For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Labor, Work, Action"

by Arendt, Hannah (1987)


For this short hour, I should like to raise an apparently odd question. My question is: What does an active life consist of? What do we do when we are active? In asking this question, I shall assume that the age-old distinction between two ways of life, between a vita contemplativa and a vita activa, which we encounter in our tradition of philosophical and religious thought up to the threshold of the modern age, is valid, and that when we speak of contemplation and action we speak not only of certain human faculties but of two distinct ways of life. Surely, the question is of some relevance. For even if we don’t contest the traditional assumption that contemplation is of a higher order than action, or that all action actually is but a means whose true end is contemplation, we can’t doubt -- and no one ever doubted -- that it is quite possible for human beings to go through life without ever indulging in contemplation, while, on the other hand, no man can remain in the contemplative state throughout his life. Active life, in other words, is not only what most men are engaged in but even what no man can escape altogether. For it is in the nature of the human condition that contemplation remains dependent upon all sorts of activities -- it depends upon labor to produce whatever is necessary to keep the human organism alive, it depends upon work to create whatever is needed to house the human body, and it needs action in order to organize the living together of many human beings in such a way that peace, the condition for the quiet of contemplation is assured.

Key Passage

[...] the first thing of which you might have become aware by now is my distinction between labor and work which probably sounded somewhat unusual to you. I draw it from a rather casual remark in Locke who speaks of "the labor of our body and the work of our hands." (Laborers, in Aristotelic language, are those who "with their bodies administer to the needs of life.") The phenomeual evidence in favor of this distinction is too striking to be ignored, and yet it is  a fact that, apart from a few scattered remarks and important testimony of social and institutional history, there is hardly anything to support il Against this scarcity of evidence stands the simple obstinate fact that every European language, ancient or modem, contains two etymologically unrelated words for what we have come to think of as the same activity: Thus, the Greek distinguished between ponein and ergazesthai, the Latin between /aborare and/acere or/abricari, the French between travailler and ouvrer, the German between arbeiten und werken. In all these cases, the equivalents for lahor have an unequivocal con -notation of bodily experiences, of toil and trouble, and in most cases they are significatnly also used for the pangs of birth. The last to use this original connection was Marx, who defined labor as the "reproduction of individual life" and begetting, the production of "foreign life," as the production of the species. (p.31)


Arendt, Active Life, Contemplation, Action, Modernity


Labor, Work, Action, Arendt Citations

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