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The Human Condition: Labor, Work and Action. Part 2
The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt - Book Overview and Thoughts
“The labor of our body and the working of our hands” - John Locke
As we saw in the previous newsletter, Hannah Arendt believes that there are significant differences between labor and work. In this newsletter we will see why she believes they should be distinguished, as well as her views on why action has been lost and why it should be reintroduced into the public realm.
Labor is praised in the modern age, whereas in the past, labor was the meanest.
All human activities that arise out of necessity are bound to the recurring cycle of nature - laboring has a never ending cycle.
Leisure for the animal laborans, as understood by Hannah, is consumption. The labor power that is no longer required is not spent on higher-level activities such as learning, creating or pursuing political ends.
A labor society is a consumer society since all human activities are reduced to life's necessities. In other words, all activities are considered labor, and those that do not contribute to the biological process of laboring through labor or consumption are seen as "playful" and unproductive.
Work gives us objects that make possible interaction, like a table, a chair, a hammer, a story, a work of art, etc. For instance, what distinguishes a pair of shoes from a consumer good, is that, technically, these do not spoil unless I wear them. Used or unused they will remain in the world unless they are destroyed.
Man in so far as he is homo faber, instrumentalizes, which implies a degradation of nature, of all things into means.
In our modern age, we exclude the political man, that is, the man who acts and speaks. In other terms, the public realm for the homo faber is the exchange market, where he can show the products of his hands and receive the esteem which is due to him, and where he is no longer a citizen but a product of exchange.
Hannah argues that the human artifice may only become a home for mortal men if the things he creates are not simply consumable or made for a utilitarian reason.
Acting and speaking form the concept of the emergence of something new, an this is key to Hannah's way of thinking, because she believes that we are only human if we can initiate things.
Acting is by nature unexpected, uncontrollable and anonymous. We cannot control the outcomes of our actions, since once they are in the public realm, they get into contact with other people. We think we write our own stories, but the what we do is always told and interpreted differently when it comes into contact with the rest of the world.
The absence of action and speech causes us to be locked in a process from which we are unable to escape and therefore become free. Or, in her words, we become unable to act, which by definition implies to be able to do something without knowing the outcomes. It is, in other words, freedom, the ability to escape automatic processes.
It is the power to act, create, and start fresh that gives humanity the ability to intervene in the course of history and bring about new possibilities. This faculty of action, derived from the fact that humans are born and capable of initiating change, is what distinguishes us from the passive processes of nature.
Now, let’s delve deeper and begin with her views on labor.
Hannah begins her chapter on labor with language, and how in European languages there are two unrelated words for what we now come to think of as the same activity.
For example, in French, we have “travailler” and “ouvreur,” and in German, “arbeiten” and “werken,” where the equivalent of “labor”means pain and struggle.
Furthermore, she argues that Locke’s quote “The labor of our body and the working of our hands,” clearly represents the ancient’s distinction between craftsmen and those who, like slaves, use their bodies to meet the necessities of life. This distinction between 'labor' and 'work' has a long history, where 'labor' typically represents the action or process of working, and 'work' denotes the result of that effort.
However, despite their grammatical differences, the words were used interchangeably in practice. Hannah argues that this is because, even in ancient times, people had a strong desire to be free of the necessities of life and there was a pressure from the polis to engage in political activities.
Following this, the city-state in Greece, in the late fifth century, began classifying occupations based on the amount of effort required. This was a concept reinforced by Aristotle's view that occupations which were physically demanding were considered the meanest. This is why, in ancient Greece, the institution of slavery was not perceived as a means of obtaining cheap labor or exploitation for profit but rather as an attempt to exclude labor from the conditions of human life. The Greeks believed that what humans shared with other forms of animal life was not considered fully human, which helps explain their theory regarding the non-human nature of the slave.
What’s more, according to Aristotle, a slave was not human simply because he lacked the ability to decide, foresee, and choose, which translates to being subject by necessity.
In other words, as said in our previous newsletter, labor meant to be enslaved by necessity, and because men were dominated by these necessities, they could only be free through the domination of those whom they subjected to necessity by force.
Let us now move on to the modern age, when Hannah points out that labor is now praised. She claims that labor is glorified as the source of all value, and those who labor are elevated to a position historically reserved for those who worked, i.e., what the homo faber does, creating work that contributes to the world beyond survival, as opposed to the animal laborans, who engages in activities that meet their immediate biological needs.
Moreover, the modern age came with new distinctions, such as productive vs. unproductive labor, skilled vs. unskilled work, and manual vs. intellectual labor.
What’s more, among these distinctions, productive vs. unproductive labor was considered the most fundamental, and both Adam Smith and Karl Marx based their economic theories on it.
To put it simply, Hannah points out that Marx and Smith agreed that unproductive labor is less valuable because it does not enrich society and leaves nothing for its consumption.
Following this, the concept of “labor power” emerged as a pivotal idea in Marx's thinking. Labor power is the inherent capacity of human labor to produce results; and unlike the products of work, which are tangible objects, labor power focuses predominantly on ensuring its own reproduction. This takes nothing into account but the life process of mankind, and within this frame of reference everything becomes an object of consumption.
In this view, all laboring is “productive,” and the earlier distinction between the performance of “menial tasks” that leave no trace, and the production of things durable enough to be accumulated, loses its validity.
To put it another way, here we completely lost the line between work and labor. Everything is a result of the labor power and functions of the life process.
Now, with this we can clearly see how there was a disdain for labor in ancient times, and how in the modern age there is some reverence for it.
Moreover, as said previously, Hannah puts a lot of emphasis on language and how it makes us understand the world in certain ways. Language creates discrepancies between it as the "objective" code that we use to describe the world and the subjective theories we rely on to comprehend it. She argues that language and our fundamental human experiences teach us that the things we interact with in the world are of different natures and are produced by different activities.
Following this, while labor is associated with the production of essential goods necessary for survival, work involves creating enduring objects that contribute to the stability and endurance of the world. Hannah stresses out that the things created by labor are objects of consumption that appear and disappear and do not give permanence to this world.
Additionally, distinguished from consumer goods and use objects that create endurance, there are the products of action and speech, which constitute the world of human affairs and relationships. Hannah argues that these lack not only tangibility but durability. They really depend on the presence of people, so we can testify to their existence.
Furthermore, this makes acting and speaking products that do not “produce” anything, and that in order for them to become part of the world, need to be remembered, transformed as it were, into things that contribute to the stability of the human world, which often outlast the lives of their creators.
Now, as we can assume by now, the least durable objects are those needed for the life process itself. But this does not necessarily mean that these objects are literally objects that can be biologically processed, like food.
Consequently, the objects that are “useful” for man, that is, that they are necessary for life, are generally of short duration. If they aren’t consumed by use, they perish and decay, just like food does. So, although there are objects that are man-made, the products of labor are produced and consumed, in accordance with the cyclical movements of nature.
To further understand this, we need to understand that humanity is limited by a beginning and an end, in a sense. Biological life works with objects appearing and disappearing from existence. In the human world, objects manifest themselves as growth and decay, birth and death. All this means is that the biological process of man and the process of growth and decay in this world share the characteristic of being part of the cyclical movements of nature, and therefore, end up being repetitive.
To put it another way, all human activities that arise out of necessity are bound to the recurring cycle of nature - laboring has a never ending cycle.
To further explain this, Hannah makes a critique on Karl Marx by stating that when he said that “labor is man’s metabolism with nature,” he clearly indicated that labor and consumption are connected, and that they both contribute to the never-ending cycle of biological life. This cycle needs to be maintained by consumption, and the activity that provides the means to it, as we can know now, is laboring.
Additionally, she points out an apparent paradox created by Marx, where he glorified labor as the defining human activity and yet envisioned a future society liberated from the necessity of it. He defined humanity as an animal laborans, leaving man with the alternative between productive slavery and unproductive freedom.
To put it another way, Hannah perceives Marx as a scientist more than a philosopher. He saw the world as a series of processes that eventually became automatic. These processes take human activity, and human volition out of the equation. They place humanity on a path where it cannot do anything, or as we will further see, it cannot act.
Now, things will start to be even more interesting. Hannah argues that John Locke discovered that labor is the source of all property. It followed its course when Adam Smith said that labor was the source of wealth and found its climax in Marx’s system of labor, where labor became the source of all productivity and the expression of what it means to be human.
Remember when Locke said that labor created short lived things?
In order to solve the problem of “short duration” he introduced the concept of money. This idea further developed into the concept of property, wealth, and human essence. The products of labor had to stay long enough for them to become “valuable,” to the point that they either become property or simply products that can be further exchanged for something else.
Now, all of this will make more sense later on when we discuss action, but the process of growth, wealth and acquisition, started to be key for political theorists. They started to see these processes as natural, they began to be understood as part of the life process itself. Labor and its unending process that progresses automatically in accordance with life and merges itself with property, wealth and acquisition, started to leave willful decisions and human meaning out of the equation.
To put it another way, all this led to basically confusing labor with work, because of the introduction of the concepts of wealth and property into the equation.
To further continue, we must remember from our previous newsletter, the concept of property, and how it not only separates individuals from the communal sphere but also acts as a means of connection within society. It offers a sense of security and protection from the outside world while simultaneously bridging the gap between private labor and the public realm.
With this it follows the concept of Marx, where he says that when individuals stop acting as such, and instead act as members of a species, the collective life process of the “socialized men” follows its own necessity, that is, it follows the automatic process of increasing abundance of goods needed by them.
Furthermore, Hannah claims that this process outlined by Marx resonates with Darwin's theory of the origins of mankind, both operating under inherent natural laws. As labor and the economy progress along this trajectory, they follow a predefined pattern guided by the principles of wealth accumulation, gradually disassociating from individual concerns and culminating in the emergence of a societal realm that transcends the boundaries of both private and political spheres.
However, Hannah argues that neither the abundance of goods nor the shortening of time spent in laboring are likely to establish a common world. The process associated with the body and labor remains despite the technology, which further developed the idea of hobbies, which as we know, are ways for individuals to find time away from the demands of labor and the communal domain, providing a personal outlet within the broader context of a socialized community.
Now, we are getting close to finishing the concept of labor, but before that, we must start connecting it with work.
As we saw, labor was considered the lowest activity of life and became the highest in our modern age.
This leads us to the question about technology and, in general, tools, and how, although they have made laboring easier, they have not completely eliminated the necessity of labor from human life.
To understand this we can recall that in ancient times, we could clearly see the fact that life is essentially subject to necessity, to the point that we could see slaves and connect life to slavery and struggle. But, in modern times, this direct connection no longer exists, which makes it challenging, and less vivid, to recognize and remember the idea that laboring is part of life, and in doing so, we risk losing the idea of freedom.
In other words, for Hannah, if you live a life free of necessity you are not free. It is certainly a claim that is hard to digest, but essentially, if necessity does not exist then the impulse to become free ceases to exist. In a sense, she says that freedom would be meaningless, that there is only freedom if there is an impulse to free ourselves from something, in this case, necessity.
Furthermore, the tools that ease labor are products of work, not labor. They are integral parts of the world of practical objects, but with the rise of work as labor we created a world where we treat every object as if it were a consumer good. The Industrial Revolution transformed every workmanship with labor, and the result is that the things that are meant to be used are now meant to be consumed as rapidly as they can so that they can continue the endless process of laboring.
Additionally, Hannah raises questions about the division of labor. She argues that when we maximize the efficiency of the division of labor we can create an enormous number of things, which, in combination with tools, creates abundance that eventually leads to more consumption, since the process of laboring needs the process to restart, or, if we want to use other words, the economy needs to keep moving.
The important thing Hannah is trying to tell us here is that tools lose their quality of use because they end up being objects that form part of the laboring process that is a cycle. Tools become objects of consumption, and the reason is that they’ve become abundant. This transforms them into consumer goods that are thrown into the never ending cycle of man’s metabolism with nature. They cease to just be used and need to be replaced, decay or disappear so that the process can continue to evolve.
Now, before we finish this part, we must start and finish by saying that for Hannah, as we previously discussed, a world without labor would make men spend their free time consuming.
In other words, leisure for the animal laborans, as understood by Hannah, is consumption. The labor power that is no longer required is not spent on higher-level activities such as learning, creating or pursuing political ends.
Moreover, this is where the origins of the term leisure come into play. Leisure for the Greeks meant "scholé," which basically meant scholar, that is, it signified time spent on education, political and religious endeavors; as opposed to the modern leisure definition, which basically means spending time regenerating ourselves from the struggle of labor through consumption and hedonism.
In concluding the chapter on labor, it is crucial to recognize that, in Hannah’s views, a labor society is a consumer society since all human activities are reduced to life's necessities. In other words, all activities are considered labor, and those that do not contribute to the biological process of laboring through labor or consumption are seen as "playful" and unproductive.
Freedom, in this context, is equated with being “playful,” while anything beyond the pursuit of livelihood is relegated to the status of a mere “hobby.” The question she urges us to consider is whether automation, theoretically reducing human labor, might actually escalate consumption, given that humanity, which is now categorized as animal laborans, would consequently have more time for themselves.
Additionally, Hannah makes the point that the establishment of labor classes was unquestionably a step towards a world free of violence, as it was in ancient Greece.
However, she adds, it still calls into question freedom, because no violence can match the natural force that necessity compels.
We know so far that “work” is the creation of “the human artifice,” that does not decay, but rather gets used up. What’s more, this durability gives objectivity and stability to human life by taking it away from the cycles of nature.
In other words, work gives us objects that make possible interaction, like a table, a chair, a hammer, a story, a work of art, etc. For instance, what distinguishes a pair of shoes from a consumer good, is that, technically, these do not spoil unless I wear them. Used or unused they will remain in the world unless they are destroyed.
Furthermore, work, which is performed by the homo faber, consists in changing things, that is on reification. The material necessary for work is not simply given, there is an element of violation of nature implied into it. In other terms, the homo faber is a destroyer of nature.
This contrasts with the animal laborans, who supports life and is part of the natural cycle. In other words, it is still a servant of nature, whereas the homo faber sees himself as the ruler and master of the world.
Following this, Hannah points out something very important. She says that fabrication, that is, work, is performed under the guidance of a model that comes from outside our minds, and that these guidelines precede the work process itself.
This is similar to what Plato said about the world of forms, and how there are communal needs and models that drive work and are outside of ourselves. It is a bit hard to grasp but basically, for instance, we created knives simply because there was a communal need for them and the model came out from ideas and forms that were existing prior to the existence of that knife. These ideas are eternal and go beyond the duration of the objects themselves.
This contrasts with the animal laborans, which technically does not understand the products it makes and must rely on external instructions.
One other important distinction of work from labor is that it multiplies. As opposed to labor which repeats itself out of necessity. Labor is a means to obtain a living and it therefore repeats into infinity, whereas work can multiply itself because it possesses a relatively stable existence in the world. This stable existence is, again, the idea, the model that remains after the end of the fabrication process.
Now, the tools that lighten the burden and mechanize the labor of the animal laborans, are designed and invented by the homo faber, as well as the machines.
With this in mind, Hannah makes an important distinction between tools and machines. She says that tools are the tools of workmanship, and that work is still the servant of the hands in this scenario. In the case of machines, however, the opposite happens: we become servants to the machines and adapt our body to their mechanical movement. In other terms, we become conditioned by our very own creations.
To demonstrate this, Hannah claims that machinery or technology go through stages. She starts with the steam engine and how this form of technology seeks to mimic natural processes. Secondly, we have electricity that, rather than reproducing or mimicking nature, unchains new processes.
These electrical processes that are our own creations, eventually lead to the creation of automation where fabrication is a continuous process. We call automatic all courses of movement which are self-moving and therefore outside of willful and purposeful interference.
The main point Hannah wants to make here is that machines, by the time of her writing, were evolving to become an extension of human biology. And if we come back to the present, we can certainly see this happening. We can see how machines now perform tasks that were just humanly performed before, like in the case of artificial intelligence. But we don't need to go that far to understand that when it comes to labor, we have relied on and trusted machines much more than we would trust a task done by a human.
Furthermore, automation leads us to think less about what we're doing; they become new processes that eventually produce different results. Consider the case of a robot teacher, a robot that is entirely automated and educates children. The question is, how will these children's thinking evolve? They would be taught in ways that would be vastly different from a child taught by a human teacher. As a result, they would raise their future children differently, to the point where we have fully changed the way humanity thinks and acts.
If you recall, Hannah discusses at the beginning of the book how we have established processes that we no longer understand but on which we rely. Automation created a world in which we no longer see ourselves as beings that can decide what happens, everything is a process that moves by itself. We forget that we have control over the things we create.
What's more, the fundamental issue in this situation comes from the belief that tools and technology are created to make human life easier and labor less painful. In other words, their usage is limited to animal laborans, but the reality is that the homo faber created tools to build and stabilize the world, not just to assist in the human process.
Now, all this chapter of work might make the reader think, so far, that the homo faber is better than the animal laborans, but this isn’t the case.
Furthermore, the problem with this is that we build an infinite chain of means. Utilitarianism renders everything meaningless, because meaning demands things to be more fixed and long-lasting.
In short, the homo faber is incapable of understanding meaning in the same way that the animal laborans is incapable of understanding instrumentality.
Following this, Hannah argues that escaping the trap of meaninglessness needs a shift away from objectivity, prioritizing the elevation of humanity as the ultimate purpose. Nonetheless, she highlights that even this perspective has its limitations.
For instance, Immanuel Kant emphasized the importance of treating every human as an end in themselves. He tried to prevent the instrumentalization of individuals by advocating for the recognition of human dignity. Despite this, Hannah argues that this stance doesn't entirely eliminate the objectification of the world. Instead, it still permits the dominance of nature and all other facets of existence to serve human desires and needs.
In simpler terms, man in so far as he is homo faber, instrumentalizes, which implies a degradation of nature, of all things into means.
Now, to proceed, we should recall the public realm.
In ancient times, the public realm was primarily centered around the agora, which was a marketplace yet at the same time it was a gathering space for social interactions and discussions. The marketplace in antiquity, therefore, had a broader function beyond mere commercial transactions, incorporating elements of social and political discourse.
On the other hand, in our modern age, while the marketplace continued to exist, the focus shifted towards valuing productive labor and the concept of productivity.
As a result, the public realm became more focused on the exhibition and exchange of goods. This shift dismissed the importance of political engagement and discourse in the public realm, emphasizing the promotion of products and the recognition of the labor involved.
Consequently, in our modern age, we exclude the political man, that is, the man who acts and speaks.
In other terms, the public realm for the homo faber is the exchange market, where he can show the products of his hands and receive the esteem which is due to him, and where he is no longer a citizen but a product of exchange.
Furthermore, Hannah argues that isolation is necessary for individual workmanship. It allows the development of ideas and creation of products with a high level of skill, uniqueness and excellence.
However, in the modern age, mastery is threatened by the emergence of the social realm, where people want to participate in the work process. This shift diminished the value of privacy and isolation, resulting in a breakdown of traditional concepts of competence and excellence. It also shifted the emphasis from individual craftsmanship to a more collaborative approach, which frequently requires teamwork and the division of labor. Additionally, all of this led to the commodification of labor and the evaluation of individuals based on the quality of their products.
The rise of the exchange market, as mentioned earlier, becomes a pivotal point in this transition. Notably, it must exist before the manufacturing process, leading to the production of exchange objects rather than “use” objects. This represents a significant transformation in the nature of production, where durability, once a measure of an object's utility, now becomes a measure of its potential for future exchange.
To conclude this part, Hannah stresses the concept of value. She argues that the concept is not an inherent quality of a product itself but rather emerges in public within the market. It is rooted in the relational aspect of exchange between various members of society, where goods are constantly being evaluated and traded based on their perceived worth in comparison to other commodities.
Value is the quality a thing can never possess in privacy but acquires automatically the moment it appears in public.
Finally, Hannah criticizes Karl Marx's concept of "use value." She argues that Marx's attention was mostly on the utilitarian role of commodities in individuals' consumption patterns in a commercial society. Marx, she claims, failed to emphasize the underlying, objective value of the commodities themselves. Hannah argues that by emphasizing the functional component of commodities, Marx's perspective ignores the broader social and relational context that determines the true value of these products. As a result, the commodities are not recognized as instruments, diminishing their intrinsic or socially determined value.
Now, we are almost done with the work part of the book, but to conclude, we must talk about the permanence of the world.
Hannah argues that the human artifice creates a reliable home for men, and that inside this artifice there are objects that, despite their lack of utility, are unique. They are not exchangeable, and if they become, they can only be arbitrarily valued. Of course, Hannah is referring to art here, which is the most intensely worldly of all tangible things; it lasts and is almost unaffected by natural processes. It creates stability in the world where everything else is consumed or used.
Moreover, this means that work reaches its highest potential when creating this permanence through art. It provides some level of immortality that transcends time.
Now, Hannah argues that the source of art is thought rather than feelings and emotions. This may appear contradictory, but she believes that feelings should be translated into thinking. She says that art should go through the stage of thought. This is because in order to think, we need privacy, that is, to be outside of the social realm, where opinions exist, and thus, feelings arise.
This implies that art is a process of transfiguration, it turns feelings, despite them being unpleasant, into meaningful and lasting things, and it does so, by the process of thought.
Hannah concludes this chapter by arguing that the human artifice may only become a home for mortal men if the things he creates are not simply consumable or made for a utilitarian reason. Art is useless in a utilitarian sense; in an exchange market, it becomes a commodity that must serve a purpose and be consumed. Artists thus strive to create 'useful' and 'consumable' art rather than actual art, which is, by definition, useless but meaningful and permanent. This gradually leads to humanity producing less and less art, to the point where there are no new creations in this world.
We are finally on to the most important part of the book, and also, probably the most challenging to grasp.
To begin the chapter, we can start by saying that for Hannah a world without speech and action is a death world. But what exactly does that mean?
Let’s start with the basic conditions of action and speech. Hannah argues that human plurality needs equality and distinction. First, equality is necessary because if men were not equal they could not understand each other and those who came before them nor foresee the needs of those who will come after them.
On the other hand, distinction is crucial because it is necessary to differentiate one human being from another. If this did not exist, action would not be necessary.
Furthermore, she argues that otherness is the characteristic of being different from everything else. In medieval philosophy, otherness is considered one of the fundamental qualities of all existence. It is the reason why we perceive things as distinct from one another.
In contrast to otherness, human distinctness refers to what sets us apart as living beings. All organic beings have variations and distinctions, even within the same species. Human distinctiveness is the capacity to express this uniqueness and communicate it to others, and speech and action are the ways in which humans express their uniqueness and distinguish themselves.
But what precisely is uniqueness? It is basically all of our unique experiences, knowledge, and everything else that distinguishes me from another individual.
Moreover, Hannah argues that speaking and acting are equivalent to having a second birth, because to act is to initiate and to set something in motion; it is to begin something new and be free. In its simplest form, it is unexpected, just like the origin of anything, and thus it appears to us in the guise of a miracle.
This concept of the emergence of something new is key to Hannah's way of thinking, because she believes that we are only human if we can initiate things.
Following that, Hannah claims that action and speech are intrinsically connected. She emphasizes that action, which represents the beginning and actualization of one's existence, is connected with speech, which represents the manifestation of one's distinctness among equals. She highlights the importance of speech as a way of self-identification, in which one's words and actions indirectly reflect one's identity. Without speech, action loses its revelatory quality, and action without a recognizable actor, that is, without a “who” is incomprehensible and meaningless.
Now, the identity, the disclosure of “who,” is in contradiction with “what” somebody is, and that is because once we insert ourselves into the public world through action and speech, we cannot control how others perceive us. The moment we want to say who somebody is, our vocabulary limits us and makes us say what he is, with the result that his specific uniqueness escapes our perception.
This means that it is impossible to establish an individual's essence as it manifests itself in public through action and speech, and therefore we enter a world of interest.
Furthermore, a world of interest, which literally means "being in between," is the physical place among people in which our essence is expressed through stories, and therefore, there are always stories being told about ourselves that, again, we cannot control. This reality is known as the "web" of human relationships, and it is as real as the objective world of tools and things.
This uncontrollable aspect of the outcome of my actions and speech prevents them from achieving their goal. When I act or speak, I expect something to happen, but because we act and speak in the public world, and therefore our actions are interpreted by other human beings, our own actions and speech never become the true authors or producers of our life stories.
In fact, Hannah argues that Plato understood quite well that human actions and events might not be entirely under our control. He thought that our actions might be guided by some invisible force, like puppets controlled by a puppeteer behind a curtain. Plato used this idea to explain that the happenings in the world are not entirely created by people but might be influenced by some unseen force.
Moreover, his concept of an invisible force guiding events is similar to what we now call "Providence" or the economic concept of the "invisible hand” by Adam Smith, which are ideas used by some philosophers and thinkers to explain how things happen in the world even though they seem beyond human control.
However, despite not having control over the stories that are made, there is always a "hero," who embodies the courage implicit in the determination to act and speak, and to insert oneself into the world. This courage is found in the act of exposing oneself, regardless of the repercussions. Thus, the "hero" in this context does not necessarily possess heroic qualities, but rather embodies the courage to engage with the world regardless of the outcomes.
Moreover, this idea of acting can be further explained and exemplified with the art of drama. We can really understand it when we know that drama means “to act,” which literally indicates that playing actually is an imitation of acting. This means that the manifestation of action and speech in art can only be conveyed through imitation, and therefore, the theater is a political art form that is uniquely capable of representing the political realm of human life through art.
Now, unlike fabrication, action cannot occur in isolation. It requires the presence and interaction of others. She contrasts this with the misconception of a "strong man" who stands alone, asserting that genuine strength in the realm of human affairs comes from collaboration and shared endeavor rather than isolated power.
With that in mind, Hannah draws attention to the distinction between the Greek and Latin verbs archein, which means to begin and set in motion, and agere, that means to finish or bear the results. This distinction makes us understand that it is often the leader who initiates an action, even if we often think that the leader is who controls it.
Furthermore, the key point is that no one, not even the leader, has control over the repercussions of their actions. This makes action dangerous since it is boundless, unpredictable, and irreversible. Once we act, there will be reactions and unanticipated outcomes that we will be unable to reverse.
In addition to this, Hannah argues that action is largely anonymous, primarily due to the limited control individuals have over the outcomes of their actions. What’s more, the outcomes themselves are often the culmination of the collaborative efforts of various individuals, who may not even be aware of their contribution to a specific result. This means that the complex interplay of various factors ultimately shapes the final outcome, often beyond the direct influence of any single individual.
This is why, as the Greeks put it, moderation is the highest virtue. It teaches us that we cannot control our actions and, as a result, we learn to act with humility.
Lastly, due to the unpredictability of action, Hannah argues that the full meaning of our actions can only be revealed when the action has ended and it has transformed into history. In other words, action reveals itself to the historian or storyteller, who, surprisingly, always knows better than the participants.
Now, let’s stop for a second and ask ourselves one question: Why is Hannah giving us a full explanation of what action is?
The answer to this is mainly that what concerned her was that the private realm and the public realm became interconnected, as we discussed in our latest newsletter. This blurred the boundaries that once delineated them. This blurring, she argued, led to the rise of what she calls the "social realm," that is characterized by conformity and an emphasis on material well-being over genuine political engagement.
Furthermore, Hannah's analysis of action highlights her concern about the destruction of the public sphere and the resulting loss of true political engagement and meaningful discourse. She believed that the social realm would eventually harm the fabric of democratic societies, as genuine action and speech were replaced by conformity and rhetoric, compromising the fundamental nature of human freedom and collective self-determination.
In other words, the absence of action and speech causes us to be locked in a process from which we are unable to escape and therefore become free. Or, in her words, we became unable to act, which by definition implies to be able to do something without knowing the outcomes. It is, in other words, freedom, the ability to escape automatic processes, which will be a key notion in the book's last chapter on the vita activa.
Now, returning to action, Hannah focuses on solutions by comparing different communities as well as looking at our current age.
The first is “the Greek solution,” which, as we have been discussing, serves as a model for understanding the importance of the public realm and political action. Hannah argues that the Greeks saw action as a means of self-expression, driven by the desire to distinguish oneself from others. The idea of self-disclosure and the pursuit of individual recognition played a crucial role in their understanding of political engagement.
This means that, for the Greeks, the act of creating laws was not considered a political activity but rather a precursor, much like building a city wall before any political activity could start. Laws were seen as structures that facilitated subsequent actions within the public realm.
Moreover, the Greeks perceived acting and making as distinct concepts. While acting was viewed as an uncertain and boundless process, making was seen as a more reliable and tangible endeavor. This distinction is important because it reveals how the Greeks prioritized tangible results over the unpredictability of human action.
In addition to this, the Greeks' approach to the foundation of the polis was aimed to provide a permanent platform for individuals to express themselves and reach 'immortal fame.' This served as a remedy for the transitory nature of actions and the potential for human greatness to be forgotten without a means of preservation.
In other words, in my view, we can tell that the Greeks embraced competition. However, Hannah mentions this because competition, which by nature isn’t private, shapes the collective life of a community. Competition, in other terms, serves as a catalyst for the exchange of ideas, the cultivation of excellence, and the development of a dynamic and participatory public sphere. It fosters a sense of shared responsibility and involvement, encouraging individuals to contribute their unique perspectives and talents for the betterment of the community.
Now, this argument may appear to reinforce the current framework within capitalism. Consequently, it is crucial to note that Hannah does not directly criticize capitalism, and there is no proof that she was entirely opposed to it. Her ideas frequently focus on the negative effects of an unrestricted pursuit of wealth and material gain, which she considered may destroy essential components of human life. Her work, in general, emphasizes the significance of striking a balance between economic activity and the development of a public realm in order to secure the preservation of human freedom and political participation.
To continue our exploration of what constitutes action, Hannah elaborates on her concept of the "space of appearance," which is a metaphorical stage that develops when individuals meet to act and speak in public. This space of appearance is crucial for the exercise of power, which she distinguishes from mere strength. While an individual might have strength in isolation, power is inherently interdependent, arising from the collective ability of organized action and speech in the public realm. It is a delicate and dynamic force that can materialize and evaporate in an instant, depending on how the individuals involved communicate and collaborate.
Furthermore, under certain situations, the combination of speech and action can yield power, emphasizing the critical role of human connection and communication in the formation and maintenance of meaningful political organizations. Her analysis focuses on the importance of power in the context of a common public realm where people engage in discourse and cooperative activities.
She does, however, warns against unchecked power, particularly in the context of totalitarianism and tyranny. She argues that uncontrolled power can break the balance between authority and freedom within democratic systems. For her, power within the public space is not about domination, but rather the potential for collective agency and meaningful engagement.
Following this, Hannah has some arguments about the isolation that labor creates. As discussed earlier, work involves the production of tangible goods and is connected to the public realm. On the other hand, laboring is more isolated and primarily concerned with the necessity of sustaining one's life.
Furthermore, while workmanship allows for a form of togetherness through the combination of different skills and callings, laboring tends to bring people together in a labor environment where individual identity and awareness can be lost.
In other terms, Hannah argues that laboring together makes us share the biological rhythm of labor, and thus ends up creating a sense of unity. However, this unity tends to erase individual identities, leading to conformity.
This conformity creates sameness, and Hannah points out that this leads to a lack of plurality that is essential for human interaction and the creation of a real public realm. She argues that in a consumer society, individuals might be perceived as being more similar than different, implying that social distinctions are often superficial and tied to consumerist values rather than the skills and qualities of the producers.
Moreover, the historical context of laboring is not complete without recognizing the significance of the labor movement and its rebellions throughout history. Hannah's observations align with the broader historical narrative of laborers and enslaved individuals challenging oppressive systems through collective action and rebellion. From ancient slave rebellions to the labor movements of the Industrial Revolution, these examples illustrate the struggle for freedom, better working conditions, and fundamental human rights.
With this in mind, Hannah points out that the workers today are no longer outside of society; they are its members, and they are jobholders like everybody else. The political significance of the labor movement is now the same as that of any other pressure group. The time is past when, as for nearly a hundred years, it could represent the population as a whole and not just a group of people.
In other words, she is emphasizing the reality that the Western world's most developed economies have "succeeded" in transforming the entire population into a society of laborers, completely eroding the public realm and the other aspects of the human condition.
Now, the next point she wants to make about action is its complexities. As we know now, action is unpredictable, but it is essential for the public realm to work. However, there has always been a desire to find an escape from the complexities of this.
Consequently, Hannah contrasts the concepts of "action" and "rule," where "action" refers to the unpredictable and collective nature of human affairs, and "rule" is seen as an attempt to establish stability and order by concentrating power in the hands of a single individual or a select few.
To put it another way, Hannah argues that throughout history there have been attempts to find an alternative to the complexities of the public realm. This often involves the concentration of power in a single ruler, which results in the banishment of citizens from active participation in public affairs. Basically, the pursuit of such forms of government, from monarchy to tyranny, is seen by Hannah as an effort to avoid the challenges of collective decision-making and action.
Moreover, Plato's division between thought and action can be linked to this avoidance in the public realm due to its unpredictability and potential for chaos. Plato's vision of the public realm arose from the household system, in which the master dictates to slaves who execute commands without fully understanding them, outlining his desire to make a clear boundary between those who possess knowledge and those who do not.
Furthermore, she claims that this framework eventually disregards the fundamental purpose of action in the public realm, limiting citizens' active participation in political concerns.
In fact, the current world echoes this Platonic idea in the predominance of bureaucracy and technocracy, as well as the growing belief that authority should be entrusted to professionals with specialized expertise and understanding of complex structures. This preference for knowledge over action in governance can be seen as an extension of Plato's desire to build a system in which rulership is firmly founded in cognition rather than the inherent complications of human interaction.
On top of that, Plato's Utopian concept of an ideal state, built on the principles of an expertly crafted political system, resonates with subsequent theories of domination that seek to establish structures in which ruling is separated from the unpredictability of human action. Plato's political philosophy has had an enduring influence because of his attempt to replace the uncertainties of human affairs with a system guided by predetermined knowledge and guidelines, attempting to create a realm in which governance is perceived as an act of measured precision rather than dynamic engagement with the complexities of public life.
This focus on societal structures led to the gradual acceptance of violence as a means to an end. Additionally, the modern era's emphasis on the importance of making and fabrication promoted acceptance of violence as a necessary mechanism for change.
In short, Hannah emphasizes the persistent human desire to avoid the uncertainties and risks inherent in the realm of action by substituting them with more predictable and tangible categories of human artifice, and how these tangible systems gave rise to the acceptance of violence in order to justify the means to an end.
Now, we can get from all this so far that the attempts to manipulate and control human action have ultimately failed to eliminate the essential nature of human agency. In other words, despite efforts to shape human affairs according to predetermined plans, the unpredictability and uncertainty inherent in human action persist and will always do.
Following this idea of the uncertainty of human actions, Hannah expands on it by demonstrating how modern society has changed its connection with labor and nature.
Labor, according to her, has become a process, and humanity's contact with nature has shifted from passive observation to active manipulation, with scientists striving to make natural processes fit to human-designed patterns.
This natural process manipulation has resulted in significant developments in human potential. Humans are now able to harness natural energies that would otherwise be inaccessible, eventually resulting in the creation of new processes that would not exist in the absence of human intervention.
However, this manipulation has increased uncertainty because the results of these activities are essentially unexpected. So, Hannah is trying to tell us here that action, even when it comes to our own human created processes, is by nature unpredictable and cannot be controlled.
In further reflections on the implications of human action, Hannah highlights the conventional understanding of sovereignty and freedom, drawing insights from the teachings of Stoicism. She critiques the notion that sovereignty is linked to a sense of self-sufficiency and dominance, often portraying the pursuit of freedom as an effort to surpass the limitations posed by the existence of multiple individuals within a society.
In simpler terms, she claims that pursuing full sovereignty, that is, self-rule, at the expense of human relationships, fosters an illusory sense of freedom, weakening the genuine complexities of human experience. Hannah emphasizes that Epicureanism’s illusory happiness and Stoicism’s illusory freedom rely on ignoring the realities of human experiences. These illusions, she claims, are strong manifestations of the human imagination that can only be sustained by denying the genuine complexity of human relationships and tangible interactions with both joy and suffering.
In other words, she sees Stoicism and Epicureanism as mechanisms to cope with the perils of action in the public realm.
This leads us to her views on forgiveness and, in general, her views on Jesus of Nazareth. What I like about Hannah is that she isn’t a socialist, nor a conservative, her views are mixed and clearly transcended traditional political labels.
With this in mind, Hannah presents forgiveness as a crucial aspect of human interaction, capable of, in a sense, undoing the consequences of past actions. She contrasts it with vengeance, which perpetuates a cycle of harm and sets oneself in the same position of the person who’s done wrong.
On the other hand, forgiveness breaks this cycle and allows for new beginnings to take place. Forgiveness, for Hannah, is an act in itself that is essential, since action itself is unpredictable and boundless; we simply do not know the outcomes of our actions. She further adds that forgiving is like liberating someone from the responsibility of having done something wrong.
Now, it is crucial to understand that she is not justifying malicious acts. If someone acts with the aim to cause harm and ends up doing so, they do not deserve forgiveness. She is referring to those who act in such a way that their actions unintentionally lead to evil, which is by nature a quality of action.
In fact, she says that forgiveness needs a sincere change of heart, and that some evil acts aren’t even punishable just simply because they aren’t forgivable. In other words, to punish an evil crime, like the Holocaust, for instance, would be, in a sense, to forgive it.
Going back to her argument, in order to support it, she references the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, emphasizing his lessons on forgiveness as a way to release individuals from the consequences of their actions and to break the cycle of harm. According to her, his teachings emphasize the transformative nature of forgiveness as a liberating act.
Now, why does she seem to be giving us a morality lesson by talking so much about forgiveness?
The reason for this is that forgiveness enables us to act politically and scientifically. It allows us to take action, despite the risks of causing harm. Because it is in the nature of action that it will produce unforeseen results. For her, we must be willing to forgive if an action causes harm, taking into account the intentions with which it was initiated. Beginnings cannot occur if forgiveness is not practiced, simply because we attempt to avoid harm. Without forgiveness, we lock mankind into processes, since nothing could be better than what we already know is certain.
To conclude our newsletter and to finalize the chapter on action, Hannah argues that forgiveness, perhaps because of its religious context, has always been seen as unrealistic in the public realm.
However, the act of making promises has been known throughout our tradition, as it serves as a means to counter the unpredictability inherent in human nature and the uncertainties within a community of individuals who possess equal capacities to act.
With this in mind, Hannah argues that promises inside politics serve to inject predictability into the broader unpredictability and unreliability of human actions. She warns, however, that if the ability to make promises is abused to include the totality of the future, its usefulness decreases, since promises can be unfulfilled due to the unpredictability of action. This creates disillusioned individuals and, ultimately, weakens the democratic foundations of a society, leading to a loss of faith in the political institutions and leaders.
To conclude this, Hannah reminds us that morality is not merely a collection of traditions but rather a set of moral precepts that arise from the will to live and interact with others. These precepts, such as forgiveness and keeping promises, act as control mechanisms within the realm of human action, enabling the initiation of new and continuous processes.
Moreover, the most important aspect of all this is that natality, that is, the act of birth, has the capacity to initiate new beginnings. This is a fundamental and miraculous aspect of human existence. The message from Hannah is that this idea signifies that without the ability to begin something new, that is, the ability to act, human life would be trapped in a never-ending cycle of processes, decay and deterioration.
To put it another way, it is the power to act, create, and start fresh that gives humanity the ability to intervene in the course of history and bring about new possibilities. This faculty of action, derived from the fact that humans are born and capable of initiating change, is what distinguishes us from the passive processes of nature, and it is the most important message of her book.
Finally, this is all for this newsletter, and I am still missing the last chapter of the book, which will be released in an upcoming newsletter. But for now, let’s conclude this with a question.
Why do we need to see everything in life as a process that is determined? When it is in the nature of humanity that miracles can arise from the unpredictability of our actions.
Beginnings may cause harm, but they can also give rise to new and life-changing transformations.
Arendt, H. The Human Condition (2018th ed.). University of Chicago Press.
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