Tradition and the Modern Age: Hannah Arendt

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

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2 thoughts on “Tradition and the Modern Age: Hannah Arendt

  1. Benjamin David Steele January 14, 2021 / 12:44 am

    I apologize in advance for the length of this comment. “She tells us,” you wrote in your last post, “that since the time of the Romans the gap has been bridged over by what we call tradition.” That left me confused, but you clarified this issue here by stating that, “Roman civilization submitted to the authority of Greek thought.” So, it’s really the much earlier era we are talking about. In Western thought, the Classical Greeks represent the Axial Age and the Roman Empire represents the further working out the new cultural mindset. But the main honor goes to the “Romans—the first people that took culture seriously the way we do.” That offers a helpful framework. Here is a good passage:

    “With the loss of tradition we have lost the thread which safely guided us through the vast realms of the past, but this thread was also the chain fettering each successive generation to a predetermined aspect of the past. It could be that only now will the past open up to us with unexpected freshness and tell us things no one has yet had ears to hear. But it cannot be denied that without a securely anchored tradition—and the loss of this security occurred several hundred years ago—the whole dimension of the past has been endangered. We are in danger of forgetting, and such an oblivion—quite apart from the contents that could be lost—would mean that, humanely speaking, we would deprive ourselves of one dimension, the dimension of depth in human existence.”

    I was grappling with what this means. She associates the Roman inventon of a particular kind of ‘tradition’ with the self-conscious constructing of a canon. The difficulty with canons, as a foundation, is that they have a tendency to be changed over time. The only canons in the West that have had lasting power are the Old and New Testaent canons, the later having formed in the Roman Empire. But, according to Arendt, the canon the early Romans chose upon which to found their society was the Greeks. This canon was forgotten in the West during the so-called Dark Ages. Even when it was resurrected among the Western elite in the Middle Ages, this canon remained largely unknown to the masses who, instead, only knew of the Bible and even then only indirectly as they were illiterate. I’m not sure the American founders had a particularly strong tie to the Romans, as opposed to other societies. In thinking of republicanism, many of them looked to the examples of the Native Americans and Basque.

    By the way, Arendt got a doctorate under Karl Jaspers. He is the one who specifically wrote about the Axial Age, the same transformative era so many other thinkers have looked to. She is arguing that we’ve been in the gap between ages, but will only realize in retrospect that a Second Axial Age has already begun. It is because of this gap that, “only now will the past open up to us with unexpected freshness and tell us things no one has yet had ears to hear,” which maybe is why there was such a burgeoning last century of philological insights about the ancient mind. Whether or not the new age is yet upon us (almost a half century after her death), she is certain the old one had ended much earlier: “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.”

    Besides Marx, Arendt was also critical of Nietzsche, although her criticisms seem qualified. She sees their thought as inadequate, but not to blame for the change itself, the loss of what she refers to as tradition. Her take sounds intriguing. Edward R. Dougherty has a helpful piece, Hannah Arendt, Between Future and Past — he writes: “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.” That totally reminded me of Jaynes, in particular, but also other philological researchers like E.R. Dodds and Walter Ong. What was created by gods is what Jaynes calls archaic authorization.

    And that brings us to Arendt’s thoughts on ‘authority’. Dougherty goes into this: “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.”” Now that gets down to fundamentals.

    Jaynes observes that, with the beginnings of the bicameral mind breakdown, there was a sudden upsurge of brutal oppression and written laws. Totalitarianism, as opposed to authoritarianism, first reared its ugly head more than three millennia ago. Dougherty continues: “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.” Archaic authorization, of which authority is a faint memory, required a common ‘tradition’ of voice-hearing, such that everyone heard the same voices, likely the voices that were living memories of people who were still alive or recently dead. The authorization was organic as socio-psychological experience, as ‘hallucination’. These voices of archaic authorization gave known formulaic advice to deal with stressful situations.

    The loss of the bicameral mind began the slow march toward modernity. The seeds of so much that has come to fruition were planted in the Axial Age. Dougherty writes, “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.” The very idea of violence as an enforcement of behavioral conformance to an ideological system might be post-bicameral or at least not seen until the last remnants of the bicameral order when it was teetering before collapse. In either case, this points to later Roman tradition not being mere authoritarianism that didn’t require violence, as Arendt was asserting, if I understand correctly. The first traces of totalitarianism seem to be found in the waning Bronze Age, not simply appearing in the French Revolution as if out of nowhere. That shifts the timeframe quite a bit.

    Abstract thought is also very much of the Axial Age, as I assume she understood. Indeed, she opposed Platonic thought for its abstractions. But wasn’t Plato also part of the traditional Western canon? Am I missing something? Dougherty says that, “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.” This is a false distinction. The French were likewise drawing upon past European thought for inspiration. One might also point out that the closest example of regicide was the English Civil War, which some consider the first modern revolution. Even the identifying of abstractions with violence is invalid, as the American Revolution was also violent, as was the English Civil War and the even earlier English Peasants’ Revolt (Ancient Outrage of the Commoners

    ). If violence in this sense is totalitarian because it relates to abstractions, then, as I argue, we need to look further back. Abstractions orignate with written language, such as the written laws of the late Bronze Age and the literary rhetoric that Socrates so feared.

    It’s true that the rights of Englishmen might have still had traces of archaic authorizaton. They were neither values nor principles nor natural laws but something else entirely, based as much on common law precedence. Jefferson and many other American founders had great doubts about the abstract ideal of natural laws
    as it sought to force submission through what today we’d call idelogical realism. Furthermore, the outright denial of natural law included religious tradtionalists such as Catholics and Quakers. Part of the reason for this was how easily proclaimed natural law and its interpretation was used to challenge, usurp, or even overthrow traditional authority. Natural law had immense radical potential. This is why Edmund Burke, raised as a Catholic and taught by Quakers, was likewise opposed to natural law. Natural law was seen as opposite of moral imagination. It might be noted that the American founding documents were filled with abstract ideas and ideals that defied British tradition, which is why Burke ultimately backed the British Empire against the revolutionaries who he earlier supported.

    Arendt might be right that the “the Roman trinity of religion, authority, and tradition” stands or falls in combination, each a necessary pillar. But that still leaves us with little understanding of what this means, as demonstrated by how authority is a mere shadow of Jaynesian archaic authorization. Authority struggles to play the role once more powerfully filled by archaic authorization. The foundation of post-Axial Western civilization might’ve been fractured from the start. Rupture of tradition is not a new situation. Neither is revolution. The Axial Age was a revolution of the mind and of society, the ending of one set of traditions. But what the Axial Age let loose was regular spates of revolution across the following millennia. The non-literary/oral Jesus movement was one such revolution, as Jesus’ message was as radical as they come in challenging authority and canonical law, even if later it was made into a new churchly tradition with its own canon. That is how it goes. We have since had many revolutions each leading to yet another tradition.

    I’ll end with one last thought, havng to do with solitude and individualism. “Everyone who is acquainted with Latin literature,” Arendt wrtes, “will know how the Romans, in contrast with the Greeks, discovered solitude and with it philosophy as a way of life in the enforced leisure which accompanies removal from public affairs. When you discover solitude from the standpoint of an active life spent in the company of your peers, you will come to the point at which Cato said, “Never am I more active than when I do nothing, never am I less alone than when I am by myself.” You can still hear in these words, I think, the surprise of an active man, originally not alone and far from doing nothing, in the delights of solitude and the two-in-one activity of thought.” She is right about this. The proto-individualsm of the Axial Age was taking fuller form all those centuries later. But I wouldn’t go so far as to take this as the basis of Roman culture. Few Romans were literate or had much free time. Even for the Roman elite, life was almost constantly social in nature. Solitude would’ve been a rare treat even for the wealthiest as social activities and responsibilities filled daily activities (Galen and the Roman Empire

    This relates even moreso to the Classical Greeks in Athens. Arendt apparently also tried to make Socrates into a model of solitude. But Joy Connolly asks, “epistemologically speaking, how can Arendt make the leap from the image of Socrates in conversation walking in public around Athens with his interlocutors to a model of internal dialogic thinking in solitude?” This social aspect was fundamental to oral culture with its roots in the lingering bicameral mind. Socrates was a product of oral culture and was one of those who was still hearing daimonic voices. That was at a time when a respectable citizen could still claim voice-hearing without being consdered insane. It’s that lingering bicameral mind of oral culture, I’d argue, that poses the greatest opposition to abstraction and totalitariansm. That is what we are speaking of in reference to tradition’s authority. The bicameral mind still holds power deep within our psyche, even if we’ve lost a direct understanding of what it means as part of a bicameral society. All that we have left is the nostalgia indicating a void. Being in this era of Arendt’s ‘gap makes this even stronger in our experience. The sense of loss is potent.

  2. jennymackness January 14, 2021 / 10:18 am

    I was also confused by Arendt’s comment that since the time of the Romans the gap has been bridged over by what we call tradition, and went back to the text to check this at the time of writing. I think we have to remember that Between Past and Future is a collection of essays rather than one book, and also that the book is a translation, where, I think, there are bound to be some anomalies of interpretation. But despite being a collection of individual essays written at different times, the connection between them, i.e. the main threads of Arendt’s thinking and concerns, and how these are interrelated came through clearly for me.

    I should stress again that this is my first encounter with Arendt. I know very little about her or her work, on top of which, I find her writing very difficult to read, so all I have tried to do in these short posts is to draw out some key ideas, i.e. key for me – I have made these notes for myself. Hopefully they may serve as an introduction to others who are new to Arendt and spark some interest in her work, which I think is so well worth thinking about and exploring in our current time.

    It’s interesting that you have made a connection to Julian Jaynes’ work. I have been trying to finish reading Jaynes’ book for months, but am constantly distracted by other texts. I had intended to return to Jaynes (I have finished reading Book 1 in his book) in the New Year but got distracted by Arendt! I can only focus on one book at a time! Would Arendt have been really interested in Jaynes’ work? I’m not sure. Was Jaynes a political animal? Arendt’s main concern seems to me to be, from my very limited knowledge of her, political thought.

    And concerning authority, you will probably know that ‘What is Authority?” is the title of Chapter 3 in Between Past and Future – so I haven’t got there yet 🙂 But next up is ‘The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern” which you may find resonates with some of your thinking.

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