What is Authority? Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: What is Authority?

This is a long, dense essay which is complicated and difficult to follow. It is definitely a challenge to thinking.

Arendt’s view is that authority no longer exists. The loss of authority is a consequence of the loss of tradition and religion in the modern world. Today we value tradition only when we like the tradition. A consequence of the loss of tradition, says Arendt, is a loss of depth in human existence, and a loss of permanence, durability and stability. (p.94)

I’m not sure in what order these essays were originally published, before they were collected together in this publication, but the first three chapters of this book, Between Past and Future, (the Preface, The Gap Between Past and Future; Tradition and the Modern Age; and The Concept of History) are helpful in understanding where she is coming from in this essay.

Since Arendt believes that authority no longer exists, her question is not so much What is authority? But instead, What was authority when it did exist?  This she traces back to the Greeks (Plato and Aristotle) and the Romans. There is quite a hefty section on the philosophy of history in this chapter.

Arendt describes authority as the authentic and undisputable experiences common to all (p.91) and says that authority implies an obedience in which men retain their freedom (p.105). For her authority does not mean being forced, persuaded or compelled to accept a situation as authentic and undisputable, but instead we obey and accept authority because we freely desire to do so. For Arendt, authority does not require coercion and does not involve violence. An authoritarian government allows for autonomy and freedom. This way of thinking about authority has largely been lost in the modern world, in political (education, religion and politics) and pre-political forms (parental authority).

So, if authority is necessary but lost, how do we live in a world without political authority?

As with tradition, Arendt can see a positive potential in the loss of authority, which when associated with more freedom allows for more spontaneity and the possibility of making the world anew. The loss of authority does not mean the loss of an ability to care for the world.

“but the loss of worldly permanence and reliability – which politically is identical with the loss of authority – does not entail, at least not necessarily, the loss of the human capacity for building, preserving, and caring for a world that can survive us and remain a place fit to live in for those who come after us.” (p.95)

How do we begin thinking about the need to build a world that is permanent and stable, but without authority?

To live in a political world, we have to talk a common language. We have to agree on the meaning of such words as tyranny, totalitarianism, and authority, otherwise we live in a meaningless, solipsistic world. Two theories have made the word ‘Authority’ confusing.

1. The Theory of Liberalism. Liberalism sees authority, tyranny and totalitarianism as the same, but Arendt points out that whilst in an authoritarian regime there is a restriction on freedom, a tyrannical regime abolishes public freedom, and a totalitarian regime eliminates freedom. If we think in terms of pyramids, in an authoritarian regime, authority is at the top and filters down through the pyramid, as, for example, in the Christian Church, or, in the case of the Romans, authority begins with ancestors at the bottom of the pyramid and works up to the people. In the case of tyrannical regimes, there are no intermediate layers to the pyramid, only the top and bottom (p.99). Totalitarian regimes are like onions, with the totalitarian leader at the centre facing outwards and the people in the outer layers facing both inwards and outwards to the world.

2. The rise of the social sciences. Arendt writes:

“…. many social scientists believe they can do without the study of what the historical sciences call the sources themselves. Their concern is only with functions, and whatever fills the same function can according to this view, be called the same.” p.102

At the end of the first section of this essay, Arendt poses four questions:

  1. What were the political experiences that corresponded to the concept of authority and from which it sprang?
  2. What is the nature of a public-political world constituted by authority?
  3. Is it true that the Platonic-Aristotelian statement that every well-ordered community is constituted of those who rule and those who are ruled was always valid prior to the modern age?
  4. Or, to put it differently, what kind of world came to an end after the modern age not only challenged one or another form of authority in different spheres of life but caused the whole concept of authority to lose its validity altogether? (p.104)

In the following sections of the chapter, Arendt goes on to discuss what she considers to be the mistaken ideas of authority of the ancient Greeks. Plato’s idea was to replace persuasion with the idea of philosophical truth. After the ‘murder’ of Socrates, he no longer trusted the people to make the right decisions through persuasion and argument.

“Very early in his search he [Plato] must have discovered that truth, namely, the truths we call self-evident, compels the mind, and that this coercion, though it needs no violence to be effective, is stronger than persuasion and argument. The trouble with coercion through reason, however, is that only the few are subject to it so that the problem arises of how to assure that the many, the people who in their very multitude compose the body politic, can be submitted to the same truth.” (p.107)

The problem is that truth itself is not a concept that necessarily has authority.

“Platonically speaking, the few cannot persuade the multitude of truth because truth cannot be the object of persuasion, and persuasion is the only way to deal with the multitude. But the multitude, carried away by the irresponsible tales of poets and storytellers, can be persuaded to believe almost anything; the appropriate tales which carry the truth of the few to the multitude are tales about rewards and punishments after death; persuading the citizens of the existence of hell will make them behave as tough they knew the truth.” (p.132)

Aristotle also considered the question of how to conceive of authority without coercion or persuasion. For him, the answer was education. Arendt points out that the “substitution of education for rule had the most far-reaching consequences” (p.118) and that confusing political authority and education leads to the process of brainwashing.  Both Plato and Aristotle end up putting violence back into authority; Plato the violence of experts, who imposed their self-evident truths on the people (e.g. philosophers), and Aristotle the violence of educators who brainwash those who disagree.

Education as a path to truth can only yield authority when education is bound with a strong sense of tradition. The nature of a public political world constituted by authority is one in which the traditional authority of ancestors is taken for granted, as was the case in Ancient Rome, where authority was buried deep in the past.

“At the heart of Roman politics, from the beginning of the republic until virtually the end of the imperial era, stands the conviction of the sacredness of foundation, in the sense that once something has been founded it remains binding for all future generations.” (p.120)

This essay is about how to do politics after a break with tradition, when authority is no longer available. Even the fear of hell which has been used through the ages to bring man into line “is no longer among the motives which would prevent or stimulate the actions of a majority.” (p. 135). Not only is authority dead, but so too is religion and the idea of hell.

Is there a way to re-imagine a kind of political authority after the loss of authority, religion and tradition in the modern world? No – writes Arendt, with one exception, and that is revolution. Arendt claimed that “revolutions are the only political events which confront us directly and inevitably with the problem of beginning, ….  since they represent the attempt to found a new political space, a space where freedom can appear as a worldly reality.” (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arendt/)

Arendt believed that politics is about talking and engaging with regular people such that they come up with their own ideas on how to govern themselves. The politics of revolution does not privilege the educated elites or the wise. It can’t be from the top down.

We live in a time in which politics is seen as corrupt ( Arendt is referring to Western liberal democracies). The only way to re-establish authority is through re-founding our fundamental freedoms through revolution, not violent revolution as in the French revolution, but non-violent, non-coercive revolution, as was the case in ancient Rome, which valued, tradition, religion and authority, and the American revolution where the founding fathers transferred the seat of authority to the judiciary (p.140) and ‘the act of foundation took the form of a constitution of liberty.’ (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arendt/) . Arendt makes a distinction between the American liberation from England and the successful American Revolution, when freedom was founded in America in a meaningful way once the Constitution was established and became secure.

In this thinking exercise, Arendt calls on us to conduct an honest analysis of the present political situation. This was the real political challenge when she wrote this essay and remains a real political challenge for us today. We must honestly confront our own limited perspectives and honestly listen to those we disagree with, and make an effort to understand our present situation and to unite people across their differences. Arendt’s hope is for a new kind of authority without a revolution, in which we confront the loss of authority anew without religious or traditional authorities, and commit to the elementary problems of human living together. (p.141)


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: https://www.thenewleam.com/2019/03/the-foresight-of-hannah-arendts-theory/

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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