Author Hannah Arendt“The long alliance between religion and authority,” Hannah Arendt wrote in 1953, “does not necessarily prove that the concept of authority is itself of a religious nature.” This was a bold remark to make, for Arendt knew well the problem that had perplexed the 18th-century revolutionaries in France and America. Rebelling against European absolutism and the divine right of kings, the founders of modern democracy feared that without a sacred sanction for the new body politic, the written constitutions would lack authority and their struggle for political freedom would be in vain. In her book, On Revolution, Arendt documented the consequences of this dilemma, highlighting the theological, or crypto-theological, references to inalienable rights and the sovereign will of le peuple that punctuated the constitutional declarations of the new age.

Arendt was a secular German Jew who fled Europe in 1941 to become one of America’s most respected political philosophers. Best known outside her adopted country for the thought-provoking subtitle of her book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann – A Report On the Banality of Evil – Arendt engaged with the Jewish question in political, not religious, terms. She supported the movement for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and, hoping to change the centuries-old self-image of the Jew-as-victim, even called for the formation of a Jewish army to fight alongside the Allies. But she was, at the same time, vehemently opposed to the idea of a “Jewish state”, and showed little interest in the religious implications of Jewish settlement in the Holy Land. Instead she advocated a bi-national solution based on the political integration of Jews and Arabs.

Arendt opposed Zionist nationalism because she believed it replicated the same “racist chauvinism” from which the Jews had been fleeing. The reversion to an ethnic or religious conception of statehood, like the 18th-century revolutionaries’ appeal to divine sanction, was in her view the common temptation of all political actors when, refusing passivity and exclusion from public life, they faced the challenge – the angst-inducing “abyss” – of a secular freedom without transcendent guarantee.

What the Jews lacked, and what political freedom offered, was “worldliness”. For Arendt, worldliness is the attachment people feel to a cultural and material world which lies between separate individuals, which shows itself differently to their different standpoints, and whose three-dimensional reality is revealed only when those standpoints are shared and exchanged. When people care enough about the world to want to talk about it, to make it the object of their common concern, and to ensure its preservation beyond their own lifespans, then they are “worldly”. Politics, for Arendt, was the quintessential expression of worldliness, as it is political actors, gathering together in the public realm, who create the “interspace” of the world. “The more peoples there are in the world who stand in some particular relationship with one another,” Arendt wrote, “the more world there is to form between them, and the larger and richer that world will be.”

Although Arendt sometimes wrote, controversially, of a division between perishable “nature” and stable “world”, a far more telling opposition in her thinking is between the world and the self. For the preoccupation with the self that is so distinctive of capitalist modernity is always a withdrawal from the common world, which exists in between separate selves rather than inside them. “Self-interest is interested in the self,” Arendt stressed, and “because of the human condition of mortality, the self qua self cannot reckon in terms of long-range interests, i.e. the interest of a world that survives its inhabitants.” Arendt also understood that this world was not just human-made artefacts, but was also the natural world on which humans depended. Speaking of the instability and precariousness of modern life, and the treatment of everything as an expendable resource, she expressed her fear of a “twofold loss of the world – the loss of nature and the loss of human artifice”.

In The Human Condition Arendt noted the worldliness of the citizens of Greek antiquity, who competed with the eternal flux of nature and the timeless reign of the gods by aspiring to make monuments and deeds so splendid as to shine on through the centuries. The attitude that scorned the love of life (“philopsychia”) typical of the slave who was unwilling to risk death by trying to escape to freedom, was then overturned by the Christian church, which treated life as something sacred and potentially immortal, and the human-made world as corrupt, profane and perishable.

Although Christianity inverted the classical hierarchy of life and world, and in doing so set the tone for the “world-alienation” of modernity, Arendt was by no means hostile to religious thought. In what she describes as the “political philosophy” of the fourth-century theologian St. Augustine, for instance, she found the priceless insight that freedom, the ability to begin something new and unexpected, is only possible because of the “divinity of birth”, that is, because each newcomer to the world is an absolute beginning “before whom there was nobody” (Augustine). And in Jesus of Nazareth’s belief in the power of forgiving, she also saw a valid commentary on the way forgiveness, by interrupting the predictable causal chain of trespass and vengeance, substitutes action for re-action, and in doing so exemplifies humans’ naked capacity to begin anew. This was, Arendt insisted, “the infinite improbability which occurs regularly.” Action, she wrote, is “the one miracle-working faculty of man.”

Arendt was also keen to distinguish modern religious belief from ideological fundamentalism – the latter, as Nazism and Bolshevism had demonstrated, being a far more dangerous threat to civilisation than the former. Arendt claims that the 17th-century scientific revolution not only cleared the way for a secular understanding of the world, but also converted religious convictions from faith into belief. When scientists began to show that the appearances of things were no guarantee of their truth – that the earth revolves around the sun, for example, quite contrary to the evidence of the senses – then faith in both natural and divine revelation collapsed. From that point on, Arendt argues, belief as much as non-belief carried with it the secular spirit of doubt from which it originated, with true “faith” surviving only in the guise of simpletons and primitives (as conveyed in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, for example).

The modern religious believer is therefore burdened with an insoluble tension between doubt and belief, and being true to this tension is a mark of integrity. But Arendt saw no such conflict in the mindset of the ideological fanatic, and therefore ridiculed the idea, proposed by some lazy sociologists, that a political ideology such as communism could be treated as a kind of “secular religion”. For unlike both atheists and religious believers, the followers of political ideologies are trained not to ask questions. “Theology treats man as a reasonable being that asks questions and whose reason needs reconciliation even if he is expected to believe in that which is beyond reason,” Arendt explained. The ideology of racial supremacy or of historical necessity, by contrast, “treats man as though he was a falling stone, endowed with the gift of consciousness and therefore capable of observing, while he is falling, Newton’s law of gravitation.”

For Arendt, it is the asking of questions, and the exposure of such questions to multiple viewpoints, which is the source of human worldliness, and all forms of absolutism – whether this is the truth of the scientist, the faith of the worshipper, the dogma of the ideologue, or even the beauty of the artist – are a threat to this when they seek to close off dialogue with the force of a falling stone. Quoting Pericles, who recommended that love of truth and beauty be moderated by political judgement, Arendt warned that the highest human virtue can become a “barbarian vice” if it does not allow for the interplay of different tastes, choices and perspectives. Taste, which for Arendt is a pre-eminently political faculty, sets limits to the immoderate love of beauty, for example. It “humanises” and “debarbarises the world of the beautiful by not being overwhelmed by it”, and in doing so “creates a culture.”

Humanism, in Arendt’s interpretation, is a product of what Cicero called the “cultura anim”, that cultivated spirit which is formed when individuals rise above the “coercion of specialisation”, freeing themselves from the demands of particular values and interests in order to enjoy the company of their peers. This is also how Arendt envisaged the problem of authority could be managed by political communities who, repudiating divine sanction and the disciplinary idea of an avenging God, enrolled their citizens in an ongoing conversation about the world. In doing so they gave that world both the weight and certainty of a common past, and the mutual promise of a common future, and this became the authority they honoured and respected.

Today, Arendt’s confidence in the humanising role of politics faces a stern and searching test. Education, far from cultivating the art of discrimination and taste, has become an ever-more specialised route to an ever-more uncertain world of work, and governments have blindly staked their authority on their technocratic management of a financial system that is out of control. We shouldn’t be surprised if the lawlessness of the market is mirrored in the violent opportunism of Britain’s urban youth. But nor should we be surprised if, with each new generation, the possibility of a human world is revived and discovered anew.

Finn Bowring is the author of Hannah Arendt: A Critical Introduction (Pluto, 2011).