The Public Life08-23-2015
**This post was originally published on October 24, 2011**
By Jennie Han
"A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow. While it retains its visibility, it loses its quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense."
-- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
The claim that an entirely public life is “shallow” is somewhat surprising given that Arendt’s name has become almost synonymous with a politics of publicity and public disclosure. Interpreters of Arendt usually contrast the public life of politics with the private life of the household and uphold the former as the more authentic representation of Arendtian values. Arendt herself often opposes public life with private life, and in her essay “What is Freedom?,” she states that it takes “courage” to “leave the security of our four walls” and enter the public realm.
But as the passage above makes clear, Arendt in no way dismisses private life. On the contrary, she suggests that the darkness of privacy that conceals us from others is necessary if public life is to be more than a superficial show of persona.
Take, for example, what is a troubling element in contemporary progressive politics. For some, being “progressive” seems to mean little more than being outwardly identifiable as such. That one buys primarily organic and local products, dresses a certain way, and expresses solidarity with certain social positions does not necessarily oppose a deeply progressive politics. But when progressivism is reduced to these actions, politics and the experience of ourselves as political actors becomes mere playacting. A political position that should be grounded in a principled moral and political worldview becomes displaced by a progressivism that demands only that its adherents adopt a particular social identity. Such a politics can give birth only to a public realm in which individuals appear as the outward symbols and gestures of an abstract idea of progressive politics, not as themselves.
[caption id="attachment_16486" align="alignright" width="300"] Source: Consumer Dangers[/caption]
On the contrary, she suggests that the darkness of privacy that conceals us from others is necessary if public life is to be more than a superficial show of persona. To enter the public as an individual, one must begin in the sphere of the private--as it is only under the cover of darkness, which the latter provides--that one can confront and take ownership of one’s thoughts and principles. Here, one experiences what it is to be alone with one’s ideas and beliefs and feels what it is to bear the weight of these beliefs on one’s own shoulders. Alone, we can rely on neither the acceptance of others nor the simple fact of our resemblance to others to indicate who we are. We must appropriate these principles for ourselves such that they are a part of our innermost beings and could never be mere adornments on our bodies.
Politics requires courage because it is the realm in which we can reveal who we are in our thoughts and our principles who we have become when we are completely alone. Arendt shows us that when we engage in political action, we cannot be mere placeholders for ideas, no matter how grand these ideas might be. We must be willing courageously to stand in for these ideas and disclose ourselves as their agents.
(Featured image sourced from Free Daily News Group Inc.)
What is lost when the dark recesses of the heart are exposed to the light of public censure?
Love grows in secret and loyalty trumps formal rules of fairness. We all transgress taboos and even a few laws. Yet, when we are forced to police private urges and actions by public standards, our belief in public morality appears hypocritical. Distrusting ourselves, we trust no one, which is the source of cynicism of political life. It is amidst a sense that privacy is being lost and we are powerless to resist that loss that the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College will host our 8th Annual Conference, “Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?"
To learn more about our conference, please click here.
To register, click here.