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

Tradition and the Modern Age

In a letter to Gershom Scholem, dated July 8, 1954, Arendt writes of the printed version of her essay: “Ich schicke Ihnen auch etwas – hoffe, dass ich es noch nicht geschickt habe –, was Ihnen vielleicht Spass macht. Es ist der Anfang der Vorlesungsserie, die ich im Herbst vorigen Jahres in Princeton hielt.” (AScho, 391). The typescript seems to tell a more complicated story: Of all the texts that have survived from this phase of Arendt’s thinking, Tradition and the Modern Age shows the most varied internal structure and the most extensive layers of reworking and rearranging. This becomes obvious with a first look at the page numbering: The typescript consists of twenty-three pages, yet the highest typed page number is 6. That is to say, Arendt created the essay “Tradition and the Modern Age” by expanding and revising the first six pages of the First New York Fragment in at least four distinct phases. The first expansion consists of five, the second of two, the third of four, and the last of eight pages. The last page of the typescript has an original page number 6h, indicating that it belonged to an expansion before a page 7, though no plausible candidate for such a page has come down to us. Interestingly, an earlier version of page 6h has survived among the fragments of the Gauss material. Both versions of 6h shift focus from discussing Plato’s parable of the cave to Marx’s overturning of the tradition, but the earlier fragment invokes explicitly the last thesis on Feuerbach, while the eventual conclusion of “Tradition and the Modern Age” invokes Marx much more generally.

We suppose that the first page of the essay with its elaborate titles was written for the publication. The typewritten title reads: “TRADITION AND THE MODERN AGE,” followed by a subtitle: “The Past and Our Tradition,” and an untitled Roman numeral I. Then, in handwriting, “MODERN AGE” is altered to: “Twentieth Century.” The subtitle is replaced with: “The Broken Thread of Tradition”; and “Tradition: End and Beginning” is added to the “I.” Then a third layer of reworking: All these changes are themselves cancelled, so that only “TRADITION AND THE MODERN AGE” — “stet” — was meant to be the title.

It is unlikely that Arendt provided the typescript of a lecture with a title, subtitle, and numbered subdivision. Even more unlikely is that she would start a lecture series with a title that differed from the one she gave to the organizers of the event. We cannot exclude the possibility, however, that the First New York Fragment began with this page before Arendt revised, enlarged and / or shortened it for the first three Gauss lectures.1

With this rather complex title page as the starting point Arendt assembled a montage that — beside the four inserts — includes passages from at least three older texts. Two pages, nine and ten, were taken out of a typescript from which — as far as we can see — nothing else has survived. The paper is much darker than all the other pages that have survived. On these pages, Arendt speaks of the “great tradition,” a notion she had stopped using in the summer of 1953, and between the lines of text discussing Marx and Nietzsche as they reflect the “break in tradition” she has at some later point typed the name of her third exemplary thinker — Kierkegaard. The page 9 bears a typed page number 18, so it is safe to assume that these passages were taken out of a longer text, written in all likelihood while Arendt was still working on the OT. Later in the typescript, affixed to the lower half of the eighteenth page, we find half a page taken out of a text Arendt had written in Palenville. Its continuation has survived as the twenty-fourth page of “Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought: The Modern Challenge to Tradition”.2 On pages 3, 7, 15-17, 19-20, we find snippets and fragments attached to the typescript, quite likely traces of the First New York Fragment.

While the three older pages definitely predate the Gauss seminars, and while all these snippets and fragments were written in all likelihood before the end of the seminars, the four layers of reworking and expanding are difficult to date. The sequence in which Arendt wrote these additions, though, can be determined.

Most confusing, at least at first sight, is the fact that the typescript contains three different series of pages that — at some point — were numbered 1a, 1b, etc. The oldest layer of reworking must be the one at the end of the typescript; these pages were renumbered only twice. We suppose that Arendt wrote these pages for the First New York Fragment or the Gauss seminars because they discuss the modern challenge to tradition in terms of the three leaps of doubt (Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche) while the fragments of the older texts discuss this challenge as a “break in tradition”.

The two other series of pages 1a, 1b, etc. might have been written for the publication. Of particular interest is page 7, which marks the beginning of the second section of the essay. The page is composed of an older top half taped over a newer page. That top half was originally numbered 2, and we identified it as the second page of the First New York Fragment. When Arendt composed a new beginning for the publication, she inserted the pages 1a, 1b, 1c [2, 3]. In a first version this insert consisted of three pages; in a later reworking, Arendt started to expand her arguments one more time, replacing the old third page, 1c,3 with a new one and adding three more pages [4, 5, 6]. This second set of inserts, starting with the rewritten 1c [4], introduces and reads the three “statements of Marx,” while the older version dealt with Marx as “being tradition conscious”.

The end of the essay remains rather mysterious. Page 6 [15] was part of the First New York Fragment; it is the last page in this convolute belonging to the fragment. The following pages must have been written and integrated into the text later because they start with 6a and end with 6h. Of all the pages that once followed page 6, nothing survived.4 If Arendt wrote the different expansions not for the lectures but rather for the publication of the essay, the “Anfang der Vorlesungsserie,” to go back to the letter to Scholem, was drafted after the fact. This also could mean that Arendt did use pages of the First New York Fragment for the “Anfang” of the Gauss seminars but that she did not read them line by line and page by page. She might have taken leave from her typescript time and again, and after the lecture she wrote down her more improvised thoughts.

Arendt’s “Denkwerkstatt”

“Tradition and the Modern Age” seems to pave the way to a new approach for Arendt’s attempts at structuring “the book”.5 It is interesting to look at the beginning of “The Modern Challenge to Tradition” to see how Arendt changed the way she argued. Both texts start with statements concerning the beginning and the end of political thinking. Both state that Aristotle and Marx mark these points. But “Tradition and the Modern Age” includes Plato in the constellation, thereby shifting the emphasis to the relation between political theory and philosophy. In this iteration, the allegory of the cave stands at the beginning of political theory and therefore raises the question of what role philosophers play in this tradition.

But how to structure an essay that concentrates on the “modern challenge to tradition” and no longer on the question of what role Karl Marx might have played in it? In the essay, two concepts stand next to each other; they both are connected to thinking about Marx but in very different ways. One concentrates on the “break in tradition”, the other on the “three leaps”. The oldest pages [9-10] speak of the “break in tradition”, a concept Arendt still considered relevant when she wrote a first draft of the Princeton lectures. In early fall of 1953, Arendt might have shifted the emphasis to thinking about the three leaps. The first insert [11-13] deals with these leaps in the 19th century: Kierkegaard’s leap from “doubt into belief,” Marx’ from “theory into action,” and Nietzsche’s from “the transcendental realm of ideas […] into the sensuality of life”. When Arendt drafted the beginning of the Gauss lectures, based on the First New York Fragment, she might have added the pages on Karl Marx [2-6] because her lectures were supposed to situate his writing in the tradition of political thought. This hypothesis would be supported by page 7 of the First New York Fragment. Here, Arendt explains that “in the following”, the continuation of the first lecture that is, she will concentrate only on Marx’ role in breaking the tradition. For the subsequent seminars, she branched out substantially, as we see in the lecture fragments. For the publication, though, Arendt stuck to a constellating approach: She did not replace the “break in tradition” by her reflections on the three “leaps”. The various attempts to find a title for the essay show this very clearly. In the end, Arendt wrote new pages 1 and 8, and she integrated handwritten numbers for the subchapters II, III, and IV. If we suppose that the old page 6 [15] is either a pre-Gauss or a Gauss page, the last eight pages show one more challenge Arendt had to meet while working on this complex. Only the last two pages of this long, long insert were written in one flow. All the other pages are cut out of different texts and pasted on new sheets of paper. Obviously, Arendt is struggling with problems she had been thinking about earlier. With a cut-out passage on page 16, Arendt turns once again to the parable of the cave, the “first turning-around” in the history of political thinking. Twice more the text will return to Plato’s parable in order to sharpen the contrast between this turning around that only involved the philosopher to those leaps or turnings around in the 19th century that fundamentally changed the meaning of “ideas”. With Descartes’ “de omnibus dubitandum est,” so the argument, doubt has occupied the realm of “truth.” The quest for truth, the philosopher’s business, has been replaced by the rule of “values” that only exist in a society with its “ever changing needs.” The text ends with Marx who “abolished the clear sky” in which the ideas could appear. What remain are the common world of human affairs — and the need for a political theory able to guide men through their world.

Since Hannah Arendt kept the typescript of “Tradition and the Modern Age” we can see how her English was transformed into a rather smooth English, in all likelihood by Philip Rahv, the editor of Partisan Review. We suppose that Arendt added three sentences for the published version and re- worked earlier sentences; all the other changes could be called “Englishing”.

Barbara Hahn

This page ends with a complete sentence and the old page 2 [7] starts with a new one, so these two pages could have matched up.


The facsimile of this page is to be found under: “Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought,” lectures, Christian Gauss Seminar in Criticism, Princeton University, Princeton, N. J., First drafts, 1953 (3 of 4 folders), p. 5 of 37.


This old 1c also matches up with page 2 [7].


Page 7 in part “II” does not fit; the other parts of the Gauss fragments don’t have a page 7.


Unfortunately, the correspondence with Partisan Review does not reveal whether Philip Rahv, the journal’s editor at the time, encouraged Hannah Arendt to prepare the essay for publication or if she herself took the initiative.