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

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#FLvirtualrome : An exciting MOOC about Ancient Rome

Last week I stumbled across a fantastic MOOC – FutureLearn’s course on the history and architecture of Rome.

I wasn’t looking for this course, but Rome is a city that I have recently thought I would like to visit and then FutureLearn’s newsletter listing this course landed in my inbox. I signed up, thinking this would be an opportunity to find out whether I really do want to visit Rome. I have completed Week 1 of the course and now know that I do.

It’s been a while since I have felt excited by a MOOC. I am surprised by my response. I am not a historian and have never had more than a passing interest in history. At school I had to choose between history and geography for my ‘O’ levels (that dates me!) and I chose geography. In my school days history was memorising dates and facts and I have always had a terrible memory! Of course geography and history are closely aligned so over the years when I have visited sites such as Machu Picchu, whilst the geography is spectacular, it has been impossible to ignore the history, but I have never tried to commit this to memory. Whatever sticks, sticks and I have learned that whatever sticks usually sticks because of some sort of emotional reaction.

Dr Matthew Nicholls, from the University of Reading, who is the tutor for this 5-week MOOC, is succeeding in eliciting an emotional response from me, i.e. I feel motivated. After the first week I already know that I will probably not engage in social interaction in this course. At the moment I do not want to do a history project or take this further. I just want to know enough to know what I am looking at when I visit Rome.

Why, after just one week, do I think the course is so good?

Matthew Nicholls is clearly very knowledgeable, passionate about his subject and an excellent communicator. He makes the subject come alive and is not at all patronising despite obvious considerable expertise, not only with Ancient Rome but also with technology.

The course content is colourful and lively. The text is easily accessible and there are lots of references provided to follow up on for those who want to extend their study. There are also lots of photos and the videos are very good. We see Dr Nicholls in Rome, and also in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I never realised before that so much historical information about buildings, aqueducts, roads, sewers and people could be gleaned from coins.

But best and so impressive has to be the 3D digital model of ancient Rome built by Matthew Nicholls using SketchUp. This is used extensively to explain how Rome was built and the significance of different buildings and roads. To see how amazing this model is you would have to join this free course, or there is also a very interesting video on YouTube by Matthew Nicholls in which he explains how he built the model and how he uses it with his students at Reading University.

A friend recently told me that he didn’t think it was possible to have an emotional response to an online course in the same way as you can in a face-to-face course and implied that this diminishes the online experience. I have had lots of social experiences online over the years which have elicited an emotional response. I am intrigued that this course is able to do this through its content alone, without the need for social interaction, although there are plenty of opportunities for adding comments to the discussion forums and making social connections if you wish. Maybe I will change my mind about participating in the discussion forums as I work through the course. I think Phil Tubman’s Comment Discovery Tool, that I wrote about in a previous post, would make a great addition to this course.