For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

The Human Condition

by Arendt, Hannah (2013)


A work of striking originality bursting with unexpected insights, The Human Condition is in many respects more relevant now than when it first appeared in 1958. In her study of the state of modern humanity, Hannah Arendt considers humankind from the perspective of the actions of which it is capable. The problems Arendt identified then—diminishing human agency and political freedom, the paradox that as human powers increase through technological and humanistic inquiry, we are less equipped to control the consequences of our actions—continue to confront us today. This new edition, published to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of its original publication, contains an improved and expanded index and a new introduction by noted Arendt scholar Margaret Canovan which incisively analyzes the book's argument and examines its present relevance. A classic in political and social theory, The Human Condition is a work that has proved both timeless and perpetually timely. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was one of the leading social theorists in the United States. Her Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy and Love and Saint Augustine are also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Key Passage

It is true that the enormous improvement in our labor tools—the mute  robots  with  which  homo  faber  has  come  to  the  help  of  the  animal  laborans,  as  distinguished  from  the  human,  speaking  instruments  (the  instrumentum  vocale,  as  the  slaves  in  ancient  house-  holds were called) whom the man of action had to rule and oppress when he wanted to liberate the animal laborans from its bondage— has made the twofold labor of life, the effort of its sustenance and the  pain  of  giving  birth,  easier  and  less  painful  than  it  has  ever  been.  This,  of  course,  has  not  eliminated  compulsion  from  the  laboring activity or the condition of being subject to need and necessity from human life. But, in distinction from slave society, where the "curse" of necessity remained a vivid reality because the life of a  slave  testified  daily  to  the  fact  that  "life  is  slavery,"  this  condition is no longer fully manifest and its lack of appearance has made it much more difficult to notice and remember. The danger here is obvious. Man cannot be free if he does not know that he is subject to necessity, because his freedom is always won in his never wholly successful  attempts  to  liberate  himself  from  necessity.  And  while  it  may be true that his strongest impulse toward this liberation comes from  his  "repugnance  to  futility,"  it  is  also  likely  that  the  impulse  may  grow  weaker  as  this  "futility"  appears  easier,  as  it  requires  less effort. For it is still probable that the enormous changes of the industrial revolution behind us and the even greater changes of the atomic revolution before us will remain changes of the world, and not changes in the basic condition of human life on earth. Tools  and  instruments  which  can  ease  the  effort  of  labor  considerably are themselves not a product of labor but of work; they do not belong in the process of consumption but are part and parcel of  the  world  of  use  objects.  Their  role,  no  matter  how  great  it  may be in the labor of any given civilization, can never attain the fundamental  importance  of  tools  for  all  kinds  of  work.  No  work  can be produced without tools, and the birth of homo faber and the coming  into  being  of  a  man-made  world  of  things  are  actually  coeval with the discovery of tools and instruments. (p.121)


Arendt, Technology, Modernity, Animal Laborans, Homo Faber


The Human Condition [1958], Arendt Citations

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