But let’s not look to the Bill of Rights, where government is inimical to liberty, and where the abstract and unassociated subject of classical liberalism cries, Don’t tread on me. I’d rather have one of the most impassioned admirers of the American Revolution, Hannah Arendt, set the tone today. Arendt loved the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, not for their protection of individual rights, but because they marked the foundation of something radically new: a public sphere for political action. As such, she reaches back to an older notion of freedom, one that is more properly labeled republican (again, in the classical sense).
Freedom, for Arendt, is the gift of action—the human ability to introduce novelty into the world. She roots this freedom in the moment of our birth: When each of us was born something new and utterly unanticipated came into existence. We are all newcomers or beginners in the fact of our singularity. And we continue to carry within us this potential to begin anew, to take initiative—i.e., to make a difference—throughout our lives. Arendt considered political revolution the apogee of human action, but in her thought to act simply means to disclose to your fellow men your unique self through words and deeds.
With age I find I take greater and greater delight in people’s capacity to surprise me, and I experience this surprise bodily in laughter and emotionally in wonderment. Hence I derive tremendous pleasure from working with young people, who are perched precisely at that moment when they are getting ready to take flight and astonish us with the unexpected.
In the spirit of Arendt, on this Independence Day, I urge you to think about your own freedom to act. But don’t frame it as a freedom from law, as a freedom of choice. How unbecoming for such a glorious occasion! Instead consider how you are going to allow your capacity for action to express the profound miracle of your singularity. Go on. You might even surprise yourself. Happy Fourth of July.