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Commentary on The Human Condition - I

Hannah Arendt designated the term vita activa into three fundamental human activities: labour, work, and action. These are what are referred to by Arendt, as the “basic conditions under which life on Earth has been given to man”.1 Of these, labour constitutes the human biological process and metabolism, whereas work provides and artificial human condition referred by Arendt as “worldliness” — a concern with material values and ordinary life rather than spiritual existence. Work is also a measure of durability against the futility of individual mortal life and the extent to which it can be overcome from a collective standpoint.2

Action is what is referred to as the most political and individualistic condition that also has a significant influence on the collective. It is the most particular form of human condition because it is based on the potential actions of every individual human. Along with labour and work, action “has a task to provide and preserve the world” for “the constant” influx of newcomers who are born into the world of strangers”.3 Every newcomer possesses the ability to begin something anew or unprecedented whoever they exercise their ability to act.

The composite of labour, work, and action forms what Arendt refers to as the vita activa. The vita activa is one of the most predominate formations of the human conditions and is mainly driven by products of human artifice, activity and processes. Thus, men condition their own natures based on the outcomes of their own processes, which in turn, form their vita activa. These man-made conditions posses the same conditioning power as the conditions that nature has given to man on earth.3 Humans therefore become the only creature who’s condition can be formed by not just nature, but by themselves.

The vita activa is also a voluntary or involuntary sacrifice of individual free dispositions for the benefit of the city-state or some form of human collective.4 This can include various occupations such as craftsman or a merchant. For a human to become free from the necessities of life that such occupations entail, Ancient Greek philosophers have come up with the notion of the freedom from political activity know as skholē.5 It is a form of life devoted to leisurely activities, such as contemplation and philosophy, which liberate an individual from “the entanglement of worldly affairs”.

The vita activa also plays an important factor in the way men confront their mortality. In the universe where the majority of things appear to be immortal, mortality is the hallmark of human existence.6 Arendt claims that humans existence is different from the one of animal species who’s immortal life if guaranteed through procreation. The realization that the individual life rises out of biological life, is what allows the human to cut through “the circular movement of biological life”.7 It is therefore a human manifestation of taking control of this cyclical order when everything else in the universe continues to move in a linear fashion.

The potential greatness of mortal humans is therefore the their ability to produce works, deeds, and words through these artificial repetitive cyclical processes that are not product of nature. But although humans realize that they themselves are mortal, their productions gain the potential to not be. Since the human condition is dependent on the productions of the human activity, and since human artifice has the potential to become immortal, humans manifest the immortal characteristic of their artifice and therefore become immortal themselves. Whether this is true or not, one might contemplate about to what extent have Egyptian pyramids given immortality to their civilization.

  1. Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991. Print. p. 7 

  2. Arendt, p. 8 

  3. Arendt, p. 9  2

  4. Arendt, p. 12 

  5. Arendt, p. 14, footnote 20 

  6. Arendt, p. 18 

  7. Arendt, p. 19