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Rereading Hannah Arendt's 'What Is Freedom?'

Freedom as a Phenomenon of Political Virtuosity

Ilya Winham

In 'What Is Freedom?', Arendt speaks of freedom as a 'phenomenon of virtuosity', claiming that this phenomenon is the original, hitherto undertheorised experience of freedom in ancient Greece and Rome, and that the idea of freedom began to appear in connection with the will in our philosophical tradition only after freedom as a phenomenon of virtuosity had in practice disappeared in the late Roman Empire - but not from all human activities in which it continued to exist in a hidden form, as the power or 'gift' of humans to begin a new line of action. My interpretation of Arendt's conception of freedom begins from and elaborates on these claims, and shows that she should be taken seriously as a critic of the late antique notion that freedom consists in the decisions we make with our will. I also show that in rejecting accounts of freedom that reduce it to a matter of the will or the intellect, Arendt relies on the notion of an inspiring 'principle' of action that functions in a manner analogous to Hegel's understanding of (moral) action as taking place against a background of unwritten rules (sittlichkeit) and as deriving its 'validity' and 'absolute' character from a spirit, or principle, immanent within it.