Take Hannah Arendt’s Final Exam for Her 1961 Course “On Revolution”

After her analy­sis of total­i­tar­i­an­ism in Nazi Ger­many and Stalin’s Sovi­et Union, Han­nah Arendt turned her schol­ar­ly atten­tion to the sub­ject of revolution—namely, to the French and Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tions. How­ev­er, the first chap­ter of her 1963 book On Rev­o­lu­tion opens with a para­phrase of Lenin about her own time: “Wars and rev­o­lu­tions… have thus far deter­mined the phys­iog­no­my of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.”

Arendt wrote the book on the thresh­old of many wars and rev­o­lu­tions yet to come, but she was not par­tic­u­lar­ly sym­pa­thet­ic to the left­ist turn of the 1960s. On Rev­o­lu­tion favors the Amer­i­can Colonists over the French Sans Culottes and Jacobins. The book is in part an intel­lec­tu­al con­tri­bu­tion to anti-Com­mu­nism, one of many ide­olo­gies, Arendt writes, that “have lost con­tact with the major real­i­ties of our world”?

What are those real­i­ties? “War and rev­o­lu­tion,” she argues, “have out­lived all their ide­o­log­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tions… no cause is left but the most ancient of all, the one, in fact, that from the begin­ning of our his­to­ry has deter­mined the very exis­tence of pol­i­tics, the cause of free­dom ver­sus tyran­ny.” This sounds like pam­phle­teer­ing, but Arendt did not use such abstrac­tions light­ly. As one of the fore­most schol­ars of ancient Greek and mod­ern Euro­pean phi­los­o­phy, she was emi­nent­ly qual­i­fied to define her terms.

Her stu­dents, on the oth­er hand, might have strug­gled with such weighty con­cepts as “rev­o­lu­tion,” “rights, “free­dom,” etc. which can so eas­i­ly become mean­ing­less slo­gans with­out sub­stan­tive elab­o­ra­tion and “con­tact with real­i­ty.” Arendt was a thor­ough teacher. Once her stu­dents left her class, they sure­ly had a bet­ter grasp on the intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy. Such under­stand­ing con­sti­tut­ed Arendt’s life’s work, and it was through teach­ing that she devel­oped and refined the ideas that became On Rev­o­lu­tion.

Arendt began research for the book at Prince­ton, where she was appoint­ed the first woman to serve as a full pro­fes­sor in 1953. Through­out the 50s and ear­ly 60s, she taught at Berke­ley, Colum­bia, Cor­nell, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, and North­west­ern before join­ing the fac­ul­ty of the New School. In 1961, she taught a North­west­ern sem­i­nar called “On Rev­o­lu­tion.” Just above, you can see the course’s final exam. (View it in a larg­er for­mat here.) If you’re won­der­ing why she gave the test in March, per­haps it’s because the fol­low­ing month, she board­ed a plane to cov­er the Adolf Eich­mann tri­al for The New York­er.

What did Arendt want to make sure that her stu­dents under­stood before she left? See a tran­scrip­tion of the exam ques­tions below. We see the two poles of her lat­er argu­ment com­ing into focus, the French and the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideas. The lat­ter exam­ple has been seen by many crit­i­cal philoso­phers as hard­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary at all, giv­en that it was pri­mar­i­ly waged in the inter­ests of mer­chants and slave-own­ing plan­ta­tion own­ers. It was, as one his­to­ri­an puts it, “a rev­o­lu­tion in favor of gov­ern­ment.”

This crit­i­cism is like­ly the basis of Arendt’s final ques­tion on the test. But in her eru­dite argu­ment, the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion is foun­da­tion­al to use of “rev­o­lu­tion” as a polit­i­cal term of art. As Arendt writes in a late 60s lec­ture, re-dis­cov­ered in 2017, “pri­or to the two great rev­o­lu­tions at the end of the 18th cen­tu­ry and the spe­cif­ic sense it then acquired, the word ‘rev­o­lu­tion’ was hard­ly promi­nent in the vocab­u­lary of polit­i­cal thought or prac­tice.” Rather, it main­ly had astro­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance.

Arendt saw all sub­se­quent world rev­o­lu­tions as par­tak­ing of the twinned log­ics of the 18th cen­tu­ry. “Its polit­i­cal usage was metaphor­i­cal,” she says, “describ­ing a move­ment back into some pre-estab­lished point, and hence a motion, a swing­ing back to a pre-ordained order.” Gen­er­al­ly, that order has been pre-ordained by the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies them­selves. See if your under­stand­ing of rev­o­lu­tion­ary his­to­ry is up to Arendt’s ped­a­gog­i­cal stan­dards, below, and get a more com­pre­hen­sive his­to­ry of rev­o­lu­tion from the read­ings on recent course syl­labus­es here, here, and here.


Answer at least five of the fol­low­ing ques­tions:

  1. What is the ori­gin of the word “rev­o­lu­tion”?

How was the word orig­i­nal­ly used in polit­i­cal lan­guage?

  1. Iden­ti­fy the fol­low­ing dates:

The 14th of July

The 9th of Ther­mi­dore

The 18th of Bru­maire

  1. Who wrote The Rights of Man?

Who wrote Reflec­tions on the French Rev­o­lu­tion?

What was the con­nec­tion between the two books?

  1. Who was Creve­coeur? Give title of his book.
  2. Enu­mer­ate some authors and books that played a role in the rev­o­lu­tions?
  3. What is the dif­fer­ence between abso­lutism and a “lim­it­ed monar­chy”?
  4. Who is the author of The Spir­it of the Laws?
  5. Which author had the great­est influ­ence on the men of the French Rev­o­lu­tion?
  6. What is meant by the phrase “state of nature”?
  7. The fol­low­ing words are of Greek ori­gin; give their Eng­lish equiv­a­lent: monarchy—oligarchy—aristocracy—democracy.

Write a short essay of no more than four pages on one of the fol­low­ing top­ics:

  1. It is a main the­sis of R.R. Palmer’s The Age of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rev­o­lu­tion that “the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion was an event with­in an Atlantic civ­i­liza­tion as a whole.” Explain and dis­cuss.

  2. Clin­ton Rossiter asserts that “America’s debt to the idea of social con­tract is so huge as to defy mea­sure­ment.” Explain and dis­cuss.

  3. Dif­fer­ences and sim­i­lar­i­ties between the Amer­i­can and the French Rev­o­lu­tion.

  4. Con­nect on pos­si­ble mean­ings of the phrase: Pur­suit of hap­pi­ness.

  5. Describe Melville’s atti­tude to the French Rev­o­lu­tion in Bil­ly Budd.

  6. The Amer­i­can Revolution—was there any?

via Saman­tha Hill

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Han­nah Arendt Explains How Pro­pa­gan­da Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Moral­i­ty: Insights from The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism

Han­nah Arendt Explains Why Democ­ra­cies Need to Safe­guard the Free Press & Truth … to Defend Them­selves Against Dic­ta­tors and Their Lies

Large Archive of Han­nah Arendt’s Papers Dig­i­tized by the Library of Con­gress: Read Her Lec­tures, Drafts of Arti­cles, Notes & Cor­re­spon­dence

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Nancy R Fridlind says:

    I was going to remark that this looks like a first semes­ter exam to me. Of course, that would make
    Total­i­tar­i­an­ism the second–and per­haps end­less. I would love to have stud­ied with this amaz­ing thinker. I am not sure if she orig­i­nat­ed the dis­tin­guish­ing con­trast between rev­o­lu­tion as change return­ing to a past struc­ture (in a socio-polit­i­cal sense, as the French) and that result­ing in a new (the Amer­i­can), but this remains a pow­er­ful com­cept to me. With­out war­fare, I have hope that Coun­cil may even­tu­al­ly rise as a new (grass-roots) source of change where com­mu­ni­ty and polit­i­cal inte­gra­tion meet.

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