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

“Authority and Freedom”. Lecture Series at New York University

The first invitation to contribute to a lecture series in the program of general education at New York University came via telephone. On June 8, 1953, William Gruen, Professor of Education in the Department of the History and Philosophy of Education, wrote to Hannah Arendt: “As I told you, the lectures are scheduled for Monday evenings 8.10 to 9.55 and are given under the auspices of the Division of General Education of New York University. They are usually attended by about 60 to 70 well-educated persons. It is not likely that more than a few of the audience will be specialists in the subject of the various lectures. The University has provided an honorarium of $ 75 for each lecture.”1

These lecture series or the “the visiting professors course,” as Gruen called them in his letter, were regular events at NYU. In the spring of 1953 the topic was “The Impact of Science on Contemporary Thought,”2 and for the fall, the Division of General Education planned a series on “Authority and Freedom.” The programs of the two series show that it was the usual practice not to invite a different “visiting professor” for each and every lecture but rather to ask the invitees to present more than once. As Gruen writes, Horace Kallen and Hans Kohn had already agreed to deliver eight of the fifteen lectures; Arendt was supposed to give two. 3

With his letter, Gruen included a “draft of the lectures”: “the titles and topics are tentative and will in all likelihood undergo considerable modification to meet the preferences of individual lectures as closely as possible.” For Arendt’s lectures these “tentative titles” are “Theories of the ruling class. An examination of the theories of class rule; Marx, Proudhon, Pareto, Moson, Burnham” and “Marxism a century after Marx. Social philosophy in the light of political history of Marxism”.

Both topics are not exactly Arendt’s, so it does not come as a surprise that she suggested different titles that kept changing over the course of the correspondence. In an undated letter, written probably on the same day as Gruen’s, Arendt writes:

Since you permitted to change the subjects, I should like to suggest: 1. Marx’s theory of class rule and its historical traditional background. 2. The Marxian concept of Man as animal laborans seen in the light of modern history. The reason why I did not use your suggestion for the title of the second lecture is that I intend to make a distinction between ‘labor’ and ‘work’ But if you object to have a latin word in the title, please change it.

Two months later, on August 6, Gruen sent a reworked list of topics in which Arendt is now supposed to speak on “The Marxist theory of class rule” and “Marx’ concept of man as worker”. In his letter, though, we read that Arendt’s “two lectures on Marxism appear a little too disassociated from the topics immediately preceding and succeeding them. I wonder if you could not reword these titles in order to suggest some ordered succession, some sequential relationship, in the lecture topics.”

In her response, written two days later in Palenville on the recognizable typewriter with the incomplete ‘l’ Arendt agrees: “I welcome your suggestion to change the emphasis in my lecture topics. May I propose as title for the first lecture: ‘The breakdown of Authority in the modern world’ or ‘The broken thread of Tradition’. The second lecture I should like to call: ‘The rise of Labor’. / If you accept these changes, the topic of class-rule would almost be omitted; but after having seen the whole series, I feel that this topic does not quite fit. I also omitted the name of Marx from the titles, because you mention no other names in the course.”

As the titles on Arendt’s typescripts of the lectures show, she kept the first and modified the second title: For “Breakdown of Authority” she prepared a rather detailed outline of six numbered stages over three pages; for “The Concept of Men as Laborer”, her papers only hold one page, covering three numbered sections of her presentation. This outline does seem to realize in broad terms the early points Arendt had listed on another page that has survived. A handwritten note “NYU Nov. 1953” in Arendt’s hand appears at the top of what is probably an earlier 14-point schematization on work and labor that shows that Arendt had planned to speak on many more aspects of her topic. It is not unlikely, then, that one or more further pages of the lecture outline were written, and that it originally was quite similar in length and structure to its companion. If so, these pages have been lost.

The book that Gruen wanted to create out of the lecture series never materialized. Since no more letters concerning the project have survived, we do not know why it did not.

Barbara Hahn

The amount equals about $ 680 today.


In his letter to HA, Gruen included the program of this series, organized by the Austrian-American physicist Philipp G. Frank. (CU, New York University, New York, N. Y.) All letters quoted here are to be found in this folder.


The draft of the program, included with Gruen’s letter of August 6, 1953, shows that Harold Lasswell would deliver two and Richard McKeon one of the lectures; ibid.