Commentary Magazine

The Human Condition, by Hannah Arendt

Sunday-Supplement Apocalypse
The Human Condition.
by Hannah Arendt.
University of Chicago Press. 333 pp. $4.75.


Why should so many critics look upon this book as brilliant rather than presumptuous? It has a grandiose intention: to diagnose what Dr. Arendt calls “man’s condition.” It promises to illuminate “politics, aesthetics, economics, history, the growth of psychology and the social sciences” as well as man’s probable fate. It offers itself as a work of radically original insight, at the same time that it follows established authorities whose traditional phrases provide the comforting security of the familiar.

Dr. Arendt enlists Marx, the Church Fathers, Plato, Aristotle, Locke, the Bible, and Adam Smith in the service of her plan. These authorities man her front lines; a host of lesser worthies are marshaled in a thousand footnotes. Rather like a party whip, she attempts to keep them in line with her argument, and when they don’t agree she remonstrates with them. The Human Condition is thus supported by a formidable apparatus. But beneath this show of erudition and borrowed pomp there is a fragile, commonplace thesis: essentially it is another version of the classic apology for an elite. In the manner of Spengler, the rationalization of a prejudice is elevated into a theory of history, and the prejudice itself becomes a principle of action.

Dr. Arendt’s thesis is built around a trilogy of terms: “Labor,” “Work,” and “Action.” It is hard to know as the argument proceeds whether these are meant to be historical stages in man’s development or logical categories, for Dr. Arendt, in the familiar Hegelian fashion, treats them interchangeably. In any case they are meant to explain events.

Man began with a life of labor, she tells us, the life of bare survival. In labor man preserves his primary and elemental being, his “oneness with nature.” This is succeeded by the life of work, in which man makes stable things and in doing so isolates himself from nature and, as it were, fabricates a wall between himself and it. In both of these relations—to nature and to objects—man has not yet fully become himself. It is only through the life of action, through the relations of our social life, when, through language, man interacts with man (here one detects an echo of Jean-Paul Sartre), that we become what we are meant to be: beings no longer bound to the ceaseless cycles of nature; and only then do we achieve the ultimate separation from nature and the ultimate freedom of contemplation.

But this happy evolution has been disrupted by the advent of modern science, according to Dr. Arendt. Galileo’s introduction of the “instrument” into science began the destruction of the ideal of truth as contemplation, detached from all involvement with the workings of nature. The use of scientific instruments is seen as representing a return to the primal involvement with nature. (Is there no difference between the astronomer’s use of the telescope and the laborer’s use of the shovel?) Like the laboring process itself, both science and technology, which is treated as its identical twin, have become “processes” without “end” or meaning. With the full development of modern scientific technique work is reconverted into labor; and the technician job-holders of today come to correspond to the slaves of antiquity.



The name “science” is so often used today, in politics, advertising, and the public fantasies of the mass media, to represent a mysterious activity inspiring fear, reverence, or reproach, that Dr. Arendt’s usage is immediately recognizable. But to lump together the diversity of approaches, techniques, and kinds of concept formation in scientific inquiry with the whole of modern technology and the machine civilization is unworthy of a treatise which surely intends to be sophisticated. Equally unsophisticated is Dr. Arendt’s way of treating the word “process” as if it had a single, unambiguous meaning—as though the “process” of changing one’s mind and the “process” of turning water into ice are instances of a single phenomenon.

This kind of reasoning is used lightly in parlor games and nonsense poetry, rather more seriously at literary cocktail parties, and far too solemnly in the new university paper-back illiteracy. Verbal identities do not necessarily point to identities in the world. By grouping human functions under broad labels, such as “labor” and “work,” it is possible to build any number of plausible, if ultimately vacuous, descriptive schemes. And even assuming that these abstractions stand for real and independent functions, it does not follow that the life of man could be compressed into one of them completely.

Furthermore, it does not appear that the three main abstractions, “labor,” “work,” and “action,” do stand for clearly separable activities. Work differs from labor and is a higher human activity, Dr. Arendt says, in that its products survive and create a stable world for man: thereby he realizes his separateness from ever-consuming nature. Is writing for a newspaper, then, or being a surgeon, labor or work? If the distinction between labor and work is to be based on whether their products endure or not, there are any number of cases where the distinction does not apply. If it does not apply, of what use is the distinction in the first place?

In another effort to distinguish between these two activities, Dr. Arendt tells us that the products of “labor” never quite lose their natural characteristics. Does she mean that bread looks like wheat and that we would recognize its wheaten quality if we were not told what it is made from? In contrast to the products of labor, she says, the products of “work” are unrecognizable; the natural material is violently transformed. Just because steel is not recognizably iron ore, are we then forced to say that the stone in a marble statue is not the less plainly stone?

Aside from their duties as rhetorical devices, these distinctions serve no concrete purpose and no valid argument can proceed from them. But then Dr. Arendt’s method of developing them is not a logic but rather a kind of willful series of associations. The sonorous reverberations of these associations are mistaken for meaning. Some are merely metaphors in reverse; when examined closely they break into two or more non-congruous meanings. For example: “The only character of the world by which to gauge its reality is in its being common to us all and common sense occupies such a high rank in the hierarchy of political qualities because it is the one sense that fits into reality as a whole our five strictly individual senses and the strictly particular data they perceive. It is by virtue of common sense that the other sense perceptions are known to disclose reality and are not merely felt as irritations of our nerves or resistance sensations of our bodies. A noticeable decrease in common sense in any given community and a noticeable increase in superstition and gullibility are therefore almost infallible signs of alienation from the world.”

This is only one of the ambitious constructions built upon elementary mistakes; it mixes two altogether different senses of “common sense.” One reference is to the internal synthesis of the five physical senses; the other is to that ordinary usage of the term which refers to the recognition of everyday or approved truths. To use this hodgepodge in order to argue, as Dr. Arendt does, that a decrease in common sense in any community represents an alienation from the world is the same as if one were to argue that the growth of a cataract meant the loss of poetic vision, or conversely, that the loss of poetic vision would mean the growth of a cataract.

All of Dr. Arendt’s conclusions can be traced to such verbal muddles. The argument that modern man is returning to the laboring state is based upon the notion that science is a form of process and that we are now dominated by processes without ends or end. Here she confuses several meanings of “end.” End can mean stopping point, or it can mean the function served by an instrument, or it can mean the purpose or sense of an activity or process, as the comprehension of a poem is the end of the process of reading it. And in this last sense process need not be a meaningless and endless series of changes, but can mean a definite kind of action with a character or form of its own. Her notion of science as a series of processes without end or ends is no less fallacious than the idea that a composer’s life is a process without meaning or end simply because it continues to issue in more than one piece of music. By failing to discriminate these several senses of end, Dr. Arendt’s round assertions about “science” as “process” have only an apparent cogency.

The treatment of “action” is even more confusing. “Action” in the sense of the response of one person to another is identified with action in the special sense of the person being an individual and making his own history. In what sense do these two belong together? What have they in common? Dr. Arendt goes on to say that actions begin but never end. Granted that consequences we do not envisage follow endlessly on action, this does not mean that actions do not result in consequences that we do intend, or that we are necessarily guilty for the unintended consequences of actions.

By way of these uncertain bridges, Dr. Arendt advances into the realm of society and government. The life of action (of which Greek political life was the purest historical illustration), she says, needs to be revived and strengthened. Man finds himself in action, that is to say, in social relations to others. Men respond to each other and in this mutual response their genuine individuality is brought forth.

Dr. Arendt makes a half-truth into an absolute. It is true, as she says, that others see us in many ways better than we see ourselves; but social life conceals as much as it exhibits. Her discussion of goodness reveals the contradictions in her argument. Goodness, she says, is secret and unknowable even to its possessor and if once exhibited is no longer goodness. She never explains why; nor does she make clear what sense of “goodness” she has in mind. Presumably she means humility, but goodness as public or private achievement, for example, and goodness as a state of character or as an appropriate emotion, are surely rather different. In any case, Dr. Arendt claims simultaneously that social life brings out or creates our true selves; that the goodness which is the essential part of the self cannot be made public and must wither upon exposure; and that it is the observer who really knows the self. All three of these statements cannot be true.

Like so many other contemporary discussions of man and his place in the world, The Human Condition cannot be dealt with seriously as argument. Its principles and avowed assumptions are so many disguises for emotional responses asserted as truths. To reject modern technology on the ground of moral disapproval is as futile as blaming Prometheus for bringing down fire. Why should Sputnik be any more the end or beginning of things than the bow and arrow? How we deal with machines may not be clear, but surely we are not going to be helped much by emotive responses such as pessimism parading as objective analysis.

This attitude of cultural pessimism has been institutionalized almost as an academy of contemporary thought: more intolerant, ingrown, doctrinaire, and reactionary in many ways than the classic academies ever were. The public mask of this attitude is a despairing rejection of the world which is in fact a cover for snobbery, false gentility, and pseudo-learning. Though in Dr. Arendt’s case, the style is German-pontifical, it is an attitude at least as old and as comic, no matter how dressed-up, as Moliere’s learned ladies.

We see it in the trite, conventional response to the first sight of Levittown, “Horrors!” But an appalling stew of a slum in Naples?—“Ah, the remains of a glorious old culture!” One can imagine one of these snubbing William Blake, “poor illiterate mass-man, what good can come of him?”

It is evident that Dr. Arendt, with her nostalgia for a golden Greek past (that never was) and a select few (that never are) and her rejection of contemporary mass society, is very much in this line. Daring? Unconventional? New? As a matter of fact, as safe and conformist as Babbitt at a banquet. Dr. Arendt gives us a Sunday-supplement apocalypse; why should its tremors linger past breakfast?



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