Can the Polis Live Again?
The modern world has withered public space and its virtues.
In 1958, Hannah Arendt published The Human Condition, her book—part panegyric, part lamentation—on what she called “public space.” What she meant by public space wasn’t just the buildings and gathering places that in a good town square or market piazza encourage people to come together. It wasn’t even civic art viewed more broadly, the paintings and poetry Arendt attributed to homo faber, the fabricating soul who translates “intangible” civic ideals into “tangible” civic art. Public space, for Arendt, was also a metaphysical arena in which people realized their individual potential. They escaped necessity’s pinch—the arduous biological round of life-sustaining labor—through a “sharing of words and deeds.” This was the tradition of the Greek polis, from which Arendt drew much of her inspiration, a place designed “to multiply the chances for everybody to distinguish himself, to show in deed and word who he was in his unique distinctness.”
But a new Leviathan was gobbling up the old public spaces, Arendt believed. With the advent of the modern nation-state, a social dispensation began to emerge, one whose adepts—sociologists, psychologists, planners—were skilled in techniques derived from the social sciences but whose motives were far from pure. The new social technician, part schoolmarm, part bully, sought not merely to study behavior but also, Arendt argued, to control it. The school of Pericles was giving way to the school of Pavlov.
The social signori, Arendt maintained, sought to impose behavioral norms on people through “innumerable and various rules”—bureaucratic harnesses intended to “normalize” men and women, to compel them to “behave,” and to punish their “spontaneous action or outstanding achievement.” Refractory spirits who failed to conform were to be stigmatized as “asocial or abnormal.” In her more perfervid visions, Arendt foresaw a social apocalypse, a “leveling out of fluctuation” that would result in the “most sterile passivity history has ever known.”
Arendt’s jeremiad had a good deal in common with the warnings of other mid-twentieth-century prophets, among them David Riesman and Friedrich Hayek. It resembles, too, the insights of contemporary critics like Camille Paglia, who contends that too many Americans have become “complacently servile toward authority and automatically believe everything party leaders tell them.” But Arendt had her own idiosyncratic understanding of the way public space could help block the road to serfdom. The old forums, in liberating so much potential, foiled those who desired “conformism, behaviorism, and automatism in human affairs.” The question that haunts the reader of Arendt’s work is whether we can get the old places back.
Arendt was born in 1906 into a German-Jewish family living in Linden, in what is now the city of Hanover. She passed much of her childhood in Königsberg, in what was then East Prussia; at the outbreak of World War I in 1914, she moved with her family to Berlin. She was still in her teens when she first heard the name Martin Heidegger. It was “hardly more than a name,” she said, but it “traveled all over Germany like the rumor of the hidden king.” In 1924, she enrolled in the University of Marburg to study under the master. He was 35, married, and working on Being and Time. Arendt embraced him as teacher, mentor, and lover.
The traditional hostility of the philosopher toward the polis was, Arendt believed, “only too apparent” in Heidegger. The “most essential characteristic” of his pose, she said, was “its absolute egoism.” Heidegger was a mountain prophet. He shunned the “gabble” of the valley. He retired whenever practicable to his cottage in Todtnauberg in the Black Forest, where he could live, he said, in the “solitude of the mountains,” in the “elemental nearness of sun, storms, and heavens.” “It’s marvelous up here,” he wrote in 1925. “Sometimes I no longer understand that down there one can play such strange roles.”
Arendt soon left Marburg to study under Karl Jaspers in Heidelberg. She continued, however, to see Heidegger, briefly and furtively, on railway platforms and in provincial hotels. But a breach would open between them. In January 1933, Hitler came to power, and in May, Heidegger joined the Nazi Party. “The Führer himself and he alone,” he declared, “is German reality and law, today and for the future.” In the same year, the police, suspicious of Arendt’s researches in the Prussian State Library, where she was collecting material on anti-Semitism for the German Zionist Organization, arrested and interrogated her. Upon her release, she fled Germany and found refuge in Paris. After the German invasion of France in 1940, the French authorities imprisoned her in the notorious internment camp at Gurs. She escaped and made her way to the United States, which became her home for the rest of her life.
Experience and reflection led Arendt to question Heidegger’s contempt for public space. His “existential solipsism” prevented him from making responsible political judgments. Yet one should not exaggerate the break between the two: it occurred by degrees and was never complete. Arendt would always regard Heidegger as the incarnation of the philosopher-king, and their bond persisted until her death in 1975. She called him “the last Romantic,” not without admiration. German Romanticism left its print on her own spirit. She was contemptuous of mere biological existence, the life of those “enslaved” by the necessity of getting their bread, imprisoned “in the ever-recurring cycle of the life process.” She wanted, as the German Romantics did, to soar into a higher, freer realm; she, too, was a Tochter aus Elysium, a daughter of Elysium.
In the spring of 1961, 20 years after she came to the United States, Arendt traveled to Israel to attend the trial of former SS lieutenant colonel Adolf Eichmann. Her impressions were printed first in The New Yorker and later in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. By applying the theses of The Human Condition to the Nazis’ mass murder of the Jews, she caused a sensation—indeed, a scandal.
Studying Eichmann in the dock, Arendt concluded that he was not an evil genius but a fool: “Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.” He was “genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché,” Arendt wrote; in his aphasic helplessness, he could but repeat, in “officialese” (“my only language,” he said), the formulas he had learned to parrot. “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected to his inability to think.”
Such people exist in every era, but not until the flowering of the social bureaucracies did they come into their own. Eichmann shone in the sleek bureaucracy of the SS not despite his banality but because of it. Under the social dispensation, Arendt wrote, a “substitution” of “collective man-kind for individual men” takes place, achieved mainly by means of the “social sciences which, as ‘behavioral sciences,’ aim to reduce man as a whole, in all his activities, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal.” National Socialism was for Arendt an extreme form of the social impulse to condition human beings. The concentration camps, she wrote in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, were themselves vast conditioning experiments, “laboratories” in which “each and every person can be reduced to a never-changing identity of reactions, so that each of these bundles of reactions can be exchanged at random for any other.”
Eichmann, a man as primitive in his moral reflexes as one of Pavlov’s dogs, figures in Eichmann in Jerusalem as the incarnation of the new social man and thus the ideal Nazi administrator. A less dull creature would have either broken under the strain or turned sadist and thus upset the smooth efficiency of the operation; Eichmann plodded on, processing mass murder as though he were stamping passports. Arendt thought that Eichmann deserved to hang, but her portrait nevertheless stirred outrage because the mulish mental dormancy she attributed to him seemed to mitigate his guilt. Carrying her theory to what many thought an extravagant length, Arendt argued that Eichmann, caught up in the atmosphere of National Socialism, was “perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong.”
If Eichmann figures in Arendt’s roman à thèse as the embodiment of the banal social man, his Jewish victims make a prop for her theory of the decline of public space. Probably nothing in Eichmann in Jerusalem caused so much distress as the pages in which Arendt described the assistance that the Jewish councils, the Judenräte, gave the Nazis in implementing genocide. “Wherever Jews lived,” Arendt wrote, “there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis.”
Arendt showed little feeling for the agonizing predicament of the Jewish leaders, though she conceded that their “submissive meekness” was understandable. No “non-Jewish group or people had behaved differently,” she noted. To rebel, she knew, was to court a fate worse than death. She described how Dutch Jews were “tortured to death” after attacking a German police detachment in 1941. For “months on end they died a thousand deaths, and every single one of them would have envied his brethren in Auschwitz and even in Riga and Minsk.”
Still, if by 1941 it was too late to rebel, why had Jews and Gentiles alike failed to stand up to the thugs earlier? Arendt attributed the failure of civic nerve to the decay of public space and, in particular, to the decline of the political traditions that flourished in such space. In The Human Condition, she had defined the essence of political activity as “jurisdiction, defense, and administration of public affairs.” The crucial word is “defense.” Arendt admired the man of action who had the “courage” to enter public space and defend himself against aggressors; courage, she said, was “the political virtue par excellence.”
Arendt believed that some peoples had more of this civic bone and muscle than others. The Danes, for example, had an “authentically political sense, an inbred comprehension of the requirements of citizenship and independence.” The Diaspora Jews, by contrast, “had no political tradition or experience.” They figure in Arendt’s writings as civic castrati whose lack of political experience left them vulnerable to the pogrom. Had the Jews possessed a more adequate public space, Arendt believed, they could have developed the civic machismo that she admired.
This part of her argument, though, is at odds with her recognition that polis arts, however beautifully developed, could not in fact have saved the Jews. Even if they had turned the ghetto into a facsimile of Periclean Athens, they could not have effectually resisted a gigantic nation-state determined to wipe them off the face of the earth. They were helpless, Arendt wrote, because they “possessed no territory, no government, and no army”—in other words, no nation-state.
Arendt’s analysis of the plight of European Jewry lays bare the deeper tension in her thought. Public space, small and polis-like, is for her the school of civic courage and distinctive individuality. Yet no polis can withstand the might of a nation-state. Build a nation-state to save yourself, however, and you sacrifice the humanity and civic vigor of the agora, the forum, and the town square. The nation-state, because of its size, requires a people to undertake the very kinds of social administration that degrade the civic artistry that makes them strong and self-reliant. “Large numbers of people, crowded together, develop an almost irresistible inclination towards despotism, be this the despotism of a person or of majority rule,” Arendt wrote, “and although statistics, that is, the mathematical treatment of reality, was unknown prior to the modern age, the social phenomena which make such treatment possible—great numbers, accounting for conformism, behaviorism, and automatism in human affairs—were precisely those traits which, in the Greek self-understanding, distinguished the Persian civilization from their own.” It is the despairing crux of Arendt’s philosophy. The social methods of the nation-state will always overwhelm the civic intimacy of polis culture, yet without national forms to protect them, polis people are perpetually at the mercy of their nation-state enemies.
Part of the difficulty is the fetish that Arendt makes of politics. She thought politics essential to public space, yet in a world dominated by national governments, she saw no way to preserve the political tradition of the town square, the agora, and the piazza, which had been robbed of their sovereignty by the bigwigs of the capital.
It is here that Arendt went wrong. Her account of polis politics, the keystone of her civic arch, is easily the weakest part of her argument. Politics, she claims, teaches men “how to bring forth what is great and radiant.” The public man realizes the ideal of Phoenix, who teaches Achilles in The Iliad to be “a speaker of words and a doer of deeds.” Political deeds are “the greatest achievements of which human beings are capable.” They transcend biological necessity and savor of true freedom; they are the highest form of action, the “one miracle-working faculty of man.”
Norman Podhoretz has written that Arendt, in her “flights of metaphysical fancy,” was not always able to find her way back to “commonsense reality.” In her account of the miracle-working political actor, Arendt flirted with a millennial politics that, in Jacques Cazotte’s prophecy of the French Revolution, always draws upon itself its own doom. At the same time, she entirely ignored the pork-packing arts that Bismarck thought the essence of the political craft. She overlooked all the characteristic shabbiness of the political animal. Even in Athens, the typical politician was a scoundrel. The deeds of Draco, Peisistratus, Cleon, et alia were not, as a rule, radiant: the run-of-the-mill Attic pol, when not actually on the take, was sure to be dreaming of tyranny. Pericles himself was not much more than a common huckster on the hustings, if we are to believe Plato. In the Gorgias, he has Socrates make merry over Pericles’ conviction for theft and conclude, “We do not know of any man who has proved a good statesman in this city.”
Arendt could, it is true, have cited statesmen whose deeds have a claim to radiance—Washington, for instance, or Lincoln or Churchill. But these are the rarest thoroughbreds of the species. In dressing up in messianic costume the mountebanks and mediocrities who constituted the mean average of the breed, Arendt was the dupe of her dogmas. Her belief that in politics, as in art and philosophy, people at times transcend their biological natures is merely a truism that she pushes so far that it becomes an absurdity. When Shakespeare’s Antony says that all things can be reduced to natural or biological necessity—that our greatest achievements are but “clay,” for the “dungy earth alike / Feeds beast as man”—Cleopatra rightly rebukes the “excellent falsehood.” Arendt falls prey to the opposite falsehood when she insists on a rigid division between the dungy biological imperium and the glorious sphere of supranatural political freedom. If in none of his activities is man utterly a brute, in none of them does he wholly slough his beastly skin. Politics is no exception: the greatest Athenian statesmen had constantly to muck about in the un-transcendental politics of fish taxes, plagues, and sewage disposal.
The Athenian pol had also to make provision for trade, an activity that, though Arendt disdained it as low and utilitarian, gave the agora its vitality. To “go agora-ing,” in Greek, meant not only to seek distinction and honor in the public square but also to buy and sell things. The historian Jacob Burckhardt complained that modern translators didn’t do justice to the combination of commerce and conversation, “mingled with delightful loafing and standing around together,” that the Greek word conveyed. The Human Condition itself testifies to the interpenetration of commerce and the civic arts: Arendt wrote it with the support of the Walgreen, Rockefeller, and Guggenheim Foundations, with cash originally earned by businessmen.
When Arendt left the philosophy seminar for the civics class, she brought with her a quantity of Romantic baggage that burdened her new public vision. She left Heidegger, the apolitical hermit, to his cave; but she merely substituted, for her hero-worship of the philosopher, a new, no less dubious, worship of the politician.
She was looking in the wrong place. It was almost certainly the art, not the politics, of the old public spaces that made them prime begetters of civic culture and individual distinction. The artist, to be sure, had a place in Arendt’s town square: his craftsmanship preserved the remembrance of civic deeds by turning them into created things, “into sayings of poetry, the written page . . . into paintings or sculpture, into all sorts of records, documents, and monuments.” Yet Arendt’s picture of the artist as handmaiden to the politician reduces the aesthetic miracle of public space to a résumé of political events, the res gestae of so many departed demagogues. It is simply not true to the reality of classic public spaces as we find them. Even a cursory glance at the history of the Athenian agora—or at the Piazza Navona in Rome, the Piazza San Marco in Venice, or the Place de la République in Arles—proves that there is a good deal more to them than this.
The true public space is an accretion of poetic form. The buildings, first of all. A Greek building, Burckhardt said, is a “rhythm of masses.” Its ornaments—friezes, cornices, pediments—form a sort of frozen music, akin, in their intricacy, to the lines of a poem. “Everything in a Greek or Christian building originally signified something,” Nietzsche said, “and indeed something of a higher order of things: this feeling of inexhaustible significance lay about the building like a magical veil.”
In The City in History, Lewis Mumford called the life of the old public spaces “many sided.” He described the Piazza Navona as “a place for lovers to stroll, a market place, a playground for the children of the neighborhood, with sidewalk restaurants on both sides of the place, where whole families can dine and gossip and drink, all three generations together.” Typically, the public space will have an anchor institution that contributes to this complication of endeavor. The institution might be, as on the Piazza Navona, a church, or it might be, like the hôtel-dieu in a French town, a charitable foundation. It might be a library, like the Library of Saint Mark on Venice’s Piazzetta San Marco, or it might be a town hall, like the Palazzo Pubblico on Siena’s Piazza del Campo.
There is a close relation between the care with which a particular public space has been organized and the degree to which a feeling of community exists there. The activity of the market square is various, but its artistry makes for coherent and theatrically dramatic public space: it entices people, and so helps to gather in the civic flock. Visitors experience well-wrought civic design, Goethe says, as a work of art. Venice itself was for him the “latest and best painting of the Venetian school.”
Finally, there is the poetry of the dramatic, liturgical, and festal arts of the public space, the rhythms and harmonies that once brought it to life. Philosophers have taken stabs at understanding the principle of civic utility at work here. Aristotle thought that rhythm and harmony had a “power of forming character” and so forged the citizen. Poetry—particularly that of the tragic drama, first performed in the Athenian agora—had a cathartic effect as well. Nietzsche credited the old poetry with “the power of discharging the emotions, of purifying the soul, of easing the ferocia animi [ferocity of the mind] precisely by means of rhythm.” Plato had his own ideas about how a certain kind of poetry liberates potential.
We’ll have to wait a bit longer to solve the biochemical mystery, but already the lab coats have theories. Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin thinks that the instinct for rhythm and harmony may have been selected by nature because it promotes “bonding and cohesion” and “group togetherness and synchrony.” Anthropologist Robin Dunbar says that music may have evolved to perform a “grooming” function in groups once their size made tactile grooming impracticable. If Levitin and Dunbar are right, the agora succeeds partly because it is a big biological grooming factory.
Arendt attributed the decay of public space to the degeneration of politics, but her case would have been stronger had she fingered instead the decline of public poetry. The standard of politics in the West’s public spaces has always been low, while that of their poetic molds and meters was once astonishingly high. Over the last few hundred years, however, there has been a falling-off in every department of public poetry—choral, dramatic, liturgical—as well as in popular and proverbial poetry. The traditional town-square transmitters of poetic culture, such as grammar schools and houses of worship, have turned their attention to other matters. Rock concerts and iPods we have in abundance, but our public spaces are unmusical.
The American version of the struggle between city-state and nation-state dates back to the 1780s, when the Federalists succeeded in putting the national Constitution in place over the objections of the anti-Federalists. There is little doubt that the Federalists were right. Like Arendt, the anti-Federalists, who sought to preserve the politics of the polis, would have been wiser to point not to the political arrangements of the old public spaces but to their cultural excellence.
It was left to Thomas Jefferson to show that it was possible to preserve the public virtues within a nation-state. To protect civic artistry in a changing America, Jefferson sought to re-create the civic life he had known in his youth. As a college student in colonial Williamsburg, he had been drawn into little communities of sympathetic scholarship that he would always characterize in Athenian terms: “They were truly Attic societies.” It was in communities of this kind, he believed, that men’s civic impulses could flourish as they could not in a larger space.
“A great deal of love given to a few,” he wrote, “is better than a little to many.” Jefferson’s University of Virginia reflected this ideal: he intended it to be an “academical village,” and in designing its Lawn, he made ingenious use of the classical arts to frame one of America’s most beguiling public spaces.
Arendt didn’t heed Jefferson in this, and she offers little prescriptive guidance for those seeking to reclaim public space today. Yet her work remains a useful statement of the part that such spaces might play in resisting the social revolution, if only a way could be found to salvage them. A new generation of civic artists is seeking to revive the old public spaces. “New Urbanist” architects, among them Léon Krier, Andrés Duany, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, want to restore the town square to its old pride of public place. Their effort is noble, but Arendt showed just how fierce the opposition is.
Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His most recent book is Forge of Empires: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 1861–1871