"The Great Tradition and the Nature of Totalitarianism" Lecture by Hannah Arendt (Summary)

A Transcendent Story 

Arendt talks about the Totalitarian systems rejecting the cultural worldview or narrative that the country embodies from their past. This is done by having a complete break to look at the world totally differently. It may also include a redefinition of the meaning of common words, a reject of logic, or refusal to see that the new ideas don't add up properly. An example is mentioned of Materialist philosophies which deny the transcendent, claiming that earth is man's final end and utopia. 

This is combated by an authentic "understanding." To understand is to understand the present in terms of something greater than it. To judge something you need something greater or beyond it to make proper sense. We must look to our past traditions and religion and history to understand the present. The past isn't just a liner set of events, its an identity for its people. Who are we? Where did we come from before now, before our memory? How has the past regulated the existence and structures of the present. "Without a past, we are no longer human." Another sense of judging the present by something greater than itself is to understand the world through a transcendent worldview. Again, something greater than the material world is necessary to understand the material world. 

The Structures that Allow Authentic Action 

Authentic political systems allow for people to interact with one another in a way that is mutually beneficial for everyone involved. They allow for "virtue" in the sense of equality before the law.

Equality through a common shared experience as a member of that society. This common experience allows us to understand one another and thus act together in sharing that common space and value. This union brings joy and can even allow for "honor," or the embracing of distinctions within this equality. 

Sharing the Embodied Story 

When we destroy the laws of man we are also attacking God's law on which authentic human laws is based. It is these laws that allow man to interact with one another. They are more stable that men's whims and feelings. The law and politics which order man's mode of being is gone. When they are gone then all that's left is for man to attack one another and for the strongest to win. There is no room left to be distinct from one another in honor while remaining equal under the law. What's left then is fear. We cannot act together for a shared good because there is distrust. It's about strength and dominance. Authentic governments allow people to united based on a shared vision or experience of what's meant to be. 

The Inevitable Laws of Nature 

In an authentic sense, laws are what makes the world and others predictable, and allow us to act together because of it. They stabilize us. Think of the word "interest." It comes from two Latin word which mean "is between" and "to be." It is that which is shared between people in common. The smallest unit of this in society is the family. 

In a corrupted sense dealing with totalitarianism, "interest" is only in the laws of nature. This is not Aristotle's natural law, but is the unchangeable development of history which will ultimately work itself out in mankind. Class struggle, or survival of the fittest, for example. "What is the role of man? To be embodiment and to execute them in order to speed them up." Man is subjected to the laws of nature and history. There can be no uniquely free and human actions, as human action is not determined like nature is. That must be stifled. Rather you must assume your role in the development of history. "...either victim or executioner..." It must reject the free thinker, the unpredictable man. This is done through the use of terror. Terror is used to speed up the inevitable and eliminate the obstacles or people that stand in its way. To prevent anyone from standing in its way.  Terror becomes the new norm and keeps people atomized and unable to fight back. 

Man is also co-opted through ideology. The individual person becomes possessed by the logic of the ideas by an inner compulsion. They become predictable expressions of the idea and process. 

 "The idea develops 'logically' -- this the sense of ideo-logy-- the future course of happening. If you take the idea, everything is logically explained. The idea becomes a premise in the logical sense from which a process is being deduced. Thinking in terms of conclusions instead of judgment, subsumtion under certain rules." "You can't say A without saying B." "The people who cannot come to the conclusions of their own assumptions." 

Interesting, the process of implementation is even more important than the idea because if the end were ever reached then the whole pathological machine would stop. 

Loneliness Versus Solitude

The freedom of man is in the way of the freedom of the laws of nature. Conflating the laws of nature with history in a unidimensional way. All, even man, are just the forces of nature. This manifests itself highest on the economic scale. We need to liberate nature by allowing it to manifest itself in economics. The "inner compulsion" of ideology is what sets things into motion. A set of rules by which to judge, deduce, or conclude. A corrupted common world which must fit the personal sense experience of myself into the logical conclusions. The one who does not go along or does not help this process is a "superfluous" and a "parasite." and not "'fit to live'". Thus, it is the revolution that must give you your labor or work, all else is backwards and to be eliminated. Totalitarianism doesn't see "man," only "mankind". 

Isolation = physical or political inability to act together with others

Loneliness = the loss of the common story with others. This is to be uprooted from the common narrative. To loose one's narrative is to be "superfluous" to be without a place, to be longing for a story to fill. 

Understanding = is putting down authentic roots in the understanding of the world. A type of reconciliation. 

Loneliness Versus Solitude = Solitude is to share in the common story even if being physically alone.

A dialogue with everyone in one's thoughts. 

This leads me to seek coherence within my ideological self, but I have no connection to others to tell me that I am messed up in the head. No shared or common story to judge myself. They want you alone, but no long enough to develop a mental solitude and remake yourself, so they keep bothering you. 

The Impenetrability of Totalitarian Logic

Logic is universal and makes us "one" in that you must reach the same conclusions if you follow it from the same premises. The ideologically possessed person avoids those who think differently to keep the ideological logic intact. This must be carried through into destroying the common narrative, making action impossible, not even mental or artistic action. "The nature of action: 'our thoughts are ours; their ends never our own.' We act into a web of relationships and never know what will be the end.'" 


Arendt, Hannah. The Great Tradition and the Nature of Totalitarianism. Library of Congress Speeches and Writings File, 1923-1975, n.d. Https://Memory.loc.gov/Ammem/Arendthtml/mharendtFolderP05.Html. Address presented at the Lecture, New School for Social Research, 1953.