UCL European Institute


Hannah Arendt and the Ancients

12 October 2015, 12:00 am

Hannah Arendt

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One of the most original figures of the twentieth century, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) still exerts a profound influence on political thinking today. Her work on revolution, action, totalitarianism, or "the banality of evil" continues to animate debates about democracy, about Israel and Palestine, about feminism and about the nature of political participation - she has even been the subject of a recent film. Miriam Leonard, Professor of Greek Literature and its Reception at UCL, discusses the inspiration that Arendt's critique of contemporary politics found in antiquity.
12 October 2015
Miriam Leonard

It is over 50 years since the publication of Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, the text, first published in the New Yorker, that turned her into a renowned and in some cases reviled public intellectual. Eichmann's prescience about our contemporary condition explains why Arendt remains one of the most provocative interlocutors in discussions about political ideas and realities today. Despite this striking contemporary relevance, the ancient dimension of Arendt's work has long been acknowledged by scholars. It is difficult not to be struck by the pervasive reference to antiquity in her political-cum-philosophical treatise The Human Condition, which teems with references to Plato, Aristotle, Homer. But its presence can also be felt, for instance, in The Origins of Totalitarianism where Arendt narrates the Dreyfus affair as the unfolding of a Greek tragedy - a trope which she returns to and develops more fully at the start of Eichmann in Jerusalem. But the question of how one should understand this distinctive dimension of her works still requires some thought. It would be tempting to see Arendt's ancients as a continuation of the German love affair which began in the late eighteenth century and continued to exert its grasp on intellectuals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Certainly it is possible to see Arendt's election of the Greeks as a mark of her debt to Heidegger; and there also are similarities between Arendt's and Nietzsche's deployment of the Greeks. But it is in her treatment of ancient texts and ancient ideas that Arendt also articulates her distance and rejection of Heidegger and other aspects of the German intellectual tradition. Arendt's ancients, in other words, do not act as an entry ticket into German culture but as a way for her to develop a distinct and resistant space within a tradition which she inhabits but fundamentally reshapes. 

Plurality is a feature of Arendt's work which has a particular attraction to her contemporary readers. I think it is fair to say that Arendt's ancients distinguish themselves in their plurality too. At one level, this might be a surprising claim because the charge of flattening antiquity, of turning the complex and difficult political practices of ancient societies into a nostalgic utopia has often been leveled against her. Nevertheless, recent work on Arendt has made us more attentive to the less manifest ancient references in her work. This research has revealed an Arendt who is not just in dialogue with Plato and Aristotle but also with Augustine and Virgil, even, with a perhaps still unconscious Jewish antiquity. For all this, it could still be argued that her ancients are not plural enough, and that her immersion in antiquity remains a limiting dimension of her thought. Arendt's provocative and complex writings about tradition and her defense of a Western canon is one dimension of her thought is which I think we have yet to grapple with fully. 

Given Arendt's profound immersion in antiquity, it is easy to see why she might be of interest to scholars of the classical tradition. But Arendt's interest can and should go beyond that. In a felicitous phrase, Arendt makes the past feel imperative. For me, one of the most valuable aspects of Arendt's work is that she models our interaction with the ancients in political rather than historical terms. Arendt's texts, as we have seen, are populated by classical figures, not just Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Thucydides and Pericles but also the namelss demos who inhabit her imagined polis. Arendt's Greeks are not historical and in this respect she shares something with other philosophical readers of ancient texts who conduct their conversations with classical authors across the chasm of historical and cultural difference. Nevertheless, Arendt does not treat antiquity as if it were timeless. Rather, she structures the encounter between ancient and modern as a political encounter. The ancient texts intervene into the present as actions rather than actors. The reference to the Greeks functions for Arendt as a kind of performative. While lacking the depth of historical figures, they nevertheless have a powerful agency which refuses modern appropriation. In fact, it is the singularity of the Greek experience which she wishes to reanimate in the present. The appeal she makes to antiquity in her essay 'What is Freedom?' is exemplary: 

" Let us therefore go back to antiquity, i.e., to its political and prephilosophical traditions, certainly not for the sake of erudition, not even because of the continuity of our tradition, but merely because a freedom experienced in the process of acting and nothing else - though of course mankind never lost this experience altogether - has never been articulated with the same classical clarity "

There are many things one might want to say about this passage, and many aspects one might question or resist. But Arendt acutely pinpoints how we too often think about the classical world in terms either of erudition or of continuity. Arendt rejects both those models and in the process shows how in taking refuge in history we displace politics. Being responsive to the historical alterity constitutes our responsibility only in a restrictive moral sense. Taking responsibility for antiquity requires returning it to its agency and allowing it to act in the present. 

A conference on 'Hannah Arendt and the Ancients' was organized by Miriam Leonard and Tim Beasley-Murray and took place at UCL in September, 2015. The conference was co-sponsored by the UCL European Institute.