Time for Arendt: Political Temporality and the Space-Time of Freedom

“In the last analysis, the human world is always the product of man’s amor mundi, a human artifice whose potential immortality is always subject to the mortality of those who build it and the natality of those who come to live in it.”[i]

When she was interviewed in 1964 by Günter Gaus, a prominent German journalist, Hannah Arendt had only recently joined the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, having held numerous temporary academic and journalistic positions since arriving in the United States in 1941.[ii] At the outset of their conversation, now known as “What Remains? The Language Remains,”[iii] Arendt rejected Gaus’s attempt to label her a philosopher. “My profession, if one can even speak of it at all, is political theory.”[iv] Scholars of Arendt’s work often cite this part of the interview in order to punctuate the distinction she makes between thinking philosophically and thinking politically.[v] Despite her capacious knowledge of the Western philosophical tradition and her continuous engagement with philosophers from the pre-Socratics to her contemporaries, Arendt did not consider herself to be one of them. “As you know, I studied philosophy,” Arendt remarked to Gaus, “but that does not mean that I stayed with it.”[vi]

Later in the interview, Gaus invited Arendt to expand on what prompted her apostasy from philosophy, asking: “Is there a definite event in your memory that dates your turn to the political?” Arendt answered with characteristic decisiveness: “I would say February 27, 1933, the burning of the Reichstag, and the illegal arrests that followed during the same night.”[vii] Though her upbringing was fairly secular, Arendt’s effort to understand politics, her primary subject, was bound up from the first with the persecution of the Jewish people in mid-twentieth century Europe.[viii] “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew,” Arendt told Gaus in the interview.[ix]

In addition to demonstrating the significance of the fate of the Jewish people in Arendt’s intellectual trajectory (might she have “stayed with” philosophy if the rise of National Socialism had been thwarted?), the specificity of her reply to Gaus also attests to the primacy of discrete moments in time in Arendt’s political theory. Per Jonathan Schell: “it was events that set her mind in motion, and philosophy that had to adjust,”[x] a view corroborated by Arendt’s own reflections on how the horrific events of a particular day prompted her to reorient the course of her intellectual and professional life, to devote her attention to the political rather than the philosophical realm. Events — temporal happenings — are the basic unit of Arendt’s thought, the point from which her tentative and provisional analyses depart.[xi] In other words, Arendt locates the significance of politics not in static transhistorical forms, but in transitory, historical, and contingent occurrences.

Embedded in the contradistinction between the “potential immortality” of the world and “the mortality of those who build it” is temporal relationship fundamental to Arendt’s thought.[xii] While subjects such as memory and history have been extensively canvassed by Arendt scholars, little work has been done specifically on Arendt’s concept of time, which informs memory and history — and the relationship between them. The deficit of scholarly attention to time in Arendt’s work is rather surprising given her intellectual debt not only to Heidegger, for whom time was constitutive of Being and therefore inseparable from meaning, but also to Nietzsche, postulator of the eternal return and other nontraditional temporalities.[xiii]

The Prague Orloj

Time is not finitude for Arendt, which is to say, time is not subject to the laws of inevitability or reducible to unidirectional flow. The boundlessness she ascribes to action is not only spatial, but temporal. In fact, political time — in contrast to both physical and historical time — can be restored, reborn, and possibly redeemed. Arendt’s time concept should be understood as a significant and conscious departure from Being and Time. Whereas Heidegger’s project attempts to question the centering of the present (and of presence) that he says characterizes metaphysics from Aristotle through the French philosopher of time Henri Bergson,[xiv] Arendt returns to the present — that which lies between past and future — but not as a point of hypostasized fixity or stasis (like the metaphysicians Heidegger abjured), but as a “gap”, a site of possibility. Far from being an inversion of Heidegger, Arendt’s work proposes a dramatic rethinking of human beings’ relationship to time — specifically, by considering how individual mortality and subjective time experience intersect with existence in an artificially constructed entity: a political body. If the crudest summation of Heidegger is the image of life’s time flowing like sand through the proverbial hourglass, Arendt’s time concept resembles the Orloj — an intricate and extraordinary Czech timepiece from the Middle Ages, constructed to render many different temporalities at once.[xv]

In a 1977 article “Hannah Arendt and the Ordinance of Time”, Sheldon Wolin wrote: “the corruptibility of politics formed a constant theme in Hannah Arendt’s thought and it served as the basis for a vision of politics that was radical and critical.”[xvi] Yet, it is not only the vulnerability and fragility of political freedom to corruption and degradation, not only the propensity of what she terms “the social” to overtake the political, burying revolutionary treasures in the oblivion of automation — but the ever-present possibility of recovery, rebirth — and even redemption of a peculiar variety — that are constant Arendtian themes. “So long as the human condition itself is not changed” Arendt comments in the Prologue of The Human Condition, “those general human capacities which grow out of the human condition and are permanent…cannot be irretrievably lost.”[xvii]

Like Machiavelli,[xviii] whom she greatly admired, Arendt suggests that political bodies — unlike human bodies — can be reborn precisely because politics is not subject to the laws of mortality that govern organic existence. Politics is artifice, not nature. The initiatory moment or “birth” of the political community can only exert its rejuvenating potential by being prized out of linear time, by occupying an extra-temporal standpoint. Indeed, the capability of a political body to be reborn via ritual is no mere turn of phrase or whimsical metaphor. Rather, for Arendt this integral political capacity is undergirded by a theory of time that is unique to politics. Whereas for Benjamin (and first-generation critical theorists like Adorno) temporal disruption is intellectually and aesthetically fecund, for Arendt the power unleashed by a nonlinear encounters with history and memory is integral to her institutional theory of republican politics.

Among many reasons, Arendt’s political theory remains of interest to political philosophers and political actors alike, especially in the dark times of our present, because of her rejection of fatalism and the time concept it employs. Against those preaching fire and brimstone about the inevitability of our ever-nearing political rapture, Arendt would argue that we can step back from the brink, in part by acting in concert with peers and exercising judgment (confronting and bringing about the novel), and in part by retrieving lost capacities and conceptual understandings that facilitate on-going care for the common world. By acting in concert — that is, at the same time — we create new spheres of freedom. And while it may not be possible to “turn back time” it is possible to carry parts of the past with you, like an Aeneas leaving behind the smoldering Trojan ruins with an Anchises slung over your shoulder.


[i] This quote is from a lecture Arendt delivered in 1955 to conclude a course on “The History of Political Theory”. See the Epilogue of The Promise of Politics, ed. Jerome Kohn, 2005, 203. She taught this course during her time as a Visiting Professor at UC Berkeley in 1955, the year prior to her delivery of the Walgreen Foundation Lectures which would become The Human Condition.

[ii] After fleeing Germany for Paris, where she lived from 1933–1940, Arendt was briefly interned in Gurs before securing passage to New York. Since arriving in the U.S. in 1941, Arendt had held several temporary academic positions, in addition to working as an editor for Schocken Books. By this point, Arendt had taught at multiple prestigious American universities and delivered several prominent lecture series, including the 1956 Walgreen Lectures, which resulted in The Human Condition. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt, For Love of the World (second edition), Yale University Press, New Haven (2004), 390.

[iii] “‘What Remains? The Language Remains’: A Conversation with Günter Gaus” trans. Joan Stambaugh, Essays in Understanding, 1930–1954, ed. Jerome Kohn, Schocken Books, (New York 1994), 1–23. The interview took place on October 28, 1964 and was awarded the Adolf Grimme Prize. In future notes, Essays in Understanding will be abbreviated “EU”.

[iv] EU, 1.

[v] For example, Dana Villa, Revue Internationale de Philosophie, Vol. 53, №208 (2), Hannah Arendt (JUIN 1999), pp. 127–132; Richard Bernstein, Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question, MIT Press (Cambridge 1996); Christian Volk, Arendtian Constitutionalism: Law, Politics, and the Order of Freedom (Bloomsbury 2015), among others.

[vi] EU, 2.

[vii] Ibid. 4.

[viii] Young-Bruehl, 9.

[ix] EU, 12. For scholarship on the relevance of Judaism in Arendt’s work, see especially Richard J. Bernstein, Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question, MIT University Press, Cambridge (1996); Seyla Benhabib, “The Pariah and Her Shadow: Hannah Arendt’s Biography of Rahel Varnhagen” in Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995; Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb, Regions of Sorrow: Anxiety and Messianism in Hannah Arendt and W. H. Auden, Stanford University Press (Stanford 2003), 139; Eric Jacobson, “Why did Hannah Arendt Reject the Partition of Palestine?” Journal for Cultural Research, 2013, 1–24.

[x] Jonathan Schell, Introduction to On Revolution by Hannah Arendt, Penguin Books, New York, 2006, xii.

[xi] Until the end of her life, Arendt insisted that everything she had written was provisional, an attempt to understand. I interpret this to be less a gesture of modesty than a reflection of her resistance to the closure of philosophy.

[xii] A notable exception to this is Adam Lindsay, “Hannah Arendt, the problem of the absolute and the paradox of constitutionalism, or: ‘How to restart time within an inexorable time continuum’”, Philosophy and Social Criticism, 2017, Vol. 43 (10), 1022–1044. There are no book-length treatments of this topic. Dana Villa’s Arendt/Heidegger, the Fate of the Political (1996), focuses on action, but not time. Sophie Loidolt’s recent book, Phenomenology of Plurality: Hannah Arendt on Political Subjectivity (2018) locates Arendt within the phenomenological tradition — including viz. Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas, but focuses on ethics and ontology, not time. Sheldon Wolin wrote an article “Hannah Arendt and the Ordinance of Time” Social Research, Vol. 44, №1 (Spring 1977), 91–105, though the article deals less with time than with Wolin’s understanding of Arendt’s “authentic politics”. Sections of Peg Birmingham’s Hannah Arendt and Human Rights discuss Arendt and Heidegger’s theories of time. Jerome Kohn’s Introduction to Between Past and Future presents Arendt as someone who “thinks at the intersection of the past and future dimensions of human time” (xix).

[xiii] See especially Joan Stambaugh, The Problem of Time in Nietzsche, Bucknell University Press (1987).

[xiv] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Harper & Row, New York, 2008, 39 (German: 18)

[xv] The Orloj in Prague, which began keeping time in 1410, is one of the oldest clocks in the world, but its operation has not been not continuous. As of January 18, 2018 Petr Skala began conducting a major renovation to substitute aging metal gears with wooden mechanisms. The clock is being given a makeover to look more like its original medieval self. The Orloj is a paradigmatic example of the human artifice and how it captures time. In addition to minutes and hours, the Orloj tells Old Bohemian time (begins at sunset), Babylonian time (sunrise to sunset), Central European time, and Star time. In the center of the clock is the astrolabe, tracking the sun, moon, and stars. The timepiece has endured for centuries — though not without human intervention and care, like that of Skala and his forerunners.

[xvi] Sheldon Wolin, “Hannah Arendt and the Ordinance of Time,” Social Research, Vol. 44, №1 (Spring 1977), 91–105, 94.

[xvii] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Second Edition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2018, 6.

[xviii] Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, trans. Mansfield, Harvey C. and Nathan Tarcov, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1996, 209. At the beginning of 3.1 of the Discourses, Machiavelli claims that well-ordered republics “can often be renewed or indeed that through some accident outside the said order come to the said renewal. And it is a thing clearer than light that these bodies do not last if they do not renew themselves.”

Katherine Bermingham is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at the University of Notre Dame writing a dissertation on Hannah Arendt’s concept of time. Her teaching and research concentrates on feminist theory, democratic theory, and twentieth-century political thought. Her work has been published in New German Critique.