Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Arendt on Legends and Civilization

There is affinity between legends and philosophy; the legends are not ideologies, but by giving shape to new gods and inspiring a sense of identity in people, they can give birth to a culture with a new kind of philosophical thinking. In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, (Chapter 7: “Race and Bureaucracy”), Hannah Arendt writes:

"Legends have always played a powerful role in the making of history. Man, who has not been granted the gift of undoing, who is always an unconsulted heir of other men's deeds, and who is always burdened with a responsibility that appears to be the consequence of an unending chain of events rather than conscious acts, demands an explanation and interpretation of the past in which the mysterious key to his future destiny seems to be concealed. Legends were the spiritual foundations of every ancient city, empire, people, promising safe guidance through the limitless spaces of the future. Without ever relating facts reliably, yet always expressing their true significance, they offered a truth beyond realities, a remembrance beyond memories.

"Legendary explanations of history always served as belated corrections of facts and real events, which were needed precisely because history itself would hold man responsible for deeds he had not done and for consequences he had never foreseen. The truth of the ancient legends—what gives them their fascinating actuality many centuries after the cities and empires and peoples they served have crumbled to dust—was nothing but the form in which past events were made to fit the human condition in general and political aspirations in particular. Only in the frankly invented tale about events did man consent to assume his responsibility for them, and to consider past events his past. Legends made him master of what he had not done, and capable of dealing with what he could not undo. In this sense, legends are not only among the first memories of mankind, but actually the true beginning of human history."

In The World of Polis, Eric Voegelin says that the philosophical tradition begins not with Socrates and Plato but with Homer. He says that the Homeric poems led to the formation of Hellenic cultural consciousness by giving it a common past and by superimposing the gods of its pantheon on the various local cults. This means that the Homeric poems contributed to the creation of a culture in which philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle could do their work.

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