Hannah Arendt on History


“…every generation, by virtue of being born into a historical continuum, is burdened by the sins of the fathers as it is blessed with the deeds of the ancestors”

“It is almost impossible even now to describe what actually happened in Europe on August 4th, 1914. The days before and the days after the First World War are separated not like the end of an old and the beginning of a new period, but like the day before and after an explosion. Yet this figure of speech is as inaccurate as are all others, because the quiet of sorrow which settles down after a controversy has never come to pass. The first explosion seems to have touched off a chain reaction in which we have been caught ever since and which nobody seems able to stop. The First World War exploded the European comity of nations beyond repair, something which no other war had done. Inflation destroyed the the whole class of small property owners beyond hope for recovery of new formation, something which no monetary crisis had ever done so radically before. Unemployment, when it came, reached fabulous proportions, was no longer restricted to the working class but seized with insignificant exceptions whole nations. Civil wars which ushered in and spread over the twenty years of uneasy peace were not only bloodier and more cruel than all their predecessors; they were followed by migrations of groups who, unlike their happier predecessors in the religious wars, were welcomed nowhere and could be assimilated nowhere. Once they had left their homeland they remained homeless, once they had left their state they became stateless; once they had been deprived of their human rights they were rightless, the scum of the earth. Nothing which was being done, no matter how stupid, no matter how many people knew and foretold the consequences, could be undone or prevented. Every event had the finality of a last judgement, a judgement that was passed neither by God nor by the devil, but looked rather like the expression of some unredeemably stupid fatality.”

“No matter how much we may be capable of learning from the past, it will not enable us to know the future.”

“Caution in handling generally accepted opinions that claim to explain whole trends of history is especially important for the historian of modern times, because the last century has produced an abundance of ideologies that pretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility.”

To do and to suffer are like opposite sides of the same coin, and the story that an act starts is composed of its consequent deeds and sufferings. These consequences are boundless, because action, though it may proceed from nowhere, so to speak, acts into a medium where every reaction becomes a chain reaction and where every process is the cause of new processes.

The specific revelatory quality of action and speech, the implicit manifestation of the agent and speaker, is so indissolubly tied to the living flux of acting and speaking that it can be represented and “reified” only through a kind of repetition, the imitation or mimesis, which according to Aristotle prevails in all arts but is actually appropriate only to the drama, whose very name indicates that play acting actually is an imitation of acting.


Arendt Quote Edited

Hannah Arendt was one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century. Born into a German-Jewish family, she was forced to leave Germany in 1933. She is best known for two works that had a major impact both within and outside the academic community. The first, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, was a study of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes that generated a wide-ranging debate on the nature and historical antecedents of the totalitarian phenomenon. The second, The Human Condition, published in 1958, was an original philosophical study that investigated the fundamental categories of the vita activa (labor, work, action). 

In the Human Condition, simply, Arendt argues that because of our human condition we are forced to labor (through a need for basic survival), but also work (in the sense of creating items of use–poetry, art, history, etc.) but our ultimate goal should be action which is defined by the condition of human plurality and leads us toward freedom and meaning. This action is largely defined by political speech in the diverse forum inhabited by other humans: the polis. However, although we achieve meaning through action and speech, we are chained by our human condition to labor, by which we acquire the means to survive, and even more relevant, for us, action is dependent upon works of poetry, art, drama and history to achieve immortality. Who would sing of Caesar if not for Cicero, Tacitus andShakespeare? 

Key to our study of History, Arendt rejects Hegelian/Marxian dialectic and structural approaches to history in favor of more politically direct use of history. 

In this course, as we directly connect the study of history to political action, we will judge the work words of Arendt, Hegel, Faulkner and other historians and thinkers and determine each for ourselves what the uses of history are.  

“The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible.”

Beware the Banality of Evil…

Eichmann on Trial“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”