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Commentary on The Human Condition

Response 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.

Response II

According to Arendt, all human activities are conditioned according to the individual’s role in a polis.8 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.9 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).10 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.11 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.12

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.13 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”.14 Arendt references Karl Marx by referring to the process of city administration to a form of “housekeeping”.15

Response III

In the beginning of chapter III on Labor, Hannah Arendt emphasis that a distinction between work and labor must be made since even Karl Marx considered both terms interchangeable. The word labour is derived from the Latin words laborare and fabricare in which the root of the word implies a pain or a trouble of the body.16 After the fifth century BC, the Greek polis as well as the Romans, started classifying occupations according to the extent of which the body of their subjects is deteriorated.17 This in turn was the reasoning for which the ancients justified and defended the slavery institution, according to the idea of which, the slave was akin to a tamed animal whose sole function is to be subjected to the pain of labor. Unlike the function of the slavery institution that was embraced as an instrument for colonization and increasing profits by Western Europe during the 15th to the mid-18th centuries, ancient slavery institutions saw slavery as a mean for excluding labor from the condition of human life.18

The fundamental distinction between work and labor that Arendt emphasizes, is that labor is meant to be a producing and self-consuming process at the same time. The process itself is particular to any living process. As was sensed by Karl Marx, the laboring activity itself is independent from any historical prejudice that may judge the end product of labor as something futile or non-durable.19 The laboring process main determination is to secure the means for its own reproduction, and to allow the continuation of its laboring process. According to Marx’s terms, labor power (Arbeitskraft) is what gets secured by the laboring process and what also secures its continuation and protect’s from nature’s decaying process.

The common characteristic among the biological processes and the humans process of growth and decay, is that both are cyclical movements that are bounded to the repetitive cycles of nature.20 Unlike work which is put forth into the world as something finished and valuable in itself, the laboring cycle is meant to be a functional part to the repetitive processes of consumption and accumulation. From the viewpoint of nature however, work is more destructive than labour because it does not contribute back to the metabolism of living nature and body.21 Labour is therefore a process that secures and preserves the world against natural process that constantly threaten it with decay, it is secured by the process of monotonous reputation of daily chores.

Arendt argues that labor as a process is something that actively replaces human activity and occupation. Empires and states are transformed into “gigantic bureaucratic machines” that transform something that was once considered work and techné into an automated laboring process.22 This process itself prioritizes the increase of labour power as apposed to the quality and character of its productions. This form of transformation of the means by which labour power is secured and consumed is one of the most significant determinations of the human condition. The intercourse that a man therefore has with other men and objects becomes increasingly conditioned by labor.

The human strife to overcome the decaying process of nature can be observed by the introduction of methods that allow new ways of accumulating the products of labour. Such was the introduction of money which is described by Locke as a “lasting thing which men may keep without spoiling”.23 Hannah Arendt refers to this process as a “kind of deus ex machina”, inspired by the convention of Greek tragedy where a seemingly unsolvable problem is resolved by an unexpected intervention of some new event, ability or object. An invention like money, is an example of an invention that not only allowed humans to overcome decaying processes of nature, but also altered the human condition since the natural processes no longer interfere with the human processes of accumulating and securing labor power.

Response IV

Starting with the chapter on Work, Arendt states that the work of human hands is distinguished from the labour of the human body because work fabricates what would then constitute the human artifice.24 Any human production has durability which allows an object to “stand against” the needs and wants of their users.25 In order to replenish the lost durability however, new human artifice must be produced, maintained, and worked on in order to not allow its dissolution into the processes of nature. Most of human production is made through the killing of some form of natural process which establishes homo faber as a destroyer of nature. The products of human artifice is therefore what brings the human to a position where he can look at nature as something objective and something that can be worked and disrupted.

The tools which are produced by human hands, cannot be afforded to be destroyed and not be replenished. Homo faber depends on his productions because not only is he a master of nature, but also a master of himself and his own doings.26 This dependance on tools goes to such extents that whole civilizations become defined based on the tools that they mastered. Arendt explains this occurrence with the fact that tools establish an environment for the man and in the process of doing so, men adapt to the tools that are under their disposal.27 This reliance extends to even further extents when the tools are substituted with machines. By adapting to machines, men become more reliant to the pace of the machines and the way in which all their production becomes part of a never ending cycle of production and consumption. As long as the work of the machine lasts, the mechanical process replaces the rhythm of the human body.28

According to Arendt there is “nothing that can be mechanized more easily and less artificially then the rhythm of the labor process”.29 But man was the first one who unchained himself from the processes of nature and partitioned himself away from it, building a world that is completely man-made.30 While being partitioned in this non-natural man-made world, men have chained their own processes which consist of assembly lines and conveyer belts. In this manner, the tools and machines become part of the chained process that supports the alienated man-made world.

With man constructing an artificial world chained by machines, Arendt begins to suspect that machines might at one point no longer be just means of production, but also influence or even dictate the ends of their work.31 This however does not seem to be far fetched, since human history could have been drastically different without the invention of certain tools and machines. Therefore, machines are already dictating the human destiny but neither machines nor their men creators seem to be fully aware of it, yet.

Arendt emphasis that it is senseless to describe the world of machines in terms of means and ends as “it has always been senseless to ask nature if she produces the seed to produce a tree or tree to produce the seed.”32 There seems to be a disinterested tone in the idea that machines would deliberately dictate the ends of their work even if such a conquest would become strategized. What seems to interest Arendt more, is the process that was first unchained with the advent of the very first man-made tools and machines. This process which unchained itself from the nature’s womb, created assembly lines and conveyer belts, as well as atomic bombs and habitats in space. This allowed homo faber to create his safe dwelling place where he becomes liberated from the unchained process of nature,33 but becomes chained by the processes of the machine. Man has become an envoy to deus ex machina as much as Jesus was an envoy to God.

Response V

The section that follows Arendt’s discussion on labour and work, is the section on action. Action is defined by Arendt as a “agent-revealing capacity” which is one of the most predominant ways in which a man reveals what he is among the web of relations among other men.34 When a person is questioned who he is, human vocabulary implies that the question concerns what he is.35 This arises from the identity of an individual being ascribed according to his relation among the actions of other men.

Arendt describes that life without speech an action is “literally dead to the world” and is no longer a life that can be lived among men.36 In this way, the web of human relations is a man’s emancipation from the deadness of nature and its own processes. Man unchained himself from the processes of nature and partitioned himself away from them, building a world that is man-made37 and where speech an action become the standard of liveliness. The word “action” itself is translated from the Latin word agere which translates into an event that agitates something and sets a process into motion.38 This process consists of the web of relations that emerged in a artificially created man-made world. Since this world was set by action to begin with, the relation within it are also dictated by action. In such a man-made world, some concepts do not exists outside of it, such as the principle of freedom which was only created when man created this world.

If viewed from a universal standpoint, the origination of life from inorganic matter is defined by Arendt as something which initiated from an almost infinite improbability.39 The fact that life performed something improbable, and that man is its origination, gives man an even grander potential to more likely create something improbable. The ability to produce the improbabilities more likely therefore allows man to create something filled with more miracle when compared to other natural processes. What maintains man to be source of miracle his ability to perform speech an action.

Arendt believes that the miracle that originates from the unpredictability of human action, can be extinguished by machines or robots. Arendt believes that action without the accompaniment of speech, would no longer remain action as such, but become something more ordinary like labour.40 Speechless action carried out by machines, would no longer be action because there would no longer be an actor, since a doer is only possible when his actions are accompanied with speech. As mentioned formerly, a life without speech an action is “literally dead to the world” and is no longer a life that can be lived among men.41 Even if machines are creations that exist among men, their proliferation would signify a proliferation of lifeless action within the world of lively human relations. The miracle the accompanies man’s existence will therefore become extinguished by monotonous machines.

Response VI

  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 

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

  9. Arendt, p.22 

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

  11. Arendt, p.26 

  12. Arendt, p.59 

  13. Arendt, p.26 

  14. Arendt, p.59 

  15. Arendt, p.60 

  16. Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991. Print. p.80, footnote 3 

  17. Arendt, p.81 

  18. Arendt, p.84 

  19. Arendt, p.88 

  20. Arendt, p.98 

  21. Arendt, p.100 

  22. Arendt, p.93 

  23. Arendt, p.102 

  24. Arendt, p.136 

  25. Arendt, p.137 

  26. Arendt, p.144 

  27. Arendt, p.144 

  28. Arendt, p.147 

  29. Arendt, p.146 

  30. Arendt, p.149 

  31. Arendt, p.151 

  32. Arendt, p.151 

  33. Arendt, p.152 

  34. Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991. Print. p.182 

  35. Arendt, p.181 

  36. Arendt, p.176 

  37. Arendt, p.149 

  38. Arendt, p.177 

  39. Arendt, p.179 

  40. Arendt, p.178 

  41. Arendt, p.176 

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