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

The distinction between labor and work which I propose is unusual. The phenomenal evidence in its favor is too striking to be ignored, and yet historically it is a fact that apart from a few scattered  remarks,  which  moreover  were  never  developed  even  in  the  theories of their authors, there is hardly anything in either the pre- modern tradition of political thought or in the large body of modern labor theories to support  it.  Against  this  scarcity of historical evidence,  however,  stands  one  very  articulate  and  obstinate  testimony,  namely,  the  simple  fact  that  every  European  language,  ancient  and  modern,  contains  two  etymologically  unrelated  words  for what we have to come to think of as the same activity, and re- tains them in the face of their persistent synonymous usage. Thus, Locke's distinction between working hands and a laboring body  is  somewhat  reminiscent  of  the  ancient  Greek  distinction  between  the  cheirotechnes, the  craftsman,  to  whom  the  German  Handwerker corresponds,  and  those  who,  like  "slaves  and  tame  animals  with  their  bodies  minister  to  the  necessities  of  life,"  or  in  the Greek idiom, to somati ergazesthai, work with their bodies (yet even here, labor and work are already treated as identical, since the word used is not ponein [labor] but ergazesthai [work]). Only in  one  respect,  which,  however,  is  linguistically  the  most  important  one,  did  ancient  and  modern  usage  of  the  two  words  as  synonyms fail altogether, namely in the formation of a corresponding  noun.  Here  again  we  find  complete  unanimity;  the  word  "labor," understood as a noun, never designates the finished product, the result of laboring, but remains a verbal noun to be classed with the gerund, whereas the product itself is invariably derived from the word for work, even when current usage has followed the actual modern development so closely that the verb form of the word "work" has become rather obsolete. (p.79)


Arendt, Technology, Modernity, Animal Laborans, Homo Faber


The Human Condition [1958], Arendt Citations

Links to Reference



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