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Hannah Arendt The Great Tradition I. Law and Power SINCE PLATO, ALL TRADITIONAL DEFINITIONS OF THE NATURE OF THE various types of government have rested on two conceptual pillars: law and power. The differences between the various forms of govern­ ment depended on the distribution of power, whether one single man or the most distinguished citizens or the people possessed the power to rule. The good or bad nature of each of these was judged according to the role played by law in the exercise of power: lawful government was good and lawless bad. The criterion of law, however, as a yard­ stick for good or bad government was very early replaced, already in Aristotle’s political philosophy, by the altogether different notion of interest, with the result that bad government became the exercise of power in the interest of the rulers, and good government the use of power in the interest of the ruled. The types of government, enumer­ ated according to the power principle, did not change in either case: there were always the three basic forms of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy and the corresponding three basic perversions of tyranny, oligarchy, and ochlocracy (mob-rule). Still, modern political thought is liable to over-emphasize and misconstrue Aristotle’s conception of interest: dzen kai eudzen is not yet the rule that “commands the king” (as Cardinal Rohan put it much later), but designates the different concerns of the rich and the poor with which the laws ought to deal according to the principle of suum cuique. Rule in the interest of all, therefore, is not much more than a particular interpretation of rule in accordance with just laws. Copyright © H annah A rendt Bluecher Literary Trust 2007 social research Vol 74 : No 3 : Fall 2007 713 A curious equivocality concerning the relationship between law and power has remained hidden in these well-known clichés. Almost all political theorists without noticing it use two altogether different similes in this regard. On one side, we learn that power enforces law in order to bring about lawfulness; on the other, the law is conceived as the limitation and the boundary of power, which must never be overstepped. In the first case, power could conceivably be understood as a necessary evil, whereas in the second case this role would much rather fall to the function of the law, which seems to owe its existence to the necessity of hedging in an otherwise free and “good” force. Following the traditional category of means and ends, power in the first instance appears as an instrument to execute the law, and in the second instance the law appears as an instrument to hold power in check. One consequence of this equivocal understanding of the rela­ tionship between law and power appears obvious at first glance. If power is only there to enforce and execute the law, it cannot make much difference whether such power resides in one man, or in a few people, or in all of them. There can be only one essential difference— the difference between lawful or constitutional government and lawless or tyrannical government. The term tyranny, therefore, from Plato onward was used not only for the perversion of one-man rule, but also indiscriminately for any lawless government, that is, any government that in its decisions was bound only by its own will and desires—even if these were the will and desires of a majority—and not also by laws that could not become subject to political decisions. We find the last consequence of this line ofthought in Kant’s Zum Ewigen Frieden, where he concludes that instead of distinguishing many forms of government, one could say that there are only two, namely, constitutional or lawful government, irrespec­ tive of who or how many possess power, and domination or despotism. All traditional forms of government are for Kant forms of domination; they are despotic because they are distinguished in accordance with the power principle, and in them whoever possesses power possesses it as a “sovereign,” undivided among and unchecked by others. Against monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, Kant sets constitutional govern­ 714 social research ment, where power is always checked by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 713-726
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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