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Kevin Zhao

Professor Warren
Political Theory

Arendt - The Public and the Private Realm

Chapter two of Arendt’s book begins with an examination of the essence

of man. As Arendt points out, man is above all a social being whose action is seen

and heard outside his home in the public sphere. Arendt refers to both Aristotle

and Aquinas to show that our human nature is political and social. The Greeks

denote the public realm as the polis or the city where men engage in political and

social activities. Arendt comments, “to be political, to live in a polis, meant that

everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through force

and violence” (26). On the other hand, a man who only lives a private life is

thought to be slaves and barbarians who “was not fully human” and lived outside

the polis. Because of the huge emphasis that ancient Greek society places on the

political realm, it also draws a sharp distinction between the political and private

life of the citizens. As Arendt elucidates, the Greeks consider domestic or the

private life to be secondary to the public life, which Aristotle thought consists of

“action” and “speech.” These two qualities are thought to reflect the highest of

human capacity and excellence. For the Greek society, what happens in the

private sphere should be excluded from the glorious deeds of the pubic sphere

and hidden from the public view, since activities of the private sphere are

primarily related to the crude maintenance of the human biological process and

are therefore considered as the sphere of necessity. For the Greeks, it is in the

the medieval concept of the “common good. The rise of mass society requires that all individuals behave according to a common pattern as the public realm where individuals used to compete for distinction and prominence has disappeared. As Arendt insightfully observes. Arendt draws a parallel between the conformism of modern mass society and the “socialization of man” in the Marxian communist utopia. which reduces the need for the public realm. conscious human beings and capable of striving for action and excellence that will outlast human mortality. he presents a rather unconvincing image of the future of an administered society where individuals are freed from economic necessity but seem to be quite a distance away from the real realm of freedom where they participate in political activities .public realm where men become truly free. Although Marx was right in denouncing the dehumanizing aspect of capitalist society that turns every individual into a wage labourer. the growing influence and importance of private realm began in the medieval period where the church offered a substitute for an individual’s political citizenship. One of the turning points in the understanding of public realm is according to Arendt.” which diverges sharply from the Greek definition of a political realm and instead refers to the common material and spiritual interests of the private individuals. private realm begins to fully enter into public realm and threatens to completely take over it. as individuals are only defined as buyers and sellers on the market trying to maximize gain. which in the earlier Greek society was thought to be irreplaceable. the rise of modern economics has certainly helped to intensify this leveling effect of mass society. Then as we progress toward modern society. As Arendt argues. Here. Arendt observes that there appears to be an increasing enrichment of the private sphere through individualism.

” Clearly. of mortals” (56). she places her priority on the fulfillment of higher human capacity. “for the Polis was for the Greeks. The transient nature of human life demands that we seek out a place of permanence where our fleeting achievements can be recorded and stored in the annals of history. As she rightly argues. the space protected against this futility and reserved for the relative permanence. she gives a compelling diagnosis of the potential negative consequences of a society where “the state withers away. it requires strenuous determination and effort to prove with one’s own action and words that human life is worth living. as the res publica was for the Romans. she is unsatisfied with both the one-dimensional capitalist society that reduces each individual to a common denominator of money and the Marxist communist utopia where the fulfillment of basic needs does not automatically result in the pursuit of higher goals in life. While Arendt clearly shows a profound sense of nostalgia for the loss of the Greek ideal of public realm. namely action and speech in the political sphere.and realize their human essence. first of all their guarantee against the futility of individual life. if not immortality. . And this place of permanence is much more than the emancipation of man from the realm of necessity that Marx has promised. Perhaps the emerging field of participatory democracy offers some of the possible hope for restoring the Greek ideal of public sphere and for the realization of the essence of being human.