For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"On Animal Laborans and Homo Politicus in Hannah Arendt: A Note"

by Levin, Martin (1979)


Every political philosopher is subject to misunderstanding, but perhaps none more so than those who insist on distinctions to which their age is not accustomed or which it is determined to ignore. Thus it is not surprising to discover that Hannah Arendt, whose philosophy is based on just such distinctions which we find either alien or meaningless, should be particularly vulnerable to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

Key Passage

What is unique about the modern age, according to Arendt, is that mere life has itself been elevated to the highest good and consequently, labouring which sustains that life has become the dominant activity. All "the ancient distinctions and articulations within the vita active"; the distinctions between labour, work, and action has been levelled out or obliterated. They have disappeared because only those activities which contribute to the biological life process are seen as having value. This means that labouring, which sustains that process, has been "elevated to the highest rank of man’s capacities," an elevation that has had fateful consequences for the modern age. What are essentially household or private activities (labouring), in Arendt’s terminology, have taken over the public realm. But since animal laborans has no notion of how to create and care for a durable lasting world which is durable precisely because it transcends life, what we are left with is actually not a true public realm, "but only private activities displayed in the open." That is why Arendt could write in the statement cited previously that we live in a "world whose chief values are dictated by labour". (p.524)


Arendt, Animal Laborans, Homo Politicus


On Arendt

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