Michael Braverman portfolio / personal site

Commentary on The Human Condition - II

According to Arendt, all human activities are conditioned according to the individual’s role in a polis.1 The only type of human activity that is independent from other individuals is labour as it does not dependent on others. Labour is most closely related to a being’s natural biologic process which is independent from any political organization. Labour can be directed towards the maintenance of a political organization, but if labour is done by a human in complete solitude with others, then that establishes his condition as a animal laborans or a “laboring animal”. Even if such a human being works, fabricates, and builds for itself, he will nevertheless remain a animal laborans. Once a human starts fabricating for others, then that makes the human a homo faber, or a human that fabricates.

Within this distinction, Arendt appears to investigate how the natural equivalent of the human laboring process was transformed into a condition where human labour is for the most part, directed towards the sustainment of a collective. According to Greek thought, this human tendency for political organization is opposite to the natural association where a human tends towards his home (oikia) and family.2 Therefore, the “orders of existence” of citizen have been divided into one that is his own (idion), and one that is communal, common, and public (koinon).3 This division cause the human to have a “second life”, or a bios politikos that to many extents, can be dictated by some form of a social construct, whether it is a city-state, a religion, or an ideology.

Because of the division that occurs between the individual idion and the common koinon, creates and new form of a human condition. In a city-state, the polis has taken away the individual body’s agency over its own processes.4 Just like the human body maintains the agency of its organs, the political body maintains the agency of the bodies of its citizens, so to speak. This is an illustration of how the private processes of the body have now become public within the city-state. Arendt makes a similar comparison by stating that slaves to a household is what res republica is to its citizens.5

Within this new type of a collective body, the emphasis shifted from action towards speech. The most important art practice that underlies the function of speech is rhetoric, or the art of persuasion.6 The polis relies on this form of art, because everything is decided through words and persuasion, and throughout force and violence, which are attributes of labour. The Greeks however understood the implication of such organization and realized that such organization can be called as a “phenomenon of loneliness” that transitions into an increasingly “antihuman form”.7 Arendt references Karl Marx by referring to the process of city administration to a form of “housekeeping”.8

  1. Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991. Print. p.22 

  2. Arendt, p.22 

  3. Werner Jaeger, Paideia (1945), III, 111 

  4. Arendt, p.26 

  5. Arendt, p.59 

  6. Arendt, p.26 

  7. Arendt, p.59 

  8. Arendt, p.60