The Human Condition

November 25, 2014
Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt was a political philosopher with the important distinction of being reviled as an evil Marxist by right-wing figures and despised as a bourgeois counterrevolutionary by left-wing figures. This, to me, makes her interesting. My copy of The Human Condition (originally published in 1958) is yet another of the books inherited from my late stepfather (the Doug Wilson collection?). The man left behind an enormous stack of books; I only have a small fraction of them — most of them including his margin notes (some of which indicate that he used to be a bit more radical than the mild-mannered fisheries sociologist I knew).

The central point of The Human Condition is the view that human condition (as opposed to human nature) is best understood as something that exists between human beings (and, as it were, between human beings and their environment) rather than something that exists inside human beings. Arendt distinguishes two general modes of living, the active vita activa (situated in the actual interactions between human beings and their environments) and the contemplative vita contemplativa (the more monastic ideal, centering on thought rather than activity).

Arendt more or less calls bullshit on the entire premise of the vita contemplativa; the idea that philosophers search for grand meanings outside and beyond human activity is, to her, equivalent to saying that they're engaged in things that don't matter. From that perspective, she identifies three broad classes of human activity (labor, work and action) and two realms of human relation (public and private), and goes on to use this theoretical framework to contrast modernity with antiquity — positioning the ideals of various thinkers within both epochs according to that schema, and going on to criticise them. She positions herself somewhere between a classical Greek view of human society and a Marxian critique of labour.

To briefly describe the classification scheme: Labour is the activities concerned with supporting human biology: Production of food and shelter, procurement of drinking water, reproduction. It is necessarily characterized of endless repetition, and its products are consumed in the sense that they leave no lasting traces. In contrast, work is the activity of tool-building, artifice and construction; it has a clearly defined end product that will outlast the process of creating it (tellingly, in the English language, works describe products, whereas labours describe processes). Finally, action is the activity of exerting influence upon the grand tangled web of human society, whether using political speeches or warfare, and is by definition unpredictable and irreversable (given that it deals with a complex web of interrelations).

The sphere of private life is essentially "what goes on in the household", whereas public life is concerned with the affairs of all citizens within the political context.

In ancient Greece, labour was performed by slaves, women and children, whereas work was carried out by skilled free artisans, and action by free citizens taking part in the life of the polis. Slaves were considered pitiable or detestable not because of their lives of hard work (indeed, some slaves worked as teachers or scribes), but because they were excluded from public political life. The Greeks considered private life shameful and uninteresting, because it was characterized by necessity — the realm of labour, and thus the province of slaves. It was also tyrannical, ruled over by a single pater familias, and therefore a realm considered unworthy of political citizens.

The modern world, in contrast, has essentially turned us all into machine-assisted slaves — an entire world of animal laborans, the labouring animal. The basic model of endless, repetitive production of goods to be consumed has completely dominated the modern human state of affairs, to the extent that even science is viewed as a good to be produced and consumed. The political realm of public affairs has, simultaneously, been supplanted by what is essentially a giant household of millions, governed not through deliberative, participatory political action, but by a quasi-tyrannical rule of bureaucracies, themselves locked in an endless cycle of repetitive production and consumption of rules and regulations. And this world has access to nuclear weapons and space travel.

It seems to me that the state of alienation, instrumentalization and dehumanization Arendt is describing is in fact very similar to what Marcuse was describing in One-dimensional Man — although she manages to do so without couching it in bullshit. She reads more like some kind of latter-day Enlightenment thinker than a postmodern philosopher.

Overall, a thought-provoking and well-written read. I don't agree with Arendt on everything, but I'd definitely recommend it.

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