Hannah Arendt, Between Future and Past

Edward R. Dougherty

It has been fifty years since Hannah Arendt published the final version of her essay collection Between Past and Future. The original collection, published in 1961, contained six essays. Two more were added for the 1968 edition. The character of America has changed drastically during the intervening years. Go to YouTube and watch President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University announcing the program to land a man on the moon, and then ask yourself how many of today’s youth would understand the spirit of his words. But we have not changed so much: Arendt’s essays remain strikingly relevant today.

Arendt argued that Western civilization, as it had been understood from Plato through the end of the nineteenth century, had come to an end. We had entered the gap between that Western past and whatever might be the next dominating zeitgeist. A half-century has passed and we remain in that gap—or at least believe we have not left it. But as Hegel said, “The Owl of Minerva only takes flight as the dusk begins to fall.” We shall only realize a new thousand-year zeitgeist has arrived after we are in it.

Arendt’s subtitle for the essay collection, Eight Exercises in Political Thought, reflects her desire to avoid providing final answers. Arendt instead critiques what has been lost and poses questions about how we should think about where we should go. She tells the reader that the frustratingly inconclusive essays’ “only aim is to gain experience in how to think.” She incorporates into these essays a quasi-Aristotelian dialectic, seeking a golden mean that rejects the simple-minded negations of the extremes in the pursuit of the good. This mode has its own flaws, but how better can we proceed in the gap between past and future?

Arendt’s first two essays consider modernity’s break with tradition, the second two treat central political concepts, authority and freedom, and the final four essays aim to apply the thinking examined in the first four to problems of her day—which are also problems of our day. This essay is divided into three parts, each discussing an essay from one of the three parts of Between Past and Future.

There is a somewhat inferential quality to the three essays: loss of authority follows from loss of tradition and educational failure follows from abdication of authority. More generally, Arendt writes of “the Roman trinity of religion, authority, and tradition,” and maintains that the three stand together or fall together.

Tradition and the Modern Age

In the first sentence of “Tradition and the Modern Age,” Arendt defines the boundaries of the past, and therefore the beginning of the political gap that we occupy: “Our tradition of political thought had its definite beginning in the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. I believe it came to a no less definite end in the theories of Karl Marx.” In the Republic, specifically, the allegory of the cave, Plato turns away from the affairs of men in the cave to find truth in the eternal ideas outside; in the nineteenth century, Marx declares that truth lies within the affairs of men and is socially “realized” therein.

Arendt’s essay highlights three nineteenth-century thinkers, Marx, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, who, she argues, stand within the Western tradition, just before its final breakdown, while challenging the tradition from the perspectives of religion, politics, and metaphysics. Kierkegaard asserts the dignity of faith against modern reason; Marx asserts the dignity of human action against modern historical contemplation; and Nietzsche asserts the dignity of human life against modern impotence. Perhaps all have failed in their intellectual projects; nevertheless, Arendt argues, their efforts can tell us much about the modern world.

A good portion of the essay focuses on Marx, who challenges traditional views of God, labor, and reason. In particular, whereas reason was prized and violence “considered the outstanding characteristic of tyranny … To Marx … the whole sphere of political action is characterized by the use of violence.” For the ancient Greeks, the affairs of the polis are governed by persuasion; barbarians are ruled by violence. According to Arendt, in a characterization that illuminates the barbarian behavior on our university campuses today, “Marx's theory of ideological superstructures ultimately rests on this anti-traditional hostility to speech and the concomitant glorification of violence.”

According to Arendt, Marx believed that the accomplishment of his utopia would eliminate the philosophical brilliance of great minds such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. But, asks Arendt, “When philosophy has been both realized and abolished in the future society, what kind of thought will be left?” Perhaps we are getting a strong hint of what will be left in the prattle of postmodernism. As Arendt put it,

Our tradition of political thought began when Plato discovered that it is somehow inherent in the philosophical experience to turn away from the common world of human affairs; it ended when nothing was left of this experience but the opposition of thinking and acting, which, depriving thought of reality and action of sense, makes both meaningless.

All reason is rejected, all modern scientific epistemology, and replaced with the ludicrous claim that all knowledge is subjective.

Arendt’s critique of Nietzsche’s desire for a transvaluation of values argues that his enterprise is, at the outset, fundamentally disconnected from the Western tradition. Whereas the tradition had judged human behavior transcendentally, as in Plato’s forms or in Christianity’s moral law, by the nineteenth century these guides had devolved into “values” that only measured functionality.

Values are social commodities that have no significance of their own but, like other commodities, exist only in the ever-changing relativity of social linkages and commerce….The ‘good’ loses its character as an idea, the standard by which the good and bad can be measured and recognized; it has become a value which can be exchanged with other values, such as those of expediency or power.

Utility inevitably results in laws that are good for someone or some group. If they were based on natural law, then they would be intrinsically good and the question of for whom they were good for would not arise. But with values, the matter is different. In The Origin of Totalitarianism, Arendt carries through the logic:

A conception of law which identifies what is right with the notion of what is good for — for the individual, the family, the people, or the largest number — becomes inevitable once the absolute and transcendent measurements of religion or the law of nature have lost their authority.

Put aside Platonic and Christian good, and ask whether Joseph Stalin was good for the Soviet Union. What was his value to the Soviet Union? He began with a backward country having trouble feeding itself and in political turmoil. He ended with an industrial, military, and scientific giant. It was not under Stalin that socialism failed. Based on tacit assumptions from the dead tradition, many people claim that socialism will not work. But Stalin, whose vision was not encumbered by that tradition, proved that it can work magnificently well. Under what other system has so much value been added in so short of a time – while at the same time defeating the seemingly invincible Wehrmacht?

Nietzsche wished to find new values that raise the dignity of man, who would be transformed into overman. His Zarathustra sits “surrounded by broken old tablets and new tablets half covered with writing.” But there is no god to write on the tablets, as was the case when Moses ascended Mount Sinai. New values will be written on these new tablets, values created by men, not gods. Arendt believes Nietzsche therefore failed in his project. But perhaps she should have been more generous in her judgment, for when Zaratrustra declares the death of God, his shadow concludes, “Nothing is true, all is permitted.”

Arendt’s essay ends by arguing modern science’s responsibility for the break with tradition. Arendt comments that, whereas, once a theory meant a “system of reasonably connected truths,” a scientific theory is “a working hypothesis, changing in accordance with the results it produces and depending for its validity not on what it ‘reveals’ but on whether it ‘works.’” As Hans Reichenbach says, “Scientific philosophy has constructed a functional conception of knowledge.” Arendt states that the Platonic, transcendental form of knowledge remained for a time in the political sphere, but that eventually, following the Industrial Revolution, political truths devolved into values, and these remnants of ideas are all that remain for “socialized men.”

These are men who have decided never to leave what to Plato was ‘the cave’ of everyday human affairs, and never to venture on their own into a world and a life which, perhaps, the ubiquitous functionalization of modern society has deprived of one of its most elementary characteristics – the instilling of wonder at that which is as it is.

The past, as Arendt uses the term, began with man’s vision rising above the mundane to find the good, and ends with the commodification of the good – from looking upward to looking downward. Politically, this translates into a society based on human flourishing transforming into one based on the will to power and violence.

What is Authority?

Arendt begins “What is Authority?” by noting that not only has authority vanished from the modern world, but that the term itself is no longer understood. She explains that tyrannical rule differs significantly from authoritarian rule. In the former, rule is based on the whim of the tyrant, whereas in the latter, rule is constrained by law. It is mistaken to believe that successful authority depends on force, because “where force is used, authority itself has failed.” Moreover, authority mitigates the need for persuasion. Within a proper authoritarian relation, both parties, the ruler and the ruled, understand their relationship and recognize its “rightness and legitimacy.”

Arendt is careful to state that she is interested in the historical concept of authority within the Western tradition, and she takes great pains to explain what she means. For this reason the essay is quite technical in parts. Yet as she points out, she really has no choice, because there has been a loss of philosophic specificity in our language.

There exists, however, a silent agreement in most discussions among political and social scientists that we can ignore distinctions and proceed on the assumption that everything can eventually be called anything else, and that distinctions are meaningful only to the extent that each of us has the right ‘to define his terms.’

The rejection of distinction implies a rejection of logic and the authority that logic imposes upon reason. Moreover, each person using terminology according to his own fancy means that there is no common language. Arendt analyzes the consequences of this loss. This analysis alone makes the essay worth reading.

Today we are further along the road to disintegration than when Arendt wrote in the 1950s, or at least the problem has become more widespread now that more people attend universities. The most vocal rarely even bother to define their terms, the result being the disappearance of a common world in which political concepts have meaning. The word “fascism” is omnipresent, but how many students or professors have read Benito Mussolini’s The Doctrine of Fascism? Based on Arendt’s criticism, does it matter? “Fascism” means whatever the speaker wishes it to mean, and he need not even define it for himself. Then there is the widespread use of oxymorons such as “democratic socialism,” or of classics such as “dialectical materialism.”

Arendt commences with Plato’s desire to find “a relationship in which the compelling element lies in the relationship itself and is prior to the actual issuance of commands.” In this way, the exercise of power is natural and not arbitrary. For Plato, a legitimate political life requires that “coercion through violence” be avoided. She writes, “This is the central predicament of Plato’s political philosophy and has remained a predicament of all attempts to establish a tyranny of reason.” Plato does not see this as possible for humanity in general, but only for those few who can free themselves from the chains of the cave and look to the eternal ideas (forms) as the source of true knowledge, which is where authentic authority lies. “The ideas become the unwavering, ‘absolute’ standards for political and moral behavior.” Since Plato believes that only philosophers (lovers of wisdom) grasp the eternal ideas, in particular, the good, for the mass of mankind, myths are required to get them to behave well without the use of force.

Whereas Plato found intrinsic authority in the eternal ideas, according to Arendt, for Rome it was “the conviction of the sacredness of foundation, in the sense that once something has been founded it remains binding for all future generations.” Belief in this sacredness was passed down from generation to generation. This tradition – this education – was inviolate. It formed the core of Roman tradition and it was thoroughly integrated with religion to form “the Roman trinity of religion, authority, and tradition.” Arendt explains that this trinity was taken over by the Catholic Church, but with the amalgamation of the Platonic notion of moral judgments based on transcendent knowledge, in this case, the knowledge of God’s law.

Arendt says that, historically, whenever one of the three parts of the Roman trinity was rejected, the others could not stand. She cites Luther’s rejection of authority, Hobbes’ rejection of tradition, and (most relevant today) “the error of the humanists to think it would be possible to remain within an unbroken tradition of Western civilization without religion and without authority.” To those who mourn the loss of tradition and wish that all would be fine if students were to read the great books, her words are disconcerting.

Arendt considers the effort, since Plato, to enforce intrinsic authority via the fear of violence in a next life. As noted, Plato required mythology for the masses. What is more compelling than the fear of violence? Arendt contends that the Church put hell front and center when it took over the responsibility for the state during the Medieval Period. This contradicts the entire notion of an intrinsic authority not dependent on violence. Whereas Plato specifically excluded philosophers from the contradiction, the Church, being more egalitarian, insisted that all are subject to the pain of hell for their sins should they not be granted forgiveness. The rise of secularism in the eighteenth century did not eliminate dependence on an afterlife. Citing the American Revolution, Arendt writes, “John Adams regarded [future rewards] as ‘the only true foundation of morality.’”

How important is the Roman trinity in Arendt’s view? She writes,

For if I am right in suspecting that the crisis of the present world is primarily political, and that the famous ‘decline of the West’ consists primarily in the decline of the Roman trinity of religion, tradition, and authority, with the concomitant undermining of the specifically Roman foundations of the political realm, then the revolutions of the modem age appear like gigantic attempts to repair these foundations, to renew the broken thread of tradition, and to restore, through founding new political bodies, what for so many centuries had endowed the affairs of men with some measure of dignity and greatness.

Although she does not go deeply into the matter in this essay, in The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt delves into the attempt to establish authority on the eighteenth century Rights of Man. In The Origins, Arendt quotes Edmund Burke on the difference between the traditional inherited rights of Englishmen and the abstract rights of the French Revolution:

It has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties, as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right.

Whereas Thomas Jefferson appealed to abstract human rights in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution’s preamble stated more matter-of-factly that the Republic was established “to provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The posterity of the founders is protected from whim by rules established as part of the founding, not by its abstract humanity.

Yet Arendt’s conclusion in “What is Authority?” is that the Roman experience of foundation is lost to modernity. We face Plato’s dilemma anew, and our situation, lying between past and future, is problematic:

For to live in a political realm with neither authority nor the concomitant awareness that the source of authority transcends power and those who are in power, means to be confronted anew, without the religious trust in a sacred beginning and without the protection of traditional and therefore self-evident standards of behavior, by the elementary problems of human living-together.

A more dour view of the matter is given by Ortega y Gassett in The Revolt of the Masses:

Whoever wishes to have ideas must first prepare himself to desire truth and to accept the rules of the game imposed by it…These standards are the principles on which culture rests…What I affirm is that there is no culture where there are no standards to which our fellow-men can have recourse …Barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made.

Absent a universal ground of authority, a society must function via the rule of force. The problem is not solved by democracy. Perhaps on small issues the losing side will accept defeat with equanimity; however, on major issues, when their basic view of life or their person has been too deeply endangered, only the fist or the gun will make them acquiesce.

The Crisis in Education

The crisis of which Arendt speaks pertains to American education. She explains at length the uniqueness of conditions in the New World; in particular, the shedding of the old world to create the new. According to Arendt, this Americanization “encourages the illusion that a new world is being built through the education of the children.” She argues that this illusion has allowed “that complex of modern educational theories which originated in Middle Europe and consists of an astounding hodgepodge of sense and nonsense to accomplish, under the banner of progressive education, a most radical revolution in the whole system of education.”

Whatever the factors leading to the domination of progressive education, for Arendt,

The significant fact is that for the sake of certain theories, good or bad, all the rules of sound human reason were thrust aside…Nowhere else have the most modern theories in the realm of pedagogy been so uncritically and slavishly accepted. Thus the crisis in American education…announces the bankruptcy of progressive education.

A consequence of the rejection of reason is the disappearance of common sense, which she considers the “surest sign” of the crisis.

Arendt discusses various factors unique to the American experience, such as egalitarianism, contributing to the educational morass, but says that none of the “general factors…justify the measures through which [the] crisis has been precipitated.” Instead, she states, “These ruinous measures can be schematically tracked back to three basic assumptions.”

The first assumption is that “There exist a child’s world and a society formed among children that are autonomous and must insofar as possible be left to them to govern. Adults are only there to help with this government.” What could be more detrimental? The child is barred from the adult world. He is left to his own devices “or handed over to the tyranny” of his peers. And from whence comes intellectual and moral development?

The second assumption is that “Pedagogy has developed into a science of teaching in general in such a way as to be wholly emancipated from the actual material to be taught.” Arendt refers to this second assumption as “this pernicious role that pedagogy and the teachers’ colleges are playing in the present crisis.” It is presumed that one who does not have a solid understanding of mathematics can teach mathematics. Any real mathematician would scoff at such a notion.

The third assumption is that we should “Substitute, insofar as possible, doing for learning.” Arendt says that the second assumption is the “logical application of the third basic assumption.” Its ostensible aim is to avoid passing on “dead knowledge.” In fact, it simply denies “a real education.” Arendt says, “In this process special importance was attached to obliterating as far as possible the distinction between play and work – in favor of the former.” Today we have the logical consequence of this obliteration. The student is supposed to have fun and the teacher is an entertainer. Arendt concludes, “The very thing that should prepare the child for the world of adults, the gradually acquired habit of work and of not-playing, is done away with in favor of the autonomy of the world of childhood.”

In perhaps the most profound part of the essay, Arendt returns to the child as a new being in the world, and the responsibility of the parents who brought him into the world. She writes, “The responsibility for the development of the child turns in a certain sense against the world: the child requires special protection and care so that nothing destructive may happen to him from the world.” This protection must be given while at the same time the child is exposed to the world. The privacy of the home provides protection against the intrusion of the world. It is there that the child can find respite from his encounters with others outside the family and find the time and space to develop.

Arendt contends that leaving children to their own world leaves them exposed in the same manner as if they did not have the privacy of a home to escape the gaze of the world; indeed, they live under the constant eye of their peers. She claims that this is not a peculiarity of education, but rather a characteristic of modern society, which has “emancipated this life and all the activities that have to do with its preservation and enrichment from the concealment of privacy and exposed them to the light of the public world.” While in many instances this might be beneficial for adults, it is harmful to children, who require “concealment in order to mature undisturbed.”

Today, matters are far worse than in 1954 because today children and adolescents live in constant social contact via social media. There, day and night, they live in a children’s world, subject to praise and insult with the parents having abdicated their responsibility. We have the paradox that parents overly protect their children by not letting them interact unsupervised on the playground, where they would learn the give and take of genuine human interaction, but at the same time allow completely impersonal round-the-clock iPhone interaction. Where are those periods of concealment from the public gaze that Arendt finds so important?

It is the responsibility of educators to assist children in gradually entering the world, and this cannot be done if children are left to their own devices. For an educator to say that the student need not read Homer or Shakespeare because it does not fit with his interests is to leave the student in an adolescent world and to implicitly stunt his growth into adulthood. Arendt is merciless: “Anyone who refuses to assume joint responsibility for the world should not have children and must not be allowed to take part in educating them.” A teacher’s “authority rests on his assumption of responsibility.”

Recall from “What Is Authority?” that Arendt believes that authority has been abdicated in the modern world. She repeats this point in the present essay, and discusses the relationship between tradition and authority. This brings her back to tradition, and the conclusion that the culprit is a lack of authority, tradition, and responsibility. She writes, “The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition.”

Yet the solution is not simple, because we must view youth differently from how we view each other as adults. Whereas we may not view the past with the respect that we had before we were severed from it by the end of the Western tradition, Arendt argues, somewhat paradoxically and politically, that this disconnect should not dictate the manner in which children are educated.

We must decisively divorce the realm of education from the others, most of all from the realm of public, political life, in order to apply to it alone a concept of authority and an attitude toward the past which are appropriate to it but have no general validity and must not claim a general validity in the world of grown-ups.

 She concludes with a powerful statement concerning responsibility:

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.

Sixty-four years later, one might ask who are “we” and what is “our world?” If she means serious education, which I believe she does, then one must presume that “we” consists of educators who are themselves educated. But it has been a half-century since our universities jettisoned their role as serious educational institutions. The “we” that existed in 1954 has dwindled to a fragment, and most of those are in the twilight of their careers. So who is going to fulfill the role of “we?”

A quote from Will Durant is appropriate:

For civilization is not something inborn or imperishable; it must be acquired anew by every generation, and any serious interruption in its financing or its transmission may bring it to an end. Man differs from the beast only by education, which may be defined as the technique of transmitting civilization.

Three generations have passed since Arendt warned of the crisis in education, and more than two generations since our society has ceased to transmit the basic understandings of our civilization. In the final analysis, she attributes that failure, and the concomitant descent we see around us, to a lack of love and the abandonment of responsibility.

Concluding Remarks

There is a sort of deductive implication to the three essays in this review. The loss of the tradition results in a loss of legitimate authority (or even understanding of what authority means), which results in a loss of responsibility, in particular, with respect to education. For Arendt, the logic is inescapable because the root of the tradition lies in the eternal forms, and these provide the reality upon which meaning depends.

As for the gap, there are two possibilities. Perhaps it will end and a new tradition will begin with some new allegory from some new Plato. Or perhaps we have already entered a new tradition. In the Will to Power, published posthumously in 1901, Nietzsche writes, “What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism.” Nietzsche appears to be prophesizing a two-hundred-year gap, after which his overman will become the new tradition. But perhaps overman is just another utopian dream and a new tradition of nihilism that will last, not two hundred years, but two thousand years has already begun.

Edward R. Dougherty is Robert M. Kennedy '26 Chair and Distinguished Professor of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Scientific Director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Genomic Systems Engineering, at Texas A&M University. His publications include Epistemology of the Cell: A Systems Perspective on Biological Knowledge (co-author Michael L. Bittner, 2011) and The Evolution of Scientific Knowledge: From Certainty to Uncertainty (2016).

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