Looking at this: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arendt/

By freedom Arendt does not mean the ability to choose among a set of possible alternatives (the freedom of choice so dear to the liberal tradition) or the faculty of liberum arbitrium which, according to Christian doctrine, was given to us by God. Rather, by freedom Arendt means the capacity to begin, to start something new, to do the unexpected, with which all human beings are endowed by virtue of being born. Action as the realization of freedom is therefore rooted in natality, in the fact that each birth represents a new beginning and the introduction of novelty in the world.

I'm trying to understand how exactly the implications of this definition are different from the "liberal" definition of freedom. Would it be possible for someone to explain it to me along with maybe an example?

  • I am only commenting on the quotation and its explanation (I do not know Arendt's work well enough to answer). But I take the quotation to say that Arendt believes freedom is creative power, i.e. the ability to do something new and not previously defined as a response to choices. For the liberal tradition, it is to have executive power -- the ability to make the choice among multiple possibilities. Choosing between Dr. Pepper and Cherry Coke is executive; choosing to invent a new type of drink (carbonated milk?) is creative.
    – virmaior
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 1:40
  • good question - freedom for arendt seems to be tied to her idea of acting in the world. Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 3:40
  • @virmaior: that depends on whether you believe that the range of choices is something handed down to you, as with commercially available soft-drinks. After all, to try to invent a new product is also a choice among courses of action, and one which is typically lauded in the liberal tradition as it is described economically in America. Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 11:48
  • @NieldeBeaudrap I think the two ideas of freedom are obviously inter-related, but at least based on the quote, there is de minimis a distinction in emphasis.
    – virmaior
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 16:26
  • @virmaior:The example you've chosen, appears a little ill-judged, in that its against the whole spirit of Arendts thought which is essentially political and therefore public. To choose a can of coke is a private act to 'create' a new brand, though acting in public in some way, is not a public act as in a political act - say in speech in front of a forum. Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 15:29

1 Answer 1


Other parts of the SEP holds at least some keys to your question:

Her name has been invoked by a number of critics of the liberal tradition... There are many strands of Arendt's thought that could justify such a claim, in particular, her critique of representative democracy, her stress on civic engagement and political deliberation, her separation of morality from politics, and her praise of the revolutionary tradition.

and hence her celebration of

the American Revolution, because there the act of foundation took the form of a constitution of liberty. Her other examples are the revolutionary clubs of the French Revolution, the Paris Commune of 1871, the creation of Soviets during the Russian Revolution, the French Resistance to Hitler in the Second World War, and the Hungarian revolt of 1956.

Further, she calls

Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality.

and hence

action as a mode of human togetherness, Arendt is able to develop a conception of participatory democracy which stands in direct contrast to the bureaucratized and elitist forms of politics so characteristic of the modern epoch.

By participatory politics shes looking back to the origin of democracy in the greek polis, and this part of her act of interpretation (hermeneutics) of the political tradition in light of the various forms of totalitarianism evident in the early 20C by going back to the originary myth of Athenian Democracy, and reinterpreting not as representative democracy but refocusing on the genuinineness, authenticity and directness of participatory democracy.

Finally Action is not action as in action-movie or actioniste art; Arendt

stresses repeatedly that action is primarily symbolic in character and that the web of human relationships is sustained by communicative interaction


We may formulate it as follows. Action entails speech: by means of language we are able to articulate the meaning of our actions and to coordinate the actions of a plurality of agents.

So Arendt is rescuing the ancient art of rhetoric, the art by which politics acts by persuasion, and that Plato denounced in favour of the art of contemplation.

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