The Reason for Being is Freedom

“The raison d’être of politics is freedom.”
— Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?
Jasper Johns Flag 1954; Source: Wet Canvas

How can we know about freedom? What do we know about the relationship between freedom and politics? There are no clear-cut answers to these questions. When we talk about freedom and politics, multiple associations resonate, as Arendt once remarked in her lecture “Freiheit und Politik”/”Freedom and Politics.” Some have to do with traditions of political thought, others with historical memories sedimented in our language, and others still with our own contemporary experiences.

As far as traditions of political thought are concerned, Arendt offers a surprising consideration. Whereas many theories would identify political freedom with sovereignty, she asserts that sovereignty and political freedom are mutually exclusive: “Where men, either as individuals or in organized groups, wish to be sovereign, they must abolish freedom.” Jerome Kohn, trustee of the Hannah Arendt Bluecher Literary Trust and editor of Arendt’s work, recently reminded us of this fact in a paper at the Hannah Arendt Center’s Seventh Annual Conference, namely, that political sovereignty is “an illusion — rather like ‘American Exceptionalism’ — of people behaving as if they were one, and indeed the only one.” To conceive of freedom with Arendt rather suggests: “If they wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce.”

In other words, freedom for Arendt means to give up a (Christian) conception of freedom as freedom of the will as well as to give up an (ancient) identification of freedom with freedom of thought. According to Arendt, I originally experience freedom as well as the absence, or lack of freedom, not with myself. Freedom in the realm of politics is being experienced in public, “outside of myself” and with others. Men (in the plural) can be free only in relation to each other.

“Being free” is an activity, a practice. By wording it in the German original “Frei sein,” Arendt introduces a distinction from the traditional term “freedom,” or “Freiheit”. Being free is taking part in the activities of speaking and acting in-concert. As Kohn remarked in his presentation, these are “activities whose virtue is not moral, but rather virtuosity.” If we follow that thread further in Arendt’s original essay, we discover an intriguing comparison: we know of virtuosity, she suggests, from the performing arts. Virtuosity only exists and realizes itself in the actual action; it is not a product, but a practice. Freedom, or rather Frei sein, i.e. being free in that sense, can be compared to the experience of acting, of playing music, or dancing. It only exists as long as the performance lasts.

An intriguing echo of this notion of freedom as Frei sein can be found in the mode of Arendt’s writing. There is a particular performative quality to Arendt’s writing that cannot be translated without substantial loss into the product of a “moral,” a political or theoretical “position,” or implicit “commandment.” In fact, her considerations, not the least of which focus on freedom, rather exist in their particular virtuosity. It is a matter of the mode through which the question is being explored and the kind of relationships that her thinking and writing establish.

Arendt’s virtuosity crystallizes in the key sentence of her essay on freedom and politics, which reads in German: “Der Sinn von Politik ist Freiheit.” One would typically translate this sentence: “The sense [or, meaning] of politics is freedom.” However, the German original allows for a reading that suggests this “sense “ of politics is not only the result of a rational, cognitive operation, but that politics itself has a sense, or sensate understanding, of and for freedom.

Arendt’s English version of her German sentence reads: “The raison d’être of politics is freedom.” What a fascinating choice of words! The French “raison d’être” makes the English reader pause. “Stop and think” was Arendt’s response to every new, unprecedented phenomenon that one faces, calling for new, unprecedented paths of coming to terms with the question at stake. The French “être,” the verb for “to be,” calls to mind the German frei sein, while at the same time subtly referring back to Arendt’s considerations on sovereignty. For “raison d’être,” as a translation of “Freiheit,” or freedom, echoes the French “raison d’état,” the national interest, or reason of the sovereign state. In Arendt’s view, the reason of the sovereign state (raison d’état) denies freedom, as she showed, e.g., in her later essay “Lying in Politics” on the Pentagon Papers. In turn, the raison d’être or the reason for being — in its virtuosity — refers to a politically relevant experience of freedom.


Thomas Wild, Research Director and Associate Professor of German and Director of the German Studies Program

**(originally published on November 10, 2014)

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated The Hannah Arendt Center’s story.