The Human Condition (book)
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The Human Condition, published in 1958, is one of the central theoretical works of the philosopher Hannah Arendt. It is an account of the historical development of the situation of human existence, from the Ancient Greeks to modern Europe.
Arendt aims the book at the possibilities of the vita activa (the title she preferred) in the modern world. She defines the three activities – labor, work, and action – and describes four possible realms: the political, the social, the public, and the private. She then explains how the Ancient Greeks positioned each activity in each realm, and criticises the modern world from this standpoint.
The Book 
I The Human Condition 
Arendt introduces the term vita activa (active life), by distinguishing it from vita contemplativa (contemplative life). Each term represents a vision of how life should be lived. Vita activa was originally identical to the political actions of free citizen in the ancient Greek Polis. As this system of governance waned, so the meaning of political life got demoted to the concept of social life. This is evident in the distortion of Aristotle's definition of man as a "political animal" ("ὁ ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον") which was translated as "social animal" by Seneca and medieval writers, while the word "social" did not exist in ancient Greek vocabulary. In the same manner, starting with Plato, philosophy began to see itself as following the vita contemplativa and aiming to experience the eternal, outside and above the political sphere. In introducing the term vita activa, Arendt aims to offer an alternative: attaining the immortal through a specific form of political life that is different from the social life that we all live by definition of being human. Explaining this is the subject of the book.
The vita activa comprises three human activities – labor, work, and action – which correspond to the three basic conditions under which humans live.
Arendt points out that the "human condition" and "human nature" are not synonymous. She draws a distinction between them by explaining that, if humans were to colonize the moon or some other planetary body, they would live under new conditions. Their human nature, however – if there is such a thing – would remain intact. Human nature is located within human beings; the human condition is not.
II The Public and the Private Realm 
For Arendt, Greek life was divided into two realms: the public realm, in which political activity was located, and the private realm, site of property with the latter being necessary to the former. Since the Romans, a third realm has come into being: the social. The public realm was a realm where true freedom could be gained, a view first expressed by Aristotle, whom Arendt cites often in her book. It is also the realm where "great deeds" and glory can be attained, since private affairs can be charming but never glorious. While society is simply a collection of private needs in one entity and is in that respect comparable to the household, the public sphere starts where necessity ends and this is why citizens would try to alleviate themselves from physical sustenance (often using slaves) so they could enter into it. There, citizens would debate on issues above and beyond mere life and bereft of personal or private interests. Topics would include public affairs such as education, war, law, etc. which concerns everyone in the city. Violence is totally excluded from this sphere where glory comes from one's successful persuasion of others with one's own reason and rhetorical power. The private realm, on the contrary, is a realm for necessity. It is located in the "shadowy interior of the household" which mainly consist of women, children and slaves. All the activities concerning the sustenance of human lives are operated here, including production, reproduction, economy, etc. Slaves, in this respect, were people whose lives were entirely ruled by necessity, both theirs and their masters. Violence is the tool to maintain a household which belongs to the head (oikonomon in Greek). According to Arendt, one must use violence in the private sphere to solve all the problems concerning one's life need before finally entering the public sphere of freedom.
III Labor vs Work 
Arendt admits that her distinction is unusual and has not been attempted by previous thinkers like Karl Marx, yet cannot be ignored. Labor is one of the three fundamental forms of activity that form the vita activa. It is repetitive, never-ending and only comprises activity that are necessary to sustain life such as obtaining food, water, shelter, reproduction with nothing beyond that. The condition to which labor corresponds is sheer biological life. It is the type of life that slaves lived in ancient Greece who were considered such not because of their harsh life but because this life was consumed with necessity alone, that of themselves and their masters. Labour is thus consumed as soon as it is produced without leaving anything lasting behind. Work, being the second activity, has a beginning and an end. It leaves behind an enduring artifact such as a tool, a table, or a building. The specific human condition to which the activity of work corresponds is the world. As political life waned and private life entered the public re leave the constraints of the household and became a significant value of its own. She points out however that equality, which is a pre-condition for democracy can only be applied to things that are unequal, or we would have a case of similarity. Physical needs are what is similar to humans and thus equating people under labour is not real equality but a kind of debasement.
IV Action 
The third activity, that of great deeds and great words, is specifically political and properly construed can only take place in the public realm potentially leading to the only form of immortality properly accepted in ancient Greece, that of creating something lasting within the world. This world is also made common through action. It necessitates speech (logos), since the actor needs to declare his or her unique existence in order for that action to be considered human. Other actions exist of course, such as bartering goods in a market, that do not require such a unique declaration. These however are products of the subject's necessity (ex. obtain food to survive) and not some unique individuality which is properly his. In this sense, worker's equality is almost a tautology, since it equates people through the basic human condition of need, while citizen's equality is by definition equality of unequals that are trying to create a common world. Its corresponding conditions are natality and plurality. Action can never manifest through a predictable, deterministic series of consequences, since the subject, by acting, is placed within a complicated web of relationships which cannot be predicted before hand. In the same sense, Action is irreversible.
V The Vita Activa and the Modern Age 
Arendt records the decline of the public sphere as was known to the ancient Greeks, mainly through a shift of focus from the World, where immortality can be attained through great words and lasting deeds, to abstract concepts of the mind. As the ancient world waned, the importance of the human senses as a source of objective knowledge about the world declined. "Cartesian doubt", as she calls the notion that a person's senses could be presenting him with a false world, an illusion, possibly created by some malevolent god (dieu trompeur), is best expressed in the phrase cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I exist), meaning that the only thing a person can be certain of is not the world around him but his own cognitive process. This great shift prepared the world for Galileo's heliocentric universe in which the possibility of attaining immortality through lasting deeds (Action) was completely lost. Arendt also observes the evolution of scientific thinking from the "world-bound" geometry of the ancient world, to the abstract concepts of algebra without which Newton could never have formulated his Universal Laws.
See also 
- "The Human Condition". In Hannah Arendt (1906—1975). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved on February 22, 2012.