most well known advocate of republican political theory in normative theory/analytic philosophy, Philip Pettit offers Rome as the model, and suggests (briefly) of Arendt that her form of republicanism is nostalgic for Athens, with the implication that the nostalgia is itself a bad thing, though we might think of Pettit as nostalgic for Rome. The other criticism form Pettit in his very brief references to Arendt is that she belongs to a less liberal version of republicanism than that of Rome, which enforces conformity and participation,  so is more ‘political’, something that Pettit refers to as civic republicanism. We can see that Arendt did not make an opposition between Athens and Rome in the way that Pettit does, though she certainly does note some differences.

Arendt contributes to an already well established interest in law as fundamental to the difference between Athens and Rome. We can see such a suggestion in the ultimate philosophical synthesiser of history, Hegel. The way Arendt understands the difference is that Greek law is a form of divine authority over humans, while Roman law is about contractual relations between individuals and at the basis of political institutions. That is a distinction that suits the idea that Rome was the most political of communities, since it is the possibility of freely held relationships, which is the meaning of politics in the ancient world. That is Arendt refers to politics as the realm of freedom, as distinct from necessity. The work at issue, is most obviously slave labour. Arendt notes ancient distinctions between slaves (presumably by birth) and conquered peoples who become slaves. That separation of freedom from work includes the work of free labourers, on the whole. Ancient democracies, including Rome though that democracy was rather rigged to the benefit of the aristocracy, gave political rights to free labourers but never lost the disdain for labourers. Both Plato and Aristotle assume that political leadership should be in the hands of an elite not concerned with work or money making, and even regard politics itself as non-serious and secondary compared with philosophy, an inevitably elite pursuit. Arendt does allow for the political vision of human life in Plato and Aristotle, but also makes us pay attention to the opposite drive in their thought, the thought that the polity is something for the philosopher to ignore as far as possible.

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-poliitcal 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.

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