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

Marx knew that the incompatibility between classical political thought and modern political conditions lay in the accomplished fact of the French and Industrial Revolutions, which together had raised labor, traditionally the most despised of all human activities, to the highest rank of productivity and pretended to be able to assert the time-honored ideal of freedom under unheard of conditions of universal equality. He knew that the question was only superficially posed in the idealistic assertions of the equality of man, the inborn dignity of every human being, and only superficially answered by giving laborers the right to vote. This was not a problem of justice that could be solved by giving the new class of workers its due, after which the old order of suum cuique would be restored and function as in the past. There is the fact of the basic incompatibility between the traditional concepts making labor itself the very symbol of man's subjection to necessity, and the modern age which saw labor elevated to express man's positive freedom, the freedom of productivity. It is from the impact of labor, that is to say, of necessity in the traditional sense, that Marx endeavored to save philosophical thought, deemed by the. tradition to be the freest of all human activities. Yet when he proclaimed that "you cannot abolish philosophy without realizing it," he began subjecting thought also to the inexorable despotism of necessity, to the "ironlaw" of productive forces in society, (p.32)


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


Between Past and Future [1961], Arendt Citations

Links to Reference



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