For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

Between Past and Future

by Arendt, Hannah (2006)


From the author of Eichmann in Jerusalem and The Origins of Totalitarianism, “a book to think with through the political impasses and cultural confusions of our day” (Harper’s Magazine) Hannah Arendt’s insightful observations of the modern world, based on a profound knowledge of the past, constitute an impassioned contribution to political philosophy. In Between Past and Future Arendt describes the perplexing crises modern society faces as a result of the loss of meaning of the traditional key words of politics: justice, reason, responsibility, virtue, and glory. Through a series of eight exercises, she shows how we can redistill the vital essence of these concepts and use them to regain a frame of reference for the future. To participate in these exercises is to associate, in action, with one of the most original and fruitful minds of the twentieth century.

Key Passage

In Marx's philosophy, which did not so much turn Hegel up-side down as invert the traditional hierarchy of thought and action, of contemplation and labor, and of philosophy and politics, the beginning made by Plato and Aristotle proves its vitality by leading Marx into flagrantly contradictory statements, mostly in that part of his teachings usually called Utopian. The most important are his prediction that under conditions of a "socialized humanity" the "state will wither away," and that the productivity of labor will become so great that labor somehow will abolish itself, thus guaranteeing an almost unlimited amount of leisure time to each member of the society. These statements, in addition to being predictions, contain of course Marx's ideal of the best form of society. As such they are not Utopian, but rather reproduce the political and social conditions of the same Athenian city state which was the model of experience for Plato and Aristotle, and therefore the foundation on which our tradition rests. The Athenian polis functioned without a division between rulers and ruled, and thus was not a state if we use this term, as Marx did, in accordance with the traditional definitions of forms of government, that is, one man rule or monarchy, rule by the few or oligarchy, and rule by the majority or democracy. Athenian citizens, more over, were citizens only insofar as they possessed leisure time, had that freedom from labor which Marx predicts for the future. Not only in Athens but throughout antiquity and up to the modern age, those who labored were not citizens and those who were citizens were first of all those who did not labor or who possessed more than their labor power. This similarity becomes even more striking when we look into the actual content of Marx's ideal society. Leisure time is seen to exist under the condition of statelessness, or under conditions where, in Lenin's famous phrase which renders Marx's thought very precisely, the administration of society has become so simplified that every cook is qualified to take over its machinery. Obviously, under such circumstances the whole business of politics, Engels' simplified "administration of things," could be of interest only to a cook, or at best to those "mediocre minds" whom Nietzsche thought best qualified for taking care of public affairs. (p.18)


Ardent, Political Philosophy, Virtue, Responsibility, Modernity, Future, Justice


Between Past and Future [1961], Arendt Citations

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