The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Hannah Arendt on Memory, the Elasticity of Time, and What Free Will Really Means

Since 1888, the annual Gifford Lectures series has aimed “to promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term” by bringing together influential thinkers across science, philosophy, and spirituality — luminaries like William James, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Carl Sagan (whose 1985 lecture was later published as the fantastic posthumous volume Varieties of Scientific Experience). But for nearly a century, the Gifford Lectures remained a bona fide boys’ club. It wasn’t until 1973 that German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) became the first woman to speak at the prestigious event. Her exquisite lecture was later expanded and published as The Life of the Mind (public library) — an intensely intelligent and stimulating exploration of such seemingly simple, immeasurably complex questions as how we think, why our inner lives eclipse the world of appearances, and what it really means to live with freedom.

The volume is divided into two parts: the first, titled Thinking, explores the crucial difference between truth and meaning; the second, Willing, is an investigation of “the nature of the willing capability and its function in the life of the mind” — in other words, that eternal question of what it means to have free will in a universe of fixed laws.

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

Through the lens of free will, Arendt defines willed acts as “acts about which I know that I could as well have left them undone.” But before we can begin to untangle why we do what we do, we must first understand how we know what we know. Arendt writes:

Not sense perception, in which we experience things directly and close at hand, but imagination, coming after it, prepares the objects of our thought. Before we raise such questions as What is happiness, what is justice, what is knowledge, and so on, we must have seen happy and unhappy people, witnessed just and unjust deeds, experienced the desire to know and its fulfillment or frustration. Furthermore, we must repeat the direct experience in our minds after leaving the scene where it took place. To say it again, every thought is an after-thought. By repeating in imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses.

For the Ancient Greeks, Arendt points out, this notion was built into their very vocabulary — eidenai, “to know,” is derived from idein, “to see,” thus implying that knowing is having seen. But this is where the Greeks lead us astray in the question of free will. Arendt argues that Socrates, Plato, and even Aristotle (whom she anoints, not without reason, “the most sober of the great thinkers”), didn’t seem to be even aware of the notion of the Will, particularly “as an organ for the future, as memory is an organ for the past” — and yet that’s precisely what it is. Arendt considers the crucial role of time — that astoundingly elastic concept — and memory — that centerpiece of human creativity — in understanding free will from the perspective of the thinking ego:

Memory, the mind’s power of having present what is irrevocably past and thus absent from the senses, has always been the most plausible paradigmatic example of the mind’s power to make invisibles present. By virtue of this power, the mind seems to be even stronger than reality; it pits its strength against the inherent futility of everything that is subject to change; it collects and re-collects what otherwise would be doomed to ruin and oblivion. The time region in which this salvage takes place is the Present of the thinking ego, a kind of lasting “todayness” … the “standing now” (nunc stans) of medieval meditation, an “enduring present” ([Henri] Bergson’s présent qui dure), or “the gap between past and future,” as we called it in explicating Kafka’s time parable. But only if we accept the medieval interpretation of that time experience as an intimation of divine eternity are we forced to conclude that not just spatiality but also temporality is provisionally suspended in mental activities. Such an interpretation shrouds our whole mental life in an aura of mysticism and strangely overlooks the very ordinariness of the experience itself.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Click image for more.

Instead, Arendt argues by quoting from Nobel laureate Henri Bergson’s indispensable The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics, the dynamic interaction that constitutes our experience of the present is anything but mystical:

The constitution of an “enduring present” is “the habitual, normal, banal act of our intellect,” performed in every kind of reflection, whether its subject matter is ordinary day-to-day occurrences or whether the attention is focused on things forever invisible and outside the sphere of human power. The activity of the mind always creates for itself un présent qui dure, a “gap between past and future.”


The chain of “nows” rolls on relentlessly, so that the present is understood as precariously binding past and future together: the moment we try to pin it down, it is either a “no more” or a “not yet.” From that perspective, the enduring present looks like an extended “now” — a contradiction in terms — as though the thinking ego were capable of stretching the moment out and thus producing a kind of spatial habitat for itself. But this seeming spatiality of a temporal phenomenon is an error, caused by the metaphors we traditionally use in terminology dealing with the phenomenon of Time.

The Histomap by John Sparks (1931) from ‘Cartographies of Time.’ Click image for details.

The reason we tend to make sense of time using spatial metaphors and visual maps, Arendt argues, is fairly obvious — in our everyday life, we need measurements of time and can only measure it using spatial distances. Even the notion of temporal succession suggests a linearity, and a line is essentially extended space. And yet this impulse to make the invisible visible is precisely where the problem of free will arises:

The Will, if it exists at all — and an uncomfortably large number of great philosophers who never doubted the existence of reason or mind held that the Will was nothing but an illusion — is as obviously our mental organ for the future as memory is our mental organ for the past. (The strange ambivalence of the English language, in which “will” as an auxiliary designates the future whereas the verb “to will” indicates volitions, properly speaking, testifies to our uncertainties in these matters.) In our context, the basic trouble with the Will is that it deals not merely with things that are absent from the senses and need to be made present through the mind’s power of re-presentation, but with things, visibles and invisibles, that have never existed at all.

The conundrum is deepened by our essential discomfort with uncertainty even though uncertainty is how we come to know ourselves and the world, and perhaps most of all by our longing for permanence in a universe of constant change. Arendt probes the paradox:

The moment we turn our mind to the future, we are no longer concerned with “objects” but with projects, and it is not decisive whether they are formed spontaneously or as anticipated reactions to future circumstances. And just as the past always presents itself to the mind in the guise of certainty, the future’s main characteristic is its basic uncertainty, no matter how high a degree of probability prediction may attain. In other words, we are dealing with matters that never were, that are not yet, and that may well never be. Our Last Will and Testament, providing for the only future of which we can be reasonably certain, namely our own death, shows that the Will’s need to will is no less strong than Reason’s need to think; in both instances the mind transcends its own natural limitations, either by asking unanswerable questions or by projecting itself into a future which, for the willing subject, will never be.

In a framing that calls to mind Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful meditation on reading and writing“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed.” — Arendt revisits the Ancient Greeks’ paltry understanding of free will through their relationship with time:

The human product, this “compound of matter and form” — for instance, a house made of wood according to a form pre-existing in the craftsman’s mind (rums) — clearly was not made out of nothing, and so was understood by Aristotle to pre-exist “potentially” before it was actualized by human hands. This notion was derived from the mode of being peculiar to the nature of living things, where everything that appears grows out of something that contains the finished product potentially, as the oak exists potentially in the acorn and the animal in the semen.

The view that everything real must be preceded by a potentiality as one of its causes implicitly denies the future as an authentic tense: the future is nothing but a consequence of the past, and the difference between natural and man-made things is merely between those whose potentialities necessarily grow into actualities and those that may or may not be actualized.

Under these circumstances, any notion of the Will as an organ for the future, as memory is an organ for the past, was entirely superfluous; Aristotle did not have to be aware of the Will’s existence.

Discus chronologicus — a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, included in Cartographies of Time. (Available as a print and as a wall clock.)

What made the contemplation of free will inevitable, Arendt argues, was a reframing of time not as a linear but as a cyclical concept, something that occurred in parallel in various ancient cultures:

No matter what historical origins and influences — Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian — we may be able to trace for the cyclical time concept, its emergence was logically almost inevitable once the philosophers had discovered an everlasting Being, birthless and deathless, within whose framework they then had to explain movement, change, the constant coming and going of living beings.

In the remainder of the essay, Arendt goes on to trace how our evolving relationship with time changed our understanding of free will across human history, from medieval mysticism to the Hebrew-Christian credo to Nietzsche — just one of the innumerable threads of genius that make The Life of the Mind a necessary read for every thinking human. Sample it further with Arendt on the difference between thinking and knowing, then revisit her increasingly timely reflection on how bureaucracy fuels violence.

Published October 14, 2014




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