“The Concept of History, Ancient and Modern,” by Hannah Arendt

–All history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.
–Mr. Deasy, Ulysses

To Herodotus, history’s purpose was “to preserve that which owes its existence to men.” The subject of history is the outstanding deed that breaks the circular motion of life. It keeps alive what otherwise would fade away.

“Greatness was easily recognizable as that which by itself aspired to immortality–that is, negatively speaking, as a heroic contempt for all that merely comes and passes away, for all individual life, one’s own included. This sense of greatness could not possibly survive intact into the Christian era for the very simple reason that, according to Christian teachings, the relationship between life and world is the exact opposite to that in Greek and Latin antiquity: in Christianity neither the world nor the ever-recurring cycle of life is immortal, only the single living individual. It is the world that will pass away; men will live forever.”

The achievements of science have transformed history. Man’s power over nature has led to dominion over history: “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.'”

Arendt does not believe that Christianity created a new view of history. The death and resurrection of Christ is treated as a singular event, but other human events remained as before–great men come and go, empires erupt and crash, and life goes on. The world will end someday at Christ’s return.

Our modern view of history begins with Hegel and has its source in the consciousness, not in events out there in the world. History is separated from the immortality of great deeds (the ancient view) and the immortality of the soul (the Christian view). History is what is useful. Marx pushed history beyond Hegel, transforming meaning and meaningfulness into ends. “But neither freedom nor any other meaning,” Arendt writes, “can ever be the product of a human activity in the sense in which the table is clearly the end-product of the carpenter’s activity.”

One wonders how much of an audience she ever really had for her style of political analysis. To really take her on, you would need to be able to judge her use of classic sources. With Unicode, we can all write Greek, even if we don’t understand it literally or in context.

This essay is in a collection entitled Between Past and Future. Other essays in the collection are worthwhile, especially Truth and Politics. This story that she tells there gets back to the question of history:

During the twenties, so a story goes, Clemenceau, shortly before his death, found himself engaged in a friendly talk with a representative of the Weimar Republic on the question of guilt for the outbreak of the First World War. “What, in your opinion,” Clemenceau was asked, “will future historians think of this troublesome and controversial issue?” He replied, “This I don’t know. But I know for certain that they will not say that Belgium invaded Germany.”

 

Vermeer, “The Art of Painting,” with model as Clio, Muse of History

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