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From Nomos to Lex: Hannah Arendt on Law, Politics, and Order

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 November 2010


‘What is politics?’ is an omnipresent question in Hannah Arendt's work and one which is broadly explored in countless publications. ‘What is law?’, in contrast, is a question which has not been of much interest to Arendt scholarship to date. There is a good reason for this: Arendt's engagement with law seems not to be systematic but, rather, episodic and sporadic. However, on the basis of three different discourses – historical, political-theoretical, and legal-philosophical – I shall point out that Arendt's dealing with legal questions takes place on a continuous basis and should be regarded as crucial for a proper understanding of her thoughts. I shall argue that with her shift from the Greek conception of law as nomos to the Roman lex, Arendt seeks to de-substantiate the concept of law and to highlight the relationship-establishing dimension of law. Both attempts are important for overcoming the dichotomy of law and politics within constitutionalism and for paving the way to a different understanding of legal rationality which seeks not to isolate law from the political sphere but rather to interact with it.

Copyright © Foundation of the Leiden Journal of International Law 2010

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1 H. Arendt, Was ist Politik? Fragmente aus dem Nachlaß (2003).

2 Some exceptions are J. Tamineaux, ‘Athens and Rome’, in D. Villa (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt (2005), 165; J. Waldron, ‘Arendt's Constitutional Politics’, ibid., 201; S. Rosenmüller, ‘“Rechte als Zäune”? Hannah Arendt und das Problem des Urteilens’, in C. Kupke et al. (eds.), Andersheit, Fremdheit Exklusion (2009); J. Klabbers, ‘Possible Islands of Predictability: The Legal Thought of Hannah Arendt’, (2007) 20 LJIL 1; H. Lindahl, ‘Give and Take: Arendt and the Nomos of Political Community’, (2006) 32 Philosophy and Social Criticism 881; C. Volk, Die Ordnung der Freiheit (2010).

3 H. Arendt, On Violence (1970), 39.

4 H. Arendt, Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft. Antisemitismus, Imperialismus, totale Herrschaft (2003), 614.

5 See, inter alia, Michelman, F., ‘Parsing “a Right to Have Rights”’, (1996) 3 Constellations 200CrossRefGoogle Scholar; C. Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory (1988); E. Balibar, ‘(De)constructing the Human as Human Institution: A Reflection on the Coherence of Hannah Arendt's Practical Philosophy’, in Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (ed.), Hannah Arendt: Verborgene Tradition – Unzeitgemäße Aktualität? (2007), 261; Parekh, S., ‘A Meaningful Place in the World: Hannah Arendt on the Nature of Human Rights’, (2004) 3 Journal of Human Rights 41CrossRefGoogle Scholar; S. Benhabib, The Rights of Others (2004).

6 Brunkhorst, H., ‘Sind Menschenrechte Aporien? Kritische Bemerkungen zu einer These Hannah Arendts’, (1996) 3 Kritische Justiz 335CrossRefGoogle Scholar; H. Brunkhorst, Hannah Arendt (1999), 95.

7 Benhabib, supra note 5, at 60–9.

note 5

8 L. Bilsky, Transformative Justice: Israeli Identity on Trial (2004).

9 H. Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (1994), 270.

10 Ibid., at 267.

11 Arendt, supra note 3, at 41.

note 3

12 M. Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (1978), vol. 2, 55.

13 H. Kelsen, Pure Theory of Law (2002), 54.

14 C. Schmitt, Politische Theologie. Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveränität (2004), 13.

15 C. Schmitt, Über die drei Arten des rechtswissenschaftlichen Denkens (1993), 10.

16 R. Smend, ‘Staat und Politik’, in Smend, Staatsrechtliche Abhandlungen und andere Aufsätze (1994), 363, at 368.

17 H. Heller, ‘Die Souveränität. Ein Beitrag zur Theorie des Staats- und Völkerrechts’, in Heller, Gesammelte Schriften. Recht, Staat, Macht (1971), vol. 2, 31, at 57. For a general and illuminating overview see A. Anter, Die Macht der Ordnung. Aspekte einer Grundkategorie des Politischen (2007), 226.

18 E. Renan, Was ist eine Nation? (1996), 36.

19 Arendt, supra note 9, at 278.

note 9

20 H. Arendt, ‘Thoughts on Politics and Revolution: A Commentary’, in Arendt, Crisis of the Republic (1972), 199, at 229. In greater length and detail I explicated Arendt's assumption of the decline of order with reference to the four paradoxes of the nation-state in C. Volk, ‘The Decline of Order: Hannah Arendt and the Paradoxes of the Nation-State’, in S. Benhabib (ed.), Politics in Dark Times: Encounters with Hannah Arendt (2010, forthcoming).

21 Renan, supra note 18, at 36.

note 18

22 For Weber, the idea of the German nation is an ‘ultimate value’ (see A. Anter, Max Webers Theorie des modernen Staates: Herkunft, Struktur und Bedeutung (1995), 208). For Schmitt see, e.g., Schmitt, supra note 14, at 53; for Smend see R. Smend, ‘Verfassung und Verfassungsrecht’, in H. Koch (ed.), Seminar: Die juristische Methode im Staatsrecht. Über Grenzen von Verfassungs- und Gesetzesbindung (1977), 318, at 335.

note 14

23 Arendt, supra note 9, at 271.

note 9

24 Ibid., at 272.

25 Ibid., at 268.

26 Ibid., at 271.

27 Ibid., at 270.

28 Arendt, supra note 4, at 567.

note 4

29 Ibid., at 567.

30 Arendt, supra note 9, at 271.

note 9

31 Ibid., at 270.

32 Ibid., at 273.

33 Arendt, supra note 4, at 561.

note 4

34 Arendt, supra note 9, at 278.

note 9

35 Ibid., at 278 (emphasis added).

36 Ibid., at 278 (emphasis added).

37 C. Schmitt, Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1988), 75.

38 C. Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (2007), 27.

39 See, e.g., Smend, supra note 22, at 341.

note 22

40 Arendt, supra note 9, at 278.

note 9

41 Ibid., at 276.

42 In this respect, Arendt argues that this was the case with ‘Armenians and Italians in France, for example, and with Jews everywhere’ (Arendt, supra note 9, at 285.)

note 9

43 The ethnic groups involved were people whose national consciousness had only recently been awakened following the example of the Western nations. Instead of looking back on to a history of ‘stateness’, and linking nationality with the legal institutions of the state, Arendt argues in the tradition of Meinecke, distinguishing between the concept of state-nation and cultural nation, that in these ethnic groups the concept of nationality ‘had not yet developed beyond the inarticulateness of ethnic consciousness’. In contrast to the Western understanding of nationality, ‘their national quality appeared to be much more a portable private matter, inherent in their very personality, than a matter of public concern and civilization’ (Arendt, supra note 9, at 231). In short, in eastern and south-eastern Europe the concept of a nation-state had an ethnic connotation from the beginning.

note 9

44 H. Arendt, ‘On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts about Lessing’, in H. Arendt (ed.), Men in Dark Times (1995), 3, 16.

45 Arendt, supra note 4, at 585.

note 4

46 Ibid., at 585.

47 Arendt, supra note 9, at 279.

note 9

48 Ibid., at 283.

49 Ibid., at 279.

50 Kelsen, supra note 13, at 346.

note 13

51 Arendt, supra note 9, at 447.

note 9

52 Ibid., at 286.

53 Ibid., at 283 f.

54 Arendt, supra note 4, at 592 (emphasis added); and see Arendt, supra note 9, at 284.

note 4
note 9

55 H. Arendt, ‘Nationalstaat und Demokratie’ (2006), available at

56 Arendt, supra note 4, at 594.

note 4

57 Arendt, supra note 9, at 283.

note 9

58 Another aspect of the decline of ‘legality of internal affairs’ is the ‘transformation of the juridical system’ on which I elaborated in greater detail in Volk, supra note 20.

note 20

59 Arendt, supra note 9, at 279.

note 9

60 H. Arendt, ‘Civil Disobedience’, in Arendt, Crisis of the Republic (1972), 49, at 69.

61 Arendt, supra note 9, at 287.

note 9

62 W. Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (1986), 286.

63 As an example, Arendt describes how in France an expulsion order by the police received disproportionately higher priority and had more serious consequences than that of the home secretary, despite the fact that the police were constitutionally subordinated to the home secretary (Arendt, supra note 9, at 287).

note 9

64 Ibid., at 298.

65 Ibid., at 269.

66 Ibid., at xvii.

67 Ibid., at 269.

68 This leads us to another argument that we can put forward against Carl Schmitt's perspective: of what does Schmitt consider a political order to consist? who is the sovereign? These questions lead further into Schmitt's work and away from my attempt to highlight the significance of legal questions in Arendt's thought. Nevertheless, on examining Schmitt's work with regard to these issues one is confronted with plenty of inconsistencies and contradictions in his work. His definition of the concept of order varies from a Catholic-theological design in his early work, to a cultural-national concept in Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, to a racist, National Socialist one in Über die drei Arten des rechtswissenschaftlichen Denkens (On the Three Types of Juristic Thought). Hermann Heller had already, in his own paper on sovereignty in 1927, criticized the concept of sovereignty in Schmitt's work. Heller states that Schmitt is ‘inherently contradictory and not tenable’. Apart from his ‘inadequacies with reference to international law’ (Heller, supra note 17, at 89 (my translations)), for Heller, too, it remains unclear who should act as the sovereign according to Schmitt's theory. Heller supposes that for Schmitt the Reichspräsident takes up this position but, as Heller continues, Schmitt actually avoided a clear answer. In Der Hüter der Verfassung some years later Schmitt explicitly repudiated the possibility of the Reichspräsident being the sovereign (C. Schmitt, Der Hüter der Verfassung (1996), 132). From Arendt's perspective the polemical remark springs to mind that the problem with which many state theorists were faced, namely to define the sovereign – and Heller did not satisfactorily solve it at all – was possibly due to the political situation of the inter-war period and the fact that there was nobody who was in the position to execute the alleged sovereignty rights unilaterally and at the same time to stabilize the political order of the community.

note 17

69 Arendt, supra note 9, at 267.

note 9

70 Arendt, supra note 1, at 226 (emphasis added).

note 1

71 H. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (2006), 125.

72 H. Arendt, Über die Revolution (2000), 124.

73 Ibid., at 112.

74 J.-J. Rousseau, The Social Contract, ed. V. Gourevitch (1997), 52.

75 E. Sieyès, Was ist der dritte Stand? (1998), 83

76 Volk, supra note 2, at 119–208.

note 2

77 Weber, supra note 12, at 35.

note 12

78 H. Arendt, Macht und Gewalt (1998), 80.

79 M. Weber, ‘Politics as a Vocation’, in Weber, From Max Weber, ed. and trans. H. H. Gerth and C. W. Mills (1946),77, at 113.

80 M. Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (1976), 507.

81 Arendt, supra note 72, at 115.

note 72

82 Ibid., at 311.

83 Ibid., at 338.

84 H. Arendt, Die ungarische Revolution und der totalitäre Imperialismus (1958), 46.

85 Waldron, supra note 2, at 210.

note 2

86 Ibid., at 210.

88 Arendt, supra note 72, at 224.

note 72

89 R. Bellamy, ‘Sovereignty, Post-sovereignty and Pre-sovereignty: Three Models of State, Democracy and Rights within the EU’, in N. Walker (ed.), Sovereignty in Transition (2006), 167, at 184.

90 In my interpretation of Arendt's legal thought as a shift from nomos to lex, I disagree with Hans Lindahl's reading. Lindahl is convinced that, for Arendt, ‘nomos deserves conceptual and political priority over other, derivative conceptions of law’ (Lindahl, supra note 2, at 884). In Lindahl's eyes, this is the case because of Arendt's ‘strong claim that the legal closure of space is constitutive for political community as such’ (ibid., at 884). Lindahl, in my eyes, not only misses the fact that Arendt argues in favour of a relational conception of law but also that she understands space in terms of relational space – a notion of space that corresponds to her concept of the political – and, therefore, departs from the notion of a political community which still relies on the container theory of space, with its strong emphasis on boundaries. (Cf. I. Ley, ‘Verfassung ohne Grenzen? Zur Bedeutung von Grenzen im postnationalen Konstitutionalismus’, in I. Pernice et al. (eds.), Europa jenseits seiner Grenzen – Politologische, historische und juristische Perspektiven (2009), 91, at 91 ff.)

note 2

91 Arendt, supra note 3, at 53.

note 3

92 Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, trans. G. D. H. Cole (1952), 84.

93 H. Arendt, The Promise of Politics (2007), 183.

94 Ibid., at 184.

95 Ibid. (emphasis added).

96 Arendt, supra note 72, at 244.

note 72

97 Arendt, H., ‘The Great Tradition I: Law and Power’, (2007) 74 Social research 713, at 716Google Scholar.

98 Arendt, supra note 93, at 181.

note 93

99 Ibid., at 187.

100 Ibid., at 186.

101 U. Preuß, ‘Souveränität – Zwischenbemerkungen zu einem Schlüsselbegriff des Politischen’, in T. Stein et al. (eds.), Souveränität, Recht, Moral. Die Grundlagen politischer Gemeinschaft (2007), 313, at 332 – my translation of Preuß, who speaks about ‘die Achillesferse des an sich sympathischen Projektes’.

102 M. Koskenniemi, ‘The Politics of International Law’ (1990) 1 EJIL 4.

103 A. Wellmer, ‘Menschenrechte und Demokratie’, in S. Gosepath et al. (eds.), Philosophie der Menschenrechte (1998), 265, at 288.

104 In this article I have not dwelt in great detail on Arendt's idea of post-sovereign constitutionalism and her plea to de-hierarchize the relation between law and politics. I shall do so in the future, but have already elaborated some ideas in Volk, supra note 2, at 208–79.

note 2
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