The history of humanity is not a hotel where someone can rent a room whenever it suits him; nor is it a vehicle which we board or get out of at random. Our past will be for us a burden beneath which we can only collapse for as long as we refuse to understand the present and fight for a better future. Only then—but from that moment on—will the burden become a blessing, that is, a weapon in the battle for freedom.
-Hannah Arendt, “Moses or Washington” (March 27, 1942)
This eloquent quote from Hannah Arendt moves through a series of metaphors for historical consciousness. The first two, history is a hotel, and history is a vehicle, are rejected as misleading. Hotels and vehicles are both transitional spaces, areas inhabited on a temporary basis, not permanent dwellings. History is not a place we visit for a short period of time, or a place we merely use to get from point A to point B. Arendt further implies that history is not a commodity to be bought and sold, used and disposed of according to our mood. But this is less a statement of fact than an admonition, in response to the fact that it is indeed possible for individuals to reject and deny their past, to ignore and abandon their history. It is a commonplace to say that we cannot choose our parents, and the history of humanity that Arendt is concerned with is, after all, an extension of our personal and family histories.
As an admonition, Arendt’s remarks may seem to be a simple restatement of George Santayana’s famous 1905 quote, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And clearly, she shares in this sentiment about the importance of collective memory and the need to learn from the errors of previous eras. But she goes beyond this simple formulation by invoking the metaphor of history as a burden. History has gravity, history has weight, and the longer the historical memory, the heavier the baggage that accompanies it. Historical mass accumulates over time, and also through innovations in communications. In oral cultures, where writing is absent, history as we understand it does not exist; instead there is myth and legend, preserved through oral tradition by way of continued repetition via oral performance. Given the limitations of human memory, details about the past are forgotten within a generation or two, and the main function of myth and legend is to reflect and explain present circumstances. This collective amnesia allows for a great deal of cultural flexibility and social homeostasis, a freedom from the burden of history that literate cultures take up. The written word first makes possible chronological recordkeeping, and later historical narrative framed as an ongoing progression of events; this linear conception of time replaces the cyclical past of oral tradition, and what Mircea Eliade referred to as the myth of eternal return. And so we hear the complaint of school children in generation after generation, that history is so much harder now than it was for their parents, because now there is so much more of it than ever before.
History is a burden, one that becomes too much to bear if all we are doing is living in the past, in rigid adherence to a fixed and unchanging tradition. But Arendt adds the complementary metaphor of history as a blessing. The burden can become a blessing if we use the past to understand the present, to serve the present, not to overwhelm or command the present. The past can inform the present, history helps us to see why things are the way they are, why we do the things we do; being mindful of the past is a means to help fulfill Arendt’s goal of thinking what we are doing. But it is not enough simply to live in the present, and for the present. We also have to look towards the future, to work for progress in the moral, ethical, and social sense, to enlarge the scope of human freedom. And in light of this goal, Arendt invokes her fifth and final metaphor for history: history is a weapon. It is a weapon not to destroy or dominate others, or at least that is not what Arendt intends it to be, but rather a sword of liberty, an instrument to be used in the fight against oppression.
This quote reflects Arendt’s overriding concern with human freedom. The battle for freedom that she refers to is a collective struggle, not an individual quest. It can only be achieved by political cooperation and unity, not by solitary escape from tyranny. The commonly used phrase in western cultures, individual freedom, while not without value, all too easily eclipses the necessity of freedom as a shared responsibility, and in excess becomes oxymoronic. As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., so eloquently put it, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and “no one is free while others are oppressed.” Freedom for all, shared freedom, requires a sense of affiliation, kinship, connection, which in turn requires a sense of continuity over time. Just as individual memory is intimately related to individual identity, our collective memory is the key to group identity. History is the foundation of community.
Historical consciousness, which is derived from literacy, did not become widespread until after the diffusion of typography. In addition to making written history widely available, print media such as calendars and periodicals made individuals aware of their place in history as never before, down to the basic knowledge of the year, month, and date that we all take for granted, not to mention awareness of our date of birth and age. And as the great historian of printing, Elizabeth Eisenstein explains, more than any other factor, it was the printing revolution that gave rise to modernity. The irony is that as printing made the past more accessible, it also made it seem less valuable, resulting in modernity’s ahistorical tendencies. Focus shifted from venerating tradition to revering progress, from looking back to origins to looking forward for originality. This is exemplified by the fact that printing gave us two new literary forms, the news, and the novel.
And so we get Henry Ford saying, “history is bunk,” and dystopian novels like Brave New World and 1984 portraying future societies where history is either deleted or subject to constant revision. Without a sense of the past, sensitivity to the future is undermined, and with the advent of instantaneous electronic communications beginning with telegraphy in the 19th century, more and more emphasis has been placed on the now, the present tense, leading us to lose touch with both the past and the future. Conceptions of the past have also been affected by the rise of image culture, beginning with photography in the 19th century, so that a coherent sense of linear history came to be replaced by a discontinuous, and therefore incoherent collection of snapshots evoking nostalgia, as Susan Sontag observed in On Photography. What Arendt makes clear is that contemporary present-minded ahistoricism risks more than Santayana’s Sisyphean purgatory, but a true hell of oppression and slavery.
So far, I have stressed a universal interpretation of this quote, and ignored its particular context. Arendt’s admonition originates in a column she wrote for a Jewish newspaper, Aufbau, published in New York for German-speaking Jews, as part of a critique of the Reform movement in Judaism. The movement originated in 19th century Germany, as a response to the Enlightenment, and the Emancipation initiated by Napoleon, wherein Jews were released from ghetto confinement and given a measure of equal rights and citizenship.
To accommodate their newly established status, the Reform movement sought to recast Judaism in the image of Protestantism, as just another religious sect. Apart from a liberalizing and modernizing of worship and religious requirements, this meant abandoning Jewish identity as a people, as a nation in exile, so as to give full political allegiance to the new nation-states of the west, and embrace a new national identity as citizens of Germany, or France, or England, or the United States. Consequently, the Reform movement rejected Zionism and made loyalty to the nation of one’s birth a religious duty. Jewish identity and tradition were thereby reduced, compartmentalized as only a form of religious belief and practice, their political significance abandoned.
Arendt’s criticism is consonant with Jewish tradition, as the Torah repeatedly asks the Jewish people to remember, to remember the Exodus, to remember the revelation at Mount Sinai, to remember God’s laws and commandments, to remember God’s commitment to social justice. Rather than make an argument for a return to Orthodoxy, however, Arendt’s concern is characteristically philosophical. Immediately before concluding her column with the passage quoted above, Arendt makes a more specific appeal regarding models of political leadership and moral guidance:
As long as the Passover story does not teach the difference between freedom and slavery, as long as the Moses legend does not call to mind the eternal rebellion of the heart and mind against slavery, the “oldest document of human history” will remain dead and mute to no one more than the very people who once wrote it. And while all of Christian humanity has appropriated our history for itself, reclaiming our heroes as humanity’s heroes, there is paradoxically a growing number of those who believe they must replace Moses and David with Washington or Napoleon. Ultimately, this attempt to forget our own past and to find youth again at the expense of strangers will fail—simply because Washington’s and Napoleon’s heroes were named Moses and David.
Written in the dark times that followed Hitler’s rise to power, the outbreak of the Second World War, and the establishment of Eichmann’s concentration camps, Arendt’s words are all the more poignant and powerful in their call for taking pride in the Jewish tradition of fighting for freedom and justice, and for an awareness that the cause of liberty and human rights have their roots in that most ancient of documents.
Arendt’s criticisms of the excesses of Reform Judaism were widely shared, and the movement itself changed dramatically in response to the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. Reform Judaism reversed its stance on Zionism, and remains a staunch supporter of the Jewish state, albeit with a willingness to engage in criticism of Israeli government policies and decisions. At the same time, Reform religious observance, while still distinct from that of the Orthodox and Conservative branches, has gradually restored many elements of traditional worship over the years. And the celebration of Jewish culture and identity has become normalized during the past half century.
For example, witness Aly Raisman’s gold medal-winning gymnastic routine at the recently completed London Olympics, performed to the tune of Hava Nagila; Keith Stern, the rabbi at the Reform synagogue that Aly attends, explained that ” it indicates Aly’s Jewish life is so integrated into her entire soul, that I don’t think she was looking to make a statement as a Jew, I think it was so natural to her that it’s more like, why wouldn’t she use the Hora? It shows again her confidence and tradition in a really fundamental way.”
Raisman’s musical selection made an important statement as well, in light of the International Olympics Committee’s decision not to have a moment of silence during the opening ceremonies to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in a terrorist attack. I think that Arendt would be nodding in approval at the way in which the teenage captain of the United States women’s gymnastics team, in her own way, followed the example of Moses and David.
Arendt’s passage about history and freedom is a fitting one, I believe, for a Quote of the Week post scheduled to appear on the same day as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is also said to be the birthday of the world. The calendar year now turns to 5773, and 5,773 years is roughly the age of history itself, of recorded history, of written records, which originate in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. And while Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are referred to as the High Holy Days, and are popularly thought to be the most important in Jewish tradition, in truth it is the Passover that is the oldest, and most significant, of our holidays, lending further support to Arendt’s argument. But even more important than Passover is the weekly observance of the Sabbath day, which is mandated by the Fourth Commandment. And in the new Sabbath liturgy recently adopted by the American Reform movement, there is a prayer adapted from a passage in the book Exodus and Revolution by political philosopher Michael Walzer, that is worth sharing in this context:
Standing on the parted shores of history
We still believe what we were taught
Before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;
That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
That there is a better place, a promised land;
That the winding way to that promise
Passes through the wilderness.
That there is no way to get from here to there
Except by joining hands, marching together.
The message of this prayer is that only by working together can we transform the burden of history into a blessing, only by working together can we wield the shared history of humanity in the service of human freedom and social justice. This is what Arendt wanted us to understand, to commit to memory, and to learn by heart.