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Between Past and Future

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Title: Between Past and Future  
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Subject: Hannah Arendt, Political philosophy, Hannah Arendt Institute for the Research on Totalitarianism, Index of contemporary philosophy articles
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Between Past and Future

Between Past and Future is book written by German philosopher Hannah Arendt. It was published for the first time in 1961 by The Viking Press in the United States and by Faber and Faber Ltd in Great Britain. The first edition consisted of six essays, and two more were added to a 1968 revision. The book is a collection of various essays written between 1954 and 1968. The final version of the book includes essays dealing with different philosophical subjects including freedom, education, authority, tradition, history and politics.[1] The subtitle of the final version is Eight exercises in political thought.

All of the essays share a central idea. Humans are living between the past and the uncertain future. They must permanently think to exist, and each man is required to learn thinking. For a long time humans have resorted to tradition, but in modern times, this tradition has been abandoned, there is no more respect for tradition and culture. With her essays, Hannah Arendt tries to find solutions to help humans think again today. According to her, there is no way to live again with tradition, and modern philosophy has not succeeded in helping humans to live correctly.[2]


The title of the preface is The Gap between Past and Future. The first sentence of the preface is a citation of French poet and résistant René Char: "Notre héritage n'est précédé d'aucun testament," translated by Arendt herself as "our inheritance was left to us by no testament." For Arendt, this sentence perfectly illustrates the situation in which European peoples are left after the Second World War. It also illustrates the crisis in culture--the main subject of the sixth essay. Indeed, the absence of testament means the current breaking-off with tradition.

To characterize the way writers, men of letters and thinkers had lived the period of the French Résistance, Hannah Arendt speaks of a "treasure." Indeed René Char had stated during this period: "If I survive, I know that I have to break with the aroma of these essential years, silently reject my treasure." This treasure is the experience of freedom all intellectuals made during this unique period, when they left their traditional occupation, that is a life focused on their personal affairs and the quest of themselves. With the Resistance, these men had at last found themselves, they had discovered what is freedom. But with the Liberation, they had lost their treasure, in other words they had either to return to their past occupations or to be involved again in public life but defending ideologies and engaging themselves into endless polemics, which had nothing to do with the time of the Resistance movement.

The example of the French Resistance is one of the several historical experiences in which a treasure appears and then disappears. It was the case with the Revolutions of 1776 in the United States, 1789 in France or 1956 in Budapest. Although this treasure has no name, it was called public happiness in the United States in the eighteenth century. Any time this treasure appeared, it did not remain, not because of historical events nor chance, "but because no tradition had foreseen its appearance," no tradition or no "testament" had been able to announce the coming and the reality of this treasure. Indeed tradition is what "selects and names, (...) hands down and preserves, (...) indicates where the treasures are and what their worth is."

Tradition and the Modern Age

According to Arendt, the origins of European philosophical thinking date back to Ancient Greece, with Aristotle and Plato. Plato had taught us that the truth was not present within the society and in public affairs, but in eternal ideas, as demonstrated in the allegory of the cave. On the contrary, Marx thought that the "truth is not outside the affairs of men and their common world but precisely in them." The end of Platonic and Aristotelean tradition of philosophy came with Marx, according to whom the philosopher had to turn away from philosophy in order to be involved in society and human affairs in order to change the world.

Marx's own attitude to the tradition of political thought was one of conscious rebellion. Crucial among [certain key statements containing his political philosophy] are the following: "Labor created man". "Violence is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one", hence: violence is the midwife of history. Finally, there is the famous last thesis on Feuerbach: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; the point is, however, to change it", which, in the light of Marx's thought, one could render more adequately as: The philosophers have interpreted the world long enough; the time has come to change it. For this last statement is in fact only a variation of another: "You cannot aufheben philosophy without realizing it".

For Arendt, Marxist philosophy considers that man creates himself, that his humanity is the result of his own activity, and that what distinguishes man from animal is not reason but labor. Thus Marx challenges the traditional praise of reason. Moreover, for Marx violence is the leading force that determines human relations, while for the traditional thought it is the most disgraceful of human actions and the symbol of tyranny.

To Marx, violence or rather the possession of the means of violence is the constituent element of all forms of government; the state is the instrument of the ruling class by means of which it oppresses and exploits, and the whole sphere of political action is characterized by the use of violence. The Marxian identification of violence with action implies another fundamental challenge of tradition.


  1. ^ Online version (incomplete) on Google books
  2. ^ Hannah Arendt, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
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