Thinkers who are original and profound often mask their ideas in a style, not so much of prose as of thought, that is opaque to all but the most determined reader. This is obvious in the work of, say, Kant; and opacity of style may produce those long-lasting ambiguities that provide rich material for the work of the commentator. If Miss Arendt’s work survives—and it is surely more likely to survive than that of most other contemporary writers on politics—we may well find that the darkness of her thought attracts a multitude of commentators.

It is not even clear that the most polemical of her works, Eichmann in Jerusalem, has a central and controlling argument. What were execrated by the work’s enemies were not what may be its central theses, for these they did not understand nor try to understand. (One thesis was, I believe, that thinking one is in the right entails that there is such a thing as being in the right; and that men who think they are in the right in killing the innocent are not thereby exculpated; on the contrary, a man who believes in his heart that he acts rightly in killing a man because he is a Jew or a bourgeois or a Communist is much worse than a man who acts out of fear or sloth, knowing in his heart that what he does is monstrously wicked. Sincerity is not a virtue and is not even admirable as such.) They raised questions about the nature and truth of the illustrative material, a diversion that could not have been indulged so easily had the central arguments been clearer.

But could they have been clearer? My own formulation of one of them could easily be challenged; and even if I am roughly right, this one is hard for contemporary men to take. Out of the mouths of our babes and sucklings come the notions that moral judgments express features of dispensable culture patterns, that what all men do is what they must do, that the category of punishment is a relic of barbarism. If the children are corrupt, it is we who are the sophistical agents of corruption.

When, therefore, a notable scourge of sophistry, or one who would be this, to wit, Miss Arendt, arises, we are tempted to think she too is a sophist or to talk about something else. But there she is, blocking the road, stubborn, Gothic, simple where we look to find the complexity, complex where we expect platitudes, an admirer of many styles of thought and life and yet, surely, in the end a pessimist, a defender of reaction, one who aches with nostalgia for a dead political order. These are immediate possible responses to Miss Arendt’s work. Certainly, it is work to which no one can remain indifferent. What gives it its power and its measure of truth is a question worth asking, for if we can go some distance toward answering it her work will become more available; and, given the soundness of our intuition that here is an important writer, to make her work more available will be a service to the public.

What lies behind almost all Miss Arendt’s writing on politics seems to be the conviction that in a deep way, hard to be grasped and harder to be expressed, our own period is a great turning point in the history of the human race. It is still possible to think and write about the phenomena of our period in such a way as to quite miss this point. This is because we think those categories which will do for the understanding of the history and institutions of the period between, say, the fifth century B.C. and the day before yesterday are suitable for speaking about our own day. This, she argues, is a mistake, not, of course, a total mistake, for there are some things in our social life that belong, still, to the past as well. But it is to risk missing the point: about totalitarianism, about the consequences—and nature—of contemporary science and technology, about the nature of evil in our period. She not only argues that the traditional categories won’t do; she also maintains that the new categories of the new social sciences won’t do either, for to understand the peculiar character of our period it is necessary also to understand the past. This Weber may have done; but the incapacity and shallowness of the later schools of sociology are themselves signs of the terrible crisis through which we move.

The peculiar character of our period is an opportunity as well as an affliction. In Between Past and Future she speaks of our time as a kind of gap, not of course a gap in historical time, for this would make no sense, but a gap constituted by our capacity to think reflectively of our present and to reach into the past and anticipate the future. This capacity to transcend historical time and thus constitute a gap is something that belongs to men as such and has been exercised in all periods; but the gap we constitute presents us with agonizing problems, for the tradition that has since the ancient world determined our ways of thinking about public affairs is dead, and we are therefore like men who have to learn a new language. Intellectually, perhaps, the break comes with Marx, but it is made final not so much by speculation as by actions and happenings.


…neither the twentieth-century aftermath nor the nineteenth-century rebellion against tradition actually caused the break in our history. This sprang from a chaos of mass-perplexities on the political scene and of mass opinions in the spiritual sphere which the totalitarian movements, through terror and ideology, crystallized into a new form of government and domination. Totalitarian domination as an established fact, which in its unprecedentedness cannot be comprehended through the usual categories of political thought…has broken the continuity of Occidental history.

This break does give us, it is argued, a special opportunity, one that men have not enjoyed for a very long time. We are able “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.” Such a thesis is characteristic of Miss Arendt’s boldness; but it is also an instance of what is puzzling in what she writes.

What is proposed, “To look upon the past with eyes undistracted by any traditions,” seems at first to set before us a difficult but possible task; but on reflection what is proposed seems not so much hard as overwhelmingly strange. What would it be to look upon the past in the way prescribed? Certainly, to look upon the past with understanding entails attention, and careful attention, to the traditions which are a part of its tissue. Would such attention count as distraction? Again, even if we grant the central assertion that in important ways we are in our day presented with radically new phenomena, we need to be aware of traditional ways of thinking and feeling in order to demonstrate the novelty of this or that phenomenon.

Above all, the past weighs upon the mind of the living, whether or not we perceive this weighing as a nightmare, to echo Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire, simply through the language we use. In their denseness, their complexity, the hidden signs of their genesis discovered by the philologist and lexicographer, our languages give us the essence of the human past. The recognition of this is one of Vico’s greatest claims to eminence. The very character of thought and discourse robs Miss Arendt’s proposal of sense. And of course she herself pays not the slightest attention to this proposal.

This is one instance of a difficulty Miss Arendt’s work offers to a special kind of reader, what one might call the donnish reader. Other instances could be given, above all from those passages in which she professes to be offering an exegesis of passages from classic writers. I choose two examples, one from Descartes, the other from Marx.

In The Human Condition and again in Between Past and Future she tells us that (I quote from the latter) “the fundamental experience underlying Cartesian doubt was the discovery that the earth, contrary to all direct sense experience, revolves round the sun.” This is quite without support in the text of Descartes. It is perfectly clear in both the Discourse and the Meditations that the “experience” underlying the resolve to go in for systematic doubt is that of the contrast between the lack of coherence in the conclusions of the philosophers and the coherence of mathematics. Descartes lived in a period of mathematical progress and of philosophical stagnation. Again, all the medieval thinkers knew perfectly well that the question about the adequacy of the Ptolemaic hypothesis was a question about whether or not it “saved the appearances.” It did not follow from its saving the appearances that it was true. The success of the heliocentric theory can only be a tiny constituent, and an unimportant one, in the profound social and intellectual crisis of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. So far as astronomy had a causal role in the crisis, the idea of the infinity of space (Pascal brings this out) and the idea that superlunar as well as sublunar substances are subject to change and decay were of far greater significance. Finally, even the young Descartes was far too sharp ever to have thought that the observation of apparent motion in one body from a point on another body showed the observer which body is “really” in motion. Indeed, there is an excellent discussion of just this point in the Principles.


My difficulty over some of the things Miss Arendt appears to be saying about Marx can perhaps best be put by stating what seems to me to be the point of the more important Theses on Feuerbach and then asking the reader to reflect upon what is said on e.g., pp. 21-25 of Between Past and Future.

Marx is concerned in the Theses on Feuerbach with two problems between which he sees connections: first, the epistemological problem of the relation between the observer and the world; secondly, how, if materialism is true and men are shaped by circumstances and education, can we hope to change society and ourselves, that is, how is this logically possible? Lucien Goldmann has shown how close Marx is here to the il faut parier of Pascal and also how close to Kant; and to Augustine (credo ut intelligam) and therefore to Descartes. In the fifth thesis Marx argues against Feuerbach that sense perception has a practical and intentional, not merely contemplative, character; it is an active apprehension of the world for the sake of certain ends prescribed by the nature of man-in-the-world. The contemplative model has a paralyzing effect when we come to questions of practice, and men look upon the determining forces of society in a state of trance-like passivity. How men are to transcend this heavy world is not a matter for theological reflection. They must act, not as men who strike out convulsively and blindly, for such conduct exactly exemplifies socially determined conduct, but as men who stake everything on the truth of their judgments as to how they can make the future. Of course, the enterprise could come to nothing—or to catastrophe, which is the same thing. But il faut parier. There is no alternative to this. Vous êtes embarqué. Not to wager is just to lay another kind of bet.

Set against these considerations what Miss Arendt says about the last of the Theses (“The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; the point is, however, to change it”). She writes of this that “in the light of Marx’s thought, one could render [it] more adequately as: The philosophers have interpreted the world long enough; the time has come to change it.” This is surely an impossible interpretation of this fragment saved from oblivion by Engels.

A last donnish query to Miss Arendt, before I go on to praise her. Why does she think our ability to initiate and control the process of nuclear fission and fusion is a sign that for the first time we can now “make nature” in the way in which hitherto we have been able to “make history”? (This is asserted in connection with a discussion of Vico’s view that we can understand history in a way we cannot understand nature, since we are the makers of history, God is the maker of nature.) I have puzzled over this for a long time without being able to see just what she has in mind. She argues to this effect in The Human Condition and repeats the argument in Between Past and Future, so she evidently thinks it very important; and of course, in the way she puts it—natural forces are spoken of as having been “let loose, unchained”—there is the strong suggestion that we are now confronted with demonic forces that we can no longer control, that we are in fact in the position of the sorcerer’s apprentice.

Now, I would not wish to deny what is here implied. My difficulty is with the premise of her argument. For example, I want to know why the invention of agriculture or the domestication and selective breeding of animals, things without which civilization would not have grown, does not count as “making nature.” Miss Arendt’s answer appears to be that in all earlier technological processes we were imitating and making use of natural forces; now, with nuclear fission and fusion, we are “initiating” new natural processes.

I can make no sense of this argument. In so far as any technological process can be rightly termed an “imitation” of a natural process, and there is something difficult about this concept, then nuclear processes can be so termed. If, for example, it is argued that the selective breeding of animals and plants is an imitation of the evolutionary process of natural selection, then nuclear processes are imitations of what goes on in, for example, the sun. Producing a bulldog or a Jersey cow seems a tranquil, undramatic kind of thing. It is the result of the application of rules of thumb. The dog and the cow merge into the human landscape. Nuclear processes presuppose very advanced mathematics and industrial techniques themselves inconceivable without an advanced mathematical culture. Their results are dramatic and sometimes horrible: a city is destroyed, a mountain moved, the genetic code of animals and plants disturbed for generations. There is no doubt about the contrast. What is questionable is the additional charge, so to speak, Miss Arendt wishes to give to her account of what is happening by the groundless, as it seems to me, arguments that we now “make nature” where formerly we could make only history. In any acceptable sense of making nature we have been doing this ever since we passed out of the stage of food-gathering and hunting.

What I have so far tried to bring out can be put in this way. Miss Arendt is able to describe, often brilliantly and with great perception and sensitiveness, some of the macroscopic features of our present culture and is able to set these against what is always an interesting, though sometimes capricious, account of the history of European culture. But with a kind of impatience she insists on adding to her excellent accounts and analyses arguments that won’t stand up and a willful exegesis of the classic writers. This weakens and obscures the main drift of her argument necessarily intricate enough, and provides footholds for those who wish to attack her out of malice or through a sectarian spirit; and sometimes it produces an intolerable obscurity.

Nous sommes les derniers. Péguy’s cry could very well have served for the epigraph to Between Past and Future. Indeed; there is a certain affinity of intellectual temper and of emotional concern between Miss Arendt and Péguy. For both the fate of the Jews is the central mystery of the modern world. It is in their attitudes to Israel (the spiritual family, that is) that men show what they are and invite judgment. For both the attitude to the Jews is fateful: the attitude of the French to the condemnation of Dreyfus; the attitude of Europe and the United States to the Final Solution. Equally, they are both concerned with the bad faith and the intellectual confusions of those who come down on the right side when it is no longer dangerous to do so. Both link the peculiar anti-Semitism of modern times, believed by shallow thinkers to be a survival from the Middle Ages, with the general character of the modern world.

Nous sommes les derniers. Péguy would illustrate this by contrasting the world of his childhood, the world of decent and laborious poverty in the home where chairs were made and repaired, a world already dying when he was a child, with the world of mass democracy. He believed that the former was continuous with the Middle Ages and the world of antiquity and was, despite all its injustices and cruelties, even in these injustices and cruelties, a human world. Miss Arendt’s general thesis in Between Past and Future is not unlike this; and the elegiac tone that pervades, in Men in Dark Times, her studies of individual figures, Rosa Luxemburg, John XXIII, Hermann Broch, Arthur Benjamin, to pick out the best, provides a suitable obbligato to the argument of the former book.

In older versions of the English puppet show of Punch, at the end of the play Punch cries out: The Devil is dead, we may all do as we like. In a brilliant characterization of totalitarianism Miss Arendt shows us that it is in this Punch-like way that the European drama, or at least an episode, ended.

…the totalitarian phenomenon, with its striking anti-utilitarian traits and its strange disregard for factuality, is based in the last analysis on the conviction that everything is possible—and not just permitted, morally or otherwise…. The totalitarian systems tend to demonstrate that action can be based on any hypothesis and that, in the course of constantly guided action, the particular hypothesis will become true, will become actual, factual reality. The assumption which underlies consistent action can be as mad as it pleases; it will always end in producing facts which are then “objectively” true.

Madness in politics and the propagation of convenient fictions, these are not novelties in human history. After all, the eighth and ninth books of Plato’s Republic contain very plausible sketches of Stalin and Hitler. What is new is the total inversion of rationality to the point where even those who for the time stand outside the fringes of the absolutely mad nevertheless find it “interesting,” “a point of view.” “No doubt,” they say, “there has been much exaggeration; it may not literally be true that plotters lighted a bonfire under the window of the aged Maxim Gorky to bring on his bronchitis; all the same, there must have been a plot of some kind.” Or (between 1933 and 1939): “No one deplores more than I do the excesses of the Nazis, but no doubt there is some exaggeration, and we must not overlook Herr Hitler’s remarkable solution to the unemployment problem.” Et patati et patata.

Such idiocies are not the fruit of propaganda only; they are induced by the very structure of the totalitarian regime (one hesitates to use of it the term “state” or “society”). This Miss Arendt shows in another remarkable passage.

In contradistinction to both tyrannical and authoritarian regimes, the proper image of totalitarian rule and organization [is] the structure of the onion, in whose center, in a kind of empty space, the leader is located. …All the extraordinarily manifold parts of the movement; the front organizations, the various professional societies, the party membership, the party bureaucracy, the elite formations and police groups, are related in such a way that each forms the façade in one direction and the center in another, that is, plays the role of normal outside world for one layer and the role of radical extremism for another. The great advantage of this system is that the movement provides for each of its layers, even under conditions of totalitarian rule, the fiction of a normal world along with a consciousness of being different from and more radical than it…. The onion structure makes the system organizationally shock-proof against the factuality of the real world.

This is a distillation of what is set out with more complexity in what is certainly her greatest book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, q.v., as the footnotes say.

Is there comfort or consolation or reassurance for us in these “Dark Times”? One thinks here of Wittgenstein’s words, written in 1945, in the Foreword to the Philosophical Investigations. “It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another—but, of course, it is not likely.” Of course, just this heroic persistence, not in the conviction that truth is great and that it will prevail, but simply in the conviction that truth is great, is for those fortunate enough to be its witnesses or its audience consolation in itself.

Miss Arendt wishes to drive us into a dilemma, in the belief that the excruciating experience of thinking our way through it will produce a way of overcoming it that neither she nor anyone else can now provide. The dilemma is this. In recent centuries men have come to believe that in an important if obscure sense classical antiquity provides us with examples of human greatness and virtue, a greatness and a virtue necessarily connected with the social and political institutions that protected and nourished them. The problem is to restore this humanitas within a totally different social context. This is a problem over which Machiavelli and the Jacobins were tormented: how to restore humanitas in the form of republican virtue. The form taken by the revolution of modern times is, then, an attempt to bring back humanitas; but, with the possible exception of the American Revolution, they have failed in this, ending in restoration or tyranny. If revolution cannot bring back greatness and virtue in political affairs, then perhaps nothing can. Here is the dilemma. We cannot but respond to the signs under which revolution is conducted; but we can no longer believe in the possibility of bringing about what would alone justify revolution.

Authority as we once knew it, which grew out of the Roman experience of foundation and was understood in the light of Greek political philosophy, has nowhere been re-established, either through revolutions or through the even less promising means of restoration, and least of all through the conservative moods and trends which occasionally sweep public opinion. For to live in a political realm with neither authority nor the concomitant awareness that the source of authority transcends power…means to be confronted anew, without the religious trust in a sacred beginning and without the protection of traditional and therefore self-evident standards of behavior, by the elementary problems of human living-together.

Whether or not we are really within this dilemma is another question. Miss Arendt herself is puzzled by the impossibility of bringing the American Revolution under the same description as the French.

Perhaps we may end with a question out of Machiavelli and Hume. Machiavelli argues that Christianity, though unfortunately “true,” robs men of their civic virtue. It encourages what Hume would call the monkish virtues, meekness and humility, for example, and its sacrifice is unbloody (the comparison is with the bloody sacrifices of the old law and of the pagan rites, and perhaps with the games in the arena) and thus debilitating. Gibbon advances the same thesis in a vulgarized and flippant form. Hume, in The Natural History of Religion, argues that monotheism, just because it treats the universe as a single systematic whole, is the only religion one can take seriously and as therefore possibly true; but its consequences, dogmatism, fanaticism, and persecution, are appalling. But polytheism, intellectually absurd and an obstacle to the scientific understanding of the world, issues in tolerance and other social virtues.

Here is another dilemma not unconnected with that outlined by Miss Arendt. All the dilemmas have some resemblance to the dilemmas set out in Dostoevsky’s fable of the Grand Inquisitor. But how could we expect to get out of such a dilemma? Neither intellectual power nor force nor the two in combination can do this for us. Pascal, a great framer of dilemmas and paradoxes, would say that we cannot expect the three orders, l’ordre des corps, l’ordre des esprits, l’ordre de la charité (Brunschvicg 793), to come together; for the absolute realization of charity, that is, Jesus Christ, is, from the world’s point of view, invisible. The sign of his glory is his humility, the sign of his richness his poverty, the sign of his rule over men its invisibility; and the sign of Divine power, his resurrection, is secret, not an event within the order of the world.

Something has gone badly wrong here. We have, it is true, a stick with which to beat the utopians; but they are scarcely worth beating. But can we really conceive that the world is so arranged that the laborer is necessarily cheated of his reward and that modest solutions to the problem of how men are to live together are always defective? This would imply that the world is ruled by wicked demons. We may believe, with Miss Arendt, that men often let the demons loose and suffer on this account; but we also believe that evil is self-destructive. This even shows itself when its contrary seems to be demonstrated, as in those scenes of which we know when children went to their death crying out the great Hear, O Israel in obedience to the instruction of their mothers. It is clear enough who are the victors and who the vanquished here. To see here only the triumph of evil is to miss the sense of human life.

This Issue

November 6, 1969