Hannah Arendt is one of the few contemporary political and social theorists for whom ancient Greece retains its hold as a point of reference and inspiration. Of the very few who think with the Greeks she is distinctive in having recourse to the pre-philosophical articulation of polis life. Where other theorists understand and judge the polis in terms of a philosophical tradition largely hostile to it, she inverts that reading, condemning the tradition for effacing the originary and in some respects still quintessential expression of freedom and power present in the practices and literature of classical Greece, particularly democratic Athens. Thus, while she has much to say about Plato, it is mostly to chastise him for being anti-political. And though she says much more in praise of Aristotle, in the end she thinks he too misrepresents Greek political life.
There is something perverse about this inversion. For one thing, it rests on a sometimes flatfooted reading of The Republic, the text which provides the principal object of her most sweeping criticisms of the Platonic project. For all of Arendt’s appreciation of the theatrical and performative dimensions of Athenian politics she is largely insensitive to the dramatic structure of The Republic. For another thing, she seems to romanticize a society, Athenian democracy, which is utterly remote from our own, and then compounds things by largely ignoring or excusing what seems most illiberal and/or undemocratic about it: substantial social and economic inequalities, slavery and patriarchy, imperialist adventures, exclusive citizenship laws, the absence of rights and the immoralism of greatness.