Two essays in the New York Times last week offer fundamentally different opinions on the possibility of democracy. Costica Bradatan in “Democracy is For the Gods” writes that “Fundamentally, humans are not predisposed to living democratically.” Democracy is unnatural for beings whose basic urges are to procreate and survive. Because democracy is so elusive and even impossible, Bradatan writes that it is something that must be striven for constantly as an ideal. And yet, sadly, democracy will never satisfy basic human needs to be happy.
Adriana Cavarero offers a very different view of democratic happiness in her essay “A Revolution in Happiness.” Building on Hannah Arendt’s ideal of “public happiness,” Cavarero asks: “Could we be happy together, not simply as the sum of individual happiness but because the very experience of being and acting together makes us happy?” For Arendt, there is an experience of happiness that is not individualist and survivalist, but that emerges through the activity of collective action. There is she sees, “an experience of acting in concert that makes happiness, as she points out, “not an inner realm into which men escape at will from the pressure of the world,” but something inherent in the “public space or marketplace which antiquity had known as the area where freedom appears and become visible to all.”” Cavarero argues that this spirit of public happiness is what must be re-discovered today.
Arendt makes it clear, however, that the revolutionary spirit connected with the rediscovery of public happiness goes far beyond the American Revolution. That spirit becomes instead a precious legacy of the modern era, a sort of template for the exercise and pursuit of political freedom that Arendt witnessed and wrote about during her lifetime — in the participatory politics of the Polish Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg; in the rise of workers’ councils; in the Hungarian Revolution, the Prague Spring and other movements. Arendt argued that the experience of public happiness can be found wherever people participate in the opening of a political space where freedom appears as a worldly reality.