The Human Condition (book)

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First edition
(publ. University of Chicago Press)

The Human Condition, first published in 1958, is an account of Hannah Arendt's philosophy regarding "human activities" and her times.

Arendt presented categories such as the vita activa (the title she preferred) in the modern world. She defined the three human activities as labor, work and action, with two mutually exclusive spheres: the political and everything else. Arendt then asserted that the Ancient Greeks put "the political" in the public sphere and criticized the modern world from this standpoint.

The book, first edition[edit]

I - The Human Condition[edit]

Arendt introduces the term "vita activa" (active life) by distinguishing it from "vita contemplativa" (contemplative life), which represents her understanding of Western society. There are only three human activities: labor, work and action. They correspond to the three basic conditions under which humans live. Action corresponds to the political actions of anyone, as analogized with the ancient Greek polis's citizens. Arendt cites Aristotle's definition of man as a "political animal" ("ὁ ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον").

II - The Public and the Private Realm[edit]

According to Arendt, modern life is divided between two realms: that of the public in which "action" is performed, and that of the private, site of family life where the father ruled. It is in the public realm where one distinguishes oneself through "great words and great deeds" in the same way as personal glory is attained on the battlefield. On the contrary, the private realm is a different realm altogether. It is located in the "shadowy interior of the household", which consisted of women, children and slaves. All the activities concerning the subsistence of human lives are operated there, including production, economy, etc. Slaves were people whose lives were entirely ruled by necessity, both theirs and that of their masters. Violence is used as a means to maintain a household belonging to its head (oikonomon in Greek). Private affairs are never glorious, and this is why people of the "interior" were excluded from the public realm, where Arendt preferred political action to be. In relation to the other two, society is simply a collection of private needs and is therefore comparable to the household. Both the social and private therefore are realms of necessity, the need to sustain one's own animal needs through "labor" and "work". The public sphere, in contrast, starts where necessity ends. Once there, those interlocutors "speak". Topics would include the public affairs that concern the public realm. Violence is totally excluded from the public realm.

III - Labor vs. Work[edit]

Arendt claims that her distinction is unusual and new as it has not been attempted previously by the thinkers who concerned themselves with the subject of 'human activity', e.g. Karl Marx. She goes on to explain that "labor" is one of the only three fundamental forms of activity that are the human condition. It is repetitive and only includes the activities that are necessary to mere living, such as the production of food and shelter as well as any material production, with nothing beyond that. The condition to which 'labor' corresponds is sheer biological life. Socially, it was the type of life that was assigned to slaves in the ancient Greek city-states. Within that world of the Ancient Greeks, slaves were considered as such not because of the harshness of their lives but mainly because those lives were composed of necessity alone. The products of labor are thus consumed as soon as they are produced, without leaving any lasting trace behind. "Work", on the other hand, has a clearly defined beginning and end. It leaves behind a durable object, such as a tool. The condition to which this activity corresponds is the [Arendtian] world in which she borrowed the social stratification of the ancient city-states, especially their acts in the realm of politics, with the politics of her day. However, the modern world, particularly political life, had been on the decline and the private life of necessity entered the public realm. This led the things of labor increasingly away from the necessities of the household. In [Arendtian] modern democracies, therefore, the presence of sheer numbers in public has been mistaken as similar to common necessity, the realm of labor. Necessity is what is similar to humans, thus equating people across labor is not really a human activity but a kind of debasement.

IV - Action[edit]

The third activity, "action", is specifically political and can only take place in the public realm, that of creating something lasting within the world. It necessitates speech ("logos"), since the actor needs to declare his or her unique existence in order for that action to be considered "human". Of couse, other actions exist, such as bartering goods in a market, that do not require such a unique action. These, however, are products of the subject's necessity (i.e., obtain food to survive) and not some unique individuality that is properly his. In this sense, a worker's production is still akin to necessity, since it equates a life through the generic human condition of necessity, while individuals' equality in the public realm is by definition pluralistic: they make an appearance in the public realm only through speech and nothing else. Action can never manifest through a predictable, deterministic series of activities, since the author of the action is placed within a complicated web of that realm that appears out of those activities. In the same sense, action is irreversible.

V - The Vita Activa and the Modern Age[edit]

Arendt remarks that some ancient Greek thinkers understood the "public sphere" as a place where speeches are given.

External links[edit]

  • "The Human Condition". In Hannah Arendt (1906—1975). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved on 22 February 2012 [However, this source is terribly inaccurate. Somebody get a real book and read; I recommend reading the second edition.]