The Concept of History. Ancient and Modern: Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: The Concept of History. Ancient and Modern

In this second essay/thinking exercise, Hannah Arendt turns her attention to the concept of history, both ancient and modern, and the danger in modern times of conceiving of history as a process, and thus a technology, as opposed to singular events, deeds and words, as was the case in ancient history. In ancient history, “the subject of history matter is these interruptions – the extraordinary.” (p.42). The task of the historian was to remember the great deeds.

“The concern with greatness, so prominent in Greek poetry and historiography, is based on the most intimate connections between the concepts of nature and history. Their common denominator is immortality ……. History receives into its remembrance those mortals who through deed and word have proved themselves worthy of nature, and their everlasting fame means that they, despite their mortality, may remain in the company of things that last forever.” p. 48

Ancient history immortalised the actions of mortal human beings, by remembering their great deeds, but in the modern age, history changed with the loss of the idea of immortality. With the rise of science, uncertainty and doubt (see the previous chapter on Tradition and the Modern Age), modern history became a man-made process, in which there is no true, knowable, objective reality. Science makes us suspicious of our senses; we begin to distrust our world and lose a common objective. We lose confidence in great deeds and no longer think singular events important. We try and recreate a common world through history as a process, so history becomes based on action.

“The modern concept of process pervading history and nature alike separates the modern age from the past more profoundly than any other single idea”. p.63

In the modern era nature is no longer static, but can change. For history, this means a loss of objective and impartial reality. In an impartial standpoint of history we can credit infinite points of view.

“….. the Greeks discovered that the world we have in common is usually regarded from an infinite number of different standpoints, to which correspond the most diverse points of view.” p. 51

In the modern age, all we have is processes through which we act, and action becomes determinative of the human condition, the world and nature. We can remake the world and change nature. We increasingly see the world through our own eyes. History is no longer driven by the greatness of the events of history, but becomes determined by its usefulness to achieve our ends, a technology, a means to an end.

“The historian, by gazing backward into the historical process, has been so accustomed to discovering an “objective” meaning, independent of the aims and awareness of the actors, that he is liable to overlook what actually happened in his attempt to discern some objective trends.” p. 88

History and science merge together in the modern age to form a technology which we use to impact our world. Nothing is truly worthy of being remembered. The historian is someone who starts a process to create history, and similarly the scientist is someone who “makes” nature.

“We know today that though we cannot “make” nature in the sense of creation, we are quite capable of starting new natural processes, and that in a sense therefore we “make nature”, to the extent, that is, that we “make history”. p.58

We have thus devalued history and the humanities. Why study history, when it’s not there? It’s what we make. As such, an interest in history in the modern age is declining.

When the world has become subjectivized, internalised and doubted, judgements become judgements of taste and preference. History is no longer objective. Nature is no longer immortal. The way we know nature and history is increasingly determined by human framing and by the questions we ask. Both nature and history can be impacted by human action and anything is possible. We can remake reality on the basis of a lie.  “… we can take almost any hypothesis and act upon it, with a sequence of results in reality which not only make sense but work ….” (p.87). The hypothesis can be as mad as it pleases. We can make it real, even if it is not true.

“… for the first time in our history the human capacity for action has begun to dominate all others …” p.62

“It is beyond doubt that the capacity to act is the most dangerous of all human abilities and possibilities, and it is also beyond doubt that the self-created risks mankind faces today have never been faced before.” p.63

In this thinking exercise Arendt concludes that thinking of history as a process is dangerous, and means that we should be rigorously suspicious of historical arguments, and question all common sense narratives.


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. (1961). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics

Source of image:

2 thoughts on “The Concept of History. Ancient and Modern: Hannah Arendt

  1. Benjamin David Steele January 14, 2021 / 10:54 pm

    Here is another doozy of a comment. I’m not sure what Arendt means by thinking of history as process. One thing that comes to mind is also how we tend to think of things as systems. Processes and systems go together. Both require much more abstract and complex thought. That is a major driving force, for example, behind rising average IQ with the Flynn effect.

    It’s specifically fluid intelligence that has become so prevalent and well-developed in the West and across the world. Fluid intelligence is not about learning received wisdom, facts, formulas, and such but, instead, involves pattern-seeking, problem-solving, and other forms of creative thought. Even within that, it seems particular kinds of fluid intelligence that have really taken off over the generations, while other forms of creativity have not (as testing shows).

    In integral theory, there is the notion of transcend and include. New mental structures tend to feel in opposition to the mental structure that was dominant immediately prior to them, as the two mental structures are competing as society transitions from one to the other. This means the past mental structure at least temporarily gets sacrificed to allow the next to take hold. It is only with further development that we can incorporate the two mental structures under some other more inclusive mental structure.

    Arendt’s ‘gap’ is such a transitional period. She was writing in an earlier period of this societal and cognitive shift. We might have more perspective on its significance a half centuy later after her death. As with Jaynes’ theory along with later philological work and related studies, integral theory was largely unknown during her lifetime. She sensed the conflict and the potential for resolution, but it doesn’t seem to have been clear to her what forms it could take. She was maybe better at critiiquing Marx, Nietzshe, and others for their predictions than in offering her own.

    One of her complaints about Marx, valid or not, had to do with his dialectical materialism. Now that I think about it, that is probably what is being referred to as the hiistorical process she thought problematic. But it might noted that Marxism is only one of many possible process-oriented theories. Besides older views of process thinking such as Taoism and Buddhism, integral theories that draw upon the likes of spiral dynamics are offering up a dialectical model of social change, not limited to the material world but including all aspects in a greater integral synthesis — it is the dialectical force that, theoretically, drives the ‘process’.

    Now I’m going back to rethink what you’ve written about Arendt’s view that, “the subject of history matter is these interruptions – the extraordinary.” That is a real head-scratcher. I must admit that her commentary on history can come across a bit conservative and nostalgic, maybe even slightly reactionary (nostalgia is the heart of the reactionary, as observed by Corey Robin and Mark Lilla). But that isn’t intended as being dismissive, just an observation.

    As a side note, nostalgia was born out of the ashes of decimated bicameral civilization. Jaynes notes how, during the post-bicameral Axial Age, humans began lamenting about something lost from the past, in a way never heard before in earlier texts. So, for almost three millennia, humans have been almost continually obsessed with nostalgia. Arendt was looking back to the Romans with nostalgia, the Romans were looking back to the Classical Greeks with nostalgia, and the Classical Greeks were looking even further back also with nostalgia.

    What did change was that nostalgia became intensified the further away we got from the archaic world. Arendt is probably right to sense something important about the 19th century, as I and many others focused on the same era. At the beginning of that century, nostalgia was given its present name when it was used as a diagnosis of what was perceived as a physical disease. With the wholesale destruction of what remained of feudal communities, large numbers of people fell into ‘nostalgia’, literally wasting away and dying.

    There was another period of soul-despairing nostalgia in the US at the turn of the century. It happened earlier in Europe because mass urbanization happened earlier, but the majority of Americans weren’t urbanized until the early 20th century. It took even longer, around the 1960s or 1970s, for most American blacks to finally leave rural areas (similar to countries like China with their late Cultural Revolution). As a European exile and immigrant in the US following world war destruction and genocide, that would’ve exacerbated nostalgia for Arendt on a personal level.

    She would also been out of alignment with American culture and policy which would’ve exacerbated the sense of the modern divergence from most of the life she had known in Europe. As a child, the popular pedagogical practice was to use Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s work as a canon of sorts and a guidepost for educating the children of wealthier families, in order to prepare them to enter the Bildungselite, the “educated elite” (Elisabeth Young-Breuhl, Hanna Arendt: For Love of the World, p. 12).

    Public education in the US had a far different vision. This was also true at the level of higher education. In the early Cold War, the US government pushed what it called American Studies. This was part of a larger agenda that put not only professors on the CIA payroll but also publishers, literary and art magazines, writers workshops, writers, artists, musicians, etc. The US governent was pushing modern American culture, intentionally as distinct from old European culture. The Cold War was a culture war writ large. What Arendt observed of American education, be it history or otherwise, would’ve felt alien to her.

    That’s important. In order to grasp what she meant by her words, the context of what she was responding/reacting to is needed. During the early 1940s, she saw this young country with little respect for the past, at the very moment that so much cultural history and knowledge was being destroyed in Europe. Even much of the American elite had little interest in the European Classics, as they saw it as the American Century. But her ideal of historical ‘immortality’ maybe expressed a hope of what might survive the devastation she escaped. Yet she couldn’t disagree that it was a new century, American or otherwise.

    When she says that, to the ancients, history concerned itself with “interruptions – the extraordinary,” one suspects she had to been simultaneously offering commentary on the present. The past several centuries had been one interruption after another, extraraordinary or not. Maybe there was a sense of disappointment that the interruptions were no longer extraordinary. There was nothing noble or heroic to the two world wars she lived through. Then this ultimate interruption, the ‘gap’, was throwing us into the unknown with no traditional authority to fall back upon. She probably didn’t feel much empathy for American optimism.

    Some would argue that postmodernity is, in a sense, a return to the past but a specific past. That might not make Arendt happy nor future-oriented Americans. From the perspective of Marshall McLuhan, we are returning to tribal culture, not glorious Greco-Roman culture. This involves the rebirth of oral culture and visual-symbolic thought, as the dominance of the static written text recedes from the public mind. Literary culture took hold in the Axial Age (e.g., Classical Greece) and bound books were first produced in the Roman Empire. This has been central to Western civilization ever since, with the movable type printing press having rocked the world. What are we to do once book culture ends?

    This has much to do with history. The kind of history she revered, of great events and figures, was what was written in books. Besides radio and television which seriously challenged the book’s (and the newspaper’s) authority, we now have internet with its social media, blogging, and podcasting. Not only is there no longer a Bible or Plato to speak to shared truth, we don’t even have a Walter Cronkite to tell us, “And that’s the way it is.” The older generations are particularly disturbed by this loss of collective authority and authorization. Even when such a respected voice said something was true, almost everyone just accepted it without question — there was comfort and security in that. Without it, any shared sense of reality dissipates like smoke in the wind.

    Nonetheless, this state of uncertainty is how most of humanity existed over the vast streteches of history and evolution. Even in the West, oral culture remained the experience of most people until the past century or two. What the Roman elite were doing in writing or being recorded in books had little to do with how the average Roman experienced the world. What makes oral culture different is that it’s far more fluid. This was even more true in the distant past. Both Jesus and Socrates were part of an oral culture with the latter pointedly laying much blame upon writing as the doom of his society, an accurate prediction.

    The perception of an “objective and impartial reality” was an invention of the Axial Age. This first appeared as the idea of a unified Cosmos among some presocratics and developed further in the Classical period. Before that, no one thought of the world that way. And even after that, other than the intellectual elite, such notions were slow to take hold. It probably wasn’t until the proto-scientific thought of the Middle Ages that the world as a singular thing began to capture the popular imagination (e.g., clockwork world). So, this worldview hasn’t reigned for very long and now it is weakening again.

    This is what concerned Arendt. We have been entering a world where there is no singular, shared and agreed-upon world, history, canon, tradition, and authority. But it’s unclear what’s replacing it. That is where other thinkers come in, such as McLuhan. But have we actually devalued history and the humanities or only differently valued them? I honestly don’t see a declining interest in history. There are more popular books and other writings, not to mention in other media, about history than ever before in all of history — that is impressive. Oddly, also as book culture declines in its sole dominance, more books have been published and printed in this new centuy than ever before. What is changing is all media is increasing. The 21st century mind is voracious.

    It’s not entirely clear what that might mean, but we can make some educated guesses. We probably can bet on process and systems thinking to continue to grow and develop, if it will take forms we can’t imagine. It’s likely irrelevant what we think of this, any more than it mattered what any given person thought about writing and books during the Axial Age. When a new mindest captures a society, it’s hold is not easily dislodged. We are set on a path, like it or not. To get a sense of where we are heading, we might take McLuhan’s suggestion and look to a revival of some aspects of the preliterate mind and culture.

    For example, consider the Piraha who perceive the world as filled with living processes, rather than static facts and a singular Cosmos. As with archaic humans, the Piraha see the world as multiple with no overarching ideological worldview to hold it together. They have no origin myths, no history, and no immortality. To the oral mind, the past shifts with each retelling and sometimes entirely gets forgotten once it leaves living memory. This might be why, like Homeric Greeks, the Piraha don’t possess coherent individuality as we understand it in how their very identities can shift and be altered, can be taken over by other forces.

    Maybe identity for the coming generations will take on greater flexibility. The archaic mind didn’t have texts to unify into a single voice of authorization and, instead, they experienced many voices. The New Media is creating the conditions for this kind of multi-vocal authorization. But rather than destruction of what came before, we might instead see the old assimilated into the new — transcend and include. That is the hope of some people, even if Arendt wasn’t inspired by such a vision.

  2. jennymackness January 15, 2021 / 10:41 am

    Benjamin – first, to let you know that you have introduced me to a new word that I had to go and look up – doozy!

    You say – ‘I’m not sure what Arendt means by thinking of history as process’, but from what you have written it seems that you do know what she means, but maybe what you are looking for is for her to provide us with a solution, which she doesn’t do. For her, these are thinking essays. She is raising questions for us to think about. She is not suggesting that she is right or wrong in the issues that she raises, and she is not making a judgement on whether the extraordinary interruptions in history have been good or bad (although judgement is an important idea for her. She talks about this in her essay on Truth and Politics, Chapter 7).

    Interestingly, I have just been listening to the historian, David Olusoga, on Desert Island discs, talk about the pulling down of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston, by Black Lives Matter demonstrator, in Bristol, UK, in June 2020. This made me wonder what Arednt’s response to this would have been, but as David Olusoga said, the pulling down of the statue will also, in the future, be considered a historical event.

    In her essay on Crisis in Culture (Chapter 6) Arendt writes about the threat to our enduring and lasting world through the rise in consumerism. I think in this essay on the concept of history she has a similar concern. She sees the rise of science, uncertainty and doubt as a threat to the extraordinary events that history immortalises and makes enduring. She sees the lasting endurability of historical events and cultural objects, as important to our humanity.

    I agree that her writing is of her time, and is of course of her context, but I think that all she wants us to do is think about the questions she is raising, however uncomfortable and challenging that thinking might be. What I am so struck by, is how the questions, whilst of her time, are also relevant to our time, or at least, that’s how it seems to me.

    Finally, you have written – ‘I honestly don’t see a declining interest in history.’ Do you think she was meaning in higher education, where, I think, there is concern that the humanities subjects such as history have been eroded in recent years, in favour of the STEM subjects?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s