Hannah Arendt, perhaps uniquely among the
great thinkers, refused the title of ‘philosopher’ on the grounds that
philosophy is concerned with “man in the singular”, whereas her work was
centred upon the fact that “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the
world.” Distinctions of this kind are central to Arendt’s work, and although
her divisions are often open to dispute, there is no doubting the insight
generated by her application of these distinctions. Whereas much political
philosophy develops towards a central argument, Arendt’s work is a diverse and
complex examination of the activities of humanity – it challenges us to
take command of our lives and societies, rather than suggesting a specific goal
or model by which to do so.
Born to a secular Jewish family in
Arendt is perhaps most famous for her essay
Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she argued that (contrary to
conventional thought) the Nazi atrocities had not emerged from a will to do
evil, or a delight in malevolence, but from individuals acting unthinkingly and
with a lack of imagination that allowed them to disconnect their actions with their grim
human consequences. She characterised this as “the banality of evil”.
The Human Condition is perhaps her most influential work, and much of Arendt’s later
work depends upon distinctions she explicated and explored in this book.
Published in 1958, its chief concern is the vita activa (the active
life), that is, “human life in so far as it is activity engaged in doing
something”. The work centres upon a tripartite distinction of human activities:
labour, the activities of the human body and life itself; work,
which provides the artificial ‘world of things’ within which we inhabit; and action,
which stems from plurality – the capacity to begin, and to affect change.
In this serialised study of The Human Condition, we will explore Arendt’s ideas concerning these three concepts – labour, work and action – and consider their relationship to the world we live in today.
Next week: Public versus Private