On The Human Condition of Hannah Arendt 12

Index to this series

CHAPTER VI The Vita Activa and the Modern Age [2]

We finish the last chapter and thus the book. This page is not really on the reading; it just contains the reading. I did highlighting and commenting on the first four sections; then I ran out of steam.

41 the reversal of contemplation and action


Perhaps the most momentous of the spiritual consequences of the discoveries of the modern age and, at the same time, the only one that could not have been avoided, since it followed closely upon the discovery of the Archimedean point and the concomitant rise of Cartesian doubt, has been the reversal of the hierarchical order between the vita contemplativa and the vita activa.


In order to understand how compelling the motives for this re­versal were, it is first of all necessary to rid ourselves of the cur­rent prejudice which ascribes the development of modern science, because of its applicability, to a pragmatic desire to improve condi­tions and better human life on earth. It is a matter of historical record that modern technology has its origins not in the evolution of those tools man had always devised for the twofold purpose of easing his labors and erecting the human artifice, but exclusively in an altogether non-practical search for useless knowledge. Thus, the watch, one of the first modern instruments, was not invented for purposes of practical life, but exclusively for the highly “theo­retical” purpose of conducting certain experiments with nature. This invention, to be sure, once its practical usefulness became apparent, changed the whole rhythm and the very physiognomy of human life; but from the standpoint of the inventors, this was a mere incident. If we had to rely only on men’s so-called practical instincts, there would never have been any technology to speak of, and although today the already existing technical inventions carry a certain momentum which will probably generate improvements up to a certain point, it is not likely that our technically conditioned world could survive, let alone develop further, if we ever succeeded in convincing ourselves that man is primarily a practical being. [289]


However that may be, the fundamental experience behind the reversal of contemplation and action was precisely that man’s thirst for knowledge could be assuaged only after he had put his trust into the ingenuity of his hands. The point was not that truth and knowledge were no longer important, but that they could be won only by “faction” and not by contemplation. It was an instru­ment, the telescope, a work of man’s hands, which finally forced nature, or rather the universe, to yield its secrets. The reasons for trusting doing and for distrusting contemplation or observation be­came even more cogent after the results of the first active inquiries. After being and appearance had parted company and truth was no longer supposed to appear, to reveal and disclose itself to the mental eye of a beholder, there arose a veritable necessity to hunt for truth behind deceptive appearances. Nothing indeed could be less trustworthy for acquiring knowledge and approaching truth than passive observation or mere contemplation.

  • In order to be cer­tain one had to make sure, and
  • in order to know one had to do.

Cer­tainty of knowledge could be reached only under a twofold condi­tion:

  1. first, that knowledge concerned only what one had done him­self—so that its ideal became mathematical knowledge, where we deal only with self-made entities of the mind—and
  2. second, that knowledge was of such a nature that it could be tested only through more doing.

Is Arendt aware of the concept of deductive proof—the test of mathematical knowledge?


Since then, scientific and philosophic truth have parted company; scientific truth not only

  • need not be eternal, it
  • need not even be comprehensible or adequate to human reason.

It took many genera­tions of scientists before the human mind grew bold enough to fully face this implication of modernity. If nature and the universe are products of a divine maker, and if the human mind is incapable of understanding what man has not made himself, then man cannot possibly expect to learn anything about nature that he can under­stand. He may be able, through ingenuity, to find out and even to imitate the devices of natural processes, but that does not mean these devices will ever make sense to him—they do not have to be intelligible. As a matter of fact, no supposedly suprarational divine revelation and no supposedly abstruse philosophic truth has ever offended human reason so glaringly as certain results of modern science. One can indeed say with Whitehead: “Heaven knows [290] what seeming nonsense may not to-morrow be demonstrated truth.”55

  1. Science and the Modern World, p. 116.

Which results are those? That light is both particle and wave?

Might one use the same language about “certain result of modern”—mathematics? The paradoxes of infinity and of logic perhaps—uncountability, or Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem?


Actually, the change that took place in the seventeenth century was more radical than what a simple reversal of the established traditional order between contemplation and doing is apt to indi­cate. The reversal, strictly speaking, concerned only the relation­ship between thinking and doing, whereas contemplation, in the original sense of beholding the truth, was altogether eliminated. For thought and contemplation are not the same. Traditionally, thought was conceived as the most direct and important way to lead to the contemplation of truth. Since Plato, and probably since Socrates, thinking was understood as the inner dialogue in which one speaks with himself (eme emauta, to recall the idiom current in Plato’s dialogues); and although this dialogue lacks all outward manifestation and even requires a more or less complete cessation of all other activities, it constitutes in itself a highly active state. Its outward inactivity is clearly separated from the passivity, the complete stillness, in which truth is finally revealed to man. If medieval scholasticism looked upon philosophy as the handmaiden of theology, it could very well have appealed to Plato and Aris­totle themselves; both, albeit in a very different context, consid­ered this dialogical thought process to be the way to prepare the soul and lead the mind to a beholding of truth beyond thought and beyond speech—a truth that is *arrhēton, incapable of being com­municated through words, as Plato put it,56 or beyond speech, as in Aristotle.57

  1. In the Seventh Letter 341C: rhēton gar oudamōs estin has alla mathēmata (“for it is never to be expressed by words like other things we learn”).

  2. See esp. Nicomachean Ethics 1142a25 ff. and 1143a36 ff. The current Eng­lish translation distorts the meaning because it renders logos as “reason” or “argument.” [291]


The reversal of the modern age consisted then not in raising doing to the rank of contemplating as the highest state of which human beings are capable, as though henceforth doing was the ulti­mate meaning for the sake of which contemplation was to be per­formed, just as, up to that time, all activities of the vita activa had been judged and justified to the extent that they made the vita con- [291] templativa possible. The reversal concerned only thinking, which from then on was the handmaiden of doing as it had been the ancilla theologiae, the handmaiden of contemplating divine truth in medie­val philosophy and the handmaiden of contemplating the truth of Being in ancient philosophy. Contemplation itself became alto­gether meaningless.


The radicality of this reversal is somehow obscured by another kind of reversal, with which it is frequently identified and which, since Plato, has dominated the history of Western thought. Who­ever reads the Cave allegory in Plato’s Republic in the light of Greek history will soon be aware that the periagdgē, the turning­about that Plato demands of the philosopher, actually amounts to a reversal of the Homeric world order. Not life after death, as in the Homeric Hades, but ordinary life on earth, is located in a “cave,” in an underworld; the soul is not the shadow of the body, but the body the shadow of the soul; and the senseless, ghostlike motion ascribed by Homer to the lifeless existence of the soul after death in Hades is now ascribed to the senseless doings of men who do not leave the cave of human existence to behold the eternal ideas visible in the sky.58

  1. It is particularly Plato’s use of the words eid&#14d;lon and skia in the story of the Cave which makes the whole account read like a reversal of and a reply to Homer; for these are the key words in Homer’s description of Hades in the Odyssey. [292]


In this context, 1 am concerned only with the fact that the Pla­tonic tradition of philosophical as well as political thought started with a reversal, and that this original reversal determined to a large extent the thought patterns into which Western philosophy almost automatically fell wherever it was not animated by a great and original philosophical impetus. Academic philosophy, as a matter of fact, has ever since been dominated by the never-ending rever­sals of idealism and materialism, of transcendentalism and im­manentism, of realism and nominalism, of hedonism and asceticism, and so on. What matters here is the reversibility of all these sys­tems, that they can be turned “upside down” or “downside up” at any moment in history without requiring for such reversal either historical events or changes in the structural elements involved. The concepts themselves remain the same no matter where they [292] are placed in the various systematic orders. Once Plato had suc­ceeded in making these structural elements and concepts reversible, reversals within the course of intellectual history no longer needed more than purely intellectual experience, an experience within the framework of conceptual thinking itself. These reversals already began with the philosophical schools in late antiquity and have re­mained part of the Western tradition. It is still the same tradition, the same intellectual game with paired antitheses that rules, to an extent, the famous modern reversals of spiritual hierarchies, such as Marx’s turning Hegelian dialectic upside down or Nietzsche’s revaluation of the sensual and natural as against the supersensual and supernatural.


The reversal we deal with here, the spiritual consequence of Galileo’s discoveries, although it has frequently been interpreted in terms of the traditional reversals and hence as integral to the Western history of ideas, is of an altogether different nature. The conviction that objective truth is not given to man but that he can know only what he makes himself is not the result of skepticism but of a demonstrable discovery, and therefore does not lead to resignation but either to redoubled activity or to despair. The world loss of modern philosophy, whose introspection discovered consciousness as the inner sense with which one senses his senses and found it to be the only guaranty of reality, is different not only in degree from the age-old suspicion of the philosophers toward the world and toward the others with whom they shared the world, the philosopher no longer turns from the world of deceptive perish­ability to another world of eternal truth, but turns away from both and withdraws into himself. What he discovers in the region of the inner self is, again, not an image whose permanence can be beheld and contemplated, but, on the contrary, the constant movement of sensual perceptions and the no less constantly moving activity of the mind. Since the seventeenth century, philosophy has produced the best and least disputed results when it has investigated, through a supreme effort of self-inspection, the processes of the senses and of the mind. In this aspect, most of modern philosophy is indeed theory of cognition and psychology, and in the few instances where the potentialities of the Cartesian method of introspection were fully realized by men like Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, one [293] is tempted to say that philosophers have experimented with their own selves no less radically and perhaps even more fearlessly than the scientists experimented with nature.


Much as we may admire the courage and respect the extraor­dinary ingenuity of philosophers throughout the modern age, it can hardly be denied that their influence and importance decreased as never before. It was not in the Middle Ages but in modern thinking that philosophy came to play second and even third fiddle. After Descartes based his own philosophy upon the discoveries of Gali­leo, philosophy has seemed condemned to be always one step be­hind the scientists and their ever more amazing discoveries, whose principles it has strived arduously to discover ex post facto and to fit into some over-all interpretation of the nature of human knowl­edge. As such, however, philosophy was not needed by the scien­tists, who—up to our time, at least—believed that they had no use for a handmaiden, let alone one who would “carry the torch in front of her gracious lady” (Kant). The philosophers became either epistemologists, worrying about an over-all theory of sci­ence which the scientists did not need, or they became, indeed, what Hegel wanted them to be, the organs of the Zeitgeist, the mouthpieces in which the general mood of the time was expressed with conceptual clarity. In both instances, whether they looked upon nature or upon history, they tried to understand and come to terms with what happened without them. Obviously, philosophy suffered more from modernity than any other field of human en­deavor; and it is difficult to say whether it suffered more from the almost automatic rise of activity to an altogether unexpected and unprecedented dignity or from the loss of traditional truth, that is, of the concept of truth underlying our whole tradition.

42 the reversal within the Vita Activa and the victory of Homo Faber


First among the activities within the vita activa to rise to the posi­tion formerly occupied by contemplation were the activities of making and fabricating—the prerogatives of homo faber. This was [294] natural enough, since it had been an instrument and therefore man in so far as he is a toolmaker that led to the modern revolution. From then on, all scientific progress has been most intimately tied up with the ever more refined development in the manufacture of new tools and instruments. While, for instance, Galileo’s experi­ments with the fall of heavy bodies could have been made at any time in history if men had been inclined to seek truth through ex­periments, Michelson’s experiment with the interferometer at the end of the nineteenth century relied not merely on his “experi­mental genius” but “required the general advance in technology,” and therefore “could not have been made earlier than it was.”59

  1. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, pp. 116–17. [295]


It is not only the paraphernalia of instruments and hence the help man had to enlist from homo faber to acquire knowledge that caused these activities to rise from their former humble place in the hierarchy of human capacities. Even more decisive was the element of making and fabricating present in the experiment itself, which produces its own phenomena of observation and therefore depends from the very outset upon man’s productive capacities. The use of the experiment for the purpose of knowledge was already the con­sequence of the conviction that one can know only what he has made himself, for this conviction meant that one might learn about those things man did not make by figuring out and imitating the processes through which they had come into being. The much dis­cussed shift of emphasis in the history of science from the old ques­tions of “what” or “why” something is to the new question of “how”? it came into being is a direct consequence of this convic­tion, and its answer can only be found in the experiment. The ex­periment repeats the natural process as though man himself were about to make nature’s objects, and although in the early stages of the modern age no responsible scientist would have dreamt of the extent to which man actually is capable of “making” nature, he nevertheless from the onset approached it from the standpoint of the One who made it, and this not for practical reasons of technical applicability but exclusively for the “theoretical” reason that cer­tainty in knowledge could not be gained otherwise: “Give me matter and I will build a world from it, that is, give me matter and [295] I will show you how a world developed from it.”60 These words of Kant show in a nutshell the modern blending of making and know­ing, whereby it is as though a few centuries of knowing in the mode of making were needed as the apprenticeship to prepare modern man for making what he wanted to know.

  1. “Gebet mir Materie, ich will eine Welt daraus bauen! das ist, gebet mir Materie, ich will euch zeigen, wie eine Welt daraus entstehen soll” (see Kant’s Preface to his Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels).


Productivity and creativity, which were to become the highest ideals and even the idols of the modern age in its initial stages, are inherent standards of homo faber, of man as a builder and fabricator. However, there is another and perhaps even more significant ele­ment noticeable in the modern version of these faculties. The shift from the “why” and “what” to the “how” implies that the actual objects of knowledge can no longer be things or eternal motions but must be processes, and that the object of science therefore is no longer nature or the universe but the history, the story of the com­ing into being, of nature or life or the universe. Long before the modern age developed its unprecedented historical consciousness and the concept of history became dominant in modern philosophy, the natural sciences had developed into historical disciplines, until in the nineteenth century they added to the older disciplines of physics and chemistry, of zoology and botany, the new natural sciences of geology or history of the earth, biology or the history of life, anthropology or the history of human life, and, generally, natural history. In all these instances, development, the key con­cept of the historical sciences, became the central concept of the physical sciences as well. Nature, because it could be known only in processes which human ingenuity, the ingeniousness of homo faber, could repeat and remake in the experiment, became a proc­ess,61 and all particular natural things derived their significance and meaning solely from their functions in the over-all process. In the place of the concept of Being we now find the concept of Process. And whereas it is in the nature of Being to appear and thus disclose [296] itself, it is in the nature of Process to remain invisible, to be some­thing whose existence can only be inferred from the presence of certain phenomena. This process was originally the fabrication process which “disappears in the product,” and it was based on the experience of homo faber, who knew that a production process necessarily precedes the actual existence of every object.

  1. That “nature is a process,” that therefore “the ultimate fact for sense­awareness is an event,” that natural science deals only with occurrences, hap­penings, or events, but not with things and that “apart from happenings there is nothing” (see Whitchead, The Concept of Nature, pp. 53, 15, 66), belongs among the axioms of modern natural science in all its branches. [296]


Yet while this insistence on the process of making or the insist­ence upon considering every thing as the result of a fabrication process is highly characteristic of homo faber and his sphere of ex­perience, the exclusive emphasis the modern age placed on it at the expense of all interest in the things, the products themselves, is quite new. It actually transcends the mentality of man as a tool­maker and fabricator, for whom, on the contrary, the production process was a mere means to an end. Here, from the standpoint of homo faber, it was as though the means, the production process or development, was more important than the end, the finished prod­uct. The reason for this shift of emphasis is obvious: the scientist made only in order to know, not in order to produce things, and the product was a mere by-product, a side effect. Even today all true scientists will agree that the technical applicability of what they are doing is a mere by-product of their endeavor.


The full significance of this reversal of means and ends remained latent as long as the mechanistic world view, the world view of homo faber par excellence, was predominant. This view found its most plausible theory in the famous analogy of the relationship between nature and God with the relationship between the watch and the watchmaker. The point in our context is not so much that the eighteenth-century idea of God was obviously formed in the image of homo faber as that in this instance the process character of nature was still limited. Although all particular natural things had already been engulfed in the process from which they had come into being, nature as a whole was not yet a process but the more or less stable end product of a divine maker. The image of watch and watch­maker is so strikingly apposite precisely because it contains both the notion of a process character of nature in the image of the movements of the watch and the notion of its still intact object character in the image of the watch itself and its maker.


It is important at this point to remember that the specifically [297] modern suspicion toward man’s truth-receiving capacities, the mis­trust of the given, and hence the new confidence in making and introspection which was inspired by the hope that in human con­sciousness there was a realm where knowing and producing would coincide, did not arise directly from the discovery of the Archime­dean point outside the earth in the universe. They were, rather, the necessary consequences of this discovery for the discoverer him­self, in so far as he was and remained an earth-bound creature. This close relationship of the modern mentality with philosophical reflection naturally implies that the victory of homo faber could not remain restricted to the employment of new methods in the natural sciences, the experiment and the mathematization of scientific in­quiry. One of the most plausible consequences to be drawn from Cartesian doubt was to abandon the attempt to understand nature and generally to know about things not produced by man, and to turn instead exclusively to things that owed their existence to man. This kind of argument, in fact, made Vico turn his attention from natural science to history, which he thought to be the only sphere where man could obtain certain knowledge, precisely because he dealt here only with the products of human activity.62 The modern discovery of history and historical consciousness owed one of its greatest impulses neither to a new enthusiasm for the greatness of man, his doings and sufferings, nor to the belief that the meaning of human existence can be found in the story of mankind, but to the [298] despair of human reason, which seemed adequate only when con­fronted with man-made objects.

  1. Vico (op. cit., ch. 4) states explicitly why he turned away from natural science. True knowledge of nature is impossible, because not man but God made it; God can know nature with the same certainty man knows geometry: Geometri­ca demonstramus quia facimus; si physica demonstrare possemus, facerentus (“We can prove geometry because we make it; to prove the physical we would have to make it”). This little treatise, written more than fifteen years before the first edition of the Scienza Nuova (1725), is interesting in more than one respect. Vico criticizes all existing sciences, but not yet for the sake of his new science of his­tory; what he recommends is the study of moral and political science, which he finds unduly neglected. It must have been much later that the idea occurred to him that history is made by man as nature is made by God. This biographical development, though quite extraordinary in the early eighteenth century, became the rule approximately one hundred years later: each time the modern age had reason to hope for a new political philosophy, it received a philosophy of history instead. [298]


Prior to the modern discovery of history but closely connected with it in its impulses are the seventeenth-century attempts to formulate new political philosophies or, rather, to invent the means and instruments with which to “make an artificial animal … called a Commonwealth, or State.”63 With Hobbes as with Des­cartes “the prime mover was doubt,”64 and the chosen method to establish the “art of man,” by which he would make and rule his own world as “God hath made and governs the world” by the art of nature, is also introspection, “to read in himself,” since this reading will show him “the similitude of the thoughts and passions of one man to the thoughts and passions of another.” Here, too, the rules and standards by which to build and judge this most human of human “works of art”65 do not lie outside of men, are not some­thing men have in common in a worldly reality perceived by the senses or by the mind. They are, rather, inclosed in the inwardness of man, open only to introspection, so that their very validity rests on the assumption that “not … the objects of the passions” but the passions themselves are the same in every specimen of the spe­cies man-kind Here again we find the image of the watch, this time applied to the human body and then used for the movements of the passions. The establishment of the Commonwealth, the human creation of “an artificial man,” amounts to the building of an “automaton [an engine] that moves [itself] by springs and wheels as doth a watch.”

  1. Hobbes’s Introduction to the Leviathan.

  2. See Michael Oakeshott’s excellent Introduction to the Leviathan (Black­well’s Political Texts), p. xiv.

  3. Ibid., p. lxiv. [299]


In other words, the process which, as we saw, invaded the natu­ral sciences through the experiment, through the attempt to imitate under artificial conditions the process of “making” by which a natural thing came into existence, serves as well or even better as the principle for doing in the realm of human affairs. For here the processes of inner life, found in the passions through introspection, can become the standards and rules for the creation of the “auto- [265] matic” life of that “artificial man” who is “the great Leviathan.” The results yielded by introspection, the only method likely to deliver certain knowledge, are in the nature of movements: only the objects of the senses remain as they are and endure, precede and survive, the act of sensation; only the objects of the passions are permanent and fixed to the extent that they are not devoured by the attainment of some passionate desire; only the objects of thoughts, but never thinking itself, are beyond motion and perish­ability. Processes, therefore, and not ideas, the models and shapes of the things to be, become the guide for the making and fabricating activities of homo faber in the modern age.


Hobbes’s attempt to introduce the new concepts of making and reckoning into political philosophy—or, rather, his attempt to apply the newly discovered aptitudes of making to the realm of human affairs—was of the greatest importance; modern rational­ism as it is currently known, with the assumed antagonism of rea­son and passion as its stock-in-trade, has never found a clearer and more uncompromising representative. Yet it was precisely the realm of human affairs where the new philosophy was first found wanting, because by its very nature it could not understand or even believe in reality. The idea that only what I am going to make will be real—perfectly true and legitimate in the realm of fabrication— is forever defeated by the actual course of events, where nothing happens more frequently than the totally unexpected. To act in the form of making, to reason in the form of “reckoning with conse­quences,” means to leave out the unexpected, the event itself, since it would be unreasonable or irrational to expect what is no more than an “nfinite improbability.” Since, however, the event con­stitutes the very texture of reality within the realm of human af­fairs, where the “wholly improbable happens regularly,” it is highly unrealistic not to reckon with it, that is, not to reckon with something with which nobody can safely reckon. The political philosophy of the modern age, whose greatest representative is still Hobbes, founders on the perplexity that modern rationalism is unreal and modern realism is irrational—which is only another way of saying that reality and human reason have parted company. Hegel’s gigantic enterprise to reconcile spirit with reality (den Geist mit der Wirklichkeit zu versönen), a reconciliation that is the [300] deepest concern of all modern theories of history, rested on the insight that modern reason foundered on the rock of reality.


The fact that modern world alienation was radical enough to extend even to the most worldly of human activities, to work and reification, the making of things and the building of a world, dis­tinguishes modern attitudes and evaluations even more sharply from those of tradition than a mere reversal of contemplation and action, of thinking and doing, would indicate. The break with con­templation was consummated not with the elevation of man the maker to the position formerly held by man the contemplator, but with the introduction of the concept of process into making. Com­pared with this, the striking new arrangement of hierarchical order within the vita activa, where fabrication now came to occupy a rank formerly held by political action, is of minor importance. We saw before that this hierarchy had in fact, though not expressly, already been overruled in the very beginnings of political philosophy by the philosophers’ deep-rooted suspicion of politics in general and action in particular.


The matter is somewhat confused because Greek political phi­losophy still follows the order laid down by the polis even when it turns against it; but in their strictly philosophical writings (to which, of course, one must turn if he wants to know their inner­most thoughts), Plato as well as Aristotle tends to invert the rela­tionship between work and action in favor of work. Thus Aris­totle, in a discussion of the different kinds of cognition in his Metaphysics, places dianoia and epistēmē praktikē, practical insight and political science, at the lowest rank of his order, and puts above them the science of fabrication, epistēmē poiētike, which im­mediately precedes and leads to theōria, the contemplation of truth.66 And the reason for this predilection in philosophy is by no means the politically inspired suspicion of action which we men­tioned before, but the philosophically much more compelling one that contemplation and fabrication (theōria and poiēsis) have an inner affinity and do not stand in the same unequivocal opposition to each other as contemplation and action. The decisive point of similarity, at least in Greek philosophy, was that contemplation, the beholding of something, was considered to be an inherent ele- [301] ment in fabrication as well, inasmuch as the work of the craftsman was guided by the “idea,” the model beheld by him before the fabrication process had started as well as after it had ended, first to tell him what to make and then to enable him to judge the finished product.

  1. Metaphysics 1025b25 ff., 1064a17 ff. [301]


Historically, the source of this contemplation, which we find for the first time described in the Socratic school, is at least twofold. On one hand, it stands in obvious and consistent connection with the famous contention of Plato, quoted by Aristotle, that thauma­zein, the shocked wonder at the miracle of Being, is the beginning of all philosophy.67 It seems to me highly probable that this Pla­tonic contention is the immediate result of an experience, perhaps the most striking one, that Socrates offered his disciples: the sight of him time and again suddenly overcome by his thoughts and thrown into a state of absorption to the point of perfect motionless­ness for many hours. It seems no less plausible that this shocked wonder should be essentially speechless, that is, that its actual con­tent should be untranslatable into words. This, at least, would ex­plain why Plato and Aristotle, who held thaumazein to be the be­ginning of philosophy, should also agree—despite so many and such decisive disagreements—that some state of speechlessness, the essentially speechless state of contemplation, was the end of philosophy. Theōria, in fact, is only another word for thaumazein; the contemplation of truth at which the philosopher ultimately ar­rives is the philosophically purified speechless wonder with which he began.

  1. For Plato see Theaetetus 155: Mala gar philosophou touto to pathos, to thaumazein; ou gar allē archē philosophias ē hautē (“For wonder is what the philoso­pher endures most; for there is no other beginning of philosophy than this”). Aristotle, who at the beginning of the Metaphysics (982b12 ff.) seems to repeat Plato almost verbatim—“For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize”—actually uses this wonder in an altogether different way; to him, the actual impulse to philosophize lies in the desire “to escape ignorance.” [302]


There is, however, another side to this matter, which shows it­self most articulately in Plato’s doctrine of ideas, in its content as well as in its terminology and exemplifications. These reside in the experiences of the craftsman, who sees before his inner eye the shape of the model according to which he fabricates his object. To [302] Plato, this model, which craftsmanship can only imitate but not create, is no product of the human mind but given to it. As such it possesses a degree of permanence and excellence which is not ac­tualized but on the contrary spoiled in its materialization through the work of human hands. Work makes perishable and spoils the excellence of what remained eternal so long as it was the object of mere contemplation. Therefore, the proper attitude toward the models which guide work and fabrication, that is, toward Platonic ideas, is to leave them as they are and appear to the inner eye of the mind. If man only renounces his capacity for work and does not do anything, he can behold them and thus participate in their eternity. Contemplation, in this respect, is quite unlike the enraptured state of wonder with which man responds to the miracle of Being as a whole. It is and remains part and parcel of a fabrication process even though it has divorced itself from all work and all doing; in it, the beholding of the model, which now no longer is to guide any doing, is prolonged and enjoyed for its own sake.


In the tradition of philosophy, it is this second kind of contem­plation that became the predominant one. Therefore the motion­lessness which in the state of speechless wonder is no more than an incidental, unintended result of absorption, becomes now the con­dition and hence the outstanding characteristic of the vita con­templativa. It is not wonder that overcomes and throws man into motionlessness, but it is through the conscious cessation of activ­ity, the activity of making, that the contemplative state is reached. If one reads medieval sources on the joys and delights of contem­plation, it is as though the philosophers wanted to make sure that homo faber would heed the call and let his arms drop, finally realiz­ing 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. In Plato’s philoso­phy, speechless wonder, the beginning and the end of philosophy, together with the philosopher’s love for the eternal and the crafts­man’s desire for permanence and immortality, permeate each other until they are almost indistinguishable. Yet the very fact that the philosophers’ speechless wonder seemed to be an experience re­served for the few, while the craftsmen’s contemplative glance was [303] known by many, weighed heavily in favor of a contemplation pri­marily derived from the experiences of homo faber. It already weighed heavily with Plato, who drew his examples from the realm of making because they were closer to a more general human ex­perience, and it weighed even more heavily where some kind of contemplation and meditation was required of everybody, as in medieval Christianity.


Thus it was not primarily the philosopher and philosophic speechless wonder that molded the concept and practice of con­templation and the vita contemplativa, but rather homo faber in dis­guise; it was man the maker and fabricator, whose job it is to do violence to nature in order to build a permanent home for himself, and who now was persuaded to renounce violence together with all activity, to leave things as they are, and to find his home in the contemplative dwelling in the neighborhood of the imperishable and eternal. homo faber could be persuaded to this change of atti­tude because he knew contemplation and some of its delights from his own experience; he did not need a complete change of heart, a true periagdgē, a radical turnabout. All he had to do was let his arms drop and prolong indefinitely the act of beholding the eidos, the eternal shape and model he had formerly wanted to imitate and whose excellence and beauty he now knew he could only spoil through any attempt at reification.


If, therefore, the modern challenge to the priority of contempla­tion over every kind of activity had done no more than turn upside down the established order between making and beholding, it would still have remained in the traditional framework. This framework was forced wide open, however, when in the under­standing of fabrication itself the emphasis shifted entirely away from the product and from the permanent, guiding model to the fabrication process, away from the question of what a thing is and what kind of thing was to be produced to the question of how and through which means and processes it had come into being and could be reproduced. For this implied both that contemplation was no longer believed to yield truth and that it had lost its position in the vita activa itself and hence within the range of ordinary human experience. [304]

43 the defeat of Homo Faber and the principle of happiness


If one considers only the events that led into the modern age and reflects solely upon the immediate consequences of Galileo’s dis­covery, which must have struck the great minds of the seventeenth century with the compelling force of self-evident truth, the re­versal of contemplation and fabrication, or rather the elimination of contemplation from the range of meaningful human capacities, is almost a matter of course. It seems equally plausible that this reversal should have elevated homo faber, the maker and fabricator, rather than man the actor or man as animal laborans, to the highest range of human possibilities.


And, indeed, among the outstanding characteristics of the mod­ern age from its beginning to our own time we find the typical atti­tudes of homo faber: his instrumentalization of the world, his con­fidence in tools and in the productivity of the maker of artificial objects; his trust in the all-comprehensive range of the means-end category, his conviction that every issue can be solved and every human motivation reduced to the principle of utility; his sover­eignty, which regards everything given as material and thinks of the whole of nature as of “an immense fabric from which we can cut out whatever we want to resew it however we like”;68 his equation of intelligence with ingenuity, that is, his contempt for all [305] thought which cannot be considered to be “the first step … for the fabrication of artificial objects, particularly of tools to make tools, and to vary their fabrication indefinitely”;69 finally, his matter-of-course identification of fabrication with action.

  1. Henri Bergson, Evolution créatrice (1948), p. 157. An analysis of Bergson’s position in modern philosophy would lead us too far afield. But his insistence on the priority of homo faber over homo sapiens and on fabrication as the source of human intelligence, as well as his emphatic opposition of life to intelligence, is very suggestive. Bergson’s philosophy could easily be read like a case study of how the modern age’s earlier conviction of the relative superiority of making over thinking was then superseded and annihilated by its more recent conviction of an absolute superiority of life over everything else. It is because Bergson himself still united both of these elements that he could exert such a decisive influence on the beginnings of labor theories in France. Not only the earlier works of Edouard Berth and Georges Sorel, but also Adriano Tilgher’s Homo faber (1929), owe their terminology chiefly to Bergson; this is still true of Jules Vuillemin’s L’Être et le travail (1949), although Vuillemin, like almost every present-day French writer, thinks primarily in Hegelian terms. [305]

  2. Bergson, op. cit., p. 140.


It would lead us too far afield to follow the ramifications of this mentality, and it is not necessary, for they are easily detected in the natural sciences, where the purely theoretical effort is under­stood to spring from the desire to create order out of “mere dis­order,” the “wild variety of nature,”70 and where therefore homo faber’s predilection for patterns for things to be produced replaces the older notions of harmony and simplicity. It can be found in classical economics, whose highest standard is productivity and whose prejudice against non-productive activities is so strong that even Marx could justify his plea for justice for laborers only by misrepresenting the laboring, non-productive activity in terms of work and fabrication. It is most articulate, of course, in the prag­matic trends of modern philosophy, which are not only character­ized by Cartesian world alienation but also by the unanimity with which English philosophy from the seventeenth century onward and French philosophy in the eighteenth century adopted the prin­ciple of utility as the key which would open all doors to the ex­planation of human motivation and behavior. Generally speaking, the oldest conviction of homo faber—that “man is the measure of all things”—advanced to the rank of a universally accepted com­monplace.

  1. Bronowski, op. cit. [306]


What needs explanation is not the modern esteem of homo faber but the fact that this esteem was so quickly followed by the eleva­tion of laboring to the highest position in the hierarchical order of the vita activa. This second reversal of hierarchy within the vita activa came about more gradually and less dramatically than either the reversal of contemplation and action in general or the reversal of action and fabrication in particular. The elevation of laboring was preceded by certain deviations and variations from the tradi­tional mentality of homo faber which were highly characteristic of the modern age and which, indeed, arose almost automatically from the very nature of the events that ushered it in. What changed [306] the mentality of homo faber was the central position of the concept of process in modernity. As far as homo faber was concerned, the modern shift of emphasis from the “what” to the “how,” from the thing itself to its fabrication process, was by no means an unmixed blessing. It deprived man as maker and builder of those fixed and permanent standards and measurements which, prior to the modern age, have always served him as guides for his doing and criteria for his judgment. It is not only and perhaps not even primarily the de­velopment of commercial society that, with the triumphal victory of exchange value over use value, first introduced the principle of interchangeability, then the relativization, and finally the devalua­tion, of all values. For the mentality of modern man, as it was de­termined by the development of modern science and the concomi­tant unfolding of modern philosophy, it was at least as decisive that man began to consider himself part and parcel of the two su­perhuman, all-encompassing processes of nature and history, both of which seemed doomed to an infinite progress without ever reaching any inherent telos or approaching any preordained idea.


Homo faber, in other words, as he arose from the great revolution of modernity, though he was to acquire an undreamed-of ingenuity in devising instruments to measure the infinitely large and the in­finitely small, was deprived of those permanent measures that pre­cede and outlast the fabrication process and form an authentic and reliable absolute with respect to the fabricating activity. Certainly, none of the activities of the vita activa stood to lose as much through the elimination of contemplation from the range of meaningful hu­man capacities as fabrication. For unlike action, which partly con­sists in the unchaining of processes, and unlike laboring, which fol­lows closely the metabolic process of biological life, fabrication experiences processes, if it is aware of them at all, as mere means toward an end, that is, as something secondary and derivative. No other capacity, moreover, stood to lose as much through modern world alienation and the elevation of introspection into an omnip­otent device to conquer nature as those faculties which are pri­marily directed toward the building of the world and the produc­tion of worldly things.


Nothing perhaps indicates clearer the ultimate failure of homo faber to assert himself than the rapidity with which the principle of [307] utility, the very quintessence of his world view, was found want­ing and was superseded by the principle of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”71 When this happened it was manifest that the conviction of the age that man can know only what he makes himself—which seemingly was so eminently propitious to a full victory of homo faber—would be overruled and eventually de­stroyed by the even more modern principle of process, whose con­cepts and categories are altogether alien to the needs and ideals of homo faber. For the principle of utility, though its point of reference is clearly man, who uses matter to produce things, still presup­poses a world of use objects by which man is surrounded and in which he moves. If this relationship between man and world is no longer secure, if worldly things are no longer primarily considered in their usefulness but as more or less incidental results of the pro­duction process which brought them into being, so that the end product of the production process is no longer a true end and the produced thing is valued not for the sake of its predetermined usage but “for its production of something else,” then, obviously, the objection can be “raised that … its value is secondary only, and a world that contains no primary values can contain no second­ary ones either.”72 This radical loss of values within the restricted [308] frame of reference of homo faber himself occurs almost automati­cally as soon as he defines himself not as the maker of objects and the builder of the human artifice who incidentally invents tools, but considers himself primarily a toolmaker and“particularly [a maker] of tools to make tools” who only incidentally also pro­duces things. If one applies the principle of utility in this context at all, then it refers primarily not to use objects and not to usage but to the production process. Now what helps stimulate productivity and lessens pain and effort is useful. In other words, the ultimate standard of measurement is not utility and usage at all, but”happi­ness,” that is, the amount of pain and pleasure experienced in the production or in the consumption of things.

  1. Jeremy Bentham’s formula in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) was “suggested to him by Joseph Priestley and closely re­sembled Beccaria’s la massima felicità divisa nel maggior numero” (Introduction to the Hafner edition by Laurence J. Lafleur). According to Élie Halévy (The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism [Beacon Press, 1955]), both Beccaria and Ben­tham were indebted to Helvétius’ De esprit.

  2. Lafleur, op. cit., p. xi. Bentham himself expresses his dissatisfaction with a merely utilitarian philosophy in the note added to a late edition of his work (Hafner ed., p. 1): “The word utility does not so clearly point to the ideas of pleasure and pain as the words happiness and felicity do.” Hlis chief objection is that utility is not measurable and therefore does not “lead us to the consideration of the number,” without which a “formation of the standard of right and wrong” would not be possible, Bentham derives his happiness principle from the utility principle by divorcing the concept of utility from the notion of usage (see ch, 1, par. 3). This separation marks a turning point in the history of utilitarianism. For while it is true that the utility principle had been related primarily to the ego prior to Bentham, it is only Bentham who radically emptied the idea of utility of all reference to an independent world of use things and thus transformed utilitari­anism into a truly “universalized egoism” (Halévy). [308]


Bentham’s invention of the “pain and pleasure calculus” com­bined the advantage of seemingly introducing the mathematical method into the moral sciences with the even greater attraction of having found a principle which resided entirely on introspection. His “happiness,” the sum total of pleasures minus pains, is as much an inner sense which senses sensations and remains unrelated to worldly objects as the Cartesian consciousness that is conscious of its own activity. Moreover, Bentham’s basic assumption that what all men have in common is not the world but the sameness of their own nature, which manifests itself in the sameness of calculation and the sameness of being affected by pain and pleasure, is directly derived from the earlier philosophers of the modern age. For this philosophy, “hedonism” is even more of a misnomer than for the epicureanism of late antiquity, to which modern hedonism is only superficially related. The principle of all hedonism, as we saw before, is not pleasure but avoidance of pain, and Hume, who in contradistinction to Bentham was still a philosopher, knew quite well that he who wants to make pleasure the ultimate end of all human action is driven to admit that not pleasure but pain, not desire but fear, are his true guides. “If you … inquire, why [somebody] desires health, he will readily reply, because sickness is painful. If you push your inquiries further and desire a reason why he hates pain, it is impossible he can ever give any. This is an ultimate end, and is never referred to by any other object.”73 The reason for this impossibility is that only pain is completely inde- [309] pendent of any object, that only one who is in pain really senses nothing but himself; pleasure does not enjoy itself but something besides itself. Pain is the only inner sense found by introspection which can rival in independence from experienced objects the self­evident certainty of logical and arithmetical reasoning.

  1. Quoted from Halévy, op. cit., p. 13. [309]


While this ultimate foundation of hedonism in the experience of pain is true for both its ancient and modern varieties, in the modern age it acquires an altogether different and much stronger emphasis. For here it is by no means the world, as in antiquity, that drives man into himself to escape the pains it may inflict, under which circumstance both pain and pleasure still retain a good deal of their worldly significance. Ancient world alienation in all its varieties— from stoicism to epicureanism down to hedonism and cynicism— had been inspired by a deep mistrust of the world and moved by a vehement impulse to withdraw from worldly involvement, from the trouble and pain it inflicts, into the security of an inward realm in which the self is exposed to nothing but itself. Their moderr counterparts—puritanism, sensualism, and Bentham’s hedonism— on the contrary, were inspired by an equally deep mistrust of man as such; they were moved by doubt of the adequacy of the human senses to receive reality, the adequacy of human reason to receive truth, and hence by the conviction of the deficiency or even deprav­ity of human nature.


This depravity is not Christian or biblical either in origin or in content, although it was of course interpreted in terms of original sin, and it is difficult to say whether it is more harmful and repul­sive when puritans denounce man’s corruptness or when Bentham­ites brazenly hail as virtues what men always have known to be vices. While the ancients had relied upon imagination and memory, the imagination of pains from which they were free or the memory of past pleasures in situations of acute painfulness, to convince themselves of their happiness, the moderns needed the calculus of pleasure or the puritan moral bookkeeping of merits and transgres­sions to arrive at some illusory mathematical certainty of happiness or salvation. (These moral arithmetics are, of course, quite alien to the spirit pervading the philosophic schools of late antiquity. Moreover, one need only reflect on the rigidity of self-imposed discipline and the concomitant nobility of character, so manifest in [310] those who had been formed by ancient stoicism or epicureanism, to become aware of the gulf by which these versions of hedonism are separated from modern puritanism, sensualism, and hedonism. For this difference, it is almost irrelevant whether the modern character is still formed by the older narrow-minded, fanatic self-righteous­ness or has yielded to the more recent self-centered and self­indulgent egotism with its infinite variety of futile miseries.) It seems more than doubtful that the “greatest happiness principle” would have achieved its intellectual triumphs in the English-speak­ing world if no more had been involved than the questionable discov­ery that “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure,”74 or the absurd idea of estab­lishing morals as an exact science by isolating “in the human soul that feeling which seems to be the most easily measurable.”75

  1. This, of course, is the first sentence of the Principles of Morals and Legisla­tion. The famous sentence is “copied almost word for word from Helvétius” (Halévy, op. cit., p. 26). Halévy rightly remarks that “it was natural that a cur­rent idea should on all sides rather tend to find expression in the same formulae” (p. 22). This fact, incidentally, clearly shows that the authors we deal with here are not philosophers; for no matter how current certain ideas might be during a given period, there never are two philosophers who could arrive at identical formulations without copying from each other.

  2. Ibid., p. 15. [311]


Hidden behind this as behind other, less interesting variations ot the sacredness of egoism and the all-pervasive power of self-inter­est, which were current to the point of being commonplace in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, we find another point of reference which indeed forms a much more potent principle than any pain-pleasure calculus could ever offer, and that is the principle of life itself. What pain and pleasure, fear and desire, are actually supposed to achieve in all these systems is not happiness at all but the promotion of individual life or a guaranty of the survival of mankind. If modern egoism were the ruthless search for pleasure (called happiness) it pretends to be, it would not lack what in all truly hedonistic systems is an indispensable element of argumenta­tion—a radical justification of suicide. This lack alone indicates that in fact we deal here with life philosophy in its most vulgar and least critical form. In the last resort, it is always life itself which is the supreme standard to which everything else is referred, and the [311] interests of the individual as well as the interests of mankind are always equated with individual life or the life of the species as though it were a matter of course that life is the highest good.


The curious failure of homo faber to assert himself under condi­tions seemingly so extraordinarily propitious could also have been illustrated by another, philosophically even more relevant, revision of basic traditional beliefs. Hume’s radical criticism of the causality principle, which prepared the way for the later adoption of the principle of evolution, has often been considered one of the origins of modern philosophy. The causality principle with its twofold central axiom—that everything that is must have a cause (aihil sine causa) and that the cause must be more perfect than its most perfect effect—obviously relies entirely on experiences in the realm of fabrication, where the maker is superior to his products. Seen in this context, the turning point in the intellectual history of the modern age came when the image of organic life development— where the evolution of a lower being, for instance the ape, can cause the appearance of a higher being, for instance man—appeared in the place of the image of the watchmaker who must be superior to all watches whose cause he is.


Much more is implied in this change than the mere denial of the lifeless rigidity of a mechanistic world view. It is as though in the latent seventeenth-century conflict between the two possible meth­ods to be derived from the Galilean discovery, the method of the experiment and of making on one hand and the method of introspec­tion on the other, the latter was to achieve a somewhat belated victory. For the only tangible object introspection yields, if it is to yield more than an entirely empty consciousness of itself, is indeed the biological process. And since this biological life, accessible in self-observation, is at the same time a metabolic process between man and nature, it is as though introspection no longer needs to get lost in the ramifications of a consciousness without reality, but has found within man—not in his mind but in his bodily processes— enough outside matter to connect him again with the outer world. The split between subject and object, inherent in human conscious­ness and irremediable in the Cartesian opposition of man as a res cogitans to a surrounding world of res extensae, disappears altogether in the case of a living organism, whose very survival depends upon [312] the incorporation, the consumption, of outside matter. Naturalism, the nineteenth-century version of materialism, seemed to find in life the way to solve the problems of Cartesian philosophy and at the same time to bridge the ever-widening chasm between philoso­phy and science.76

  1. The greatest representatives of modern life philosophy are Marx, Nietz­sche, and Bergson, inasmuch as all three equate Life and Being. For this equation, they rely on introspection, and life is indeed the only “being” man can possibly be aware of by looking merely into himself. The difference between these and the earlier philosophers of the modern age is that life appears to be more active and more productive than consciousness, which seems to be still too closely related to contemplation and the old ideal of truth, This last stage of modem philosophy is perhaps best described as the rebellion of the philosophers against philosophy, a rebellion which, beginning with Kierkegaard and ending in existentialism, appeats at first glance to emphasize action as against contemplation. Upon closer inspec­tion, however, none of these philosophers is actually concerned with action as such. We may leave aside here Kierkegaard and his non-worldly, inward-directed acting. Nietzsche and Bergson describe action in terms of fabrication—homo faber instead of homo sapiens—just as Marx thinks of acting in terms of making and describes labor in terms of work. But their ultimate point of reference is not work and worldliness any more than action; it is life and life’s fertility. [313]

44 life as the highest good


Tempting as it may be for the sake of sheer consistency to derive the modern life concept from the self-inflicted perplexities of mod­ern philosophy, it would be a delusion and a grave injustice to the seriousness of the problems of the modern age if one looked upon them merely from the viewpoint of the development of ideas. The defeat of homo faber may be explainable in terms of the initial trans­formation of physics into astrophysics, of natural sciences into a “universal” science. What still remains to be explained is why this defeat ended with a victory of the animal laborans; why, with the rise of the vita activa, it was precisely the laboring activity that was to be elevated to the highest rank of man’s capacities or, to put it another way, why within the diversity of the human condition with its various human capacities it was precisely life that over­ruled all other considerations.


The reason why life asserted itself as the ultimate point of refer­ence in the modern age and has remained the highest good of mod- [313] ern society is that the modern reversal operated within the fabric of a Christian society whose fundamental belief in the sacredness of life has survived, and has even remained completely unshaken by, secularization and the general decline of the Christian faith. In other words, the modern reversal followed and left unchallenged the most important reversal with which Christianity had broken into the ancient world, a reversal that was politically even more far-reaching and, historically at any rate, more enduring than any specific dogmatic content or belief. For the Christian “glad tid­ings” of the immortality of individual human life had reversed the ancient relationship between man and world and promoted the most mortal thing, human life, to the position of immortality, which up to then the cosmos had held.


Historically, it is more than probable that the victory of the Christian faith in the ancient world was largely due to this re­versal, which brought hope to those who knew that their world was doomed, indeed a hope beyond hope, since the new message promised an immortality they never had dared to hope for. This reversal could not but be disastrous for the esteem and the dignity of politics. Political activity, which up to then had derived its great­est inspiration from the aspiration toward worldly immortality, now sank to the low level of an activity subject to necessity, destined to remedy the consequences of human sinfulness on one hand and to cater to the legitimate wants and interests of earthly life on the other. Aspiration toward immortality could now only be equated with vainglory; such fame as the world could bestow upon man was an illusion, since the world was even more perish­able than man, and a striving for worldly immortality was mean­ingless, since life itself was immortal.


It is precisely individual life which now came to occupy the position once held by the “life” of the body politic, and Paul’s statement that “death is the wages of sin,” since life is meant to last forever, echoes Cicero’s statement that death is the reward of sins committed by political communities which were built to last for eternity.77 It is as though the early Christians—at least Paul, [314] who after all was a Roman citizen—consciously shaped their con­cept of immortality after the Roman model, substituting individual life for the political life of the body politic. Just as the body politic possesses only a potential immortality which can be forfeited by political transgressions, individual life had once forfeited its guar­anteed immortality in Adam’s fall and now, through Christ, had regained a new, potentially everlasting life which, however, could again be lost in a second death through individual sin.

  1. Cicero’s remark: Civitatibus autem mors ipsa poena est … debet enim consti­tuta sic esse civitas ut aeterna sit (De re publica iii. 23). For the conviction in antiquity that a well-founded body politic should be immortal, see also Plato, Laws 713, [314] where the founders of a new polis are told to imitate the immortal part in man (hoson en hēmin athanasias enest).


Certainly, Christian emphasis on the sacredness of life is part and parcel of the Hebrew heritage, which already presented a strik­ing contrast to the attitudes of antiquity: the pagan contempt for the hardships which life imposes upon man in labor and giving birth, the envious picture of the “easy life” of the gods, the custom of exposing unwanted offspring, the conviction that life without health is not worth living (so that the physician, for instance, is held to have misunderstood his calling when he prolongs life where he cannot restore health)78 and that suicide is a noble gesture to escape a life that has become burdensome. Still, one need only re­member how the Decalogue enumerates the offense of murder, without any special emphasis, among a number of other transgres­sions—which to our way of thinking can hardly compete in gravity with this supreme crime—to realize that not even the Hebrew legal code, though much closer to our own than any pagan scale of offenses, made the preservation of life the cornerstone of the legal system of the Jewish people. This intermediary position which the Hebrew legal code occupies between pagan antiquity and all Chris­tian or post-Christian legal systems may be explicable by the Hebrew creed which stresses the potential immortality of the people, as distinguished from the pagan immortality of the world on one side and the Christian immortality of individual life on the other. At any event, this Christian immortality that is bestowed upon the person, who in his uniqueness begins life by birth on earth, resulted not only in the more obvious increase of other­worldliness, but also in an enormously increased importance of life [315] on earth. The point is that Christianity—except for heretical and gnostic speculations—always insisted that life, though it had no longer a final end, still has a definite beginning. Life on earth may be only the first and the most miserable stage of eternal life; it still is life, and without this life that will be terminated in death, there cannot be eternal life. This may be the reason for the undisputable fact that only when the immortality of individual life became the central creed of Western mankind, that is, only with the rise of Christianity, did life on earth also become the highest good of man.

  1. See Plato Republic 405C. [315]


Christian emphasis on the sacredness of life tended to level out the ancient distinctions and articulations within the vita activa; it tended to view labor, work, and action as equally subject to the necessity of present life. At the same time it helped to free the laboring activity, that is, whatever is necessary to sustain the bio­logical process itself, from some of the contempt in which antiq­uity had held it. The old contempt toward the slave, who had been despised because he served only life’s necessities and submitted to the compulsion of his master because he wanted to stay alive at all costs, could not possibly survive in the Christian era. One could no longer with Plato despise the slave for not having committed sui­cide rather than submit to a master, for to stay alive under all cir­cumstances had become a holy duty, and suicide was regarded as worse than murder. Not the murderer, but he who had put an end to his own life was refused a Christian burial.


Yet contrary to what some modern interpreters have tried to read into Christian sources, there are no indications of the modern glorification of laboring in the New Testament or in other pre­modern Christian writers. Paul, who has been called “the apostle of labor,”79 was nothing of the sort, and the few passages on which [316] this claim is based either are addressed to those who out of laziness “ate other men’s bread” or they recommend labor as a good means to keep out of trouble, that is, they reinforce the general prescrip­tion of a strictly private life and warn of political activities.80 It is even more relevant that in later Christian philosophy, and particu­larly in Thomas Aquinas, labor had become a duty for those who had no other means to keep alive, the duty consisting in keeping one’s self alive and not in laboring; if one could provide for himself through beggary, so much the better. Whoever reads the sources without modern prolabor prejudices will be surprised at how little the church fathers availed themselves even of the obvious oppor­tunity to justify labor as punishment for original sin. Thus Thomas does not hesitate to follow Aristotle rather than the Bible in this question and to assert that “only the necessity to keep alive com­pels to do manual labor.”81 Labor to him is nature’s way of keeping the human species alive, and from this he concludes that it is by no means necessary that all men earn their bread by the sweat of their brows, but that this is rather a kind of last and desperate resort to solve the problem or fulfil the duty.82 Not even the use of labor asa means with which to ward off the dangers of otiosity is a new Christian discovery, but was already a commonplace of Roman morality. In complete agreement with ancient convictions about the character of the laboring activity, finally, is the frequent Chris­tian use for the mortification of the flesh, where labor, especially in the monasteries, sometimes played the same role as other painful exercises and forms of self-torture.83 [317]

  1. By the Dominican Bernard Allo, Le travail d’après St. Paul (1914). Among the defenders of the Christian origin of modern glorification of labor are: in France, Étienne Borne and François Henry, Le travail et l’homme (1937); in Germany, Karl Müller, Die Arbeit: Nach moral-philosophischen Grundsätzen des heiligen Thomas von Aquino (1912). More recently, Jacques Leclercq from Lou­vain, who has contributed one of the most valuable and interesting works to the philosophy of labor in the fourth book of his Leçons de droit naturel, entitled Travail, propriété (1946), has rectified this misinterpretation of the Christian sources: “Le christianisme n’a pas changé grand’chose à l’estime du travail”; [316] and in Aquinas’ work “a notion du travail n’apparait que fort accidentellement” (pp. 61–62).

  2. See I Thess. 4:9–12 and If Thess. 3:8–12,

  3. Summa contra Gentiles iii. 135: Sola enim necessitas victus cogit manibus operari.

  4. Summa theologica ii, 2. 187. 3, 5.

  5. In the monastic rules, particularly in the ora et labora of Benedict, labor is recommended against the temptations of an idle body (see ch. 48 of the rule). In the so-called rule of Augustine (Epistolae 211), labor is considered to be a law of nature, not a punishment for sin. Augustine recommends manual labor—he uses the words opera and labor synonymously as the opposite of otium—for three [317] reasons: it helps to fight the temptations of otiosity; it helps the monasteries to fulfil their duty of charity toward the poor; and it is favorable to contemplation because it does not engage the mind unduly like other occupations, for instance, the buying and selling of goods. For the role of labor in the monasteries, compare Frienne Delaruelle, “Le travail dans les règles monastiques occidentales du 4e au 9e siècle,” Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique, Vol. XLI, No. 1 (1948). Apart from these formal considerations, it is quite characteristic that the Solitaires de Port-Royal, looking for some instrument of really effective punishment, thought immediately of labor (see Lucien Fèbre, “Travail: Évolution d’un mot et dune idée,” Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique, Vol. XLI, No. 1 [1948]).


The reason why Christianity, its insistence on the sacredness of life and on the duty to stay alive notwithstanding, never developed a positive labor philosophy lies in the unquestioned priority given to the vita contemplativa over all kinds of human activities. Vita contemplativa simpliciter melior est quam vita activa (“the life of con­templation is simply better than the life of action”), and what­ever the merits of an active life might be, those of a life devoted to contemplation are “more effective and more powerful.”84 This conviction, it is true, can hardly be found in the preachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and it is certainly due to the influence of Greek phi­losophy; yet even if medieval philosophy had kept closer to the spirit of the Gospels, it could hardly have found there any reason for a glorification of laboring.85 The only activity Jesus of Nazareth recommends in his preachings is action, and the only human capac­ity he stresses is the capacity “to perform miracles.”

  1. Aquinas Summa theologica ii. 2. 182. 1, 2. In his insistence on the absolute superiority of the vita contemplativa, Thomas shows a characteristic difference from Augustine, who recommends the inguisitio, aut inventio veritatis: ut in ea quisque proficiat—“inquisition or discovery of truth so that somebody may profit from it” (De civitate Dei xix. 19). But this difference is hardly more than the difference between a Christian thinker formed by Greek, and another by Roman, philosophy.

  2. The Gospels are concerned with the evil of earthly possessions, not with the praise of labor or laborers (see esp. Matt. 6: 19–32, 19 :21–24, Mark 4:19; Luke 6: 20–34, 18:22–25; Acts 4:32–35). [318]


However that may be, the modern age continued to operate un­der the assumption that life, and not the world, is the highest good of man; in its boldest and most radical revisions and criticisms of traditional beliefs and concepts, it never even thought of challeng­ing this fundamental reversal which Christianity had brought into [318] the dying ancient world. No matter how articulate and how con­scious the thinkers of modernity were in their attacks on tradition, the priority of life over everything else had acquired for them the status of a “self-evident truth,” and as such it has survived even in our present world, which has begun already to leave the whole modern age behind and to substitute for a laboring society the so­ciety of jobholders. But while it is quite conceivable that the devel­opment following upon the discovery of the Archimedean point would have taken an altogether different direction if it had taken place seventeen hundred years earlier, when not life but the world was still the highest good of man, it by no means follows that we still live in a Christian world. For what matters today is not the immortality of life, but that life is the highest good. And while this assumption certainly is Christian in origin, it constitutes no more than an important attending circumstance for the Christian faith. Moreover, even if we disregard the details of Christian dogma and consider only the general mood of Christianity, which resides in the importance of faith, it is obvious that nothing could be more detrimental to this spirit than the spirit of distrust and suspicion of the modern age. Surely, Cartesian doubt has proved its efficiency nowhere more disastrously and irretrievably than in the realm of religious belief, where it was introduced by Pascal and Kierke­gaard, the two greatest religious thinkers of modernity. (For what undermined the Christian faith was not the atheism of the eight­eenth century or the materialism of the nineteenth—their argu­ments are frequently vulgar and, for the most part, easily refutable by traditional theology—but rather the doubting concern with sal­vation of genuinely religious men, in whose eyes the traditional Christian content and promise had become “absurd.”)


Just as we do not know what would have happened if the Archi­medean point had been discovered before the rise of Christianity, we are in no position to ascertain what the destiny of Christianity would have been if the great awakening of the Renaissance had not been interrupted by this event. Before Galileo, all paths still seemed to be open. If we think back to Leonardo, we may well imagine that a technical revolution would have overtaken the de­velopment of humanity in any case. This might well have led to flight, the realization of one of the oldest and most persistent [319] dreams of man, but it hardly would have led into the universe; it might well have brought about the unification of the earth, but it hardly would have brought about the transformation of matter into energy and the adventure into the microscopic universe. The only thing we can be sure of is that the coincidence of the reversal of doing and contemplating with the earlier reversal of life and world became the point of departure for the whole modern development. Only when the vita activa had lost its point of reference in the vita contemplativa could it become active life in the full sense of the word; and only because this active life remained bound to life as its only point of reference could life as such, the laboring metabo­lism of man with nature, become active and unfold its entire fer­tility.

45 the victory of the Animal Laborans


The victory of the animal laborans would never have been complete had not the process of secularization, the modern loss of faith in­evitably arising from Cartesian doubt, deprived individual life of its immortality, or at least of the certainty of immortality. Individ­ual life again became mortal, as mortal as it had been in antiquity, and the world was even less stable, less permanent, and hence less to be relied upon than it had been during the Christian era. Modern man, when he lost the certainty of a world to come, was thrown back upon himself and not upon this world; far from believing that the world might be potentially immortal, he was not even sure that it was real. And in so far as he was to assume that it was real in the uncritical and apparently unbothered optimism of a steadily pro­gressing science, he had removed himself from the earth to a much more distant point than any Christian otherworldliness had ever removed him. Whatever the word “secular” is meant to signify in current usage, historically it cannot possibly be equated with worldliness; modern man at any rate did not gain this world when he lost the other world, and he did not gain life, strictly speaking, either; he was thrust back upon it, thrown into the closed inward­ness of introspection, where the highest he could experience were the empty processes of reckoning of the mind, its play with itself. The only contents left were appetites and desires, the senseless [320] urges of his body which he mistook for passion and which he deemed to be “unreasonable” because he found he could not “rea­son,” that is, not reckon with them. The only thing that could now be potentially immortal, as immortal as the body politic in antiq­uity and as individual life during the Middle Ages, was life itself, that is, the possibly everlasting life process of the species man­kind.


We saw before that in the rise of society it was ultimately the life of the species which asserted itself. Theoretically, the rurning point from the earlier modern age’s insistence on the “egoistic” life of the individual to its later emphasis on “social” life and “socialized man” (Marx) came when Marx transformed the cruder notion of classical economy—that all men, in so far as they act at all, act for reasons of self-interest—into forces of interest which inform, move, and direct the classes of society, and through their conflicts direct society as a whole. Socialized mankind is that state of society where only one interest rules, and the subject of this interest is either classes or man-kind, but neither man nor men. The point is that now even the last trace of action in what men were doing, the motive implied in self-interest, disappeared. What was left was a “natural force,” the force of the life process itself, to which all men and all human activities were equally submitted (“the thought process itself is a natural process”)86 and whose only aim, if it had an aim at all, was survival of the animal species man. None of the higher capacities of man was any longer necessary to connect individual life with the life of the species; individual life became part of the life process, and to labor, to assure the con­tinuity of one’s own life and the life of his family, was all that was needed. What was not needed, not necessitated by life’s metabo­lism with nature, was either superfluous or could be justified only in terms of a peculiarity of human as distinguished from other animal life—so that Milton was considered to have written his Paradise Lost for the same reasons and out of similar urges that compel the silkworm to produce silk.

  1. In a letter Marx wrote to Kugelmann in July, 1868. [321]


If we compare the modern world with that of the past, the loss ot human experience involved in this development is extraordinarily striking. It is not only and not even primarily contemplation which [321] has become an entirely meaningless experience. Thought itself, when it became “reckoning with consequences,” became a func­tion of the brain, with the result that electronic instruments are found to fulfil these functions much better than we ever could. Action was soon and still is almost exclusively understood in terms of making and fabricating, only that making, because of its world­liness and inherent indifference to life, was now regarded as but another form of laboring, a more complicated but not a more mysterious function of the life process.


Meanwhile, we have proved ingenious enough to find ways to ease the toil and trouble of living to the point where an elimination of laboring from the range of human activities can no longer be regarded as utopian. For even now, laboring is too lofty, too am­bitious a word for what we are doing, or think we are doing, in the world we have come to live in. The last stage of the laboring so­ciety, the society of jobholders, demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the over-all life process of the species and the only active decision still required of the individual were to let go, so to speak, to abandon his individuality, the still individually sensed pain and trouble of living, and acquiesce in a dazed, “tranquil­ized,” functional type of behavior. The trouble with modern the­ories of behaviorism is not that they are wrong but that they could become true, that they actually are the best possible conceptualiza­tion of certain obvious trends in modern society. It is quite con­ceivable that the modern age—which began with such an unprece­dented and promising outburst of human activity—may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known.


But there are other more serious danger signs that man may be willing and, indeed, is on the point of developing into that animal species from which, since Darwin, he imagines he has come. [f, in concluding, we return once more to the discovery of the Archime­dean point and apply it, as Kafka warned us not to do, to man him­self and to what he is doing on this earth, it at once becomes mani­fest that all his activities, watched from a sufficiently removed vantage point in the universe, would appear not as activities of any kind but as processes, so that, as a scientist recently put it, modern motorization would appear like a process of biological mutation in [322] which human bodies gradually begin to be covered by shells of steel. For the watcher from the universe, this mutation would be no more or less mysterious than the mutation which now goes on before our eyes in those small living organisms which we fought with antibiotics and which mysteriously have developed new strains to resist us. How deep-rooted this usage of the Archime­dean point against ourselves is can be seen in the very metaphors which dominate scientific thought today. The reason why scien­tists can tell us about the “life” in the atom—where apparently every particle is “free” to behave as it wants and the laws ruling these movements are the same statistical laws which, according to the social scientists, rule human behavior and make the multitude behave as it must, no matter how “free” the individual particle may appear to be in its choices—the reason, in other words, why the behavior of the infinitely small particle is not only similar in pattern to the planetary system as it appears to us but resembles the life and behavior patterns in human society is, of course, that we look and live in this society as though we were as far removed from our own human existence as we are from the infinitely small and the immensely large which, even if they could be perceived by the finest instruments, are too far away from us to be experienced.


Needless to say, this does not mean that modern man has lost his capacities or is on the point of losing them. No matter what sociol­ogy, psychology, and anthropology will tell us about the “social animal,” men persist in making, fabricating, and building, although these faculties are more and more restricted to the abilities of the artist, so that the concomitant experiences of worldliness escape more and more the range of ordinary human experience.87

  1. This inherent worldliness of the artist is of course not changed if a “non­objective art” replaces the representation of things; to mistake this “non-objec­tivity” for subjectivity, where the artist feels called upon to “express himself,” his subjective feelings, is the mark of charlatans, not of artists. The artist, whether painter or sculptor or poct or musician, produces worldly objects, and his reifica­tion has nothing in common with the highly questionable and, at any rate, wholly unartistic practice of expression. Expressionist art, but not abstract art, is a con­tradiction in terms. [323]


Similarly, the capacity for action, at least in the sense of the releasing of processes, is still with us, although it has become the exclusive prerogative of the scientists, who have enlarged the [323] realm of human affairs to the point of extinguishing the time­honored protective dividing line between nature and the human world. In view of such achievements, performed for centuries in the unseen quiet of the laboratories, it seems only proper that their deeds should eventually have turned out to have greater news value, to be of greater political significance, than the administrative and diplomatic doings of most so-called statesmen. It certainly is not without irony that those whom public opinion has persistently held to be the least practical and the least political members of society should have turned out to be the only ones left who still know how to act and how to act in concert. For their early organi­zations, which they founded in the seventeenth century for the conquest of nature and in which they developed their own moral standards and their own code of honor, have not only survived all vicissitudes of the modern age, but they have become one of the most potent power-generating groups in all history. But the action of the scientists, since it acts into nature from the standpoint of the universe and not into the web of human relationships, lacks the revelatory character of action as well as the ability to produce stories and become historical, which together form the very source from which meaningfulness springs into and illuminates human ex­istence. In this existentially most important aspect, action, too, has become an experience for the privileged few, and these few who still know what it means to act may well be even fewer than the artists, their experience even rarer than the genuine experience of and love for the world.


Thought, finally—which we, following the premodern as well as the modern tradition, omitted from our reconsideration of the vita activa—is still possible, and no doubt actual, wherever men live under the conditions of political freedom. Unfortunately, and contrary to what is currently assumed about the proverbial ivory­tower independence of thinkers, no other human capacity is so vulnerable, and it is in fact far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think. As a living experience, thought has al­ways been assumed, perhaps wrongly, to be known only to the few. It may not be presumptuous to believe that these few have not become fewer in our time. This may be irrelevant, or of re­stricted relevance, for the future of the world; it is not irrelevant [324] for the future of man. For if no other test but the experience of being active, no other measure but the extent of sheer activity were to be applied to the various activities within the vita activa, it might well be that thinking as such would surpass them all. Whoever has any experience in this matter will know how right Cato was when he said: Numquam se plus agere quam nihil cum ageret, numquam minus solum esse quam cum solus esset—“Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.” [325]

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