Hannah Arendt on Action

My last post seemed to demand a follow-up, to set it in a wider context. It was a personal view as seen from this cottage in this valley. I said “I might be the only one to see it this way, or it may turn out to be universal.” No, it was personal. I humbly defer to a person who could see a whole panorama from her mountain-top, her Archimedean point so to speak, viewing across the millennia to all manner of men from the ancients in Greece forward. She was Hannah Arendt. She allowed herself a whole book, The Human Condition, to set out her thoughts.

To try and give a taste of them in this tiny space, I’ve made a diagram, colour-coded to match the headings below, and used her actual words (indented in black) whenever I could.


She finished writing it in 1957, just after the Soviets put Sputnik 1 into orbit; judging this event noteworthy enough for comment at the start of her Prologue:

The immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the first “step towards escape from man’s imprisonment to the earth”. And this strange statement, far from being the accidental slip of some American reporter, unwittingly echoed the extraordinary line which, more than twenty years ago, had been carved on the funeral obelisk of one of Russia’s greatest scientists: “Mankind will not remain bound to the earth forever”.
. . .
The earth is the very quintessence of the human condition, and earthly nature, for all we know, may be unique in the universe in providing human beings with a habitat in which they can move and breathe without effort and without artifice.
. . .
The future man . . . seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.

And so, a half century later, Sputnik 1 has gone forth and multiplied in abundance, till we have the Mars One project, a proposed colony on Mars, currently attracting would-be emigrants with its offer of a one-way trip. Meanwhile, life on earth becomes progressively more artificial, and Arendt’s book, rooted in Aristotle, still holds true; being magisterial in the range and depth of its thought, free from the taint of sentimentality and activism. Reading it, you don’t discover what to think, as with lesser books. You learn how to think, for she offers something approaching pure thought, which leads us to the

Vita Contemplativa

—a Latin translation of the Greek Theoria. Arendt says that thinkers, from Classical times until Descartes’ principle of “universal doubt”, considered contemplation the highest form of activity. By contrast the active life was a necessary kind of restlessness:

The primacy of contemplation over activity rests on the conviction that no work of human hands can equal in beauty and truth the physical kosmos, which swings in itself in changeless eternity without any interference or assistance from outside, from man or god. This eternity discloses itself to mortal eyes only when all human movements and activities are at perfect rest.


Litter-picker on our street this morning

Someone always has to perform the basic activities necessary for the well-being of our species. They connect us directly to the earth, our mother. Machines have progressively reduced the physical effort involved, making it possible to see a kind of nobility in labor. To the ancient Greek thinkers, though, it was at the bottom of the scale of human endeavour. Arendt talks of

. . . the[ir] conviction that the labor of the body which is necessitated by its needs is slavish.
. . .
To labor meant to be enslaved by necessity, and this enslavement was inherent in the conditions of human life. Because men were dominated by the necessities of life, they could win their freedom only through the domination of those whom they subjected to necessity by force. The slave’s degradation was a blow of fate and a fate worse than death, because it carried with it a metamorphosis of man into something akin to a tame animal.

By contrast, Marx valued “labor-power” as the ultimate source of wealth, on account of its material productivity. From Arendt’s point of view he fails to distinguish labor from work, as explained under the heading “Work” below.

Speaking personally, I discover a need and desire to labor each day, for my body’s sake. Sitting at this keyboard must be interspersed with pottering. So I wash dishes, hang out clothes on the line, Dyson the floor (Hoover is passé), rake falling leaves from the lawn. All this is labor—done with the body, with no enduring end product, and requiring to be repeated endlessly. My wayfaring walks, when they are not laboring to bring back groceries, I class as my vita contemplativa. Yesterday on a short cut I passed a busy gym and saw its members working out at their machines. I don’t know how to classify that activity. What could be more artificial than a life too crowded with production and consumption for to find time for contemplative and dignified labor? For such people, exercise has to be squeezed into half-hours here and there. Whenever I see the litter-picker in our street (see pic) I feel impelled to thank him for these efforts. The job can only done by hand, as cars are parked half across the sidewalks, and then there are the alleys where no machine can reach. He’s glad of the plentiful litter, for it provides him an honest job.


How does work differ from labor? She says that work is the making of durable things. She quotes an old saying: “labor is done with the body, work is done with the hands.” She notes that labor is distinguished from work in all languages. The word for “work” can refer to the product as well as the process involved in production. Labor results in no product, or only a short-lived one. I find in myself a need to work each day, by writing, improving this little house and garden, designing, making and repairing things; also earning a few pounds reprising the skills learned in my professional life. These activities result in products which last. In theory they could be displayed in an exhibition of one’s “collected works”. But that is not my purpose at all. The work provides its own reward in the doing.


I think Action is her favourite topic in the book: partly to discover how it supplanted Contemplation as the most respected human activity; partly to explore the way it epitomizes the human condition. She talks of how we are distinct from one another yet each born with the need to speak and say who we are, to establish ourselves in relation to others. There is not space here to encompass it all, but I especially like the following:

Hannah Arendt, 1906-1975. Date of photo unknown

It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from anything that happened before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings and in all origins. Thus the origin of life from inorganic matter is an infinite improbability of inorganic processes, as is the coming into being of the earth viewed from the standpoint of processes in the universe, or the evolution of human out of animal life. The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle. The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world. With respect to this somebody who is unique it can be truly said that nobody was there before.
. . .
Action and speech are so closely related because the primordial and specifically human act must at the same time contain the answer to the question asked of every newcomer: “Who are you?”

I find in myself a need to participate in action: to express my distinctness in speech, to assert who I am; if possible in startlingly unexpected ways. When I spoke of “My Life as Art” in my last I spoke artlessly, that is, in innocence of larger thoughts by others. When I spoke of art as “doing” (as opposed to production, consumption and so forth) I meant something close to what Arendt calls Action. But I must resist the attempt to wrap things up in a neat verbal formula. My diagram above is already super-simplistic.

The main point in my last post was to praise “liking what you do” as an ideal way to live, as opposed to doing what you like, which, if you were privileged enough to have the option, might get you endlessly lost. I glossed over the fact that it’s not always possible to like what you do, for example in conditions of slavery, that is when labor is forcibly imposed by others. In any event our human condition requires labor and work, like it or not, from simple necessity. And then, the artificiality of modern life may hypnotize our sensitivity, so that we allow ourselves to be herded and propelled as though with threats and sticks, without daring to ask whether we like our own selves or the direction in which we are heading. I speak from years of experience. I believe most of us can do better. We can learn to fit contemplation, labor, work and action into our lives in due proportion, so arranging things eventually that we like everything we do. It wouldn’t be possible on Mars, but only here, our true home, the only place where we may attain Entelecheia.


8 thoughts on “Hannah Arendt on Action

  1. You know, if I recall correctly, Marx spent most of his time unemployed, living off the charity of others while he wrote his manifesto. I guess he only admired labor when other people were doing it.

    For me, when I started hearing about the “nobility of labor” in socialist rhetoric, I feel like someone's going to put a shovel in my hand and push me towards the nearest ditch. Or worse yet, I think of that dreaded inscription “Arbeit macht frei.”

    We talked awhile back about Marx and religion and how he saw it as the “opiate of the masses”, a placebo for their suffering. But I almost feel like he was doing the same thing from a different angle. “No. No. Keep digging! You look very noble doing that.”


  2. For me this post Is about freeing my mind from mental slavery like, Marcus Garvey said, so I can achieve entelecheia like you said.
    And too, there's a post you wrote back in 2010 titled 'Wayfaring Again' that felt real good to read again, along with this one.


  3. I find the distinctions made by Hannah Arendt between work and labour far too artificial. Added to that are the various usages of the those words and the semantic problems that arise. In the end I fall back on the physics definition of work which is simply a measure of the energy used against the force of gravity. Anything else to which the word work is applied is activity, a necessary means of exercising the material body, and thus keeping fit for purpose for as long as possible. Thus work, e.g. climbing a hill can be an act which is either a drudge or a pleasure. As with all words taken from a discipline in which meanings are exact, over time those words become woolly and reduced in meaning. For this reason it is becoming increasingly difficult to communicate ideas and experiences in any meaningful way. We are steadily building a latter day Tower of Babel.


  4. Tom's comment expresses my own response to this. Hannah Arendt's view of the world and of humanity is, for me, over-complicated and 'academic' – by that I mean that if it were a scent, it would smell like conference rooms and academic institutions and huge piles of documents sitting on desks. The way she divides up experience doesn't correspond to the way life is actually lived. Contemplation, action and work are not necessarily separate: for instance artistic creation (and I include all forms of it) intensely involves all three, simultaneously. And individuals with an active spiritual life (eg Thomas Merton, St. Francis of Assisi and many others) could be contemplative while fully engaged in action of all sorts.
    The artist/writer/philosopher Michel Seuphor, who was my friend and, in a sense, mentor had a motto in Latin “Labor improbus omnia vincit”. In this case, “improbus” is meant as passionate or wholehearted or committed.


  5. I would not find Blake worth studying if his thought was not congruent with what I learned from wise teachers and from the life experiences which were given to me. Perhaps what I look for in an author is communication which is on a wave length to which my own inner being resonates. Although we need to be stretched to reach beyond what we have absorbed previously, it may not be productive to force ourselves into pathways created by others for their own development.

    I remember reading that when Joseph Campbell felt that he knew something that he could communicate to a wider public beyond the academic community, he worked to change his technique of writing. It was not his content that was too difficult for the audience he wanted to reach. It was the terse, dense expression using unfamiliar vocabulary and complex structure that needed changing. He succeeded in opening a large population to a mythopoeic dimension of which they were totally unaware. He 'followed his bliss' but expressed it in layman's terms.

    As for Blake he recognized the need both to 'invent' and 'execute.'



  6. Vincent, in your post before this one you were talking about making an 'artwork' of your personal life on a day to day basis. The striped socks drying in the sun seemed to me a lovely metaphor, combining observation of the here and now with a sense of order and design spontaneously perceived. It strikes me that this direct approach has been dropped and we're back to abstract discussion of other people's concepts, eg Hannah Arendt, Merton, Krishnamurti, Thomas Aquinas, etc. Of course there's nothing wrong with that and loads of interesting and relevant quotes could be presented. But I wonder if there isn't (in all of us) a tendency to distract ourselves from moments of personal insight, little flashes of inspiration that could, perhaps, lead us into new territory. We don't trust our 'little insights' enough (too 'simple'?) so we go looking for support from authorities, past or present Wise Men/Women whose thoughts and pronouncements are certified to be of the 'highest order'.


  7. [Editor’s comments, a year later]
    There were further comments but I’ve deleted them, along with all of mine. I hold myself to blame for encouraging discussion, defending the late Hannah Arendt and my own self. Stuff like this has happened in some previous posts with the cumulative effect of making me turn against keeping a blog. In the subsequent post I announced an indefinite sabbatical.


  8. A post that caught my eye during the mass republication of Dec 2017… probably because I’ve been reading a little about Hannah Arendt recently. Great work! (as per Hannah’s definition..)


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