"What Is Politics?" p/d 1 of 5
Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee. — John 21:3 KJV
In 1941, when the Gestapo smashed the ring of Résistance’s publishers and writers, somehow Pierre Brossolette, a socialist journalist who wrote for that newspaper, eluded arrest. Oddly, while on the lam, he was glad the paper was gone. He wanted to do something “more immediate, more practical, than simply producing a clandestine newspaper,” according to historian Matthew Cobb. So when Brossolette was recruited by Gilbert Renault, a far-right political activist, to send the British government regular, detailed reports on the French underground’s activities, Brossolette went home and explained the new work and its dangers to his wife, Gilberte Brossolette.
She interrupted him: “Don’t say any more. There’s no need. You have to say yes. Finally we’ll be doing something.”
Gilberte grew to respect Renault, and Pierre and Renault developed a successful working relationship and a strong friendship during the Resistance, despite their political differences.1
The members of the French Resistance were “sucked into politics,” Hannah Arendt says, by the vacuum left by the collapsed French Republic. They weren’t prepared:
[The Resistance members] had come to constitute willy-nilly a public realm where—without the paraphernalia of officialdom and hidden from the eyes of friend and foe—all relevant business in the affairs of the country was transacted in deed and word.2
Renault and the Brossolettes stumbled into politics. As part of doing so, they laid aside their party affiliations, vestiges of a party system that had collapsed with the Republic. Finally they were doing something.
Seventeenth-century American colonists weren’t looking for politics, either, when they—the rich, white, male ones, anyway—found themselves, by necessity, participating in town halls and in other forms of local government. Americans called the pleasure of their unexpected political participation “public happiness,” according to Arendt:
Public or political freedom and public or political happiness were the inspiring principles which prepared the minds of those who then did what they never had expected to do, and more often than not were compelled to acts for which they had no previous inclination.3
The Americans, whom the English had left largely to their own governance for most of the first century and a half of colonial life, were brought up with this public happiness, Thomas Jefferson believed. According to Arendt, this happiness consisted in
the citizen’s right of access to the public realm, in his share in public power —to be “a participator in the government of affairs” in Jefferson’s telling phrase—as distinct from the generally recognized rights of subjects to be protected by the government in the pursuit of private happiness even against public power, that is, distinct from rights which only tyrannical power would abolish.4
Public happiness is political participation. It’s not protection from tyranny or the right to lead private lives untroubled by the public realm. In fact, because representative government requires that we forfeit our public happiness to our elected proxies, a purely representative government can keep people from public happiness just as effectively as a tyranny can.
The frequency of the term “public happiness” in the political literature of America’s revolutionary period suggests to Arendt “that men knew they could not be altogether ‘happy’ if their happiness was located and enjoyed only in private life.”5
This is the first of five devotions that make up “What Is Politics?” Click here to read the series’s next devotion. These five sample devotions are accessible to both free and paid subscribers.
Cobb, Resistance, 51-59, 100-2.
Arendt, Between Past and Future, 3.
Arendt, On Revolution, 114-15.