An Arendtian grasp of freedom in a time of pandemic

Political leaders from across the globe take advantage of an unprecedented health situation to claim disproportionate powers. In Poland, Andrzej Duda carried out a coup in order to maintain the presidential elections in May. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán passed an absurd emergency law, giving him full powers for an indefinite period. From Australia to France, nations are availing every surveillance tool at their disposal to to track the novel coronavirus: some are collecting anonymized data, others are tracking every individuals’ movements. Far from me be it to suggest that all these solutions are tarred with the same brush, but all do illustrate a tendency to drift towards authoritarianism, and thereby to accept the unacceptable in times of crisis. This is wrong.

Now seems like an appropriate time to revive the eternally debated relationship between authority and freedom. Between Past and Future, by Hannah Arendt, is a masterpiece that does just that.

“The numerous oscillations in public opinion, (…) at times attempting to reassert authority and at others to reassert freedom, have resulted only in further undermining both, blurring the distinctive lines between authority and freedom, and eventually destroying the political meaning of both”.

Arendt revivifies contemporary political theory by questioning the given in eight philosophical subjects. Two of these are the notions of authority and freedom, which are central to her argument that, although humanity revolves around the past, its future is uncertain because of the loss of morals and traditions. Acknowledging that the people of Europe can no longer lean on history, the author defends a revolutionary conception of liberty and authority, which serves as the basis of her assessment over contemporary issues and threats.

In Between Past and Future’s preface, Arendt abstracts Europe’s situation of the post war era in a formulation of the French writer René Char: “Our inheritance was left to us without a testament”. This absence of testament metaphorically represents a lost continent, in the process of drifting away from long established traditions. The origin of this crisis is political, not sanitary of course. That is the rise of 20th century totalitarianism, which has created an abusive assimilation between authority and authoritarianism. However, authority remains essentially characterized by the exclusion of coercion; all powers aspire to the dignity of authority because none of them can last without it.

Arendt analyses the crisis of authority in the light of the contemporary attempts to restore it, and as a way of repairing the foundations of traditions. Recognizing the decay of authority (not without a certain nostalgia), she explores the crisis caused by this sudden disappearance. To the author, antique thought has influenced this concept and as arguably served as its very basis. Such is underlined in Plato’s allegory of the cave, which exposes the conditions for one’s accession and transmission of knowledge. Antagonist to this legitimization of authority through critical thinking, the original definition is based on the notion of foundation, in the sense that contrary to power, authority is rooted in the past. Authority can thus arguably present an educational character by using our ancestors as an example of greatness. Subsequent attempts to reiterate founding acts as a mean of re-establishing authority have nonetheless all been deemed failures by the author, apart from the American Revolution. This leads Arendt to argue that those in authority do not hold any real power.

Authority and freedom are not necessarily mutually incompatible according to Arendt, who argues that “authority implies an obedience in which men retain their freedom”. This common misunderstanding of freedom is presented as crucial in the light of the well spread liberal individualist views of politics, and is useful in explaining the contemporary shift towards liberty becoming, not without a certain paradox, increasingly unconceivable in our modern societies.

Real authority is necessarily legitimate and cannot be achieved through violent means, as the use of force would symbolize its failure. It is a form of obedience that requires neither persuasion nor coercion. Arendt’s constant oscillation between freedom and authority furthers Plutarch’s thought on the republic and its necessity of keeping all things in a just equilibrium. A rupture from the classical approach can however be observed as freedom and politics have in post-war Europe ceased to coincide.

Freedom is to the author far more than the metaphysical dilemma advanced by Kant in Critique of the Practical Reason: It’s the “raison d’être of politics”, the manifest of action, and does not limit itself to the decisions we make in our will. Freedom also poses a duality between political freedom and inner, personal freedom. Arendt is therefore as much about denying that freedom necessarily leads us to such a desperate aporia than it is discovering other experiences which are foreign to these contradictions. She positions herself at the diametrical opposite of the predominant liberal current, which argues that an increased political integration is negatively correlated to freedom.

“We are in fact confronted with a simultaneous recession of both freedom and authority in the modern world”.

From the September 11 attacks to the COVID-19 pandemic: We measure the greatness and the strength of our democracies by their capacity to resist authoritarian temptations when adversity hits. It is immediately apparent that we have an unfortunate tendency to fail these tests, and the recurrent cause of this failure has a name.

Technology has further undermined the progressive ideology of our modern societies. Far from me be it to say that the digitalization of the world is necessarily negative: it can also serve as a vector of democratization in countries subject to authoritarian governments, as it can spark among citizens a new interest in politics. However, the fact that we are now evolving in a world of ever-increased traceability should push us to rethink our traditional conception of what freedom is. Contact tracing COVID-19 apps perfectly illustrate this need for a new definition.

“A crisis becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgements, that is with prejudices”.

Arendt’s thesis is astonishingly modern. Questioning this link between authority and freedom now appears particularly relevant, as the world powerlessly witnesses a subtle Orwelisation of our societies at best, an evident drift towards authoritarianism at worst.

  • Arendt, Hannah. Between past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York, NY: Penguins Books, 2006.
  • Char, René. Fureur Et Mystère, Poèmes. Nouv. Éd. Paris: Gallimard, 1967.
  • Plutarch. Plutarch: Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans -the Original Classic Edition. Place of Publication Not Identified: Emereo Pty Limited, 2012.
  • Kant, Immanuel, and Thomas Kingsmill Abbott. Kants Critique of Practical Reason and Other Works on the Theory of Ethics. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2007.