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University of Chicago Press
The Human Condition / Edition 2

The Human Condition / Edition 2

by Hannah Arendt, Margaret Canovan
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A work of striking originality bursting with unexpected insights, The Human Condition is in many respects more relevant now than when it first appeared in 1958. In her study of the state of modern humanity, Hannah Arendt considers humankind from the perspective of the actions of which it is capable. The problems Arendt identified then—diminishing human agency and political freedom, the paradox that as human powers increase through technological and humanistic inquiry, we are less equipped to control the consequences of our actions—continue to confront us today. This new edition, published to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of its original publication, contains an improved and expanded index and a new introduction by noted Arendt scholar Margaret Canovan which incisively analyzes the book's argument and examines its present relevance. A classic in political and social theory, The Human Condition is a work that has proved both timeless and perpetually timely.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was one of the leading social theorists in the United States. Her Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy and Love and Saint Augustine are also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226025988
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/28/1998
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 370
Sales rank: 61,936
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was an influential German political theorist and philosopher who came to the United States as a refugee from the Nazis in 1940. She held a number of academic positions at American universities including the University of California, Berkeley; Northwestern University; the University of Chicago; and Princeton University, where she was the first woman appointed to a full professorship. Her works, which deal with issues of power, authority, revolution, thought, and judgment, include The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Between Past and Future, and the incomplete and posthumously published The Life of the Mind. Wanda McCaddon began recording books for the fledgling audiobook industry in the early 1980s and has since narrated well over six hundred titles for major audio publishers, as well as abridging, narrating, and coproducing classic titles for her own company, Big Ben. Audiobook listeners may be familiar with her voice under one of her two "nom de mikes," Donada Peters and Nadia May. The recipient of an Audie nomination and more than twenty-five Earphones Awards, AudioFile magazine has named her one of recording's Golden Voices. Wanda also appears regularly on the professional stage in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Read an Excerpt

The Human Condition

By Hannah Arendt

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1998 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-02599-5


The Human Condition



With the term vita activa, I propose to designate three fundamental human activities: labor, work, and action. They are fundamental because each corresponds to one of the basic conditions under which life on earth has been given to man.

Labor is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body, whose spontaneous growth, metabolism, and eventual decay are bound to the vital necessities produced and fed into the life process by labor. The human condition of labor is life itself.

Work is the activity which corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence, which is not imbedded in, and whose mortality is not compensated by, the species' ever-recurring life cycle. Work provides an "artificial" world of things, distinctly different from all natural surroundings. Within its borders each individual life is housed, while this world itself is meant to outlast and transcend them all. The human condition of work is worldliness.

Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world. While all aspects of the human condition are somehow related to politics, this plurality is specifically the condition—not only the conditio sine qua non, but the conditio per quam—of all political life. Thus the language of the Romans, perhaps the most political people we have known, used the words "to live" and "to be among men" (inter homines esse) or "to die" and "to cease to be among men" (inter homines esse desinere) as synonyms. But in its most elementary form, the human condition of action is implicit even in Genesis ("Male and female created He them"), if we understand that this story of man's creation is distinguished in principle from the one according to which God originally created Man (adam), "him" and not "them," so that the multitude of human beings becomes the result of multiplication. Action would be an unnecessary luxury, a capricious interference with general laws of behavior, if men were endlessly reproducible repetitions of the same model, whose nature or essence was the same for all and as predictable as the nature or essence of any other thing. Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.

All three activities and their corresponding conditions are intimately connected with the most general condition of human existence: birth and death, natality and mortality. Labor assures not only individual survival, but the life of the species. Work and its product, the human artifact, bestow a measure of permanence and durability upon the futility of mortal life and the fleeting character of human time. Action, in so far as it engages in founding and preserving political bodies, creates the condition for remembrance, that is, for history. Labor and work, as well as action, are also rooted in natality in so far as they have the task to provide and preserve the world for, to foresee and reckon with, the constant influx of newcomers who are born into the world as strangers. However, of the three, action has the closest connection with the human condition of natality; the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting. In this sense of initiative, an element of action, and therefore of natality, is inherent in all human activities. Moreover, since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical, thought.

The human condition comprehends more than the conditions under which life has been given to man. Men are conditioned beings because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence. The world in which the vita activa spends itself consists of things produced by human activities; but the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers. In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability notwithstanding, possess the same conditioning power as natural things. Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence. This is why men, no matter what they do, are always conditioned beings. Whatever enters the human world of its own accord or is drawn into it by human effort becomes part of the human condition. The impact of the world's reality upon human existence is felt and received as a conditioning force. The objectivity of the world—its object- or thing-character—and the human condition supplement each other; because human existence is conditioned existence, it would be impossible without things, and things would be a heap of unrelated articles, a non-world, if they were not the conditioners of human existence.

To avoid misunderstanding: the human condition is not the same as human nature, and the sum total of human activities and capabilities which correspond to the human condition does not constitute anything like human nature. For neither those we discuss here nor those we leave out, like thought and reason, and not even the most meticulous enumeration of them all, constitute essential characteristics of human existence in the sense that without them this existence would no longer be human. The most radical change in the human condition we can imagine would be an emigration of men from the earth to some other planet. Such an event, no longer totally impossible, would imply that man would have to live under man-made conditions, radically different from those the earth offers him. Neither labor nor work nor action nor, indeed, thought as we know it would then make sense any longer. Yet even these hypothetical wanderers from the earth would still be human; but the only statement we could make regarding their "nature" is that they still are conditioned beings, even though their condition is now self-made to a considerable extent.

The problem of human nature, the Augustinian quaestio mihi factus sum ("a question have I become for myself"), seems unanswerable in both its individual psychological sense and its general philosophical sense. It is highly unlikely that we, who can know, determine, and define the natural essences of all things surrounding us, which we are not, should ever be able to do the same for ourselves—this would be like jumping over our own shadows. Moreover, nothing entitles us to assume that man has a nature or essence in the same sense as other things. In other words, if we have a nature or essence, then surely only a god could know and define it, and the first prerequisite would be that he be able to speak about a "who" as though it were a "what." The perplexity is that the modes of human cognition applicable to things with "natural" qualities, including ourselves to the limited extent that we are specimens of the most highly developed species of organic life, fail us when we raise the question: And who are we? This is why attempts to define human nature almost invariably end with some construction of a deity, that is, with the god of the philosophers, who, since Plato, has revealed himself upon closer inspection to be a kind of Platonic idea of man. Of course, to demask such philosophic concepts of the divine as conceptualizations of human capabilities and qualities is not a demonstration of, not even an argument for, the non-existence of God; but the fact that attempts to define the nature of man lead so easily into an idea which definitely strikes us as "superhuman" and therefore is identified with the divine may cast suspicion upon the very concept of "human nature."

On the other hand, the conditions of human existence—life itself, natality and mortality, worldliness, plurality, and the earth—can never "explain" what we are or answer the question of who we are for the simple reason that they never condition us absolutely. This has always been the opinion of philosophy, in distinction from the sciences—anthropology, psychology, biology, etc.—which also concern themselves with man. But today we may almost say that we have demonstrated even scientifically that, though we live now, and probably always will, under the earth's conditions, we are not mere earthbound creatures. Modern natural science owes its great triumphs to having looked upon and treated earth-bound nature from a truly universal viewpoint, that is, from an Archimedean standpoint taken, wilfully and explicitly, outside the earth.


THE TERM Vita Activa

The term vita activa is loaded and overloaded with tradition. It is as old as (but not older than) our tradition of political thought. And this tradition, far from comprehending and conceptualizing all the political experiences of Western mankind, grew out of a specific historical constellation: the trial of Socrates and the conflict between the philosopher and the polls. It eliminated many experiences of an earlier past that were irrelevant to its immediate political purposes and proceeded until its end, in the work of Karl Marx, in a highly selective manner. The term itself, in medieval philosophy the standard translation of the Aristotelian bios politikos, already occurs in Augustine, where, as vita negotiosa or actuosa, it still reflects its original meaning: a life devoted to public-political matters.

Aristotle distinguished three ways of life (bioi) which men might choose in freedom, that is, in full independence of the necessities of life and the relationships they originated. This prerequisite of freedom ruled out all ways of life chiefly devoted to keeping one's self alive—not only labor, which was the way of life of the slave, who was coerced by the necessity to stay alive and by the rule of his master, but also the working life of the free craftsman and the acquisitive life of the merchant. In short, it excluded everybody who involuntarily or voluntarily, for his whole life or temporarily, had lost the free disposition of his movements and activities. The remaining three ways of life have in common that they were concerned with the "beautiful," that is, with things neither necessary nor merely useful: the life of enjoying bodily pleasures in which the beautiful, as it is given, is consumed; the life devoted to the matters of the polis, in which excellence produces beautiful deeds; and the life of the philosopher devoted to inquiry into, and contemplation of, things eternal, whose everlasting beauty can neither be brought about through the producing interference of man nor be changed through his consumption of them.

The chief difference between the Aristotelian and the later medieval use of the term is that the bios politikos denoted explicitly only the realm of human affairs, stressing the action, praxis, needed to establish and sustain it. Neither labor nor work was considered to possess sufficient dignity to constitute a bios at all, an autonomous and authentically human way of life; since they served and produced what was necessary and useful, they could not be free, independent of human needs and wants. That the political way of life escaped this verdict is due to the Greek understanding of polis life, which to them denoted a very special and freely chosen form of political organization and by no means just any form of action necessary to keep men together in an orderly fashion. Not that the Greeks or Aristotle were ignorant of the fact that human life always demands some form of political organization and that ruling over subjects might constitute a distinct way of life; but the despot's way of life, because it was "merely" a necessity, could not be considered free and had no relationship with the bios politikos.

With the disappearance of the ancient city-state—Augustine seems to have been the last to know at least what it once meant to be a citizen—the term vita activa lost its specifically political meaning and denoted all kinds of active engagement in the things of this world. To be sure, it does not follow that work and labor had risen in the hierarchy of human activities and were now equal in dignity with a life devoted to politics. It was, rather, the other way round: action was now also reckoned among the necessities of earthly life, so that contemplation (the bios theoretikos, translated into the vita contemplativa) was left as the only truly free way of life.

However, the enormous superiority of contemplation over activity of any kind, action not excluded, is not Christian in origin. We find it in Plato's political philosophy, where the whole utopian reorganization of polis life is not only directed by the superior insight of the philosopher but has no aim other than to make possible the philosopher's way of life. Aristotle's very articulation of the different ways of life, in whose order the life of pleasure plays a minor role, is clearly guided by the ideal of contemplation (theoria). To the ancient freedom from the necessities of life and from compulsion by others, the philosophers added freedom and surcease from political activity (skhole), so that the later Christian claim to be free from entanglement in worldly affairs, from all the business of this world, was preceded by and originated in the philosophic apolitia of late antiquity. What had been demanded only by the few was now considered to be a right of all.

The term vita activa, comprehending all human activities and defined from the viewpoint of the absolute quiet of contemplation, therefore corresponds more closely to the Greek askholia ("unquiet"), with which Aristotle designated all activity, than to the Greek bios politikos. As early as Aristotle the distinction between quiet and unquiet, between an almost breathless abstention from external physical movement and activity of every kind, is more decisive than the distinction between the political and the theoretical way of life, because it can eventually be found within each of the three ways of life. It is like the distinction between war and peace: just as war takes place for the sake of peace, thus every kind of activity, even the processes of mere thought, must culminate in the absolute quiet of contemplation. Every movement, the movements of body and soul as well as of speech and reasoning, must cease before truth. Truth, be it the ancient truth of Being or the Christian truth of the living God, can reveal itself only in complete human stillness.

Traditionally and up to the beginning of the modern age, the term vita activa never lost its negative connotation of "un-quiet," nec-otium, a-skholia. As such it remained intimately related to the even more fundamental Greek distinction between things that are by themselves whatever they are and things which owe their existence to man, between things that are physei and things that are nomo. The primacy of contemplation over activity rests on the conviction that no work of human hands can equal in beauty and truth the physical kosmos, which swings in itself in changeless eternity without any interference or assistance from outside, from man or god. This eternity discloses itself to mortal eyes only when all human movements and activities are at perfect rest. Compared with this attitude of quiet, all distinctions and articulations within the vita activa disappear. Seen from the viewpoint of contemplation, it does not matter what disturbs the necessary quiet, as long as it is disturbed.

Traditionally, therefore, the term vita activa receives its meaning from the vita contemplativa; its very restricted dignity is bestowed upon it because it serves the needs and wants of contemplation in a living body. Christianity, with its belief in a hereafter whose joys announce themselves in the delights of contemplation, conferred a religious sanction upon the abasement of the vita activa to its derivative, secondary position; but the determination of the order itself coincided with the very discovery of contemplation (theoria) as a human faculty, distinctly different from thought and reasoning, which occurred in the Socratic school and from then on has ruled metaphysical and political thought throughout our tradition. It seems unnecessary to my present purpose to discuss the reasons for this tradition. Obviously they are deeper than the historical occasion which gave rise to the conflict between the polis and the philosopher and thereby, almost incidentally, also led to the discovery of contemplation as the philosopher's way of life. They must lie in an altogether different aspect of the human condition, whose diversity is not exhausted in the various articulations of the vita activa and, we may suspect, would not be exhausted even if thought and the movement of reasoning were included in it.


Excerpted from The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt. Copyright © 1998 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

I. The Human Condition
1 Vita Activa and the Human Condition
2 The Term Vita Activa
3 Eternity versus Immortality
II. The Public and the Private Realm
4 Man: A Social or a Political Animal
5 The Polis and the Household
6 The Rise of the Social
7 The Public Realm: The Common
8 The Private Realm: Property
9 The Social and the Private
10 The Location of Human Activities
III. Labor
11 "The Labour of Our Body and the Work of Our Hands"
12 The Thing-Character of the World
13 Labor and Life
14 Labor and Fertility
15 The Privacy of Property and Wealth
16 The Instruments of Work and the Division of Labor
17 A Consumers' Society
IV. Work
18 The Durability of the World
19 Reification
20 Instrumentality and Animal Laborans
21 Instrumentality and Homo Faber
22 The Exchange Market
23 The Permanence of the World and the Work of Art
V. Action
24 The Disclosure of the Agent in Speech and Action
25 The Web of Relationships and the Enacted Stories
26 The Frailty of Human Affairs
27 The Greek Solution
28 Power and the Space of Appearance
29 Homo Faber and the Space of Appearance
30 The Labor Movement
31 The Traditional Substitution of Making for Acting
32 The Process Character of Action
33 Irreversibility and the Power To Forgive
34 Unpredictability and the Power of Promise
VI. The Vita Activa and the Modern Age
35 World Alienation
36 The Discovery of the Archimedean Point
37 Universal versus Natural Science
38 The Rise of the Cartesian Doubt
39 Introspection and the Loss of Common Sense
40 Thought and the Modern World View
41 The Reversal of Contemplation and Action
42 The Reversal within the Vita Activa and the Victory of Homo Faber
43 The Defeat of Homo Faber and the Principle of Happiness
44 Life as the Highest Good
45 The Victory of the Animal Laborans

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The Human Condition 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
m.gilbert on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this when I was sophomore at Berkeley and it changed my life. As a political philosopher, her fundamental belief about the human condition is that we must think about what we are doing as citizen of the world, as public beings who make the world and defend it from thoughtlessness and blind ignorance. Sigh. If I could be three of the most brilliant women of the 20th century, I would be Simone Weil, Gillian Rose, and this woman--Hannah Arendt.
davidpwithun on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Arendt's book is a masterpiece of modern philosophy. Like any masterpiece, especially of philosophy, and even more especially of modern philosophy, this mistakes it very difficult to summarize. In this book, she draws on the history of Western thought from the ancient Jews, Greeks, and Romans through to Marx and Nietzsche to diagnose, as the title puts it, ¿the human condition.¿ Nearly every page is filled with insight into what it means to be human. She moves swiftly through the ages, introducing us to the ideas that have shaped our modern way of life and our way of viewing ourselves. And she finally ends with where we are at and why a reevaluation of our own humanity is now more pressing than ever (and now even more pressing than when Arendt wrote the book): our worst fears have been realized. Man has been simultaneously reduced to the state of an animal ¿ a biological machine of no lasting worth ¿ and elevated to the position of a god ¿ capable of destroying worlds. What are we to do now? I recommend that everyone read this book ¿ and ponder every word deeply.
superfriend on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Arendt deals with human beings in the collective, and thus calls herself a political philosopher. Her reflections on the nature of work, action, and thought are profound precisely because they are rooted in experience (phenomenology). Arguably, the most important political thinker for understanding the future of democracy...plurality and persuasion, rather than force and mass. This gets to the root of her critique of Marx.
mkjones on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A timeless and fascinatingly philosophical look at humanity seen through its defining activities. The author divides these into labor, work, and action: after Aristotle's division of knowledge into episteme, techne, and phronesis. Labor is the activity of necessity: what we must do to sustain ourselves in the world. Work is the activity of craft and artifact: what we can do to build an enduring and beneficial environment. Action is the activity of ethical praxis: what we should do to improve ourselves and our progeny.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading this I felt a sincere and deep connection to the human pychee that I had never experienced before. I must recommend this to all people questioning the viability of their own lives in relation to the earth, moon and piglets.