The Human Condition (book)

The Human Condition (book)

"The Human Condition", published in 1958, is one of the central theoretical works of the philosopher Hannah Arendt. The subject to various interpretations, the most common of which is that it is an account for the historical development of the situation of human existence, from the Ancient Greeks to modern Europe.

Arendt aims the book at the possibilities of the "vita activa" (the title she preferred) in the modern world. She defines the three activities - labor, work, and action - and describes four possible realms: the political, the social, the public, and the private. She then explains how the Ancient Greeks positioned each activity in each realm, and criticises the modern world from this standpoint.

The Book

I The Human Condition

Arendt introduces the term "vita activa" (active life), by distinguishing it from "vita contemplativa" (contemplative life). Each term represents a vision of how life should be lived. Philosophy traditionally sees itself as following the "vita contemplativa" and aiming to experience the eternal. In introducing the term "vita activa", Arendt aims to offer an alternative: attaining the immortal. Explaining this is the subject of the book.

II The Public and the Private Realm

For Arendt, Greek life was divided into two realms: the public realm, which was common to all citizens, and the private realm, site of property. The latter was necessary to the former. Since the Romans, a third realm has come into being; the social. This is steadily encroaching upon each of the more ancient realms.

III Labor

Labor is one of the three fundamental forms of activity that form the "vita activa". It is repetitive and never-ending.It is comprised of all activity necessary to sustain life (ie obtaining food, water, shelter, reproduction), and nothing beyond that.

IV Work

Work is the second activity. Working is an activity with a beginning and end. Work leaves behind an enduring artifact such as a tool, a table, or a building.

V Action

The third activity, Action, properly construed, takes place in the public realm. It is the activity through which the agent is disclosed - through which others glimpse one's unique personality. It suffers from two defects. First, one cannot fully control what one does; so one is not in full control of one's personality. Second, one cannot reverse what one has done; one always has a past to bear. In other words, Action is unpredictable and irreversible. Against these two frailties, humans have found two solutions: promising and forgiveness.

VI The Vita Activa and the Modern Age

Arendt argues for a tripartite division between the human activities of labor, work, and action. Moreover, she arranges these activities in an ascending hierarchy of importance, and identifies the overturning of this hierarchy as central to the eclipse of political freedom and responsibility which, for her, has come to characterize the modern age.


The claim that Arendt suffered from "polis envy" is probably best substantiated by this book. It can be read as a lament for the rise of the consumer society which "socializes the life process". Slavery may have been a regretful institution in Athens, but without it all "free-men" have to engage in their own perpetual cycle of production and consumption as necessity is socialized. In doing this the clear Greek division between private and public is extinguished - the home was the site where all the activities relating to the life process were taken care of and "the step over the threshold of the home" each day into a public arena, was the crossing of a "gulf". This space was so organized so that citizens could appear in a way that they could perform "memorable acts" for their fellow citizens. It is this degradation of public space into an area to "merely" move through on one's passage through the consumption cycle that is, perhaps, Arendt's meta-philosophy.

However, it is arguable that many of Arendt's critics simply miss the point by overly concentrating on her idiosyncratic interpretation of the Greeks. Much of Arendt's work, while gazing back into the past, has an immense relevance to current political debates. Her later comparative study of the French and American revolutions in 'On Revolution' is one such example of this.

See also

*Eichmann in Jerusalem
*The Origins of Totalitarianism
*Rahel Varnhagen

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