Between Freedom and Law: Hannah Arendt on the Promise of Modern Revolution and the Burden of ‘The Tradition’

30 Pages Posted: 5 Aug 2011

See all articles by Michael A. Wilkinson

Michael A. Wilkinson

London School of Economics - Law Department

Date Written: June 29, 2011


What are the juridical implications of Hannah Arendt’s conception of freedom as political rather than personal, based on action in the circumstances of plurality rather than an absence of interference in the context of isolated contemplation? This is not a question of mere philosophical speculation. According to Arendt, the experience of modern revolution, beginning in America and France at the end of the 18th century, marks the appearance of freedom as a worldly, political phenomenon with the potential to change our understanding of the constitutional foundations of authority. And yet this potential is betrayed due to the inability of our juridical imagination to escape two conceptual dead-ends: the image of law as command and the model of constitutionalism as a process of fabrication, both of which, in different ways, suppress our sense of political freedom by expressing constitutional foundations in terms of sovereign ‘absolutes’. In so doing the modern juridical imagination neglects the significance of two older conceptions of law, the Greek nomos and the Roman lex, neither of which depend upon such absolutist foundations. The Roman lex might suggest a way out of this conceptual impasse, by conceiving law as relational, dynamic, and intertwined with the political at its root, but in a manner captured by the metaphor of constitutionalism as ‘political grammar’ or ‘syntax’.

Suggested Citation

Wilkinson, Michael A., Between Freedom and Law: Hannah Arendt on the Promise of Modern Revolution and the Burden of ‘The Tradition’ (June 29, 2011). LSE Legal Studies Working Paper No. 5/2011, Available at SSRN: or

Michael A. Wilkinson (Contact Author)

London School of Economics - Law Department ( email )

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