The Human Condition

by Hannah Arendt
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The Human Condition Summary

The Human Condition is a 1958 work of nonfiction by political philosopher Hannah Arendt. The book is divided into six parts.

  • In the first part, Arendt defines the “vita activa,” which means “the active life,” and the “vita contemplativa,” or the “contemplative life.”
  • In the second section, Arendt introduces the three roles of the vita activa: the “animal laborans,” the “homo faber,” and the person of action.
  • In the third and fourth parts, Arendt further explores the distinctions between these human roles and the interplay between them.

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Last Updated on August 31, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 763

The Human Condition is a nonfiction work by Hannah Arendt, first published in 1958. The book explores the conditions of human life, necessity, work, labor, and society.

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The text is divided into six main chapters and forty-five subchapters, each of which ruminates on a specific facet of human existence and its influencing forces. Throughout the work, Arendt contextualizes her arguments with references to existing philosophical discourse, highlighting the points at which earlier philosophers would likely agree or disagree with her conclusions.

In the first part, titled “The Human Condition,” Arendt draws an important distinction that will shape her assertions in the rest of the text. She defines the “vita activa,” which means “the active life,” and the “vita contemplativa,” or the “contemplative life”—the two, inextricably linked, derive their meaning from their opposition to each other. While the vita activa constitutes the life of the body, physical motion, speech, and activity, the vita contemplativa constitutes the life of the mind.

In the second section, “The Public and Private Realm,” Arendt introduces the three roles of the vita activa: the “animal laborans,” or one who labors; the “homo faber,” or one who makes; and the person of action, who speaks or acts. The distinction between these three roles lies in the nature of their work. Labor, she explains, is the ongoing work of subsistence, often producing just enough to fuel itself for its own sake and leaving nothing behind. Work, on the other hand, has a start and an end, facilitating tangible goods that outlive the process of their creation. Action, distinct from both of these, is initiative taken in the public sphere when humans interact with each other.

Action, by Arendt’s definition, cannot exist in the private realm. Labor and work, on the other hand, are more malleable. Running a household, birthing and raising a child, and growing food for one’s family might all constitute “labor,” and so would a shift on a factory floor. Work necessitates isolation, as a craftsperson might need while making something, but also involves the public exchange market when it’s time to sell a product. Action, conversely, cannot exist in private in Arendt’s estimation. These realms, Arendt notes, have been threatened by the emergence of a new one: the “social” realm, which incorporates elements of both to the advantage of neither.

In the third part, titled “Labor,” and the fourth part, titled “Work,” Arendt further explores the distinctions between these human roles and the interplay between them. Noting that her distinction between labor and work might be considered unusual, she cites a linguistic precedent: all European languages have two separate words to describe “work” and “labor,” stemming from two distinct roots and never fully converging in usage.

As she contemplates the role material goods have in the world of work and of labor, Arendt notes that the work of homo faber has an inherent advantage over the labor of animal laborans. While animal laborans can exhaust itself in the course of providing exactly enough energy for it to complete its task, and thus creates and consumes in almost equal measure, homo faber’s work concludes with something that has either utilitarian or material value and can fundamentally shape the surrounding world world both physically and commercially. This man-made material, she explains, constitutes the “human artifice.”

In the fifth part, “Action,” Arendt enumerates what she calls the “web of relationships.” The person of action, she argues, is unique among the three roles for two reasons: its output—speech or action—is neither consumable nor tangible, and its existence is possible only through its proximity to those around it. While this seems limiting in comparison to the two roles that produce tangible outputs, Arendt cautions the reader not to underestimate the importance of action. History, she notes, is entirely a result of actions taken and not taken.

The sixth part, “The Vita Activa and the Modern Age,” contains Arendt’s conclusions about how these paradigms have shifted in modernity. Mechanization, she notes, has inverted the hierarchy in a somewhat unexpected way. Though homo faber once topped the hierarchy as the only one of the three groups capable of making reality tangible, industrialization has reduced craftsmanship to factory labor. Through mechanization and the automation of processes, animal laborans has overtaken homo faber as the dominant demographic driving production.

In her conclusion, Arendt reflects on the relationship between scientific exploration and philosophy, wondering what might lie ahead in a world where the possibilities for technological advancement are limitless but the workforce has largely been reduced to the animal laborans.

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