The Great Tradition

Social Research: An International Quarterly 74, no. 3 (2007): 713-726. Written in 1953.


The Hannah Arendt Bluecher Literary Trust has granted permission to Social Research to publish for the first time a lecture given by Arendt in 1953, the provenance of which is her so-called Marx manuscripts. The lecture here entitled “The Great Tradition” has been divided into two parts, the first of which, subtitled “Law and Power,” appears in the current issue, and the second, subtitled “Ruling and Being Ruled,” will appear in the next issue. The Marx manuscripts, as they go on, have less and less to do with Karl Marx, but even when, as here, he is not named or his thought directly addressed, he remains, in one important respect, in the background. In the first part of “The Great Tradition” the relation between law and power, and in the second part the conception of government as ruling and being ruled, are analyzed by Arendt as fundamental elements in the tradition of political thought; what the reader needs to be aware of (and this is gone into in depth in earlier parts of the manuscripts), is that the lasting importance of Marx to Arendt is his having brought the tradition to its end by returning it to its beginning. The tradition began when Plato replaced action with philosophy, and ended when Marx transformed philosophy into action. In both its beginning and its end—and this is why Marx himself remains within the tradition—the pre-philosophic and perhaps antiphilosophic experience of freedom in action, Arendt’s primary political concern, is missing.

Social Research