Political space helps us to take decisions.
Political agreements are rarely unanimous. When debates lead to political decisions, which happens often but not always and not even usually, these decisions are rarely based on absolute consensus. In most cases one part of the participants goes home disappointed. More importantly, everybody who took part in the process is aware that the decision could have been different; and nobody, not even the most enthusiastic advocate of the final decision really knows where it will lead eventually.
The verb “to decide” is derived from the Latin word “decidere”, which literally means “to cut off.” That we arrive at a decision by cutting off all alternatives except for one indicates that decisions are more about excluding possibilities than about identifying the one right way. Our decisions should of course be based on solid deliberation, argumentation and reasoning, they should consider different interests and scenarios; but, in the end, we have to make a choice. Encapsulated in this irreducible momentum of choice, we can see clearly what human freedom means to Hannah Arendt.
To begin with, freedom is not the same as liberty. Liberty is a precondition “but by no means the actual content of freedom” (OR: 32). Liberation means to be free from different kinds of restraints and limitations. In order to be free, we first have to liberate ourselves from the necessities of life which for the individual are much more pressing than worldly affairs, as well as from political limitations such as assembly bans or censorship. Freedom itself, however, is a matter of action. It becomes manifest only where, and only for as long as people act together.
Secondly, action is free only insofar as it is not determined by our inner motives and worldly goals, but inspired by principles. Evidently, political decisions are heavily influenced by what individuals and groups want to achieve. Arendt recognises this. She highlights, however, that neither our motives, which “operate from within the self” (BPF: 152), nor our goals, which are the result of strategic thinking and careful consideration of different scenarios and all foreseeable consequences, are what makes our actions free. Quite to the contrary, they define and pin down and limit and dictate our actions which therefore can be free only insofar as they go beyond everything we specifically intend to achieve.
“Action, to be free, must be free from motive on one side, from its intended goal as a predictable effect on the other. This is not to say that motives and aims are not important factors in every single act, but they are its determining factors, and action is free to the extent that it is able to transcend them.” (BPF: 151)
According to Arendt, this happens when we act on principle, that is, on the basis of our fundamental convictions. We can, to begin with, choose freely between different principles: Do we prefer honour over fame? courtesy over merit? freedom over security? And when we act, the principle of our choice does not determine but rather inspire our actions. There are many different ways to be honourable or to become famous etc. Freedom and determination, even though Arendt puts much effort into keeping them apart, should not be understood as an either-or. Rather, the free act “transcends”, as she says, its determining factors. Political action thus is free insofar as it is a matter of principle.
In our context, at any rate, it is crucial that freedom can become a worldly reality exclusively in the political realm since people act, which always means to act together with others, only when they are concerned with the common world and only when they are in public. To be sure, also the creators of works of art – the poets, writers, painters, composers etc. – and, to a lesser degree, craftsmen, architects and other types of world builders may be free while they work. But in their case the entire process of production happens, so to speak, behind closed doors and it is only the final product that appears in the world when eventually it is ready to leave the workshop.
“The field where freedom has always been known, not as a problem, to be sure, but as a fact of everyday life, is the political realm.” (BPF: 146)
Human freedom becomes manifest only through political action. Since nobody can act in isolation, political actors depend on shared space where they can come together. Political space is thus a condition for freedom to become worldly reality.