Vol. 6 | The Modern Challenge to Tradition | Editorial Introduction

Authority, politically speaking

On September 30, 1953, Carl Friedrich invited Hannah Arendt to attend his “seminar on Totalitarianism” on its Wednesday, October 28th session. “We would, as before, have dinner together and then meet with the seminar afterwards.”1 As he had two years earlier, Friedrich asked Arendt to contribute to “Government 215”, his signature seminar to be taught regularly on Wednesday afternoons from 4 to 6 p. m. On December 19, 1951, Arendt had presented her Origins of Totalitarianism; this time she was supposed to deliver a guest lecture on authority. But Arendt’s October was dominated by the Gauss seminars at Princeton, and she likely telephoned Friedrich and asked for a later date. “I am sorry you cannot come up October 28,” he responded on October 15, “because it would have fitted in so well with our lectures but we would be very happy to have you in December, either the Second or Ninth. Let me know your preference. It would be good if you could discuss the problem of authority; it will implement our program, and I’d greatly enjoy discussing it with you. I look forward to seeing you and will try to gather a good group of people for dinner, including Isaiah Berlin.” On this letter, a handwritten note by Arendt — perhaps she had called him again. The note reads: “Oct 17, 53 for 12, 9, 53”. Then, on December 3, Friedrich asked Arendt whether she would be in Cambridge a day earlier: “Do you suppose you could have lunch with me on Tuesday, December 8 at 1:05 p. m. at the Faculty Club? I would be very happy to see you then if it can be managed by you.”

We suppose that Arendt already had arranged to come to Cambridge earlier. In an undated letter, written probably on November 15 — on a Sunday as the letter says — she wrote to Alfred Kazin who at the time had a visiting position in Harvard’s English department: “I am delighted that you still want me. Sure, in that case it is December 7th, but think it over carefully: this means that I would stay till Thursday, December 10th!! Since I have my lecture on Wednesday night.” (AKa, 134) This would explain why the last five pages as well as additions on the margins of earlier pages of Arendt’s typescript were written on a typewriter she never used again, while the other pages show the fonts of her New York machine. With this earlier arrival Arendt would have had the time to redo and expand her lecture. On a typewriter at Kazin’s house, in a hotel or in Harvard’s library.

The typescript shows that Arendt started writing her lecture three times. The back of page 7 — an original of which the back of page 3 is a carbon copy — presents the first attempt to find the beginning. After 17 lines, in the middle of a sentence, the text breaks off. The flow of the argument — authority’s opposite is not freedom but loss or decrease of legitimacy; totalitarianism was always preceded by loss of authority, itself a result of mistrust in a form of government or the government itself — had led the author in a direction she didn’t wish to pursue. Even though the context of her lecture was a seminar on totalitarianism, the question of authority needed a different framework of reflections. Therefore, the second beginning takes another turn. The first sentence is almost identical with the one that opens the third beginning: “Authority, politically speaking, is legitimate power. Its opposite is not freedom but coercion or violence.” This time it is not a historical event — totalitarianism as a result of loss of authority — but rather a structural argument that triggers Arendt’s thoughts. She goes on and discusses the traditional sources of authority: “God’s commandments,” “natural law,” “age-old customs.”

When Arendt wrote the third beginning, she deleted the first sentence of this page and used the rest as page 4. The three pages that she inserted before this page jump in the middle of a contemporary debate: liberals and conservatives both see authority as the opposite of freedom, and many people confuse power with violence.

With this beginning, the lecture gains a political edge; the next insert follows this gesture of writing. After page 4 — the second beginning — she added three more pages (5, 6, and 7) that address blind spots in contemporary thinking: True authority is not directly vested in a person; authority like freedom is bound to the fact that men and not man inhabit the world; authority and freedom determine the world between men. Only after having discussed these politically so dangerous misconceptions of old concepts, can the next return to its oldest layer. On page 8 we are back to what had happened in other parts of the world: Totalitarian regimes destroyed authority and freedom.

We don’t know how the first version of the lecture ended. The typescript shows that Arendt saw the need to expand what she had drafted in New York. The last pages discuss concepts of law, authority and religion over the course of Western political thought; they were written on this other typewriter, shortly before she delivered her lecture.

Unfortunately, this time no student in Carl Friedrich’s seminar wrote a summary of the discussion, as Fred Holborn had done in 1951.2 Only Arendt’s scribbled remarks on Friedrich’s letter of December 3, 1953 survived. They read:

Nothing Meaning does not exist in things, is nothing, is only in thought — but also: is not in thinking beings, only in thought. Meaning is not in Man or his nature, but in his activity and as long as it lasts. Meaning is nothing: meaning has no permanent being, not even the relative permanence of mortals. Nothing = no / thing = no-thing, no / body = emptiness = space Emptiness = hollow = abstract. Human concept of Time lost because of loss of eternity: Mod. Chronol. establishes earthly immortality of Mankind: this our time concept Immortality of mankind as potential. (Death cancels all politics but posterity.)

Arendt never published her lecture but in the correspondence with Carl Friedrich we find a profound discussion of her ideas. On June 23, 1954, Friedrich wrote: “Having just finished a brief paper on ‘Loyalty and Authority’ in which a brief sketch of my thoughts on authority are contained, I feel like writing to you, since they are in part an echo of our discussion last winter. Have you done anything with this topic? I would be most interested. I’d also be glad to have your comments, and will send the MS to you, if you have time.”3

Unfortunately, Arendt’s extensive remarks on the typescript reached Friedrich too late to be integrated into the printed version.4 On August 6, 1954, Arendt wrote:

Now to the manuscript and in medias res. I think I can very well see how it grew out of your Rechtsphilosophie5 and in which respect you fitted it into the loyalty question. That implies of course certain short cuts which, however, for the general reader will not be manifest. I miss a more detailed discussion of consent and its distinction from that ‘discursive participation’ which is, I agree, characteristic of authority. Your elaboration of the rational element of all authority via this participation and your concept of ‘communication’ is simply wonderful – though again a bit too condensed.6 I have one difficulty: you say on p. 2 that authority is not legitimate power, but that through which power achieves its legitimacy. I agree and think that you are right and I was wrong. But the difficulty remains the same: If you say that authority is the source of legitimacy, the question rises: What is the source of authority? In the example you give: ecclesiastical sanction, it certainly is God, or rather the faith which is common to those who command and those who obey. Insofar as the sources of authority are different in different communities, its most general characteristics still seems to me that the source of authority is located in that what all have in common and which as such, because it constitutes the common world or the community is beyond judgment, challenge and criticism. I therefore think that Max Weber, whom you criticize quite rightly on p. 4 was aiming at something which is more relevant than mere emotion when he mentions ‘a faith in the values it embodies’ as fundament for legitimacy. 7 It also seems to me that your discursive participation and communications on p. 5 rest on this having something in common. Otherwise no discussion would be possible between the different strata of an authoritarian hierarchy. In this sense, one might say that no body politic without authority would be possible because it would lack that common element which constitutes it as legal, constitutional and communal structure. I have the feeling that you avoid a little one real difficulty of the subject, and that is the problem of equality. On p. 7 you call the parallel of parent-child-relationship ‘banal’,8 but against that speaks that this example recurs again and again in the whole literature since the ancients. It always meant that authority is possible only between non-equal partners. This situation is challenged by the modern concept of equality. It is true, one may say that the Law has now the authority which formerly was personal authority; but this again verschiebt das Problem nur um eine Stufe: for then we must assume that the Lawgivers have authority and, therefore, are somehow different and superior to all others. (Plato at the end of his life believed he could put all authority into the laws which ‘men prefer to obey rather than men’ because he thought he had found the possibility of eternal unchangeable laws. This way out is not possible for us, and actually was not for Plato either.) And we certainly shall not be able to trust our lawgivers with any such authority. In other words, much as I agree with you about the rationality of authoritarian forms of government and the nonsense to equate totalitarian dictatorships with authoritarian government, I am not so sure that we shall be able to re-introduce genuine authority under circumstances of universal equality. There is an inherent contradiction in their co-existence, which in this paper remains unsolved. To put the same matter the other way round: I am afraid that the coincidence of universal equality and an atomized society in which the common world, the bonds between men and their common sense keeps withering away is no accident. Finally, I am tempted to argue with you about love,9 but I am not going to yield, because it is not really necessary for your argument. I agree with you of course that love is not a very reliable fundament, it is in fact no fundament at all. But you don’t really think that love makes blind, or do you?? I am glad that this appears in Confluence where it will be read by many people who never even dreamt of thinking instead of opining about these matters. I hope you tell the editors to let me have a copy.

Since Friedrich could not revise his essay as a response to Arendt’s remarks, he wrote her a long letter:

I have read and pondered your observations, and it seems to me that they all go basically back to your not accepting the sharp distinction between legitimacy and authority for which I plead. Let me be more specific: Regarding your third paragraph, you are of course right that there must be some kind of agreement on what is the basis of rational discourse, whether in the matter of an ‘ecclesiastical sanction’ or anything else. But this basis (you call it ‘source’) which is beyond judgment, challenge and criticism, you say, is actually continually being judged, and at times challenged and criticized; for how else would we explain the development of Christian doctrine, for example. And this change is the concomitant of that rational discourse which is as important as the basis for such discourse. May be Max Weber has something more in mind than ‘emotion’, but his formulations, while deceptively subtle, seem to me in the last analysis to reduce to this sort of positivism. As to equality, I quite agree with you, but I don’t believe that it was incumbent upon me to raise the issue of equality in this context, especially, when I had already with it several times before. The democratic inequality to which you rightly refer is that between the cives singuli and the cives universi (your argument about ‘law’ as a substitute are quite correct). That is the reason why the democratic system does not work, if the singuli are not to some extent common (i. e. communal) men. The answer to the point about atomized society is implied. The statement about ‘love’ is a figure of speech, as you surmise. All the way through, I retain the notion that loyalty can and often does rest on love, and to some extent always does so. But in the large society where love is thinned out to the point of evaporation, authority as defined by me must take its place, if we are to avoid autocracy etc. Perhaps we can speak about this, when I see you. (My main quarrel with Kant is the slighting of ‘love’ and ‘creativity’.)”10

We don’t know whether Arendt continued this debate with Friedrich; among his papers no response to this letter survived. But on Friedrich’s letter, we find scribbled remarks that show how important this discussion was for Arendt: “Love is anti-political”, she writes, and to the underlined “‘love’ is a figure of speech,” she adds: “and a dangerous one”.

Post scriptum

In a letter to Karl Jaspers, written on December 21, 1953, Arendt remarks: “Seit ich aus Harvard, wo ich zwei Vorträge hielt, zurück bin, habe ich gar nichts getan und gedenke auch vor dem nächsten Jahr nichts zu tun. Mag gar nichts ansehen. In Harvard war der eine Vortrag ein richtiger Reinfall. Die Soziologen, die ich seit Jahren gründlichst ärgere, sind nun doch endlich wütend geworden und auf mich rauf. Es war ganz lustig. Ich raufe mich halt doch gerne.” (AJa, 271). We suppose that the second lecture took place on December 8; the topic of the lecture and where she delivered it remains a mystery. Alfred Kazin might have arranged it for the English Department, the Sociology Department or the Department of Social Relations could have been the venue. Harvard’s University Archive could not find any hint of this lecture.11 It is possible, though, that Arendt delivered her lecture on authority twice, once in Friedrich’s seminar and a second time for one of these departments. Harvard’s sociologists12 would have found enough in her lecture that could have made them “wütend”.

Barbara Hahn

As far as remuneration was concerned, Friedrich wrote, “we are only able to offer the very inadequate honorarium of $ 50 plus expenses but I shall try to make up by hospitality and good talk.”


See the folder: CG, Friedrich, Carl J.


Friedrich to HA, June 23, 1954. (ibid.)


On August 28, 1954, Friedrich wrote to Arendt: “Your letter convinced me that I should have written a longer article, but since it was already in galleys, by the time your comments came, I could not extend it.” The essay, “Loyalty and Authority”, was published in: Confluence 3, 1954, 307-316.


In 1953, Carl Friedrich published The Philosophy of Hegel, a collection of Hegel’s work in a new translation and with his introduction. [New York: Modern Library].


The »wonderful« paragraph reads: »All authority is in the last analysis the authority of communications. Simple communications laid down by religious or legislative fiat achieve authority through their elaborate exploration in rational discourse. And the capacity of human beings to participate effectively in such discourse lends to these communications a quality which enables the communicants to look upon them as ‘their own,’ of something which they have taken hold of, as much as ‘it’ took hold of them. The subject of authority is not a passive but an active member of the community in which such authority prevails. Through hat augmentation and implementation which authority provides, the subject becomes engaged. It is this engagement which serves to engender loyalty of a new and different sort.« Friedrich, »Loyalty and Authority,« 312.


In his article, Friedrich writes: »The tendency to confuse authority and legitimacy and to reduce both to their psychological concomitants is strikingly illustrated in the work of Max Weber who builds his theory of forms of government and of law upon legitimacy without clarifying what is to be understood by legitimacy. In his Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft […] he stresses that such legitimacy may rest upon pure emotion, or it may be based upon a faith in the values it embodies, or it may be guaranteed religiously; finally, it may be guaranteed by the expectations of certain practical results related to interests.« Friedrich, »Loyalty and Authority,« 310-311.


See ibid., 313.


Friedrich started his essays with reflections on love: »Loyality can, in its deeper reaches, be built only upon either love or authority. When devotion and faithful adherence are built upon love, the emotional element in the relationship predominates, giving it intensity, but exposing it to instability. Love cannot be demanded; it is a gift from heaven.« Ibid., 307.


Friedrich to HA, August 28, 1954. (see footnote 1)


Robin Carlow, email from June 29, 2017.


The most prominent, at the time, was Talcott Parsons.