Hannah Arendt’s thought responds to what she believes to be the greatest danger and challenge of the modern age—the loss of belief in transcendent truth catalyzed by the rise of science. Without the structure and framework that transcendent truth traditionally provided communities, without the age-old distinction between humanity and the divine, the door has been opened to the possibility of realizing the divine on earth. The perfection of humanity has become an option. The dangers inherent in this modern situation are, for Arendt, exemplified by the atrocities of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. However, Arendt does not believe that a reconstruction of the old pillars of transcendent truth is possible or necessarily desirable. Thus Arendt is a thinker caught between a resigned recognition of the inevitability of the loss of faith and a deep awareness of the dangers engendered by this development. This work begins by examining Arendt’s distinction between the public and private realms, it then turns to the decline of this distinction in the modern age with the rise of totalitarianism, and ends by examining the important role she assigns to the faculty of judgment. By tracing the larger arch of Arendt’s thought, this paper presents Arendt’s work as an attempt to discover a new kind of transcendent standard that could provide the necessary framework for a community without falling back upon the traditional reliance on revelation and faith. The core argument of this work is that Arendt locates such a standard in the public realm, the realm that she exalts above all others. For Arendt, the public realm is the place in which a common humanity, a humanitas, is revealed through the processes of interaction and judgment that take place between individuals.
The position and relevance of organized religion is questioned in modern times, and the Catholic Church is no exception. The statements made during the historic Vatican II conference between 1962-1965 are intended to be the Church’s voice through the darkness of modern skepticism, and can be used as a guide for political action and understanding in multicultural, relativist societies. In particular, the documents Gaudium et Spes and Nostra Aetate form a basis for the treatment of outsiders and minorities, particularly in interpreting the history of the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people. Using Arendt’s concept of “rootedness” in tradition and authority, and Voegelin’s of metaxy, this paper argues that there cannot exist a virtueless, relativist civilization. The space between civic law and moral Law, the treatment of individual conscience, and of community rights within society must incorporate the analyses of Rémi Brague, the multicultural group freedoms of Charles Taylor, and the individual liberty of Alain Finkielkraut. What Vatican II calls for is most likely a democratic constitutional order, based on Western principles of the individual and society.