Rousseau, Arendt, and the End of Politics
Hannah Arendt makes one of the most forceful cases for political life in the history of political thought. In doing so, she praises most prominent republican thinkers from Aristotle to Tocqueville. A unique exception to this praise is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to whom Arendt subjects to a blistering critique, a critique all the more surprising in light of their comparable concerns regarding science, technology, capitalism, and Christianity, a contrast fleshed out in Chapter I. Exploring Arendt’s explicit critique of Rousseau in On Revolution, however, fails to provide a satisfying answer as to why, despite their shared discontent with modernity, and despite their shared commitment to republicanism, they develop such starkly different conceptions of citizenship, primarily because Arendt confronts those who launched the Reign of Terror rather than Rousseau himself. More precisely, as Chapter II concludes, Arendt argues that Rousseau’s conception fails to meet her standards of political life without addressing the end for the sake of which Rousseau makes his case for citizenship. Their disagreement, therefore, can become of greater interest only once that end is brought to light, a task taken up in the next three chapters. After exploring Rousseau’s case for the weak form of public liberty in Chapter III, as well as the problems that arise from conceiving of citizenship in those terms with a view to the good life, Chapter IV discusses at length the apparently strong disagreement between Rousseau and Arendt over the importance and goodness of pursuing honor or glory in political life, primarily by way of Rousseau’s most vivid account of citizenship, Considerations on the Government of Poland and On Its Planned Reformation. Although Poland helps to demonstrate that, pace traditional interpretations of him, Rousseau has a positive case for satisfying amour-propre, the work also points to difficulties concerning whether Rousseau’s case for citizenship is primarily bound up with what is good for the community or what is good for the individual. Accordingly, Chapter V qualifies Poland’s surface case for honor by circumscribing its pursuit by the demands of happiness, which ultimately leads to a variety of ways in which an individual can experience being a citizen in Rousseau’s view, a set of possibilities quite consistent with the inegalitarian teaching of Rousseau’s oeuvre. With Rousseau’s horizon of happiness in place, Chapter VI explores Arendt’s case against happiness. Despite the many references to public happiness in On Revolution, The Human Condition quietly but clearly argues that citizens, properly speaking, are not concerned with being happy, which brings to light the most important and interesting disagreement between Rousseau and Arendt. Chapter VII thus concludes that comparing Rousseau and Arendt forces us to consider whether human beings should seek happiness or honor, rest or recognition.