On The Human Condition of Hannah Arendt 1

Here begins a series based on the 1958 book by Hannah Arendt (1906–75) called The Human Condition. The publisher classifies it as philosophy and political science. I sense a kind of similarity with a book that I have devoted many blog posts to: The New Leviathan (1942) of R. G. Collingwood (1889–1943).

Collingwood wrote about European civilization as a war threatened to end it. Arendt managed to escape that war, and she went on to write about civilization in her own way in The Human Condition. Today, February 24, 2022, a new war for territory in Europe begins.

Red-themed cover of The Human Condition against dull green cloth

It may be good that I read Arendt after Plato’s Republic. In the first of the posts about that work that I made between August 15, 2021, and January 11, 2022—in the section called “My Personal Journey”—I found reason to quote Arendt’s 1967 New Yorker essay “Truth and Politics.” I had used that essay in my own essay on ethics in mathematics (submitted for publication).

After the Prologue, The Human Condition is divided into six chapters and 45 sections. I am reading it in a Catherine Project seminar in eleven twelve parts as follows.

  sections chapter 2022 date
1. Prologue, §§ 1–3 Ch. I February 10
2. §§ 4–6 Ch. II February 17
3. §§ 7–10 Ch. II February 24
4. §§ 11–14 Ch. III March 3
5. §§ 15–17 Ch. III March 10
6. §§ 18–21 Ch. IV March 17
7. §§ 22–23 Ch. IV March 24
8. §§ 24–27 Ch. V March 31
9. §§ 28–30 Ch. V April 7
10. §§ 31–34 Ch. V April 14
11. §§ 35–40 Ch. VI April 21
12. §§ 41–45 Ch. VI April 28

After this preamble, this post features the first reading.

The dates on the table are Thursdays, and until the second Sunday in March, the discussions are at 7:30 PM EST; for me in Istanbul, that is 3:30 TRT. After March 13, the meeting time is 7:30 PM EDT, which is 2:30 TRT.

I saw the film Hannah Arendt in Washington in July, 2013, and subsequently bought Arendt’s own book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963/2006). My memories are dim of the film, except that there was an obnoxious detractor who accused Arendt of not understanding people’s feelings. I seem to have read only a fraction of the book, but I highlighted this passage:

Dimly aware of a defect that must have plagued him even in school—it amounted to a mild case of aphasia—[Eichmann] apologized, saying, “Officialese [Amtssprache] is my only language.” But the point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché … To be sure, the judges were right when they finally told the accused that all he had said was “empty talk”—except that they thought the emptiness was feigned, and that the accused wished to cover up other thoughts which, though hideous, were not empty. This supposition seems refuted by the striking consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him. Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.

The idea that reality depends on other people, with different points of view, was already in The Human Condition:

The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves … (p. 50, ¶ 7.2)

… the reality of the public realm relies on the simultaneous presence of innumerable perspectives and aspects in which the common world presents itself and for which no common measurement or denominator can ever be devised … This is the meaning of public life, compared to which even the richest and most satisfying family life can offer only the pro­longation or multiplication of one’s own position … (p. 57, ¶ 7.14)

I found reason to tweet some of this on February 20, 2022.

The chapters of The Human Condition are named as follows.

  1. The Human Condition (§§ 1–3)
  2. The Public and the Private Realm (§§ 4–10)
  3. Labor (§§ 11–17)
  4. Work (§§ 18–23)
  5. Action (§§ 24–34)
  6. The Vita Activa and the Modern Age (§§ 35–45)

As Arendt explains in the Prologue, the book is about what all of us do, and for this reason she does not include thinking:

“What we are doing” is indeed the central theme of this book. It deals only with the most elementary articulations of the human condition … the highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable, the activity of thinking, is left out of these present considerations. Systematically, therefore, the book is limited to a discussion of labor, work, and action, which forms its three central chapters.

Labor is something we share with the beasts; work, with the gods. Action is our own.

As far as I can tell, there have been three editions of The Human Condition, all by the University of Chicago Press.

  1. The first edition came out in 1958, and a copy is available for borrowing from the Internet Archive. The copyright page says, “Charles R. Walgreen Foundation Lectures.”
  2. The second edition, of 1998, includes an Introduction by Margaret Canovan. The Internet Archive has a couple of copies of this available for borrowing, along with a copy available for download as a “Community Text.”
  3. In 2018, there was a third edition. It is still called a second edition, but it has a new Foreword, by Danielle Allen. Pandora Kitabevi here in Istanbul had a copy of this edition in stock, and I bought it. I also found a pdf image on Library Genesis, and for my own use, I converted the image to text with tesseract.

As far as I can tell, the core text of the 1998 and 2018 editions is a corrected photographic reproduction of the pages of the first edition. The Publisher’s Note on page 328 (between the Acknowledgments and the Index) seems to confirm this by not saying otherwise:

In preparation of this second edition, we have corrected sev­eral minor typographical errors. The observant reader may no­tice, however, that the Greek letter chi has been transliterated as kh in some instances and as the more standard ch in others. We have chosen to let stand instances of the former, probably a Ger­manism.

This second edition includes a completely new and expanded index, which replaces that of the first edition.

My practice so far is to read Arendt’s words on paper first. For further study, I turn to the electronic text, marking it up as follows, more or less as I have done with other texts on this blog.

  • Commentary is in blue, and at 90% of the main text size, and only left-justified, like the present words.
  • Paragraphs are numbered by section; thus I label and refer to the third paragraph of section 2 as ¶ 2.3.
  • Some of Arendt’s text is analyzed into numbered or unnumbered lists.
  • Highlights are in yellow.
  • The footnotes of each paragraph are made into endnotes for that paragraph. (Original page numbers are bracketed and bolded where the pages end. The number of a page with a footnote—and that seems to be most pages—occurs twice: where the main text ends, and where the footnotes end.)

Contents of Chapter 1

Summary by paragraphs

  • Prologue
    • ¶ 0.1 In 1957, Sputnik left the earth.
    • ¶ 0.2 This was seen with relief as an escape.
    • ¶ 0.3 Having begun the modern age with a repudiation of God the Father, people now reject Mother Earth.
    • ¶ 0.4 They do this with eugenics, life extension, and “the attempt to create life in the test tube.”
    • ¶ 0.5 Whether to pursue such things is a political question.
    • ¶ 0.6 The problem is that science has progressed beyond our ability to talk about it.
    • ¶ 0.7 This means we cannot trust the political judgment of scientists as such.
    • ¶ 0.8 Another threat is the freedom from labor made possible by automation.
    • ¶ 0.9 We have forgotten how to do anything with such freedom.
    • ¶ 0.10 Though thoughtlessness is characteristic of our age, our project now is to think about what we are doing.
    • ¶ 0.11 That’s the theme of the book, what everybody is doing: labor, work, and action. The modern age comes in the last chapter.
    • ¶ 0.12 The modern age began scientifically, in the 17th century. The modern world began politically, with the atom bomb, but this is only our background. We want to understand the alienation sending us both out of this world and into ourselves.
    • 1 Vita Activa and the human condition
      • ¶ 1.1 Labor, work, and action compose the vita activa.
      • ¶ 1.2 Labor is biological.
      • ¶ 1.3 Work is worldly.
      • ¶ 1.4 Action is political, corresponding to our plurality: “Male and female created He them.
      • ¶ 1.5 Action makes history possible. “Natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical, thought.”
      • ¶ 1.6 “Men are conditioned beings because everything they come in contact with turns imme­diately into a condition of their existence.”
      • ¶ 1.7 Living off-planet would change our condition, but not our nature.
      • ¶ 1.8 Only a god could know our nature.
      • ¶ 1.9 Our conditions cannot explain us. Science shows that “we are not mere earthbound creatures.”
    • 2 the term Vita Activa
      • ¶ 2.1 Our tradition of political thought grows out of the trial of Socrates, and vita activa translates the bios politikos of Aristotle.
      • ¶ 2.2 If you were free of the need to labor, work, or acquire, Aristotle observed that you could pursue pleasure, politics, or contemplation.
      • ¶ 2.3 The bios politikos was more than just involvement in human affairs.
      • ¶ 2.4 The political meaning of vita activa was lost with the city-state; bios theōrētikos or vita contemplativa “was left as the only truly free way of life.”
      • ¶ 2.5 Plato recognized the superiority of contemplation; the Christians only made it everybody’s right.
      • ¶ 2.6 Vita activa thus corresponds better to askholia (unquiet) than to bios politikos.
      • ¶ 2.7 Contemplation is of what is physei rather than of what is nomō [and the concern of the vita activa].
      • ¶ 2.8 Christianity approved the abasement of the vita activa that had already been effected by the Socratic school.
      • ¶ 2.9 Marx and Nietzsche may have switched the order of abasement, but without unblurring “the distinctions and articulations within the vita activa itself.”
      • ¶ 2.10 We reject any hierarchy of vita activa and vita contemplativa.
    • 3 eternity versus immortality
      • ¶ 3.1 When philosophers—probably Socrates first—discovered that there was more to life than politics, they assumed it was higher than politics.
      • ¶ 3.2 We are “the only mortals in an immortal but not eternal universe.”
      • ¶ 3.3 We can however—some of us—perform immortal deeds.
      • ¶ 3.4 Plato saw that the philosopher’s concern for the eternal was in conflict with the striving for immortality.
      • ¶ 3.5 We experience the eternal outside the Cave, and none of us can for long; even thought “is obviously not only inadequate to render it but would interrupt and ruin the experience itself.”
      • ¶ 3.6 The philosophers’ doubt that political immortality was possible was confirmed by the fall of the Roman Empire. This and the rise of Christianity have caused us to forget “the striving for immortality which originally had been the spring and center of the vita activa.”


What is a condition? The word is from the Latin condicio (later spelled conditio) “agreement,” from the verb condicere. Arendt will say in ¶ 1.4,

plurality is specifically the condition—not only the conditio sine qua non, but the conditio per quam—of all political life.

Roughly speaking, the first condition seems to be necessary; the second, sufficient. But we are not doing mathematics. Conditions change things; they have power, as Arendt is going to say in ¶ 1.6:

In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability not­withstanding, possess the same conditioning power as natural things.

In ¶ 1.9 (the last of the section), Arendt refers to “the conditions of human existence—life it­self, natality and mortality, worldliness, plurality, and the earth.”


¶ 0.1

In 1957, an earth-born object made by man was launched into the universe, where for some weeks it circled the earth according to the same laws of gravitation that swing and keep in motion the celestial bodies—the sun, the moon, and the stars. To be sure, the man-made satellite was no moon or star, no heavenly body which could follow its circling path for a time span that to us mortals, bound by earthly time, lasts from eternity to eternity. Yet, for a time it managed to stay in the skies; it dwelt and moved in the proximity of the heavenly bodies as though it had been admitted tentatively to their sublime company.

Sputnik was made possible by the absolute presupposition of Newton and now ourselves that the visible universe is governed by one set of laws.

¶ 0.2

This event, second in importance to no other, not even to the splitting of the atom, would have been greeted with unmitigated joy if it had not been for the uncomfortable military and political circumstances attending it. But, curiously enough, this joy was not triumphal; it was not pride or awe at the tremendousness of human power and mastery which filled the hearts of men, who now, when they looked up from the earth toward the skies, could behold there a thing of their own making. The immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the first “step toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth.” And this strange statement, far from being the accidental slip of some American re­porter, unwittingly echoed the extraordinary line which, more than twenty years ago, had been carved on the funeral obelisk for one of Russia’s great scientists: “Mankind will not remain bound to the earth forever.”

¶ 0.3

Such feelings have been commonplace for some time. They show that men everywhere are by no means slow to catch up and adjust to scientific discoveries and technical developments, but that, on the contrary, they have outsped them by decades. Here, as in other [1] respects, science has realized and affirmed what men anticipated in dreams that were neither wild nor idle. What is new is only that one of this country’s most respectable newspapers finally brought to its front page what up to then had been buried in the highly non-respectable literature of science fiction (to which, un­fortunately, nobody yet has paid the attention it deserves as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires). The banality of the statement should not make us overlook how extraordinary in fact it was; for although Christians have spoken of the earth as a vale of tears and philosophers have looked upon their body as a prison of mind or soul, nobody in the history of mankind has ever con­ceived of the earth as a prison for men’s bodies or shown such eagerness to go literally from here to the moon. Should the emanci­pation and secularization of the modern age, which began with a turning-away, not necessarily from God, but from a god who was the Father of men in heaven, end with an even more fateful repudi­ation of an Earth who was the Mother of all living creatures under the sky?

In leaving Corinth because of the oracle, Oedipus turned away from the only father and mother he knew.

Arent will distinguish between the modern age and the modern world in the last paragraph of this Prologue.

¶ 0.4

The earth is the very quintessence of the human condition, and earthly nature, for all we know, may be unique in the universe in providing human beings with a habitat in which they can move and breathe without effort and without artifice. The human artifice of the world separates human existence from all mere animal en­vironment, but life itself is outside this artificial world, and through life man remains related to all other living organisms. For some time now, a great many scientific endeavors have been directed toward making life also “artificial,” toward cutting the last tie through which even man belongs among the children of nature. It is the same desire to escape from imprisonment to the earth that is manifest

  1. in the attempt to create life in the test tube,
  2. in the de­sire to mix “frozen germ plasm from people of demonstrated ability under the microscope to produce superior human beings” and “to alter [their] size, shape and function”; and
  3. the wish to escape the human condition, I suspect, also underlies the hope to extend man’s life-span far beyond the hundred-year limit.

Here is the first use of “condition” and “nature”; also a foreshadowing of the distinction between labor and work. The enumeration of three points is mine, and Arendt may see #2 as just an elaboration of #1; but the three instantiations of escapism might be summarized as, or seen in,

  1. artificial intelligence,
  2. eugenics,
  3. life extension.

I note that Wikipedia traces the idea of transhumanism to the 1960s and FM-2030 (born Fereidoun M. Esfandiary). See also David Chalmers, at least as paraphrased by David Bentley Hart in “Reality Minus” (New Atlantis, February 4, 2022):

one can imagine one’s brain being gradually transformed into a silicon rather than organic object through the replacement, one at a time, of each neuron by a computer chip; it seems unlikely, argues Chalmers, that in the process our consciousness would gradually disappear along with our original neurons, given that the structure of the emerging silicon brain—being isomorphic with the neurological brain it is replacing—would produce the same behaviors. And he more or less repeats this argument in Reality+, in this case to demonstrate that one’s mind could be gradually uploaded into a simulated brain without loss of consciousness.

Be it noted that Hart demurs:

in a simulated world, only simulated selves could exist; no one — absolutely no one—ever will or could be at home there. Chalmers does not, however, realize this …

… any sober phenomenology of the full range of mental acts discloses a host of necessarily unified features that are almost by definition irreducible to a mere integration of diverse mechanical parts and discrete functions, and that no process of computation could reproduce …

… any truly scrupulous phenomenology of mental acts must reveal that the most basic dynamism of thought—clearly irreducible to processes of input and output—is a kind of a priori orientation of intellect and will toward the totality of being as infinitely desirable intelligible truth.

See also Mary Midgley, Evolution as a Religion, on the absurdity of eugenics.

¶ 0.5

This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebel­lion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from [2] nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself. There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth. The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific and technical knowledge in this direction, and this ques­tion cannot be decided by scientific means; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians.

Compare Midgley, “Creation and Originality,” Heart and Mind:

The notion of creation is central to Nietzsche; he comes back to it constantly. But what does creation mean when people, not gods, are said to do it? If God is really dead, why should we dress up in his clothes? In Sartre, there is the same explicit reference to the divine model.

¶ 0.6

While such possibilities still may lie in a distant future, the first boomerang effects of science’s great triumphs have made them­selves felt in a crisis within the natural sciences themselves. The trouble concerns the fact that the “truths” of the modern scientific world view, though they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, will no longer lend them­selves to normal expression in speech and thought. The moment these “truths” are spoken of conceptually and coherently, the re­sulting statements will be “not perhaps as meaningless as a ‘tri­angular circle,’ but much more so than a ‘winged lion’” (Erwin Schrödinger). We do not yet know whether this situation is final. But it could be that we, who are earth-bound creatures and have begun to act as though we were dwellers of the universe, will for­ever be unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do. In this case, it would be as though our brain, which constitutes the physical, material condition of our thoughts, were unable to follow what we do, so that from now on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking. If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the help­less slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is tech­nically possible, no matter how murderous it is.

Many people requote the Schrödinger quote. Arendt quotes it again, and more fully, in “Man’s Conquest of Space” (The American Scholar, Autumn, 1963, Vol. 32, No. 4, pp. 527–540), though still without giving the source, which is apparently “The Nature of Our ‘Models’,” in Science and Humanism (1951), concerning a change since the beginning of the twentieth century, when

one still had at the back of one’s mind the thought that a true model exists—exists so to speak in the Platonic realm of ideas—that we approach to it gradually, without perhaps ever reaching it, owing to human imperfections.

This attitude has now been abandoned. The failures we have experienced no longer refer to details, they are of a more general kind. We have become fully aware of a situation that may perhaps be summarized as follows. As our mental eye penetrates into smaller and smaller distances and shorter and shorter times, we find nature behaving so entirely differently from what we observe in visible and palpable bodies of our surrounding that no model shaped after our large-scale experiences can ever be ‘true’. A completely satisfactory model of this type is not only practically inaccessible, but not even thinkable. Or, to be pre­cise, we can, of course, think it, but however we think it, it is wrong; not perhaps quite as meaning­less as a ‘triangular circle’, but much more so than a ‘winged lion’.

So it is not just that the layperson has trouble understanding the scientist, but as Arendt says in “Man’s Conquest of Space,”

The scientist has not only left behind the layman with his limited understanding, he has left behind himself and his own power of understanding, which is still human understanding, when he goes to work in the laboratory and begins to communicate in mathemati­cal language.

Does Arendt therefore think that we mathematicians have left behind our own power of understanding, at least by doing symbolic mathematics? I think it is understood that how we communicate mathematics informally is not the same as how we end up writing it down officially. But then we also desire machines—programs—that can check our work and even help us do it.

¶ 0.7

However, even apart from these last and yet uncertain conse­quences, the situation created by the sciences is of great political significance. Wherever the relevance of speech is at stake, matters become political by definition, for speech is what makes man a political being. If we would follow the advice, so frequently urged [3] upon us, to adjust our cultural attitudes to the present status of scientific achievement, we would in all earnest adopt a way of life in which speech is no longer meaningful. For the sciences today have been forced to adopt a “language” of mathematical symbols which, though it was originally meant only as an abbreviation for spoken statements, now contains statements that in no way can be translated back into speech. The reason why it may be wise to distrust the political judgment of scientists qua scientists is not primarily their lack of “character”—that they did not refuse to develop atomic weapons—or their naïveté—that they did not understand that once these weapons were developed they would be the last to be consulted about their use—but precisely the fact that they move in a world where speech has lost its power. And whatever men do or know or experience can make sense only to the extent that it can be spoken about. There may be truths be­yond speech, and they may be of great relevance to man in the singular, that is, to man in so far as he is not a political being, whatever else he may be. Men in the plural, that is, men in so far as they live and move and act in this world, can experience mean­ingfulness only because they can talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves.

Who “forces” a science to do something, be it adopt a symbolic language or anything else? In any case, obviously as scientists we can talk about our work, even without also using a blackboard. It’s true that we may have difficulty talking wit non-specialists.

¶ 0.8

Closer at hand and perhaps equally decisive is another no less threatening event. This is the advent of automation, which in a few decades probably will empty the factories and liberate man­kind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of labor­ing and the bondage to necessity. Here, too, a fundamental aspect of the human condition is at stake, but the rebellion against it, the wish to be liberated from labor’s “toil and trouble,” is not modern but as old as recorded history. Freedom from labor itself is not new; it once belonged among the most firmly established privileges of the few. In this instance, it seems as though scientific progress and technical developments had been only taken advantage of to achieve something about which all former ages dreamed but which none had been able to realize.

¶ 0.9

However, this is so only in appearance. The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society. The fulfilment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfilment [4] of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liber­ated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this so­ciety, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew. Even presidents, kings, and prime ministers think of their offices in terms of a job necessary for the life of society, and among the intellectuals, only solitary individuals are left who consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living. What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.

Compare Stephen Trombley in Fifty Thinkers Who Shaped the Modern World (2012), which I quoted in greater length in “Effectiveness”:

The strange death of idealism in British philosophy goes hand in hand with philosophy’s transformation from a gentleman’s pastime into a profession.

¶ 0.10

To these preoccupations and perplexities, this book does not offer an answer. Such answers are given every day, and they are matters of practical politics, subject to the agreement of many; they can never lie in theoretical considerations or the opinion of one person, as though we dealt here with problems for which only one solution is possible. What I propose in the following is a re­consideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears. This, obviously, is a matter of thought, and thoughtlessness—the heedless reckless­ness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of “truths” which have become trivial and empty—seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.

Do we seem thoughtless only to ourselves? What comes to us from the past is its thoughts; we would have trouble recognizing a thoughtless age. I wonder if Arendt’s concern is like that of Claire Berlinski, who tweeted on August 18, 2021:

What the hell has gone wrong with the US, really? Spare me the cliches about “the left” and “the right” and “the elite.” How did we all become so profoundly childish, callow, irresponsible, and unserious?

As an example of serious people from recent memory, she posted a photo of the signing by US Navy Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz of the instrument of surrender of Japan, September 2, 1945.

¶ 0.11

“What we are doing” is indeed the central theme of this book. It deals only with the most elementary articulations of the human condition, with those activities that traditionally, as well as ac­cording to current opinion, are within the range of every human being. For this and other reasons, the highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable, the activity of thinking, is left out of these present considerations. Systematically, therefore, the book is limited to a discussion of

  1. labor,
  2. work, and
  3. action,

which forms its three central chapters. Historically, I deal in a last chap- [5] ter with the modern age, and throughout the book with the various constellations within the hierarchy of activities as we know them from Western history.

Labor, work, action, and thought are all species of activity. In Ch. 1, § 1, ¶ 7, activities are combined with capabilities, and thought is followed by reason. Meanwhile, thought is an activity we hardly engage in, because we lack an aristocracy.

¶ 0.12

However, the modern age is not the same as the modern world.

  • Scientifically, the modern age which began in the seventeenth cen­tury came to an end at the beginning of the twentieth century;
  • politically, the modern world, in which we live today, was born with the first atomic explosions.

I do not discuss this modern world, against whose background this book was written.

  • I confine myself, on the one hand, to an analysis of those general human capacities which grow out of the human condition and are perma­nent, that is, which cannot be irretrievably lost so long as the hu­man condition itself is not changed.

  • The purpose of the historical analysis, on the other hand, is to trace back modern world aliena­tion, its twofold flight

    • from the earth into the universe and
    • from the world into the self,

    to its origins, in order to arrive at an un­derstanding of the nature of society as it had developed and pre­sented itself at the very moment when it was overcome by the advent of a new and yet unknown age. [6]

The “one-hand-other-hand” distinction here seems to correspond to the distinction between the “three central chapters” on labor, work, and action, and the final chapter, on the history of the modern age.


1 Vita Activa and the human condition

¶ 1.1

With the term vita activa, I propose to designate three fundamental human activities:

  1. labor,
  2. work, and
  3. action.

They are fundamental because each corresponds to one of the basic conditions under which life on earth has been given to man.

In ¶ 1.6, Arendt is going to say, “The human condition comprehends more than the conditions under which life has been given to man.”

¶ 1.2

Labor is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body, whose spontaneous growth, metabolism, and eventual decay are bound to the vital necessities produced and fed into the life process by labor. The human condition of labor is life itself.

“Condition” here could mean

  • sufficient condition, as to be laborers, we need only be alive;
  • necessary condition, as to be alive, we must labor.

Because of the “not only … but” construction to come for action, if the exception proves the rule, “condition” must normally, or at least here, mean conditio sine qua non.

¶ 1.3

Work is the activity which corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence, which is not imbedded in, and whose mortality is not compensated by, the species’ ever-recurring life cycle. Work provides an “artificial” world of things, distinctly different from all natural surroundings. Within its borders each individual life is housed, while this world itself is meant to outlast and transcend them all. The human condition of work is worldliness.

Is farming labor, while making the implements of farming (such as the plow) is work? In § 2, ¶ 2, Arendt will refer to labor as “the way of life of the slave,” as well as to “the working life of the free craftsman and the acquisitive life of the merchant.”

¶ 1.4

Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world. While all aspects of the human condition are somehow related to politics, this plurality is specifically the condition

  • not only the conditio sine qua non,
  • but the conditio per quam

of all political life. Thus the language of the Romans, perhaps the most political people we have known, used the words “to live” and “to be among men” (inter homines esse) [7] or “to die” and “to cease to be among men” (inter homines esse de­sinere) as synonyms. But in its most elementary form, the human condition of action is implicit even in Genesis (“Male and female created He them”), if we understand that this story of man’s crea­tion is distinguished in principle from the one according to which God originally created Man (adam), “him” and not “them,” so that the multitude of human beings becomes the result of multipli­cation.1 Action would be an unnecessary luxury, a capricious in­terference with general laws of behavior, if men were endlessly reproducible repetitions of the same model, whose nature or es­sence was the same for all and as predictable as the nature or essence of any other thing. Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.

  1. In the analysis of postclassical political thought, it is often quite illuminat­ing to find out which of the two biblical versions of the creation story is cited. Thus it is highly characteristic of the difference between the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth and of Paul that

    • Jesus, discussing the relationship between man and wife, refers to Genesis 1:27: “Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female” (Matt. 19:4), whereas
    • Paul on a similar occasion insists that the woman was created “of the man” and hence “for the man,” even though he then somewhat attenuates the dependence: “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man” (I Cor. 11:8-12).

    The difference indicates much more than a different attitude to the role of woman.

    • For Jesus, faith was closely related to action (cf. § 33 below);
    • for Paul, faith was primarily related to salvation.

    Especially interesting in this respect is Augustine (De civitate Dei xii. 21), who not only ignores Genesis 1:27 altogether but sees the difference between man and animal in that man was created unum ac singu­lum, whereas all animals were ordered “to come into being several at once” (plura simul iussit exsistere). To Augustine, the creation story offers a welcome opportunity to stress the species character of animal life as distinguished from the singularity of human existence.

Were the Romans the most political, in the sense of having the most successful empire? The Greeks had fought too much amongst themselves.

Could Arendt have followed Jefferson in saying we are all (created) equal? It is meaningful to say that we are equal, only because we are not the same. And yet political equality means no aristocracy, and Arendt rues the loss of one.

Arendt is going to say in Ch. II, § 4, ¶ 1:

No human life, not even the life of the hermit in nature’s wilderness, is possible without a world which directly or indirectly testifies to the presence of other human beings.

¶ 1.5

All three activities and their corresponding conditions are inti­mately connected with the most general condition of human exist­ence:

  • birth and death,
  • natality and mortality.
  1. Labor assures not only individual survival, but the life of the species.
  2. Work and its product, the human artifact, bestow a measure of permanence and durability upon the futility of mortal life and the fleeting character of human time.
  3. Action, in so far as it engages in founding and pre- [8] serving political bodies, creates the condition for remembrance, that is, for history.

Labor and work, as well as action, are also rooted in natality in so far as they have the task to provide and pre­serve the world for, to foresee and reckon with, the constant in­flux of newcomers who are born into the world as strangers. How­ever, of the three, action has the closest connection with the hu­man condition of natality; the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting. In this sense of initiative, an element of action, and therefore of natality, is inherent in all human activities. Moreover, since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical, thought.

If mortality is (the condition of) going to die, natality must be simply having been born.

¶ 1.6

The human condition comprehends more than the conditions under which life has been given to man. Men are conditioned beings because everything they come in contact with turns imme­diately into a condition of their existence. The world in which the vita activa spends itself consists of things produced by human ac­tivities; but the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers. In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability not­withstanding, possess the same conditioning power as natural things. Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence. This is why men, no matter what they do, are always conditioned beings. Whatever enters the human world of its own accord or is drawn into it by human effort becomes part of the human condition. The impact of the world’s reality upon human existence is felt and received as a conditioning force. The objectivity of the world—its object- or thing-character—and the human condition supplement each other; because human existence is conditioned existence, it would be impossible without things, and things would be a heap of unrelated articles, a non-world, if they were not the conditioners of human existence.

“Things as they are are changed upon the blue guitar.”

¶ 1.7

To avoid misunderstanding: the human condition is not the [9] same as human nature, and the sum total of human activities and capabilities which correspond to the human condition does not con­stitute anything like human nature. For neither those we discuss here nor those we leave out, like thought and reason, and not even the most meticulous enumeration of them all, constitute essential characteristics of human existence in the sense that without them this existence would no longer be human. The most radical change in the human condition we can imagine would be an emigration of men from the earth to some other planet. Such an event, no longer totally impossible, would imply that man would have to live under man-made conditions, radically different from those the earth offers him. Neither labor nor work nor action nor, indeed, thought as we know it would then make sense any longer. Yet even these hypothetical wanderers from the earth would still be human; but the only statement we could make regarding their “nature” is that they still are conditioned beings, even though their condition is now self-made to a considerable extent.

¶ 1.8

The problem of human nature, the Augustinian quaestio mihi factus sum (“a question have I become for myself”), seems un­answerable in both its individual psychological sense and its gen­eral philosophical sense. It is highly unlikely that we, who can know, determine, and define the natural essences of all things sur­rounding us, which we are not, should ever be able to do the same for ourselves—this would be like jumping over our own shadows. Moreover, nothing entitles us to assume that man has a nature or essence in the same sense as other things. In other words, if we have a nature or essence, then surely only a god could know and define it, and the first prerequisite would be that he be able to speak about a “who” as though it were a “what.”2 The perplexity [10] is that the modes of human cognition applicable to things with “natural” qualities, including ourselves to the limited extent that we are specimens of the most highly developed species of organic life, fail us when we raise the question: And who are we? This is why attempts to define human nature almost invariably end with some construction of a deity, that is, with the god of the philoso­phers, who, since Plato, has revealed himself upon closer inspec­tion to be a kind of Platonic idea of man. Of course, to demask such philosophic concepts of the divine as conceptualizations of human capabilities and qualities is not a demonstration of, not even an argument for, the non-existence of God; but the fact that attempts to define the nature of man lead so easily into an idea which defi­nitely strikes us as “superhuman” and therefore is identified with the divine may cast suspicion upon the very concept of “human nature.”

  1. Augustine, who is usually credited with having been the first to raise the so-called anthropological question in philosophy, knew this quite well. He dis­tinguishes between the questions of “Who am I?” and “What am I?”

    • the first being directed by man at himself (“And I directed myself at myself and said to me: You, who are you? And I answered: A man”—tu, quis es? [Confessiones x. 6]) and
    • the second being addressed to God (“What then am I, my God? What is my nature?”—Quid ergo sum, Deus meus? Quae natura sum? [x. 17]).

    For in the “great mystery,” the grande profundum, which man is (iv. 14), there is “some­thing of man [aliquid hominis] which the spirit of man which is in him itself [10] knoweth not. But Thou, Lord, who has made him [fecisti eum] knowest every­thing of him [eius ommia]” (x. 5). Thus, the most familiar of these phrases which I quoted in the text, the quaestio mihi factus sum, is a question raised in the pres­ence of God, “in whose eyes I have become a question for myself” (x. 33). In brief,

    • the answer to the question “Who am I?” is simply: “You are a man—whatever that may be”; and
    • the answer to the question “What am I?” can be given only by God who made man.

    The question about the nature of man is no less a theological question than the question about the nature of God; both can be settled only within the framework of a divinely revealed answer.

Except the Turkish, the following interrogative pronouns are all cognate:

  animate inanimate
English “who” “what”
Old English hwā hwæt
Greek τίς τί
Latin quis quid
Turkish kim ne

Ne and variants like nasıl are said (by Sevan Nişanyan) to be the only words in Old Turkish beginning with the sound of en. Kim seems to be native Turkish too, though influenced by the Persian-origin ki (which has an old spelling kim, as in nitekim).

In Latin, it seems quis can show a gender distinction in the accusative and ablative—even in the nominative with quī and quæ. However, Arendt’s note shows that Augustine can use for himself the neuter form, asking, Quid ergo sum?

At the beginning of two columns about τίς, τί as an interrogative pronoun, Liddell and Scott give three examples from the Odyssey, which I transmit with Lattimore’s translations:

  • 5.299, Odysseus: ὤ μοι ἐγὼ δειλός, τί νύ μοι μήκιστα γένηται; “A me unhappy, what in the long outcome will befall me?”
  • 9.252, Polyphemus: ὦ ξεῖνοι, τίνες ἐστέ; πόθεν πλεῖθ᾽ ὑγρὰ κέλευθα; “Strangers, who are you? From where do you come sailing over the watery / ways?”
  • 17.446, Antinous: τίς δαίμων τόδε πῆμα προσήγαγε, δαιτὸς ἀνίην; “What spirit brought this pain upon us, to spoil our feasting?”

¶ 1.9

On the other hand, the conditions of human existence—life it­self, natality and mortality, worldliness, plurality, and the earth—can never “explain” what we are or answer the question of who we are for the simple reason that they never condition us absolute­ly. This has always been the opinion of philosophy, in distinction from the sciences—anthropology, psychology, biology, etc.—which also concern themselves with man. But today we may al­most say that we have demonstrated even scientifically that, though we live now, and probably always will, under the earth’s conditions, we are not mere earth-bound creatures. Modern nat­ural science owes its great triumphs to having looked upon and treated earth-bound nature from a truly universal viewpoint, that is, from an Archimedean standpoint taken, wilfully and explicitly, outside the earth. [11]

I think the existence of the sciences demonstrates that “we are not mere earth-bound creatures”; but perhaps the “scientific” demonstration is the event that Arendt began her Prologue with: the actual sending of Sputnik I into space.

2 the term Vita Activa

¶ 2.1

The term vita activa is loaded and overloaded with tradition. It is as old as (but not older than) our tradition of political thought. And this tradition, far from comprehending and conceptualizing all the political experiences of Western mankind, grew out of a specific historical constellation: the trial of Socrates and the con­flict between the philosopher and the polis. It eliminated many ex­periences of an earlier past that were irrelevant to its immediate political purposes and proceeded until its end, in the work of Karl Marx, in a highly selective manner. The term itself, in medieval philosophy the standard translation of the Aristotelian bios politi­kos, already occurs in Augustine, where, as vita negotiosa or actuosa, it still reflects its original meaning: a life devoted to public-political matters.3

  1. See Augustine De civitate Dei xix. 2, 19.

¶ 2.2

Aristotle distinguished three ways of life (bioi) which men might choose in freedom, that is, in full independence of the neces­sities of life and the relationships they originated. This prerequisite of freedom ruled out all ways of life chiefly devoted to keeping one’s self alive—

  • not only labor, which was the way of life of the slave, who was coerced by the necessity to stay alive and by the rule of his master,
  • but also the working life of the free craftsman
  • and the acquisitive life of the merchant.

In short, it excluded every­body who involuntarily or voluntarily, for his whole life or tem­porarily, had lost the free disposition of his movements and ac­tivities.4 The remaining three ways of life have in common that [12] they were concerned with the “beautiful,” that is, with things neither necessary nor merely useful:

  1. the life of enjoying bodily pleasures in which the beautiful, as it is given, is consumed;
  2. the life devoted to the matters of the polis, in which excellence pro­duces beautiful deeds; and
  3. the life of the philosopher devoted to inquiry into, and contemplation of, things eternal, whose ever­lasting beauty can neither be brought about through the producing interference of man nor be changed through his consumption of them.5
  1. William L. Westermann (“Between Slavery and Freedom,” American Historical Review, Vol. L [1945]) holds that the “statement of Aristotle … that craftsmen live in a condition of limited slavery meant that the artisan, when he made a work contract, disposed of two of the four elements of his free status [viz., of freedom of economic activity and right of unrestricted movement], but by his own volition and for a temporary period”; evidence quoted by Wester­mann shows that freedom was then understood to consist of “status, personal in­violability, freedom of economic activity, right of unrestricted movement,” and slavery consequently “was the lack of these four attributes.” Aristotle, in his enumeration of “ways of life” in the Nicomachean Ethics (i. 5) and the Eudemian Ethics (1215a35 ff.), does not even mention a craftsman’s way of life; to him it [12] is obvious that a banausos is not free (cf. Politics 1337b5). He mentions, however, “the life of money-making” and rejects it because it too is “undertaken under compulsion” (Nic. Eth. 1096a5). That the criterion is freedom is stressed in the Eudemian Ethics: he enumerates only those lives that are chosen ep’ exousian.

  2. For the opposition of the beautiful to the necessary and the useful see Poli­tics 1333a30 ff., 1332b32.

¶ 2.3

The chief difference between the Aristotelian and the later me­dieval use of the term is that the bios politikos denoted explicitly only the realm of human affairs, stressing the action, praxis, needed to establish and sustain it. Neither labor nor work was considered to possess sufficient dignity to constitute a bios at all, an autono­mous and authentically human way of life; since they served and produced what was necessary and useful, they could not be free, in­dependent of human needs and wants.6 That the political way of life escaped this verdict is due to the Greek understanding of polis life, which to them denoted a very special and freely chosen form of political organization and by no means just any form of action necessary to keep men together in an orderly fashion. Not that the Greeks or Aristotle were ignorant of the fact that human life always demands some form of political organization and that rul­ing over subjects might constitute a distinct way of life; but the despot’s way of life, because it was “merely” a necessity, could not be considered free and had no relationship with the bios politikos.7 [13]

  1. For the opposition of the free to the necessary and the useful see ibid. 1332b2,

  2. See ibid. 1277b8 for the distinction between despotic rule and politics. For the argument that the life of the despot is not equal to the life of a free man be­cause the former is concerned with “necessary things,” see ibid. 1325424.

In the terminology used by Collingwood in The New Leviathan, the despot rules by force, while in a proper society, rule is by authority.

¶ 2.4

With the disappearance of the ancient city-state—Augustine seems to have been the last to know at least what it once meant to be a citizen—the term vita activa lost its specifically political meaning and denoted all kinds of active engagement in the things of this world. To be sure, it does not follow that work and labor had risen in the hierarchy of human activities and were now equal in dignity with a life devoted to politics.8 It was, rather, the other way round: action was now also reckoned among the necessities of earthly life, so that contemplation (the bios theōrētikos, trans­lated into the vita contemplativa) was left as the only truly free way of life.9

  1. On the widespread opinion that the modern estimate of labor is Christian in origin, see below, § 44.

  2. See Aquinas Summa theologica ii. 2. 179, esp. art. 2, where the vita activa arises out of the necessitas vitae praesentis, and Expositia in Psalmos 45.3, where the body politic is assigned the task of finding all that is necessary for life: in civitate oportet invenire omnia necessaria ad vitam.

¶ 2.5

However, the enormous superiority of contemplation over ac­tivity of any kind, action not excluded, is not Christian in origin. We find it in Plato’s political philosophy, where the whole utopian reorganization of polis life is not only directed by the superior in­sight of the philosopher but has no aim other than to make possible the philosopher’s way of life. Aristotle’s very articulation of the different ways of life, in whose order the life of pleasure plays a minor role, is clearly guided by the ideal of contemplation (theōria). To the ancient freedom from the necessities of life and from com­pulsion by others, the philosophers added freedom and surcease from political activity (skholē),10 so that the later Christian claim to be free from entanglement in worldly affairs, from all the busi- [14] ness of this world, was preceded by and originated in the philo­sophic apolitia of late antiquity. What had been demanded only by the few was now considered to be a right of all.

  1. The Greek word skholē, like the Latin otium, means primarily freedom from political activity and not simply leisure time, although both words are also used to indicate freedom from labor and life’s necessities. In any event, they always indicate a condition free from worries and cares. An excellent description of the everyday life of an ordinary Athenian citizen, who enjoys full freedom from labor and work, can be found in Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City (Anchor ed.; 1956), pp. 334–36; it will convince everybody how time-consuming politi­cal activity was under the conditions of the city-state. One can easily guess how full of worry this ordinary political life was if one remembers that Athenian law did not permit remaining neutral and punished those who did not want to take sides in factional strife with loss of citizenship. [14]

From the comments in the Prologue (¶ 9) about loss of an aristocracy, the “later Christian claim to be free from entanglement in worldly affairs” seems to have ensured that everybody is entangled.

¶ 2.6

The term vita activa, comprehending all human activities and de­fined from the viewpoint of the absolute quiet of contemplation, therefore corresponds more closely to the Greek askholia (“un­quiet”), with which Aristotle designated all activity, than to the Greek bios politikos. As early as Aristotle the distinction between quiet and unquiet, between an almost breathless abstention from external physical movement and activity of every kind, is more decisive than the distinction between the political and the theoreti­cal way of life, because it can eventually be found within each of the three ways of life. It 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 processes of mere thought, must cul­minate in the absolute quiet of contemplation.11 Every movement, the movements of body and soul as well as of speech and reason­ing, must cease before truth. Truth, be it the ancient truth of Being or the Christian truth of the living God, can reveal itself only in complete human stillness.12

  1. See Aristotle Politics 1333a30–33. Aquinas defines contemplation as quies ab exteriaribus motibus (Summa theologica ii, 2. 179. 1).

  2. Aquinas stresses the stillness of the soul and recommends the vita activa because it exhausts and therefore “quietens interior passions” and prepares for contemplation (Summa theologica ii. 2. 182. 3). [15]

Aristotle’s three ways of life, in ¶ 2, involve bodily pleasure, politics, and philosophy respectively. Is enjoyment of pleasure, or perhaps of a political victory, a form of contemplation? The Politics passage is

διῄρηται δὲ καὶ πᾶς ὁ βίος εἰς ἀσχολίαν καὶ σχολὴν καὶ εἰς πόλεμον καὶ εἰρήνην, καὶ τῶν πρακτῶν τὰ μὲν εἰς τὰ ἀναγκαῖα καὶ χρήσιμα τὰ δὲ εἰς τὰ καλά.

Also life as a whole is divided into business and leisure, and war and peace, and our actions are aimed some of them at things necessary and useful, others at things noble.

The first Aquinas passage denies that contemplation has “absolute quiet.” The question is “Whether life is fittingly divided into active and contemplative.” The third objection and response are:

Further, the word “life” implies movement, according to Dionysius (Div. Nom. vi): whereas contemplation consists rather in rest, according to Wis. 8:16: “When I enter into my house, I shall repose myself with her.” Therefore it would seem that life is unfittingly divided into active and contemplative.

It is true that contemplation enjoys rest from external movements. Nevertheless to contemplate is itself a movement of the intellect, in so far as every operation is described as a movement; in which sense the Philosopher says (De Anima iii, 7) that sensation and understanding are movements of a kind, in so far as movement is defined “the act of a perfect thing.” In this way Dionysius (Div. Nom. iv) ascribes three movements to the soul in contemplation, namely, “straight,” “circular,” and “oblique.”

¶ 2.7

Traditionally and up to the beginning of the modern age, the term vita activa never lost its negative connotation of “un-quiet,” nec-otium, a-skholia. As such it remained intimately related to the even more fundamental Greek distinction between things that are by themselves whatever they are and things which owe their exist­ence to man, between things that are physei and things that are nomō. The primacy of contemplation over activity rests on the con­viction that no work of human hands can equal in beauty and truth the physical kosmos, which swings in itself in changeless eternity without any interference or assistance from outside, from man or god. This eternity discloses itself to mortal eyes only when all human movements and activities are at perfect rest. Compared with this attitude of quiet, all distinctions and articulations within [15] the vita activa disappear. Seen from the viewpoint of contemplation, it does not matter what disturbs the necessary quiet, as long as it is disturbed.

Is truth simply contemplated, or worked out?

¶ 2.8

Traditionally, therefore, the term vita activa receives its meaning from the vita contemplativa; its very restricted dignity is bestowed upon it because it serves the needs and wants of contemplation in a living body.13 Christianity, with its belief in a hereafter whose joys announce themselves in the delights of contemplation,14 con­ferred a religious sanction upon the abasement of the vita activa to its derivative, secondary position; but the determination of the order itself coincided with the very discovery of contemplation (theōria) as a human faculty, distinctly different from thought and reasoning, which occurred in the Socratic school and from then on has ruled metaphysical and political thought throughout our tradition.15 It seems unnecessary to my present purpose to discuss the reasons for this tradition. Obviously they are deeper than the historical occasion which gave rise to the conflict between the polis and the philosopher and thereby, almost incidentally, also led to the discovery of contemplation as the philosopher’s way of life. They must lie in an altogether different aspect of the human condition, whose diversity is not exhausted in the various articula­tions of the vita activa and, we may suspect, would not be exhausted even if thought and the movement of reasoning were included in it.

  1. Aquinas is quite explicit on the connection between the vita activa and the wants and needs of the human body which men and animals have in common (Summa theologica ii. 2. 182. 1).

  2. Augustine speaks of the “burden” (sarcina) of active life imposed by the duty of charity, which would be unbearable without the “sweetness” (suavitas) and the “delight of truth” given in contemplation (De civitate Dei xix. 19).

  3. The time-honored resentment of the philosopher against the human condi­tion of having a body is not identical with the ancient contempt for the necessities of life; to be subject to necessity was only one aspect of bodily existence, and the body, once freed of this necessity, was capable of that pure appearance the Greeks called beauty. The philosophers since Plato added to the resentment of being forced by bodily wants the resentment of movement of any kind. It is because the philosopher lives in complete quiet that it is only his body which, according to Plato, inhabits the city. Here lies also the origin of the early reproach of busy­bodiness (polypragmosynē) leveled against those who spent their lives in politics. [16]

How is contemplation to be distinguished from thought and reasoning, and either of these from the other?

Part of the definition of justice in Book IV of the Republic is not being a busybody.

¶ 2.9

If, therefore, the use of the term vita activa, as I propose it here, [16] is in manifest contradiction to the tradition, it is because I doubt not the validity of the experience underlying the distinction but rather the hierarchical order inherent in it from its inception. This does not mean that I wish to contest or even to discuss, for that matter, the traditional concept of truth as revelation and therefore something essentially given to man, or that I prefer the modern age’s pragmatic assertion that man can know only what he makes himself. My contention is simply

  • that the enormous weight of con­templation in the traditional hierarchy has blurred the distinctions and articulations within the vita activa itself and
  • that, appearances notwithstanding, this condition has not been changed essentially by the modern break with the tradition and the eventual reversal of its hierarchical order in Marx and Nietzsche.

It lies in the very nature of the famous “turning upside down” of philosophic systems or currently accepted values, that is, in the nature of the operation itself, that the conceptual framework is left more or less intact.

What was reversed: contemplation and action? That’s what Arendt says at the end of the last paragraph of the chapter.

¶ 2.10

The modern reversal shares with the traditional hierarchy the assumption that the same central human preoccupation must pre­vail in all activities of men, since without one comprehensive prin­ciple no order could be established. This assumption is not a mat­ter of course, and my use of the term vita activa presupposes that the concern underlying all its activities is not the same as and is neither superior nor inferior to the central concern of the vita con­templativa.

“The same central human preoccupation must prevail”—be it quiet or unquiet, peace or war?

3 eternity versus immortality

¶ 3.1


  • the various modes of active engagement in the things of this world, on one side, and
  • pure thought culminating in contempla­tion, on the other,

might correspond to two altogether different central human concerns has in one way or another been manifest ever since “the men of thought and the men of action began to take different paths,”16 that is, since the rise of political thought in the [17] Socratic school. However, when the philosophers discovered—and it is probable, though unprovable, that this discovery was made by Socrates himself—that the political realm did not as a matter of course provide for all of man’s higher activities, they assumed at once,

  • not that they had found something different in addition to what was already known,
  • but that they had found a higher prin­ciple to replace the principle that ruled the polis.

The shortest, albeit somewhat superficial, way to indicate these two different and to an extent even conflicting principles is to recall the dis­tinction between immortality and eternity.

  1. See F, M. Cornford, “Plato’s Commonwealth,” in Unwritten Philosophy (1950), p. 54: “The death of Pericles and the Peloponnesian War mark the mo­ment when the men of thought and the men of action began to take different paths, destined to diverge more and more widely till the Stoic sage ceased to be a citizen of his own country and became a citizen of the universe.” [17]

¶ 3.2

Immortality means endurance in time, deathless life on this earth and in this world as it was given, according to Greek under­standing, to nature and the Olympian gods. Against this back­ground of nature’s ever-recurring life and the gods’ deathless and ageless lives stood mortal men, the only mortals in an immortal but not eternal universe, confronted with the immortal lives of their gods but not under the rule of an eternal God. If we trust Herodotus, the difference between the two seems to have been striking to Greek self-understanding prior to the conceptual articu­lation of the philosophers, and therefore prior to the specifically Greek experiences of the eternal which underlie this articulation. Herodotus, discussing Asiatic forms of worship and beliefs in an invisible God, mentions explicitly that compared with this tran­scendent God (as we would say today) who is beyond time and life and the universe, the Greek gods are anthrōpophyeis, have the same nature, not simply the same shape, as man.17 The Greeks’ con­cern with immortality grew out of their experience of an immortal nature and immortal gods which together surrounded the individu­al lives of mortal men. Imbedded in a cosmos where everything was immortal, mortality became the hallmark of human existence. Men are “the mortals,” the only mortal things in existence, be­cause unlike animals they do not exist only as members of a species [18] whose immortal life is guaranteed through procreation.18 The mor­tality of men lies in the fact that individual life, with a recogniz­able life-story from birth to death, rises out of biological life. This individual life is distinguished from all other things by the recti­linear course of its movement, which, so to speak, cuts through the circular movement of biological life. This is mortality: to move along a rectilinear line in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order.

  1. Herodotus (i. 131), after reporting that the Persians have “no images of the gods, no temples nor altars, but consider these doings to be foolish,” goes on to explain that this shows that they “do not believe, as the Greeks do, that the gods are anthrōpophyeis, of human nature,” or, we may add, that gods and men have the same nature. See also Pindar Carmina Nemaea vi. [18]

  2. See Ps. Aristotle Economics 1343b24: Nature guarantees to the species their being forever through recurrence (periodos), but cannot guarantee such be­ing forever to the individual. The same thought, “For living things, life is being,” appears in On the Soul 415b13.

Are the gods not eternal, since they were born and they may fall from power as the Titans did?

About mortality as rectilinear motion: In my note on §2, ¶ 7, Aquinas is quoted as saying,

Dionysius … ascribes three movements to the soul in contemplation, namely, “straight,” “circular,” and “oblique.”

¶ 3.3

The task and potential greatness of mortals lie in their ability to produce things—works and deeds and words19—which would deserve to be and, at least to a degree, are at home in everlasting­ness, so that through them mortals could find their place in a cos­mos where everything is immortal except themselves. By their capacity for the immortal deed, by their ability to leave non­perishable traces behind, men, their individual mortality notwith­standing, attain an immortality of their own and prove themselves to be of a “divine” nature. The distinction between man and ani­mal runs right through the human species itself: only the best (aristoi), who constantly prove themselves to be the best (aristeu­ein, a verb for which there is no equivalent in any other language) and who “prefer immortal fame to mortal things,” are really hu­man; the others, content with whatever pleasures nature will yield them, live and die like animals. This was still the opinion of Hera­clitus,20 an opinion whose equivalent one will find in hardly any philosopher after Socrates. [19]

  1. The Greek language does not distinguish between “works” and “deeds,” but calls both erga if they are durable enough to last and great enough to be re­membered. It is only when the philosophers, or rather the Sophists, began to draw their “endless distinctions” and to distinguish between making and acting (poiein and prattein) that the nouns poiēmata and pragmata received wider cur­rency (see Plato’s Charmides 163). Homer does not yet know the word pragmata, which in Plato (ta tōn anthrōpōn pragmata) is best rendered by “human affairs” and has the connotations of trouble and futility. In Herodotus pragmata can have the same connotation (cf., for instance, i. 155).

  2. Heraclitus, frag. B29 (Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker [4th ed.; 1922]). [19]

In Laks and Most, the Heraclitus is D13:

The best men choose one thing instead of all others, the ever-flowing fame of mortals; but most men are sated like cattle.

¶ 3.4

In our context it is of no great importance whether Socrates himself or Plato discovered the eternal as the true center of strictly metaphysical thought. It weighs heavily in favor of Socrates that he alone among the great thinkers—unique in this as in many other respects—never cared to write down his thoughts; for it is obvious that, no matter how concerned a thinker may be with eternity, the moment he sits down to write his thoughts he ceases to be con­cerned primarily with eternity and shifts his attention to leaving some trace of them. He has entered the vita activa and chosen its way of permanence and potential immortality. One thing is cer­tain: it is only in Plato that concern with the eternal and the life of the philosopher are seen as inherently contradictory and in conflict with the striving for immortality, the way of life of the citizen, the bios politikos.

Socrates did not write his thoughts, but he spoke them, and speaking can be more political than writing.

¶ 3.5

The philosopher’s experience of the eternal, which to Plato was arrhēton (“unspeakable”), and to Aristotle aneu logou (“without word”), and which later was conceptualized in the paradoxical nunc stans (“the standing now”), can occur only outside the realm of human affairs and outside the plurality of men, as we know from the Cave parable in Plato’s Republic, where the philosopher, having liberated himself from the fetters that bound him to his fel­low men, leaves the cave in perfect “singularity,” as it were, neither accompanied nor followed by others. Politically speaking, if to die is the same as “to cease to be among men,” experience of the eternal is a kind of death, and the only thing that separates it from real death is that it is not final because no living creature can endure it for any length of time. And this is precisely what sepa­rates the vita contemplativa from the vita activa in medieval thought.21 Yet it is decisive that the experience of the eternal, in contradistinction to that of the immortal, has no correspondence with and cannot be transformed into any activity whatsoever, since even the activity of thought, which goes on within one’s self by means of words, is obviously not only inadequate to render it but would interrupt and ruin the experience itself.

  1. In vita activa fixi permanere possumus; in contemplativa autem intenta mente manere nullo modo valemus (Aquinas Summa theologica ii. 2. 181.4). [20]

I think the Aquinas is the quote from Gregory in Objection 3:

we can remain fixed in the active life, whereas we are nowise able to maintain an attentive mind in the contemplative life.

Meanwhile, why did Socrates go on talking with people till the end of his life?

¶ 3.6

Theōria, or “contemplation,” is the word given to the experience of the eternal, as distinguished from all other attitudes, which at [20] most may pertain to immortality. It may be that the philosophers’ discovery of the eternal was helped by their very justified doubt of the chances of the polis for immortality or even permanence, and it may be that the shock of this discovery was so overwhelming that they could not but look down upon all striving for immortality as vanity and vainglory, certainly placing themselves thereby into open opposition to the ancient city-state and the religion which in­spired it. However, the eventual victory of the concern with eternity over all kinds of aspirations toward immortality is not due to philosophic thought. The fall of the Roman Empire plainly demonstrated that no work of mortal hands can be immortal, and it was accompanied by the rise of the Christian gospel of an ever­lasting individual life to its position as the exclusive religion of Western mankind. Both together made any striving for an earthly immortality futile and unnecessary. And they succeeded so well in making the vita activa and the bios politikos the handmaidens of contemplation that not even the rise of the secular in the modern age and the concomitant reversal of the traditional hierarchy be­tween action and contemplation sufficed to save from oblivion the striving for immortality which originally had been the spring and center of the vita activa.

One Comment

  1. Posted February 24, 2022 at 8:39 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks for undertaking this process! Once again, we are sharing an enthusiasm for a profound thinker. Along with Collingwood, she is the one of the most significant thinkers in my reading experience. And, as you note, both of these individuals were deeply moved by the experiences of the 1930s, a time which, especially today, seems all too close at hand. I’m a member of the Virtual Reading Group at the HA Center at Bard College, and we last year we read THE HUMAN CONDITION. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it, but I bought my copy from 1974, and it’s now falling apart (but I won’t part with it.). I recently reported to my small break-out group of HA readers in a response to a query about which thinkers were most important to me. My reply was a virtual dead heat between HA & RGC. Also, if anyone is curious about these two in comparison, I wrote this blog post that compared some of their similarities: https://sngthoughts.blogspot.com/2020/06/comparing-thought-of-hannah-arendt-with.html. Again, and thanks for undertaking this project! (And undoubtedly more comments to come!)

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