The Human Condition: The Vita Activa and the Modern Age. Part 3
The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt - Book Overview and Thoughts
Man needs to go away from the world he has created for himself and, in a sense, return to what we call Earth. - Beyond Thought
This is the final episode of Hannah Arendt's Human Condition, and we will look at the final chapter of the book, "The Vita Activa and the Modern Age."
That being said, in order to fully understand the content, we must first have read or listened to the previous two episodes of this book, which can be found on our YouTube channel or on Substack if reading is preferred.
This last chapter of the book will touch on a lot of history. Hannah points out the human condition's transformation during the last two thousand years and wonders if it is in risk of changing.
But, before we go any further, we need to remember what the vita activa is and where it stands now. The term is essentially the polar opposite of the vita contemplativa, and it is composed of labor, work and action.
Furthermore, Hannah's investigation begins with these two concepts and points out that there was a shift from contemplation to action as the ultimate concept in the modern age. More importantly, she investigates not only the inversion from contemplation to action, but also the inversion within the vita activa itself, from work as the homo faber to labor as the animal laborans. Transforming life as the ultimate end rather than as means.
World alienation refers to a disconnect from the immediate, concrete components of our surroundings, such as the shared human world and societal connections, while earth alienation refers to a disconnect from the tangible and natural aspects of the Earth, often as a result of scientific and technological advancements.
Hannah argues that modernity is concerned with self-experience rather than true engagement with the world, leading to world alienation rather than self-alienation as claimed by Marx.
Galileo's invention of the telescope marked the beginning of earth alienation. The invention started to challenge the adequacy of human senses to comprehend reality, leaving us with a universe known primarily through instruments. This is emphasized further by the emergence of Cartesian Philosophy, which argues that we can doubt everything except our own existence.
We have replaced common experience ideas with rational scientific ideas. Our external reality gets saved only insofar as it can be reduced to a mathematical order. Rather than understanding reality through science, we are now claiming that something only exists if we can prove it through rational universal laws. The desire for certainty in science is a never-ending chase where man encounters nothing but himself. This self alienated man from earth and turn him inwards into introspection.
Man has moved beyond understanding himself in the world by turning inward, comprehending the world logically, adapting the world based on his creations, which are founded on his logical theories, and thereby remaking the physical world according to his mind in order to make sense of it. This disconnects mankind from the physical reality that exists outside of their minds.
The scientific revolution transformed contemplation and thinking into making and fabricating. Man could only know what he makes. This elevated the homo faber to the maximum level of active life, resulting in a blend of making and knowing, eventually leading to an emphasis on processes rather than ideas or things.
The animal laborans replaced the homo faber mainly due to the homo faber's obsession with introspection and making processes, which stemmed from his distrust of senses and observation and eventually separated them from the real tangible world, as well as the influence of Christian Philosophy and its obsession with preserving and respecting life. Life on Earth may not be the eternal life that Christianity promised, but it is still a life, and without it, there is no eternal life.
Hannah's key concern is that all of the aspects that make up humanity, primarily work, labor, and action, are getting blurred and flattened out to be simply about the survival of the species through labor. Humanity is becoming imprisoned in their own human-made frameworks and procedures, distrusting their senses and putting all their reliance in their own inventions, particularly their machines, more than anything else. This hinders human action and the ability to risk, which is inherent in human action, as well as the loss of the potential to create things that outlive us rather than things that become part of a cyclical process and get left behind.
Hannah claims that anything new or “unpredictable,” which is the nature of action, is seen as risky and therefore against the preservation of life and happiness.
Now, let’s delve deeper and get to the conclusion of this book.
Hannah’s exploration of the inversions from vita contemplativa to vita activa start with the notion of earth and world alienation, and in order to understand these, we must first make a distinction between the modern age and the modern world, and in between world and earth alienation.
The modern world is associated with the political and social landscape that emerged in the twentieth century with the first atomic explosion. On the other hand, the modern age, which lasted from the 17th to the early 20th centuries, saw significant changes in science, and introduced the notion of “world and earth alienation.”
In this sense, world alienation refers to a disconnect from the immediate, concrete components of our surroundings, such as the shared human world and societal connections, while earth alienation refers to a disconnect from the tangible and natural aspects of the Earth, often as a result of scientific and technological advancements.
Hannah argues, in other words, that in the modern age, we began to see everything from a different perspective, one that is outside of the human experience.
Following this, the most important events that marked this alienation were the discovery of America, the Reformation with its impact on wealth accumulation and individual expropriation, and the invention of the telescope by Galileo that led to a new scientific perspective.
Moreover, all these inventions and discoveries, as claimed by Hannah, had a tremendous impact. The discovery of America, with its exploration of Earth's vastness, gradually gave way to a shrinking of space, eliminating the significance of distance in human lives and accelerating life.
Following this, Hannah adds that the Reformation played a role in the expropriation of ecclesiastical and monastic possessions, as Max Weber explains in his book The Protestant Ethic and the "Spirit" of Capitalism. This, in turn, triggered a two-fold process of individual expropriation and social wealth accumulation. She claims that the Reformation caused a similar type of alienation as the one caused by distance and space. Weber called this "inner worldly asceticism," and it refers to a set of values and behaviors associated with a disciplined, worldly, and rational approach to economic and worldly affairs that had a significant impact on the development of a specific mindset conducive to the emergence of capitalism.
Now, in order to reinforce the concept of world alienation, Hannah adds the "economic miracle" that took place in Germany after World War II. As is often the case, post-war scenarios result in an economic boom in which, despite the ruins and challenges, the economy is able to rebuild itself remarkably quickly, resulting in a faster rate of wealth accumulation.
Moreover, this example demonstrates Hannah's point that durability and conservation are hell and ruin for capitalism because they hinder the turnover process. Destruction-led post-war movements have always provided a stimulus for growth. The example shows how destroying and rebuilding leads to economic expansion, which is the hallmark of our current waste economy.
Following that, contrary to popular belief, Hannah believes that the loss of faith in the Church that took place after the Reformation was not a success in focusing man's attention on the tangible and external aspects of life. It drew humanity inward, directing their attention and concerns away from the outside world and toward themselves, which we'll get into more detail about in a moment.
However, with this concept of the outside world, we can make a distinction in between Marx’s self-alienation and world alienation. Hannah argues that modernity is concerned with self-experience rather than true engagement with the world, leading to world alienation rather than self-alienation as claimed by Marx.
Furthermore, Hannah emphasizes once more that the expropriation that has now led to capitalism is in fact linked to world alienation. Expropriation, or the act of depriving certain groups of their place in the world, resulted in the accumulation of wealth as well as the possibility of transforming it into labor.
What's more, expropriation increased productivity, which is highly praised in the modern world. The plot, however, twists when we look into its origins. Hannah claims that the increase in productivity is due to the release of "labor power," which has essentially become people's built-in ability to perform productive tasks.
This ability, like the natural forces that guide processes like procreation and labor, generates an extra surplus beyond immediate life needs. As individuals became motivated by life's necessities, liberated "labor power" became a central force driving productivity, and this dynamic began to play out even before the Industrial Revolution.
To put it another way, the necessity imposed by expropriation stimulated human labor, laying the groundwork for capitalism's current continuous cycle of wealth accumulation, and increased productivity.
This is where Hannah argues that the process of wealth accumulation, which is stimulated by the life process and thus stimulates human life back, is only possible if the world and humanity's worldliness are sacrificed, thereby giving rise to world alienation.
World alienation is synonymous with a capitalist regime, it disconnects individuals from the world through capital accumulation.
This world alienation took place in stages, beginning with expropriation, in which people were deprived of property that provided security and protection. The second stage of this alienation happened when society replaced the family as the subject of the life process. Family membership was replaced by social classes, which replaced the natural solidarity that existed in the family era, with social solidarity.
In other words, as society became the focal point, the traditional roles played by family memberships were replaced by social classes. That is, rather than identifying primarily with their family, individuals began to seek their place and identity within specific social classes.
Finally, the last stage happened with the collapse of the nation-state system, global economic and geographic shifts, and the emergence of humanity as a globally connected entity.
Moreover, the important part of all this is that the process of world alienation, initiated by expropriation, evolved to the point where collective ownership became difficult because it clashed with individual and private interests.
The Discovery of the Archimedean Point: Earth Alienation
As mentioned before, Galileo's invention of the telescope marked the beginning of something entirely new and the beginning of earth alienation, which is not the same as world alienation. The change from the world to the self is represented by the shrinkage of the world and expropriation, whereas earth alienation, as claimed by Hannah, starts with Galileo's discovery.
This discovery made the secrets of the universe accessible to human cognition, and enhanced earthbound creatures' sense perception. It opened a world of speculation, uncertainties and imagination that was never achieved before.
However, in many ways, this is not a successful story for Hannah. The rise of natural sciences not only brought exponential human knowledge and power, it can also be blamed for an increase in human despair and modern nihilism, which emerges from the challenge of arriving at a shared truth. The new astrophysical worldview started to challenge the adequacy of human senses to comprehend reality, leaving us with a universe known primarily through instruments.
Furthermore, this is emphasized further by the emergence of Cartesian Philosophy, which developed after Galileo's discovery and which is based on doubt. Descartes wanted to know what things he could know for certain, and came to the conclusion that he could doubt everything except his own existence - "I think, therefore I am."
Now, the important part of this is that humanity believes that science leads them to objective truth, but in reality they only encounter themselves. This, in turn, fosters doubt and a sense of alienation from not only the world but the earth itself, because we rely on instruments to see our reality.
Following this, Hannah argues that mathematics, particularly modern algebra, played a pivotal role in earth alienation. It helped us break free from our limited perspective on Earth and allowed us to formulate universal laws that go beyond our terrestrial experiences.
Moreover, and most importantly, mathematics emerged as the main science of modernity. It was no longer seen as a means of introducing ourselves to ideal forms and appearances, as Plato's view on mathematics was. Instead, it evolved into a science centered on the structure of the human mind. This means that mathematics is no longer primarily concerned with representing the physical world, but rather with comprehending the patterns within the mind itself.
To put it another way, we have replaced common experience ideas with rational scientific ideas. Phenomena, that is our external reality, gets saved only insofar as it can be reduced to a mathematical order. Rather than understanding reality through science, we are now claiming that something only exists if we can prove it through rational universal laws. The desire for certainty in science is a never-ending chase where man encounters nothing but himself.
This is the Archimedean Point, an analogy used by Hannah to describe how modern science has moved beyond the earth and into the universal. It is a phrase attributed to the Greek mathematician Archimedes, who claimed that with a long enough level and the proper placement of the fulcrum, he could move the earth.
The Archimedean Point is where the fulcrum of that lever would be - somewhere outside the earth itself.
We can think of ourselves as being external to earth, as an outside part of ourselves, and thus see it as just another body rather than a part of who we are. We can alienate ourselves from Earth because we can now think about it from afar.
Universal Versus Natural Science and the Cartesian Doubt
So far, we understand that natural sciences have evolved to be a reliable instrument, to the point where we believe that universal science is more real than the real phenomena that we experience in our world.
Following this, we know that we now live in a world deeply influenced by science and technology, a world full of rational laws rather than terrestrial or "natural" ones. The world we live in is characterized by perspectives that look at nature from a universal exterior standpoint, granting humans mastery over nature.
However, this new scientific way of life has a dual force. On one hand, there is a significant increase in destructive power, with the ability to potentially destroy all organic life on Earth, and converting Earth into a humanly made place. On the other hand, there is a newfound creative power, enabling the production of elements not found in nature and even the potential to create or recreate life.
Furthermore, Hannah argues that this new ability to produce the unthinkable has the potential to allow humans to carry out what previous generations perceived to be nature's greatest secret: that is, to create what was previously thought to be the exclusive domain of God's creation.
To put it another way, science has evolved from its original objective of understanding the world to the objective of remaking it, going beyond what is considered natural.
Now, the important thing to remember here is that Hannah claims that natural sciences, which led to universal science, made us lose confidence in our senses. We now rely on man-made processes to understand what is going on around us.
On the one hand, to understand the world, we look to science, biology, chemistry, and so on. On the other hand, to understand humanity, we look to economics, psychology, and sociology. For Hannah, a loss of the senses and appearance is a loss of truth.
Following this, as previously said, Descartes's philosophy marked this significant shift in thinking. It not only introduced a radical form of doubt that questioned the senses and perception, but also a focus on the self.
According to Hannah, if the only things I can know for certain are my own thoughts, “I think, therefore I am,” then I can know nothing truthful about the outside world, and thus nothing about reality. All I know is the self, the internal; we end up separating ourselves from external reality. Technology and science have, therefore, won over the mind and the senses.
Finally, with Descartes's conclusion that the processes that occur in man have a certainty of their own, we can say that they themselves can become the objects of investigation in introspection.
Introspection, Thought and the Loss of Common Sense
Remember the Archimedean Point? The idea of moving beyond the earth and into the universal? The fact that we can think of ourselves as being external to earth, and thus see it as just another body rather than a part of who we are?
With this understanding, after the Cartesian Doubt, Hannah argues that Descartes relocated the Archimedean Point to man himself and made humanity extremely internalized.
In other words, he transformed reality into a mathematical reality that comes from within rather than an apparent reality that comes from the outside world. As Hannah explicitly claims in her book, “Modern philosophy has made sure in introspection that man concerns himself only with himself.”
Now, this is a difficult claim to digest and comprehend, and I would argue that this isn't a book that rejects science, but rather a proposal to make us understand the limitations of seeing the world exclusively through mathematical truths and human-made instruments. The claim is that science studies the world as it appears through our instruments, and as it lives in a logical mathematical universe rather than the world as it really shows itself to us.
This brings us back to algebra, where we can better understand what she means by it. Hannah argues that Cartesian reason is based on the assumption that the mind can only know what it has produced and, in some ways, retains within itself. The highest ideal is thus logic or mathematics, but not mathematics as it exists outside of my mind, which is geometry, but algebra, which is internal mathematics conformed to abstraction and symbols.
All of this abstraction, introspection, and internalization of the world leads Hannah to quote Alfred North Whitehead, a scientist, mathematician, and philosopher, who claims that with the scientific revolution and modern philosophy, we have lost common sense, which is the sense that helps us understand the world we live in and places us in a common world. The modern age's introspection and internalization caused people to share just the structure of their minds, rather than the world in front of them.
To that end, Hannah's claim is that the things we have in common, most notably the structure of our minds, are things we can claim as "truths" but aren't necessarily truths. This is because the mind disconnects from reality and only "senses" itself. It is, in other words, a shared world between men, because the only thing they have in common is the structure of their minds, which transforms the world into a man-made symbolic reality.
To put it another way, man has moved beyond understanding himself in the world by turning inward, comprehending the world logically, adapting the world based on his creations, which are founded on his logical theories, and thereby remaking the physical world according to his mind in order to make sense of it. This alienates humanity from the tangible reality that exists outside of their minds.
This reality, which is created by the power of our minds and results from the placement of the Archimedean point into ourselves, causes humanity to lose contact with what is tangible reality on Earth. It blinds them to the fact that they live on Earth and art part of it.
Now, we might wonder why Hannah is so concerned about the remaking of the Earth.
To understand this, and Hannah Arendt in general, we must look at her through the lens of existentialism. She is concerned about the threat that science and technology pose to the human condition, which is defined by labor, work, and action, and how this will eventually transform this condition to the point where it will transform who we are as humans.
Following on from this, the problem with science and technology is that it reduces reality to thought, to the point where we must examine reality through the same theories that thought created, leaving the senses out of the equation.
As a consequence, every question man attempts to answer must be approached mathematically. His reality begins to transform into something incomprehensible through his senses because it transcends sensory creation. Consequently, he loses sight of the fact that he forms part of Earth and the immediate environment, simply because human experience fails to align with mathematical and scientific reality, leading man into the prison of his own mind.
The Reversal of Contemplation and Action and the Loss of Philosophy
Hannah argues that one of the consequences of the scientific revolution and the modern age in general is the shift in the hierarchy between the vita contemplativa and the vita activa.
As we recall from our first newsletter on the Human Condition, Aristotle described three types of lives: the life of the laborer, which was concerned with bodily pleasures, the life of the citizen, or bios politikos, which was concerned with the polis, and the vita contemplativa, which was concerned with seeking the truth in the form of inquiry and observation. The first two categories of life were active, while the last one held a higher position than the active ones.
However, as mentioned earlier, the modern age has diminished the significance of contemplation. This shift has brought about new challenges: not only is there a clear reversal, but also a general blurring of distinctions among labor, work, and action, which are integral components of vita activa. As we've discussed, the modern age has devalued work and action, elevating labor as the primary activity within the vita activa.
Now, the fact that "doing" became more important resulted in a close relationship between the pursuit of knowledge and practical experimentation and action. Instead of solely valuing contemplation as the route to truth, there was a newfound emphasis on 'making’ and the active exploration and manipulation of the world to gain knowledge.
This is related to what we previously discussed, where the senses and immediate observation became less reliable. Nothing could be less trustworthy than simple observation. To be certain, one had to make sure, and to know, one had to do.
In other words, Hannah is pointing out here, the loss of philosophy in the modern age. Galileo’s discovery brought the idea that man cannot know objective truth, and that he can only know what he makes himself.
Following this, philosophy in the seventeenth century began to be distinguished by a shift toward introspection in order to explore the processes of the senses and the mind. Much of modern philosophy is concerned with cognition and psychology, specifically how the mind perceives and processes sensory information. Philosophers such as Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, who fully understood this introspective approach, looked into their own thoughts, emotions, and inner experiences with the same seriousness and bravery that scientists experimented with the external world.
This introspective turn influenced their philosophical inquiries, leading to insights deeply rooted in their subjective experiences and internal reflections.
Furthermore, all of this shift in philosophy reduced its influence in comparison to earlier times. Philosophers began to struggle to fit scientific principles into broader interpretations of human knowledge as philosophy began to 'lag' behind science. Philosophical ventures either focused on science theories that scientists did not necessarily need or aligned themselves with the current intellectual state of mind.
In any case, Hannah argues that the most important aspect of all of this is that philosophy suffered more from modernity than any other field in history. The observation and exploration of the external world through philosophical inquiry were gradually replaced by science and its man-made methods, to the point where philosophy began to align and focus on the inner aspects of the human mind. The modern era called into question philosophy's role in shaping human understanding.
The Victory of the Homo Faber
After the reversal of the contemplative to the active, one of the aspects of the active life that rises first above the rest was the life of making, that is, the life of the homo faber. This happened naturally, because it was an instrument, and hence man as a toolmaker, that eventually led to modernity and the consequent emphasis on the creation of more tools and instruments.
However, Hannah argues that all this goes beyond the simple creation of tools. The creation and use of tools allowed humans to manipulate their environment, engage in complex tasks, and expand their understanding of the world. When humans conduct experiments, they're not merely using tools but actively engaging in a process of making and fabricating, that is, they get involved in some sort of process, situation or condition.
These processes, Hannah claims, which stem from the insistence on making, began to become more ends than means.
In other words, the process has become more important than the products or tools themselves. The reason for this shift is that the scientist was 'making' in order to know, not in order to produce things, with the products serving as mere side effects, just as Galileo had made the telescope in order to understand.
Furthermore, Hannah claims that the use of experiments to gain knowledge stems from the belief that humans can only truly understand what they have created. This led to the idea that even things not directly created by humans could be comprehended by replicating the processes through which they came into existence, eventually shifting the perspective in science from asking traditional questions about the 'what' or 'why' to more of a 'how' things came into being, which can only be answered through the replication of processes through experimentation.
To put it another way, experiments can mimic natural processes, as if humans were creating natural phenomena; and, while this method did not directly envision the extent to which humans "made" nature in the early modern age, it was founded on the concept of understanding nature from a creator's perspective.
Finally, by elevating the homo faber to the highest level of active life, we created a blend of making and knowing, which indicates that the pursuit of knowledge involves a process similar to "building a world" in the image of our experiments, leading to the idea of the homo faber as both the remaker and destroyer of nature.
This fusion of making and knowing led to an emphasis on processes and not ideas or things, eventually becoming the guide for the making and fabricating activities of the homo faber.
The Defeat of the Homo Faber and the Emergence of the Principle of Happiness
As we discussed, Galileo’s discovery caused a notable change in the way people thought. The importance of contemplation, that is of actual thinking, reduced significantly, and there was a greater focus on fabrication and processes.
All this characterized the modern age as marked by attitudes typical of the homo faber. This includes a strong emphasis on processes which are internal to him, the belief in tools, productivity, efficiency, and the idea that everything can be solved or explained based on utility.
This shift in mindset had wide-reaching consequences. In natural sciences, efforts aimed at creating order from the perceived disorder in nature became prevalent. In economics, productivity became the ultimate standard. Even in philosophy, utility became a dominant principle in explaining human behavior and motivation, leading men to become the measure of all things.
In fact, one important point to note is that homo faber's attempt to remake the world in order to understand it, which eventually created a world of mathematics and logic that separated him from the real world, led to philosophy's attempt at reconciliation, which can be seen in Hegel's system and his attempt to unify spirit, that is, the man-made world, with tangible reality.
This brings us to Hannah's important point that any attempt to create theories of human behavior, such as economics or sociology, has resulted in the creation of experimental frameworks.
Consequently, people are frequently reduced to calculated and predictable patterns, which facilitates the establishment of laws and governance based on them. Within these frameworks, this process effectively limits human perception to only rational beings, ignoring the inherent complexity and irrationality of human behavior, which can be further explained by Hannah’s concept of action.
Now, going back to the rise of the homo faber, what Hannah starts wondering after all this is how the esteem for him was quickly replaced by the elevation of laboring as the highest activity of the vita activa. She argues that this happened less dramatically than the reversal of contemplation and action in general.
To understand how it happened, we can go back to comprehending that there was an emphasis from the thing itself to how it's actually made, which brought negative and positive things.
On the positive side, as we all know, this led to incredible inventions and scientific advancements. On the negative side, it brought a focus on the process of making things, which made the permanent measures that used to guide the making of things to lose their importance or clarity.
These fixed or permanent standards were essentially the usefulness of an object and whether anything could be judged as either good or bad. Hannah argues that all this shift impacted the values people held. The focus moved from the usefulness of things to the process of making them. This also affected how people measured value. Instead of focusing on the usefulness of an object, they started valuing it based on what it helped produce or create.
Now, this is where things start to get interesting. First, as discussed, the notion that humans could only know what they’ve created, which then was challenged and replaced by the principle that emphasized the process rather than the product, did not align with homo faber's needs and ideas, causing the concept of utility, which was initially crucial for homo faber's worldview, to be replaced by the concept of the "greatest happiness of the greatest number." This meant that the value of things became less concerned with their utility and more concerned with the happiness and avoidance of pain they provided in their creation or use.
In other words, this newer happiness principle emerged primarily as a result of homo faber's obsession with introspection and making processes, which stemmed from his distrust of senses and observation and eventually separated them from the real tangible world.
The 'process' obsession separated man from useful and permanent standards, which had always served as guides for his fabrication process prior to the modern age.
Man began to see himself as part of nature's process, a participant in progress, a piece of a long process of unfolding that will eventually be left behind.
The placement of happiness as the highest value in the modern age will lead us to the only value that we know share, namely happiness, which can be translated as the placement of life as the highest good. It emphasizes life as the most important aspect of humanity and does not distinguish us from other living beings.
According to Hannah, keeping people alive is not the only thing that makes us human, and it leaves no room for the other aspects of the human condition, reducing humanity to the promotion of individual life and survival.
Life as the Highest Good and the Victory of the Animal Laborans
We're almost done with the book, and we can see where this is all going. Hannah is essentially pointing out a reversal and how humanity has been reduced to its most basic aspect, survival.
However, Hannah remains curious as to why or how life was elevated to the highest value of the human condition, and why the stability of work was substituted by labor.
To that end, she claims that this is mainly due to the influence of Christianity in Western society. She argues that Christianity, above all, promotes the sacredness and potential immortality of individual life, emphasizing life in the world but only as a living being, thereby prioritizing survival as humanity's primary concern.
This shift had profound implications. While ancient societies often regarded laboring activity with contempt, as previously seen in the Greeks, Christianity emphasized the sanctity of life, diminishing the disdain towards labor. The Christian faith introduced the concept that life on Earth is the initial stage of eternal life and the preservation of the soul, making life itself the highest good. This, again, is different from ancient societies, where the cosmos, nature and the state were of great importance.
However, Hannah brings up an important point. Despite Christianity's long tradition of the vita contemplativa, in which people seek closeness to God through meditation and prayer. Christianity also influenced how people viewed labor in society. While the Christian faith did not expressly praise labor, it did emphasize the sanctity and value of life. Because of this emphasis on the sacredness of life, sustaining it became critical. Labor, particularly the effort required for survival or the "laboring metabolism of man with nature," was not particularly praised but was regarded as significant due to its relationship with the preservation of life itself.
To put it another way, even though Christianity had a history of valuing the contemplative life, influenced by Greek philosophy and the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, it indirectly shaped how people saw labor. Instead of directly praising labor as it did with contemplation, Christianity acknowledged the significance of work because it was tied to preserving and respecting life. Life on earth may not be the eternal life that Christianity promised, but it is still a life, and without it, there is no eternal life.
Following this, modern life has never questioned what Christianity brought to humanity. It continues to operate under the premise that individual life, rather than the world, is the highest good.
The priority of life over everything else is real, and it can be seen in our modern age laboring society - the society of jobholders.
Only when the vita activa had lost its points of reference in the vita contemplativa could it become active life in the full sense of the word, and only because this active life remained bound to life as its only point of reference could life as such, the laboring metabolism of man with nature, become active and unfold its entire fertility.
Furthermore, and this might be controversial if the reader is not religious, she argues that the loss of faith, or secularization, which refers to the decline of religious influence and the rise of a non-religious worldview, which stem from skepticism and doubting everything until proven certain, played a role in eroding the belief in immortality or the certainty of an afterlife.
As a consequence, individual life lost its perceived immortality, returning to a mortal state similar to ancient times. The world also became less stable and reliable compared to the Christian era when there was a belief in an immortal afterlife. With the loss of certainty in a future world beyond this life, humans were left questioning the reality and meaning of the world they live.
Additionally, this is where I'd like to add why there are so many "how to find meaning in life" stories, tutorials, and even books. Humans crave meaning in their lives, and religion provided this function with the afterlife in the Middle Ages or ancient times.
However, most of the time in the modern age, meaning is found individually through the process of laboring. Hannah argues that this is why there has been an increase in ideologies and people latching onto big movements or figures with high meaningful causes, in order to fill the gap of meaning that religious faith used to occupy in people's lives.
Following this, Hannah claims that the shift from a focus on a potential afterlife to a more uncertain existence in the present, didn't necessarily make the modern man gain a deeper connection to the world they lived in, as we already discussed. Instead, it made men turn inward and become introspective, grappling with his own thoughts, processes, desires, and urges.
This obsession with processes eventually led to the transformation of human societies from emphasizing individual self-interest to a collective, socialized existence, as observed through Marx's ideas. However, this did not really solve the problem of introspection and individuality.
According to Hannah, the reason the problem was not solved is because, despite Marx's attempt to change the view of classic economics (mainly that all human actions are motivated by self-interest), by emphasizing the societal forces that govern classes and direct society, he nonetheless emphasized a natural force, the life process itself, as the driving force behind all human activities. Individual life merged into the species' broader life process, with labor becoming crucial for ensuring one's own and the species’ survival.
This focus on the life process leads Hannah to lament the loss of depth and richness in human experiences. The other aspects of the human condition, mainly, work and action became reduced to labor. They both started to be understood in terms of making and fabricating, and in general, seen as another form of laboring and as ways to keep us alive, rather than important aspects of human existence. This made humanity lose the capacity to act and to create permanent and useful things with the help of the homo faber’s work.
This brings us to the part when Hannah focuses on the modern world's advancements in relieving life's struggles. Higher human activities, such as thoughts, art, work, and action, are suddenly rendered useless and regarded as secondary. Thought becomes merely a means of reckoning with consequences, the "what would happen if I did this if I did that," and we therefore provide the ability to think deeply to machines that we believe can perform better than ourselves.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, making and fabricating begin to be regarded as something we do for a living. The emergence of a jobholder society submerged individual life in the overall life process of the species, leaving individuals with only one choice, whether or not to participate in the automatic functioning of society, leading to a passive and conformist mode of behavior.
To illustrate her theory, she claims that there are warning indications in modern society that can cause man to resemble the animal species from which humans believe they evolved. She gives an example in which she explores the idea that human behaviors, when viewed from a distance, may look as simply processes rather than actual actions. This is due to the fact that society has become a process in and of itself, with no freedom or choice. Everyone's lives are fairly predictable, and our life paths are already laid out for us. All we have to do is become one with the processes we created. We have evolved into a big data society that not only predicts but also strives to improve human behavior.
This concept of improving human behavior is critical. The more we feed our systems with predictable behavior and information, the more flawless the processes get, and hence the closer we get to losing our ability to act. Hannah, as we know, values action, particularly our ability to act, change, and take risks, all of which are necessary for the human condition.
Moreover, if we can recall, the concept of immortality is crucial to this book. Immortality, for Hannah, is the sense in which humans can create a world that outlives them. For her, the only living being that can strive for this is humanity, and this only happens in the form of work, art and action.
If the only thing we try is to keep people alive, by placing life as the highest good, we lose our ability to take risks. Anything new or “unpredictable,” which is the nature of action, is seen as risky and therefore against the preservation of life and happiness.
Lastly, she claims that the only three people who can escape the automatic life process are artists, scientists, and thinkers. Most of us spend our lives working jobs that, while they are work in the homo faber sense, or action, are still things we do for the sake of living. The important claim is that very few people make things that last, that very few of us have the ability or desire to make something that outlives us, because most of us are busy with staying alive and contributing to the biological process of life within society.
In that sense, despite the fact that most artists work for a living, they are often the only ones who can create things that outlive them and are permanent. Similarly, scientists are the only ones who create new processes and release them into the world, thereby changing it forever.
Finally, thinkers have the ability to disrupt society's interests by injecting plurality into society with new ways of thinking and acting that differ from the dominant way of thinking of a current society, despite the fact that thinking has become primarily labor, which is why it has been lost over time.
Ultimately, this book is, as we can see, highly relevant. Hannah focuses on what makes humanity, primarily through the human condition, which is made of the plurality of the vita activa in the form of contemplation, action, work, and labor.
Her concern is that all of the things that make up humanity are becoming blurred and flattened out to be only about survival and labor to the point that there is no room for change. Humanity is becoming imprisoned in their own human-made constructs and processes, distrusting their senses and giving all their trust to their own inventions, particularly their machines, more than anything else. The goal is not to reverse or destroy our innovations, but to be aware of the situation we have put ourselves into. Humanity must reclaim its ability to act and think without concern for survival. To become more fascinated with things that outlive them rather than just things that keep them alive; and to bring back its passion for the outside real world rather than focusing solely on himself and his man-made internal processes.
Man needs to go away from the world he has created for himself and, in a sense, return to what we call Earth. - Beyond Thought
Arendt, H. The Human Condition (2018th ed.). University of Chicago Press.
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