Class lecture – April 8, 2022

Hannah Arendt, politics – Authenticity, Mass Society and the Private Realm

The key points of today’s lecture are to understand the concept of Mass Society, Hannah Arendt’s contrasting realm of significant others – which she calls privacy, and the way that this forms the nature of being an individual.

Howard Gardner leaves us, in Frames of Mind, with the isolated individual, who encounters other people out of necessity, as if they are an inevitable obstacle.  This pictures the self as some sort of little thing inside us that we are all trying to discover.  But essentially the individual is isolated.  There are two important problems with this: 1) when we encounter mass society, we will be at its mercy as it manipulates our lack (we aren’t perfect) to get us to seek corporate solutions to our problems; and, 2) we have very few resources as isolated individuals to meet our own needs, whether these needs are spiritual, emotional, mental, academic, or physical. We are then thrust into our simple existence as laborers and consumers (re: Arendt) and are manipulable as much as Jews were in systems of tyranny.  Such raw and isolated individuals are not only “unfree” but are prepared as vehicles of tyranny.

By contrast, Arendt invokes the realm of privacy, which is the realm of persons who are significant others to the individual.  These significant others are the context for the emergence of an individual. In other words, the realm of privacy includes our social sphere where each of those significant others has a reciprocal relationship with each other.  Not only do these significant others constitute our identity as individuals, but each individual also has some responsibility to act as a significant other to the other members.  I would call this “community”.  Life in such a situation is not based transactionally, such as in Mass Society.

Mass Society also corrupts the political world. We see this in the divided political conversations we see around us – such as whether or not you wear a mask indicates your political leanings.  Prior to the emergence of Mass Society, such an issue would not be considered political at all.  This is a clear sign of a corrupted political world.  Formerly, politics has been considered the place where people will act for the sake of the world – which has a kind of immortality.  It is immortal in the simple sense that the world is what we are born into – it precedes our birth, and exists after we die.

And so we are left with the following conclusions:

  1. The individual emerges from a group of significant others – and this group may come from diverse cultures, ages, and such. This individual is an authentic person but is not self-created.  Instead, this individual is one that stays true to itself by emerging from such a group of diverse influences.
  2. Mass Society is essentially a corrupting influence on the realm of privacy and the political realm.
  3. Community is a healthier concept of our social life than Mass Society.

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