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
—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.