Arendt: On Legends

“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 to 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…

The flourishing of historical and political legends came to a rather abrupt end with the birth of Christianity. Its interpretation of history, from the days of Adam to the Last Judgment, as one single road to redemption an salvation, offered the most powerful and all-inclusive legendary explanation of human destiny. Only after the spiritual unity of Christian peoples gave way to the plurality of nations, when the road to salvation became and uncertain article of individual faith rather than a universal theory applicable to all happenings, did new kinds of historical explanations occur. The nineteenth century has offered us the curious spectacle of an almost simultaneous birth of the most varying and contradictory ideologies, each of which claimed to know the hidden truth about otherwise incomprehensible facts. Legends, however, are not ideologies; they do not aim at universal explanation but are always concerned with concrete facts. It seems rather significant that the growth of national bodies was nowhere accompanied by a foundation legend, and that a first unique attempt in modern times was made precisely when the decline of the national body had become obvious and imperialism seemed to take the place of old-fashioned nationalism…

For legends attract the very best in our times, just as ideologies attract the average, and the whispered tales of gruesome secret powers behind the scenes attract the very worst.”

– Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (pp. 208-209)

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