Between Past and Future: Tradition and the Modern Age
In this thinking exercise (Chapter 1) in her book ‘Between Past and Future’, Hannah Arendt takes a closer look at the beginning and end of tradition, which she first mentioned in the Preface. This is an exercise in thinking about the break in tradition, which is the situation in which we find ourselves today.
What does she mean by tradition? Tradition is the transmission or passing on of customs, beliefs or facts, carried over from deep in our past, from generation to generation.
What does she mean by modern age? The modern age is the age of science. Arendt distinguishes the modern age (the rise of science and the political and Industrial Revolutions of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries) from the modern world (the two World Wars of the 20th century, the first atomic explosion, and the rise of totalitarianism). The modern world is defined by the break of tradition and the rise of totalitarian domination.
“Totalitarian domination as an established fact, which in its unprecedentedness cannot be comprehended through the usual categories of political thought, and whose ‘crimes’ cannot be judged by traditional moral standards or punished within the legal framework of our civilization, has broken the continuity of Occidental history. The break in our tradition is now an accomplished fact.” p.26
Arendt tells us that tradition in the West started with the teachings of Plato and Aristotle and ended with the teachings of Marx. Plato used the allegory of the cave to describe the sphere of human affairs, i.e. man lives in darkness and confusion, in the shadows, which we must turn away from to discover the clear sky of eternal ideas; for Plato truth was in ideas. Aristotle, Plato’s student, added to this saying that man is a rational animal, distinguished from other animals in that he thinks. For the rationalist, truth was in reason.
If Plato turned away from the world to ideas, Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche turned away from ideas to the world. Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche….
….“ were the first who dared to think without the guidance of any authority whatsoever; yet for better and worse, they were still held by the categorical framework of the great tradition.” p.28.
In this second turning of Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the idea of truth, the trust in things as they appear, trust in the idea of God, and the idea that truth is a result of reason, is undone. Truth becomes a working hypothesis, or a mere value, something we decide upon socially. Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche all recognised this. They stood at the very end of tradition, just before the rise of totalitarian governments. They were not the cause of the break in tradition, but “they perceived their world as one invaded by new problems and perplexities which our tradition of thought was unable to cope with” (p. 27). Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were fighting against tradition and trying to free themselves from these truths that they saw as unsustainable, but they were still within the tradition.
Today we live without tradition (Arendt introduces this idea in her Preface). We are not fighting against tradition any more. That fight has been won. But, for Arendt what we hear is not the silence of tradition, but the silence of what we could argue for. What do we believe in? Is there a way, in the absence of tradition, to fight for something that is true in a public way, not just a subjective belief? The loss of tradition risks danger and confusion. Quoting Plato, Arendt writes:
“The beginning is like a god, which as long as it dwells among men saves all things “
– and she continues that this …
“is true of our tradition; as long as its beginning was alive, it could save all things and bring them into harmony. By the same token, it became destructive as it came to its end – to say nothing of the aftermath of confusion and helplessness which came after the tradition ended and in which we live today”. p.18
This end of tradition is both good and bad. Today tradition scarcely commands our interest, but whilst this has led to confusion and helplessness, Arendt believes…
… “it is the great chance to look upon the past with eyes undistracted by any tradition, with a directness which has disappeared from Occidental reading and hearing ever since Roman civilization submitted to the authority of Greek thought.” p.28
So Arendt is both optimistic and pessimistic.
In the modern age, science unsettled the idea of truth, despite the fact that it seeks to find truth beyond what we see. For Plato truth was in ideas, for Christianity truth was in God, for the rationalists, truth was in reason, i.e. for them all truth stands outside the messy modern world; they are non-physical truths. But in the modern age, science infused doubt and mistrust into tradition and challenged the entire foundation of the Western tradition. This has led to uncertainty which our tradition of thought is unable to deal with. This is the pessimistic view.
Thinking more optimistically, Arendt writes that tradition came to a conceptual/philosophical end with Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and to a factual end with the rise of totalitarian domination. In this thinking gap between past and future in which we now find ourselves, we now have to think for ourselves for the first time since the time of Plato and Aristotle. We no longer have truths; we have values, and we now put a value on everything. There are no highest values, all we have are the values we make and create. The result of this is the loss of wonder, but it is also an opportunity. Arendt’s optimistic view is that we can now potentially start a new tradition, to live freely in a way that we haven’t lived since the Roman empire. This is the opportunity in the gap between past and future – to think through the problems free from tradition.
To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. The freely accessible video presentations and discussions produced by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, have been very helpful, thanks to Roger Berkowitz .
- Arendt, H. (1977). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics
- Introduction to “Tradition and the Modern Age” by Hannah Arendt. https://youtu.be/2xUglZv_r20 (39.50 mins)
- Reading Group Discussion. “Tradition and the Modern Age” by Hannah Arendt. https://youtu.be/ewUxobV59BU (1.01.51 mins)