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

The Great Tradition and the Nature of Totalitarianism: Six Lectures

The New School in lower Manhattan was founded in 1919 as the New School for Social Research by progressive American intellectuals, including Charles Beard, John Dewey, and Thorstein Veblen. In 1934, under the leadership of Alvin Johnson, it established the University in Exile to provide refuge to persecuted European intellectuals fleeing Nazism, and this organization became the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science. (More recently, the Graduate Faculty adopted the original name of the university, the New School for Social Research, while the university as a whole has become simply the New School.)

Hannah Arendt’s association with The New School for Social Research was extensive, not least as a professor from 1967 until her death in 1975. The six lectures on “The Great Tradition and the Nature of Totalitarianism” that Arendt held from March 18 to April 22, 1953 represent the earliest known iteration of this relationship.1

Modeled in part on the German Volkshochschulen for adults, the New School offered evening courses that working men and women could attend. At some point in 1951 or 1952, in a context that has since slipped from documentation, Arendt had spoken with Saul Padover, a professor and dean at the New School, about giving a series of lectures in the program, and in August 1952 she wrote to her husband from France that she was considering how to use this opportunity for the benefit of the book she was writing. “Ich habe, soweit man das in Paris kann, über Padovers Vorschlag nachgedacht,” she wrote to Heinrich Blücher. “Für den Herbst kommt es nicht in Frage, und für das Frühjahr hätte man doch noch Zeit. Oder? Wenn, dann möchte ich über Marxismus reden. d. h. eigentlich über Ideologie und einige andere zentrale Elemente wie Arbeit, Geschichte etc. Was hältst Du davon? Vielleicht hat es einen Sinn, das Buch erst mal in 15 lectures zu halten. Andererseits ist mir natürlich bange, daß ich mir wieder zu viel aufhalse und den Guggenheim nicht richtig ausnutze” (ABlü, 262).

The New School Bulletin from January 5, 1953, describing the Spring Semester offerings, shows what eventually came of the invitation. The catalogue identifies Arendt as a current Guggenheim Fellow, “formerly, chief editor, Schocken Books, Inc.; executive secretary, Jewish Cultural Reconstruction; lecturer, Brooklyn College,” and the author of The Concept of Love in Augustine and The Origins of Totalitarianism.2 Her course, “The Great Tradition and the Nature of Totalitarianism,” would be given on six consecutive Wednesdays from 6:20 to 8:00 pm. The tuition was $ 8.50.

A newsletter from March 9, 1953 also announces the course. Both the Bulletin and the newsletter provide relatively detailed indications of the contents of the lectures. The descriptions in the newsletter correspond closely to the first page of the typescript, in most cases simply reproducing the first sentence of Arendt’s own outline as it has come down to us. The course catalogue from January, however, had had similar elements in a different sequence. Since this perhaps preserves an earlier scheme of Arendt’s, it is reproduced here.

Mar. 18 Traditional definitions of forms of government as inherited from Plato and outlined by Montesquieu: their essence, their principle of action, the basic experiences on which they are founded. Mar. 25 The concept of politics in Western thought since Plato and its inherent materialism. The statesman and the philosopher. The philosophical idea and the political reality of freedom. Apr. 1 The explosion of categories of thought and standards of judgment by the rise of totalitarianism. Where can appropriate categories be found to understand the nature of totalitarianism? Apr. 8 The alternative between lawful government and the totalitarian concept of law. The laws of history and of nature as laws of movement: the traditional sources of authority and the stabilizing function of legal institutions. Apr. 15 Ideology as the totalitarian principle of action. The origin of ideologies and their transformation by totalitarianism. What is “logical thinking” and which role it play in totalitarianism? Apr. 22 The basic experience of totalitarianism as distinguished from the basic experience of tyranny. Loneliness, impotence and solitude as marginal phenomena in political life. Their connection with acting, making, thinking.3

The similarities between the newsletter copy from March 9 and the first page of Arendt’s typescript indicate that that page, if not necessarily the rest of the typescript, had been written at least a week before the course began, if not earlier, and may have been designed to be reproduced and distributed. But when exactly the rest of the document was composed, whether before the course began or at some point during the lecture series, and for what purpose, is not self-evident. The pagination, which does not include the first page, separates the outline from the thirteen pages that fill out the lectures, and several characteristics of the typescript render the obvious hypothesis, that these are the notes from which Arendt taught, difficult to sustain.

Most obviously, the typescripts show none of the marginal arrows past bracketed abbreviations that are so prominent on Arendt’s other extensive lecture notes (“Ideologie und Terror,” Gauss material), and that might be expected given the widely varying lengths of the different lectures. All the handwritten changes, which cluster in the last three lectures, are additions, not the trimming and tightening we find in other typescripts prepared for oral delivery. Nor do the topics of the notes cleanly align with the indications contained in the single-page lecture outline. The first and second lectures, concerned with the methodological problem of understanding and the historical example of Montesquieu’s forms and principles of government, plausibly correspond with the initial schema, and the third lecture considers, in the words of the outline, “the traditional sources of authority and the stabilizing function of legal institutions.” But Arendt’s discussion of “laws of history and of nature as laws of movement,” which the schema suggests should also be part of the third lecture, is in the notes a large component of the fourth lecture. This in turn only reaches the subject the outline suggests will be its central concern, ideological thinking, near its close. And though the fifth lecture is centered on loneliness and solitude, it barely addresses impotence, or considers in any detail the relation of these phenomena to acting, making, or thinking. By the sixth lecture, which at four pages is by far the longest of the notes, the organized structure of the talk has disintegrated into mere enumeration and an apodictic, declaratory syntax that allows Arendt to range widely among the consequences of the issues she has raised and to anticipate many of the questions she will pose and conclusions she will propose six months later in Prince ton, but not yet to present these implications cogently to a popular audience.

The notes, in other words, begin in a secure and well-organized way and become increasingly more ad hoc and wide-ranging after the third lecture. Given the surviving shape of these notes, the editors venture the hypothesis that the initial summary was in fact composed closer to the start of the course on March 18 than the notes themselves, which are more likely an initial attempt to articulate a plausible six-part articulation of her theoretical proposal. This would explain the relatively detailed opening, with location, date, and title of the course, followed by the date of the first meeting and a clearly constructed first lecture. The second and third lectures are also deliberately structured, leading up to the central question at the foot of page 5: “What is the essence, what is the principle of action and what is the uniting experience of the totalitarian form of domination?” Having exposed the argument, however, its continuation is much less straightforward, so that from this point on the notes become exploratory, less like lecture outlines and more like Arendt’s attempts to marshal her thoughts and elaborate their implications.

In support of this, one can remark a shift in the character of the rhetorical questions after the third lecture. Earlier questions had had an expository function, introducing points Arendt is already confident of (“What is the fundament of virtue, honor, fear?”). In the later pages these take on more the character of possible objections (“How about interest? Does the tyrant not rule for his own interest?”) that may be occurring to Arendt as she writes. A note such as what we find at the top of page 9, where Arendt begins with “Ideology: (See p. 7-8),” pointing back to earlier pages in the text, seems less likely to be a move in support of a public presentation than to be a personal reminder of the background when extending an argument forward.

After the course was over, in a letter to Jaspers in May 1953, Arendt briefly describes her intense work on the upcoming “Princeton lectures,” and is moved in that context to recall immediately, “ich habe im Frühjahr auch ein bißchen an der New School gelesen, und es hat mir Spaß gemacht. Über Staatsformen” (AJa, 252). Thematically, the New School lectures present a bridge between the early concerns of “Ideology and Terror” and the Guggenheim project and the later writing in the context of the Gauss Seminars. In her original August plan, Arendt had suggested the same topic for these earlier lectures — “Marxismus … d. h. eigentlich … Ideologie und einige andere zentrale Elemente wie Arbeit, Geschichte etc.” — that she would eventually address in Princeton. In the same May 1952 letter from New York to Paris in which Blücher relayed the Princeton invitation to his wife, he had predicted “das wird Dich für dieses Jahr von der New School wohl fernhalten, denn es gibt Dir die gleiche Gelegenheit, Deine neuen Sachen ein wenig an lebenden Subjekten zu erproben, und dauert nur sechs Wochen” (ABlü, 263). Though she toyed for a bit with declining the New School invitation, once it was scheduled for the spring she used it to try out on “lebenden Subjekten” a preliminary version of her argument six months before the Gauss Seminars, at a point when methodological questions that center on historical understanding and concern with the immediate texture of totalitarian experience at the individual level were giving way to the philosophical motifs that characterize both the final lecture here and the “Modern Challenge to Tradition”, from the various political experiences not accounted for in the tradition, to the nineteenth-century jumps through and out of it by Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Marx.

Arendt’s correspondence has preserved a glimpse of these lectures. Her friend, the art historian Julie Braun-Vogelstein, who seems to have been in attendance, lets us overhear a moment of the third lecture specifically. “Hannah, der gestrige Vortrag war besonders gut,” begins the note from April 2.

das ließe sich genauer begründen, aber ich will lieber auf etwas hinweisen, das mir aufgefallen ist. Vielleicht verdeutlichen Sie – auf Rücksicht Ihrer Hörer – den Unterschied zwischen natural law (lex naturae) und the law of nature, das heute so genannt wird. Es ist wohl kaum ein Katholik unter Ihren Hörern, die daher kaum irgend etwas vom Naturrecht wissen mögen. Ich machte, da ich gleich diesen Verdacht hatte, die Probe mit Ken Bagley – und fand meine Befürchtung bestätigt. Ein paar Worte zu Beginn Ihres nächsten Vortrags könnte etwaige Verwirrung beseitigen. Aber besser als Sie diese Aufgabe anpacken, vor einer solchen Hörerschaft zu sprechen, kann sie gar nicht erfüllt werden.

Lecture three, the shortest of the lectures in the outline, does indeed make early on a “Distinction between Source of Authority (God or ius naturale) and positive laws”, and to judge by the religious context Braun-Vogelstein suggests, it was this concept that she takes to be a potential occasion for confusion. What the theological concept of natural law might be confused with, she feels, is what is generally referred to as “the law of nature.” Whether this alternative term is merely a gesture toward an untutored notion of natural causal regularity or refers back to “the laws of history and of nature as laws of movement” to which Arendt’s initial outline makes reference (but which are not invoked in the notes for lecture III), is difficult to say. Other texts from this time suggest that Arendt had definite ideas when she referenced “laws of movement” of history and nature: Marx’s dialectical class-struggle on the one hand and Darwinian natural selection on the other. Braun-Vogelstein’s query is not detailed enough to settle whether Arendt did in fact discuss Darwinian nature as a source of legislative authority on April 1, or simply the traditional concept of ius naturale.

What Braun-Vogelstein’s letter does remind us, though, is that in these New School lectures Arendt was speaking to a biographically heterogeneous and educationally less well-prepared audience, which separates them from the Gauss Seminars before poets and professors. This was not, from Arendt’s point of view, a disadvantage. What she discussed were by definition matters of public concern, and any educational concessions she may have made were far from intellectual simplifications. Braun-Vogelstein’s second note, sent the day after the final lecture had been given in the evening of April 22, shows us Arendt’s emancipatory posture in these months.

Hannah, es war eine Freude, Ihnen zuzuhören und zu sehen, wie Sie die Menschen zum Denken aufzurütteln wußten. Ihre Intensität haben freilich nur sehr Wenige, aber selbst wer matter ist, mußte einen neuen Antrieb erfahren.4

James McFarland

The beginning does not seem to have been auspicious. In a letter to Carl Friedrich from November 9 1954, Arendt apologizes for not being able to attend his announced lecture at the New School on “Ideology and Totalitarianism.” “I would, of course, very much like to come,” she writes — “ideology and totalitarianism, so erstens sowieso und zweitens überhaupt. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to. I had a rather unpleasant experience with the gentlemen of the General Seminar about a year ago which makes it impossible for me to attend their conferences.” Just what this experience was, and how it was eventually put to rest, remain open historical questions. (CG, Friedrich, Carl J.)


New School Bulletin, vol. 10, Jan. 5, 1953, no. 19, 119. Arendt had lectured in the history department at Brooklyn College, (on “Dictatorships in Modern European History” if contemporary newspaper reports are to be believed), as early as 1946. Cf. “Course to be Given by Ex-Advisor on U. S. Reich Regime,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, vol. 105, Sept. 8, 1946, no. 247, 39.


New School Bulletin, vol. 10, Jan. 5, 1953, no. 19., 14-15.


This and the earlier quotation from letters of Julie Braun-Vogelstein to HA, April 2 and 23, 1953. (CG, Braun-Vogelstein, Julie)