Study Guide

The Human Condition

by Hannah Arendt

The Human Condition Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In The Human Condition, philosopher and political thinker Hannah Arendt argues that the vita activa, or “active life,” is the fundamental condition of human existence. In the book’s first chapter, Arendt lays out the three fundamental categories of the vita activa: labor, work, and action. These categories also make up the main topics of the book.

The first category, labor, refers to the activities that sustain biological life or that are analogous to the sustaining of biological life. Producing food and shelter can be considered the most basic kind of laboring. Laboring is the naturalness of the human condition, and it includes everything humans do for the sake of consumption. The second category, work, refers to all the things that humans do to transform their world and to make it into an artificial realm. People work, in her scheme, when they fabricate and design things. Work, therefore, is the unnaturalness or artificiality of the human condition. The final category, action, describes activities among people. Arendt tends to identify action most often with political activities, but things people do that involve communication and relations may be thought of as action as well.

Arendt takes the phrase vita activa from the traditional distinction between “the active life” and the “contemplative life,” or the vita contemplativa. In Western intellectual history, “the active” has been considered inferior to “the contemplative.” Arendt traces this ranking of the contemplative over the active to the downfall of political life in late antiquity. In The Human Condition, she counters this tradition by considering the active to be equal in worth to the contemplative.

One idea that runs through the work is the distinction between the public realm and the private realm. Arendt devotes her second chapter to this distinction. Looking back at the Greek city-state, or polis, Arendt observes that freedom to act (or “action”) took place in the political or public realm and that the necessities of life (or “labor”) took place in the private realm of the household. Historical changes in the relationships between action and labor have been connected to changes in the relationship between the public and the private. In particular, the rise of the social in human life, through the creation of mass civilizations, has tended to move property from the private realm of the household to the public realm of society.

In the third chapter, on labor, Arendt critiques philosopher Karl Marx, although she still has high regard for his thought. Her central criticism is that Marx had confused labor and work, that is, he confused activities necessary for...

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The Human Condition Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Canovan, Margaret. Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought. 1992. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. The author, a noted Arendt scholar, argues that Arendt’s thought has been largely misunderstood, in part because she was writing to clarify her own thoughts, rather than to communicate ideas. Chapter 4 is devoted to The Human Condition.

Fry, Karin. Arendt: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Continuum, 2009. A comprehensive introduction to Arendt’s thought. Chapter 2 examines The Human Condition and Arendt’s philosophical ideas.

Moruzzi, Norma Claire. Speaking Through the Mask: Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Social Identity. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. Uses psychoanalytic feminist theory to interpret Arendt’s opposition between the social and the political, as presented and examined in several works, including The Human Condition.

Passerin d’Entrèves, Maurizio. The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt. 1994. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2001. The author identifies four major concepts underlying Arendt’s political philosophy: modernity, action, judgment, and citizenship. Although all of these concepts may be found in The Human Condition, chapter 2, on action, is the most important for those looking to better understand the ideas behind The Human Condition.

Villa, Dana. The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A handbook to Arendt’s political and philosophical thinking. Chapter 13, by Frederick M. Dolan, is devoted to “Arendt on Philosophy and Politics” and deals with The Human Condition and related works.

Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. Hannah Arendt: For the Love of the World. 2d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. This work, originally published in 1982, remains one of the best biographies of Arendt. An excellent introduction to her life and thought for general readers.