Maximilian Ringleb | Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition

By Maximilian Ringleb*

Hannah Arendt, one of the greatest political theorists of the last century, repeatedly insisted that she was not a philosopher. In an interview with Günter Gaus in 1964, Arendt specified that the term political philosophy, in her opinion, involved an inherent contradiction: While, for instance, the natural philosopher saw nature essentially from the same position as every other human being and could therefore make some general claims about nature, the philosopher can never maintain this neutral position in regard to politics.[i] Moreover, she continues, political philosophers of the Western tradition since Plato—except for such rare instances as Kant—all represent essentially the same and therefore a particular, non-neutral philosophical attitude toward politics. As a political theorist, on the other hand, Hannah Arendt attempted to analyze politics and society “mit ungetrübten Augen,” with unclouded eyes, an attempt which is probably best represented by her central work The Human Condition.[ii] About six decades after its publication in 1958, we want to reread and discuss Arendt’s chef d’oeuvre in the 9th session of Critique 13/13—can The Human Condition provide us with analytical concepts and insights to understand our current political moment?

The first chapter, titled just as the whole book—The Human Condition—reveals the full scope of Arendt’s project: To withdraw the evaluation of politics from the structurally biased realm of political philosophy and conduct a more neutral and nuanced analysis from the perspective of political theory. Arendt believes that already with the trial of Socrates, this birthplace of Western political philosophy, the tradition of political thought took a particular ideological standpoint which it never dislodged. After the shock of his teacher’s execution, Plato, Arendt claims, had “no aim other than to make possible the philosopher’s way of life.”[iii] Since this way of life was, as Socrates mode of existence had overtly revealed, “the essentially speechless state of contemplation,”[iv] Plato initiated the triumphal march of an inherently unpolitical (apolitia) political tradition throughout Western history—the preaching of the vita contemplativa.[v]

Hannah Arendt’s main concern is not so much the philosophies of the vita contemplativa or its modern reversal as such but primarily their underlying “assumption that the same central human preoccupation must prevail in all activities of men.”[vi] These activities are fundamentally three: “labor, work, and action,”[vii] which together form the vita activa.[viii]  Of these three, the cycle of labor and consumption is “the least worldly [—because the least durable—] and at the same time the most natural of all things.”[ix] Indeed, natural phenomena such as the water cycle or the carbon cycle illustrate that nature does not “know neither birth nor death”[x] but follows a cyclical process. As Arendt puts it delicately, “[i]t is only within the human world that nature’s cyclical movement manifests itself as growth and decay.”[xi] Human has to address the cyclical condition of life by engaging in a continuous process of laboring and consuming. Fortunately or unfortunately,[xii] as Marx observed, human can escape from this biological necessity at least temporarily since their labor power exceeds the mere level of subsistence by a surplus essential for fertility, this fundamental “force of life.”[xiii]

This surplus provides human the opportunity to address the dilemma of their existence, living a mortal life within the “ever-recurrent cyclical movement of nature.”[xiv] It is through work that human, as homo faber, “conducts himself as lord and master of the whole earth”[xv] by disrupting the cycle of nature and using its matter in order to produce durable and therefore unnatural but worldly objects.[xvi] The “stability and solidity” of these objects primarily serve the “function of stabilizing human life” within the cyclical, anonymous currents of nature.[xvii] They provide an anchor, so to say, to preserve a continuous human identity.[xviii] As their durability usually exceeds an individual lifespan, producing such objects additionally provides an opportunity to transcend one’s personal mortality and reach a considerable degree of worldly immortality thereby meeting the second human condition: worldliness.

Besides life and worldliness, the third fundamental human condition is plurality, since “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.”[xix] While homo faber “is fully capable of having a public realm of his own”[xx]—the exchange market—, interactions on this market are primarily directed by products rather than by human, a phenomenon “which Marx denounced as the dehumanization and self-alienation of commercial society.”[xxi] Consequently, only a third activity, namely action and speech, can meet the human condition of plurality through individual distinction—not simply regarding personal abilities to craft certain objects but “qua men.”[xxii]

Since action is always concerned with the in-between, “the ‘web’ of human relationships, with its innumerable, conflicting wills and intentions,”[xxiii] it has two inherent pitfalls: irreversibility and unpredictability.[xxiv] The trial of Socrates, revealing the unbounded dynamics and consequences of action, was therefore a decisive moment marking “the traditional substitution of making for acting,”[xxv] at least in theory. Since Plato, political philosophy became primarily concerned with finding ways to “[e]scape from the frailty of human affairs,” to “escape from politics altogether.”[xxvi] But Hannah Arendt disagrees decisively: As plurality is a fundamental human condition, a complete retreat into the vita contemplativa is ultimately unhuman. Emphasizing the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Arendt presents an alternative: In order to act, it requires courage to deal with its inherent consequences—however, these frailties of action can be addressed with deeply human means: Forgiveness and promise. While Arendt draws on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth to defend action, one should note that her ideas are quite distinct. Hegel described accurately that the life of Jesus took a clear turnaround once he realized that action would not result in change and he consequently retreated into a severe vita contemplativa.[xxvii] Arendt is aware of this fact in that she criticizes Jesus’s preaching of love:

Love, by its very nature, is unworldly, and it is for this reason rather than its rarity that it is not only apolitical but antipolitical, perhaps the most powerful of all antipolitical human forces.[xxviii]

In other words: Unlike Christianity, Arendt does not believe in the power of love but only in respect, which together with courage and the remedies of forgiveness and promise becomes her leitmotif for action.

While the pre-Socratic “Greek solution”[xxix] of the polis did not recognize the importance of forgiveness and promise, Arendt still draws heavily on the Ancient city-states to illustrate a different conception of society based on an action-dominated viva activa. The most striking feature of the Greek case is its clear opposition of the private and the public spheres. The household, on the one hand, provided both a worldly place of belonging based on private property and a place to labor for one’s necessities of life. It is due to these functions of the private household to meet both the conditions of worldliness and life that the Greek city-states were societies of property-owners and of slaves. Freedom, in the Greek context meaning to be liberated from life’s necessities by exploiting the labor surplus of one’s slaves, enabled for the participation in the polis. Not believing in a transcendental life or eternity, the polis was the Greek platform to acquire worldly immortality by aiming to achieve remembrance of one’s actions and speeches in the web of human relationships.[xxx]

This Ancient form of an action-dominated society following the viva activa was eventually challenged not only, as said, by the earliest political philosophers, but also by the Christian conception of individual immortality. Both the viva contemplativa and individual immortality downgraded political action “to the low level of an activity subject to necessity.”[xxxi] The medieval and premodern centuries consequently resulted in a decisive shift from action to unworldliness, a shift which was paradoxically conducted by homo faber who was convinced with Plato that “his greatest desire, the desire for permanence and immortality, cannot be fulfilled by his doings, but only when he realizes that the beautiful and eternal cannot be made.”[xxxii]

It was only with Galilei, who separated Being and Appearance by proving with worldly means the heliocentricity of the sun system and therefore the fallacy of all objective ‘truth,’, that the viva activa eventually saw a revival during the early modern period. At this point in history, “science and philosophy parted company more radically than ever before”[xxxiii] and as philosophy, being stuck early on in doubt and an inescapable relativism of all thought and experience, retreated into introspection, science became the dominating force of the early modern period. The foremost advantage of science in the modern age of doubt was its pragmatism: “[S]cientific truth not only need not be eternal, it need not even be comprehensible or adequate to human reason.”[xxxiv] Consequently, one could only know what one had made oneself—not what one thought or observed in contemplation—, and the new means to create knowledge—and not truth, which was forever lost—was the experiment.[xxxv] Homo faber, the maker of things, was therefore ‘reactivated’—but as “the scientist made only in order to know,”[xxxvi] homo faber’s activity was now ‘processualized,’ they became “a maker of tools to make tools.”[xxxvii] Within this self-serving process of empirical knowledge accumulation, however, scientists eventually realized the relativism of the world they were constructing as well, since “the world of the experiment […] puts man back once more […] into the prison of his own mind.”[xxxviii]

At last, the initial doubts of early modern philosophers turned out to be of greater foresight. With Galilei’s prove of the Archimedean point’s relativism, the resulting Cartesian doubt and ultimately with the loss of faith in any form of immortality, “modern man at any rate did not gain this world when he lost the other one. […] The only thing that could now be potentially immortal […] was life itself.”[xxxix] Equating Life and Being, the modern life philosophy of Marx, Nietzsche, and Bergson dissolved the Archimedean point altogether. As a result, “individual life became part of the life process, and to labor […] was all that was needed.”[xl] In today’s world, the animal laborans finally came to dominate the viva activa and established what Arendt calls the laborer’s society. The modern predominance of the natural cycle of labor and consumption “has let loose an unnatural growth […] of the natural,”[xli] a process which strives for an abundance of wealth which can only be achieved in a continuous acceleration of the cycle and an ever-increasing productivity of labor, leaving no space for meaningful work, political action, or individual contemplation whatsoever. We have given up on the fundamental human conditions of worldliness and plurality, creating a society in which the individual is perfectly fungible and all that matters is the immortality of a species in an ever more artificial environment. What Hannah Arendt diagnosed and foresaw so clearly about sixty years ago is in its contemporary validity shocking—what she proposed, however, “is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.”[xlii] In our coming discussion of Arendt’s work in Critique 9/13, we will indeed follow her advice—it remains open, however, whether the discussion will come to more specific conclusions in light of the ever-more revealing character of the modern laborer’s society.


[i] The interview “Zur Person Hannah Arendt,” conducted by Günter Gaus on November 28, 1964, is available at Arendt explains the contradiction of political philosophy at 2:36.

[ii] Ibid., at 4:05.

[iii] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Second edition (Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2018), 14.

[iv] Arendt, The Human Condition, 302.

[v] This triumphal march was secured first by the continuance of the “philosophic apolitia” in Aristotle’s political philosophy, who distinguished between the quiet and the unquiet, which “is like the distinction between war and peace: just as war takes place for the sake of peace, thus every kind of activity, even the process of mere thought, must culminate in the absolute quiet of contemplation.” Although Jesus Christ did not—at least initially—preach the vita contemplativa, the Christian tradition eventually adopted the concept when the medieval scholastics, particularly Aquinas, incorporated the recovered writings of Aristotle in the Christian teachings. In this way, Plato’s ideas dominated far into the early modern ages.

Arendt, The Human Condition, 15.

[vi] Arendt, The Human Condition, 17.

[vii] Arendt, The Human Condition, 7.

[viii] Each of these activities can be interpreted as an immediate response of human to the conditions of his existence: with labor, human responds to the condition of his biological existence, of life as such; with work, they attempt to account for the seeming worldliness of this processual biological existence by creating durable products which provide some degree of “stability and solidity;” and with action, human try to distinguish themselves in correspondence to the condition of plurality within human communities.

Arendt specifies later that meaningful action—unlike mechanical action or violence—is fundamentally interlinked with speech: “Without the accompaniment of speech, at any rate, action would not only lose its revelatory character, but, and by the same token, it would lose its subject, as it were; not acting men but performing robots would achieve what, humanly speaking, would remain incomprehensible.” Arendt, The Human Condition, 178.

[ix] Arendt, The Human Condition, 96.

[x] Arendt, The Human Condition, 96.

[xi] Arendt, The Human Condition, 97.

[xii] Surprisingly, Arendt sees the existence of labor’s surplus primarily critically as becomes apparent at the beginning of section 16 on page 118. However, her perspective is more ambiguous than it seems at first sight: While she regards the “fertility of human labor power” as an unfortunate feature since it resulted in the division of labor and ultimately slavery in which some human had to labor in order to fulfill the necessities of all, she is also aware that without labor’s surplus there would not be any opportunity for human to engage in the other activities, work and action.

[xiii] Arendt, The Human Condition, 108.

[xiv] Arendt, The Human Condition, 96.

[xv] Arendt, The Human Condition, 139.

[xvi] These objects are reifications of individual ideas and, at least in their most artistic manifestations, can serve as ends in themselves. More specifically, Arendt describes “[t]he process of making [as] entirely determined by the categories of means and end. The fabricated thing is an end product in the twofold sense that the production process comes to an end in it […] and that it is only a means to produce this end.” Later, however, she distinguishes art works, “which are strictly without any utility” and therefore “the most intensely worldly of all tangible things” from objects which serve a certain function and therefore “never become[] […] an end in itself, at least not as long as it remains an object for use.” Since useful objects serve human purposes, only an anthropocentric world view, defining human ‘convenience’ as the ultimate end of all means, can provide a meaningful context to produce use objects. This “anthropocentric utilitarianism of homo faber” is perfectly compatible with his general world view, as they conduct themselves, as said, as the lord and master of the world.

Arendt, The Human Condition, 143, 153, 155, 167.

[xvii] Arendt, The Human Condition, 136-7.

[xviii] It is only logical and worth to note that Arendt recognizes the central importance of private property as such an anchor to preserve identity and to meet the human condition of worldliness. For her, private property is “a tangible, worldly place of one’s own” and consequently, “[i]n a society of property-owners, as distinguished from a society of laborers or jobholders, it is still the world, and neither natural abundance nor the sheer necessity of life, which stands at the center of human care and worry.”

Arendt, The Human Condition, 70, 115-6.

[xix] Arendt, The Human Condition, 7.

[xx] Arendt, The Human Condition, 160.

[xxi] Arendt, The Human Condition, 210.

[xxii] Arendt, The Human Condition, 176. As she puts it later in the text: “In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world.” Arendt, The Human Condition, 179.

[xxiii] Arendt, The Human Condition, 183.

[xxiv] In another context, Arendt even identifies a “threefold frustration of action—the unpredictability of its outcome, the irreversibility of the process, and the anonymity of its authors.” Arendt, The Human Condition, 220.

[xxv] Arendt, The Human Condition, 220.

[xxvi] Arendt, The Human Condition, 222.

[xxvii] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate,” in Early Theological Writings, trans. T. M. Knox (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, n.d.), 182–301. On page 283: “So long as Jesus sees the world unchanged,  so long does he flee from it and from all connection with it.”

[xxviii] Arendt, The Human Condition, 242.

[xxix] Arendt, The Human Condition, 192.

[xxx] See Arendt, The Human Condition, 197.

[xxxi] Arendt, The Human Condition, 314.

[xxxii] Arendt, The Human Condition, 303.

[xxxiii] Arendt, The Human Condition, 272.

[xxxiv] Arendt, The Human Condition, 290.

[xxxv] See Arendt, The Human Condition, 295.

[xxxvi] Arendt, The Human Condition, 297.

[xxxvii] Arendt, The Human Condition, 309.

[xxxviii] Arendt, The Human Condition, 288. One should be reminded here of Max Horkheimer’s essay on traditional and critical sciences, discussed in Critique 1/13.

[xxxix] Arendt, The Human Condition, 320-1.

[xl] Arendt, The Human Condition, 321.

[xli] Arendt, The Human Condition, 47.

[xlii] Arendt, The Human Condition, 5.


*M.A. Global Thought