Links to seminar-related information:
Eras in human history are similarly influenced by social forces that oftentimes are unleashed by new discoveries, technologies, and ideologies. Social commentators have noted, for example, that the events of 9/11 have exerted a profound influence upon how the young people who witnessed those events (e.g., today's undergraduates)—whether personally or vicariously—envision their lives and place in the world quite differently than many, if not most, of their parents. Similarly, commentators have noted how the way the grandparents of today's young people envisioned their lives and place in the world was shaped by the Soviet Union's launching of the Sputnik spacecraft and led them to envision their lives and place in the world in a markedly different way than that of their parents. These events raise "Why?" questions for societies and cultures whose members oftentimes don't ask are reluctant to ask.
Realizing how one's worldview and attitudes are shaped by events can aid in understanding better why one believes what one believes as well as why one acts how one acts. Realizing, too, how one's societal and cultural attitudes are shaped by events can aid in understanding better why nations and transnational alliances believe what they believe as well as why they act how they act. Of greater magnitude, however, is to understand better what significant events mean as they unfold in order to know how one (and one's culture as well!) can respond in terms of labor, work, and action. To understand these more substantive matters requires not fearing or being reluctant to ask asking "Why?" questions.
Hannah Arendt, a philosopher of politics at the University of Chicago during the 1950s, endeavored to do just that in her book, The Human Condition, namely, "to think about what we are doing" (p. 5). Published in 1958 just after the launch of the Sputnik spacecraft and as the automation of the workplace was almost complete, Arendt wondered what escaping the imprisonment of the earth—presaged by the Sputnik's launch—as well as the rise of a society of laborers in fully automated workplaces—who view their occupations solely as ways to make a living—would mean for the human condition, that is, their labor, work, and action. Beginning as Aristotle did in his Metaphysics by asking "What is this?", Arendt follows Aristotle's lead by investigating the causes of phenomena as she asks "How did this come to be? Arendt concludes by asking a different question than Aristotle, namely, "Why is it this way?"
theorizes that the "human condition" is tri-partite, that is, composed
of three dimensions: labor, work, and action. To reduce the human
condition to labor (as Marx did) and/or to work (as capitalism does),
she argues, is to deny the fundamentally significant work that human
beings can engage in, namely, action. Understanding this, she
believes, makes it possible to understand better how this allows political and
economic systems to enslave human beings.
PROLOGUE & PARTS I-II:
For the purposes of orientation so that its students will better grasp the world in which they labor, work, and act, Arendt differentiated between the "modern age" and the "modern world." The modern age began in the 17th century—as science fueled the development of radical doubt—and ended at the beginning of the 20th century—with the almost complete automation of the workplace. The modern world began with the harnessing of atomic power, a watershed event that demarcates the advent of a new and yet unknown age, what some have called the "post-modern age." What this age will look like and how it will be experienced by human beings has yet to be defined. Arendt wonders: How will people "act" that will make it possible to define the post-modern age? Will this this age build upon or will it be different from (and how will it be different from) the modern age which glorified labor and transformed the whole of society into a laboring society?
To respond to these questions, Arendt's intellectual project requires thinking about and differentiating labor, work, and action. Grasping these concepts is critical for understanding her broader concept of the idea of work, which is the subject of this seminar.
The human condition of labor is "life itself," Arendt notes, from birth to death. Labor feeds vital necessities into the life process as humans produce that without which they could not live. Labor, then, provides what human beings need to survive and it is in this particular sense that human beings are, yes, "slaves." That is, they must labor—it is the human condition—to provide for their basic needs like food, shelter, clothing, and kinship from the time they are born until the time they die. Ironically, this lifetime of labor is futile because all of that labor only sustains life until one's death. There is nothing permanent or durable that can be called a "product" of labor. Everything—the person and one's labor—returns to nature from which it all came. What one hopes by laboring is that one's life will be made easier and long until death makes its inevitable claim.
In this sense, Arendt would concur with the definition of labor Camus (1983) discussed in The Myth of Sisyphus. Yes, the facts of life are birth and death; between these two facts is labor. Whereas Camus concludes that labor is absurd and consciousness of this absurdity liberates human beings to "take charge" of their labor by avoiding any hopes or illusions about its permanence or durability, Arendt demurs. Why? Because she considers labor only one aspect of the human condition, a foundational element as it were, upon which the other two elements are built.
As an "animal laborans," then, human beings engage in labor as a means to the end of survival. They labor "in order to," that is, to make life easier and longer. Through repetitious behavior, human beings "mix with" nature in ways that ensure their survival. The animal laborans does not act "knowing how to do" but "knowing what to do." And, the animal laborans happily uses machines to ease the pain and toil associated with labor.
Like it or not, that is the human condition of labor! But, for Arendt, labor is not necessarily absurd. It is necessary.
The human condition of work is what Arendt calls "worldliness," that is, the creation of artificial things that are not part of nature but are the by-products of work as human beings give artificial shapes and forms to what nature produces. Take a table, for example. Because a table is not needed for survival, the production of a table is not labor. Instead, nature produces the tree, but a human being must envision the table one will build and, then, do violence to nature by cutting down the tree, sawing it into usable lumber, and fabricating the lumber into the table. The products of work, then, provide human beings an artificial world of things—Arendt calls these "artifices"—that are completely different from the surroundings nature provides. Furthermore, these artifices are more permanent and durable than are the lives and work of those producing these artifices. Moreover, the animal laborans doesn't "need" these things to survive; no, the animal laborans "wants" these artifices because they make life more pleasant and beautiful.
As a "homo faber," then, human beings work "for the sake of" producing artifices that are more permanent and durable than themselves. Work is guided by the desired "end" and is that process whereby human beings use tools to transform nature into worldly objects—artifices—that make life more pleasant and beautiful. The homo faber knows "how to" but does not act "knowing what to do" because the homo faber is fabricating not doing.
That is the human condition of work, something Camus does not consider.
The human condition—that into which every human is born—is that labor is required but work is not. One could make the choice to engage in only the amount of labor that would be required to earn enough money to provide for one's needs and to purchase objects that provide enjoyment...fabricated, of course, by the homo faber. After all, it logically follows, should one work knowing full well that the fruit of one's work has a limited "shelf life" or is left behind the moment one dies? For the most part, fabrications are obsolescent. Then, too, "They don't attach U-Hauls to a hearse." One could choose to engage in work for a variety of reasons, for example, to increase the pleasure or make one's life more beautiful or, even, to produce artifices that would outlast one's life although how long those artifices will last is a matter of speculation but, as Arendt notes, use of these artifices—the longer one uses the table—decreases their durability. Considering all of those artifices left for future generations that have survived for more than a few generations is small indeed! Just look at all of the landfills that have increasingly sprung up in recent decades because previous landfills have no more room for all of the "debris" and "rubbish" people are throwing away.
It would be truly absurd, in light of this, for anyone to believe that one's products of work will survive very long or past one's death. Instead, if Toennies' (2004) analysis is correct, humans living in a society (in contrast to those who live in a community) make a "mental calculation" specifying the minimum amount of labor they are willing to provide to maximize the amount of income that will provide for their basic needs and creature comforts. The human condition of work, then, while providing some semblance of durability and permanence, in all likelihood will meet the same end as the fruit of one's labor. Seeking immortality in labor—as an animal laborans—or work—as a homo faber—is a futile quest for humanity. Endurance in time? Short. Deathless time on earth? Rather unlikely.
Quite a sobering consideration, no?
Because no human being is exactly like another human being, the human
condition of action is "natality"—birth—not mortality—death.
Birth is what makes human beings different not death. This is how plurality
not uniformity characterizes human beings and how they act.
Furthermore, as a new generation of
human beings is born into the world, its members introduce new forms of action into
world, not new forms of work, as capitalists hope and, not a continuing
supply of labor, as Marx argued. Engaging in action, human beings supplant the action of previous generations. Yes, possessing the same
basic needs as their forebears, the new generation must labor. But, as
their "wants" change—as the artifices of previous
generations' work begat new desires—the work performed in the new generation
fabricates nature's products in new ways. These artifices not only introduce new products into the market
but also new consumption, a "cycle" if you will, where human beings do
violence to and destroy nature's products to satisfy their needs and
birth −−−−−−−−−→ ↑ ↓ −−−−−−−−−→ death
What is important to note, at this early stage, is that how one generation acts provides no guarantee that a succeeding generation will act in the very same way. Take, for example, how later generations have interpreted the meaning of the U.S. Constitution, seeing in that document ideas that the nation's Founding Fathers would never have conceived of nor tolerated in action (e.g., a woman's "right" to choose to terminate a pregnancy, a "right" to privacy so that a suicide-bomber's communications could not be surveilled by the federal government).
The human condition of action differs from that of labor and of work because the fruits of human action—“to act” through one's words and deeds—possess the possibility of immortality. Consider Socrates, for example. Nothing of his was ever published. Yet, his words and deeds—his work to seek the truth and to apply it to life in Athenian democracy—have lived more than two millennia beyond Socrates' death sentence. Jesus, too. A failure, in so far as he was judged by the standards of his fellow Jews and imperial agents of Rome, Jesus' words and deeds—his work on behalf of his Father in Heaven—have lived more than two millennia beyond his crucifixion. It is through the human condition of action, then, that human beings can achieve immortality. Similar to the human condition of work, action requires making a choice. Yes, one must labor as an animal laborans to provide for basic needs. That's simply the servitude demanded by the human condition. But, if a human being is to act, then one must make the choice to work as a homo faber not at making artifices—material things—but at making the truth—immaterial ideas—evident in action, that is, through one's words and deeds. Only these have the possibility of becoming immortal.
The ancient Greeks understood this well.
Differentiating between the private and public realm, the ancient Greeks viewed the household as the private realm wherein are provided all of the basic needs of life. The household was not just a building—what is today referred to as a "home"—but all of the property which produced everything needed for survival. This would include the home, yes, but also the farm, the animals, as well as all of the other tools and nature's products that made survival possible. In this sense, the household was where man labored and worked.
However, for the householder to achieve happiness—in Greek, ευδιομνία—required the liberating himself—to be a "free man"—from the servitude of having to provide for the necessities of life. This not only included himself but also all of those for whom the householder bore responsibility, for example, spouse, children, other family members, slaves, pets, animals. That is, happiness required the householder to free himself from "labor" and from "work" as well.
That is why slavery figured prominently in ancient Greece. Slaves were defeated enemies owned by their conquerors. Prior to being conquered, however, many slaves were highly educated and cultured; hence, they could be quite valuable to householders. For example, slaves could educate children and manage the household. Even more importantly, slaves could work by fabricating from nature artifices that would increase the ease and comfort and, perhaps, the length of life. But, what is crucial here is to note how slaves freed the householder from having to labor and to work so that the householder could immerse himself in public affairs—in Greek, the πολίς—where he could act in ways that would demonstrate his excellence. It is the household which defined the householder's place in the world and was the precondition for a public life. Having freed himself from labor and work, the householder could now enjoy the good life, that is, to act through one's words and deeds for the benefit of the πολίς. In this way, the householder became an "individual," someone who acted on one's own (in Greek, ιδίον, or English slang, "an idiot") demonstrating human excellence in word and deed not in the private sphere of the household but in the public sphere of the πολίς.
For Arendt, all of this stands in stark opposition to the modern world. The disintegration of the family—the privacy and providing for basic needs which the ancient Greeks reserved to the household—and its absorption into society provides insight into how human beings act in the modern world:
The outcome? Arendt notes: "The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself only in one perspective" (p. 58). What a apt description of a "politically correct" world inhabited not by individuals but clones! The people inhabiting this society―Toennies' Gesellschaft―believe themselves to be free but they are enslaved to the human condition of labor. The people inhabiting this society believe themselves happy and comfortable, but they work to produce "throw away" items that have no permanence or durability. They don't know the human condition of work but exist within a continuous cycle of production and consumption wherein they not only destroy and do violence to nature in order to satisfy all of their wants but their fabrications wreak violence upon nature a second time by creating vast landfills, increasing pollution and cancer, as well as other forms of devastation to the planet.
All the while, the inhabitants of this society believe themselves to be free and autonomous individuals. What they've never grasped individually or collectively, however, is the fundamental importance of the third aspect of the human condition, namely, action. Instead, the people inhabiting this society live in fear of their mortality―and on this score perhaps Camus' assertions about suicide are more accurate than many would like to admit―and in alienation from the earth from which they've come and will return.
One of Karl Marx's primary assertions, namely, that labor (animal laborans) not thought (animal rationales) distinguishes human beings from other nonhuman animals, provides a seductive but false way out of the trap rendering labor and work futile, according to Arendt. Certainly, labor is a "natural force"—the body's power—accounting for human productivity. No one would argue that. However, for Marx, labor is what makes the human being useful for society as one's labor transforms nature's products into consumable items that satisfy society's needs. That is why Marx argues "labor creates man," that is, to labor is "to act." Arendt asks: Is labor what makes human beings useful? Is the category "useful" even helpful to discuss the worth of human beings? Furthermore, Arendt maintains that labor is not a curse—the "wages of sin" as reported in the second creation narrative found in the Book of Genesis—but a blessing or joy uniting human beings with nature's cycle. Just as the sun rises, so human laborers toil; as the sun sets, so too, human laborers rest; and, as day turns to night, labor turns to consumption. According to this view, labor is how human beings unite with their natural origins and source. This can also serve to explain why the "midnight shift" feels so unnatural to many laborers.
Arendt believes Marx's assertion about labor faulty, reflecting a God-less view of the human being and of both labor and work as well. For her, Marx turned labor into a "system" that makes labor the source of all productivity. But, she observes, the products of that system are annihilated by the human beings who consume them, leaving no trace of productive humanity behind. Yes, she would agree, the grain does disappear in bread and, yes, a tree disappears into a table. However, whereas human beings need bread to survive, they do not need tables to survive. The table reveals something more permanent and durable than bread. It is a "work" of the homo faber revealing something about the fabricator not a "product" of the animal laborans. These products make life more beautiful and good; they possess worth beyond consumer products like bread.
In contrast to Marx's interpretation, Arendt believes what happened is that the Industrial Revolution replaced the craftsman (homo faber)—living in what Toennies (2004) called the "Gemeinschaft-like" society—with the laborer (animal laborans)—living in the "Gesellschaft-like" society. The result is that the latter soon began to evaluate the worth of "things" in terms of their value not as works of art that add beauty and goodness to life but as consumer goods whose natural fate was to be consumed. Furthermore, specialization and the division of labor in the factory replaced craftsmen with laborers with the outcome that the modern age's emancipation of labor ended up not ushering in a Golden Age of freedom for laborers but has forced all humankind to labor under the yoke of necessity (p. 126), what Weber called the "Iron Cage" (2001, p. 123)
Taken to its logical conclusion, Marx's assertion that inherent in the biological cycle is toil and trouble from which one generation is released by death and regenerates itself in natality, suggests that gross consumption will eventually characterize a laboring society. Laborers produce the "things" they consume; laborers then must produce more things which they will also consume. As the generations pass, human beings commit greater and ever greater violence against nature by destroying its products to produce things to be consumed. Life is consumption; but, for human beings to consume, life is production. Life, then, is to labor.
Think this crazy?
Consider the immense landfills filled with all of those one-time "good things" people "would die for"! Consider also how the technological advances of the modern age have made it possible for human beings to produce more novelties we all know are destined for the junk heap once they've outlived their "shelf lives"! Furthermore, although the instruments created by the homo faber for use by the animal laborans do multiply human power so that labor is less toilsome, these instruments—think of machines in a factory—which were intended to build a world to assist the human life process by making labor easier and life longer now dominate and rule human beings by making them labor more! The once per day, eight-hour work cycle—the traditional "8 to 5 shift"—working in concert with nature—the rising and setting of the sun—has been replaced by three, continuous eight-hour work cycles where laborers toil against nature's cycle, that is, they labor when they should be sleeping and they sleep when they should be laboring. Or, even worse yet, in the Information age where people are tied to their computers, cell phones, and IPods 365/24/7! Yet, it all seems so natural―doesn't it?―to the animal laborans who now exists―does not live or engage in action―in a society where labor is the commodity defining the worth of human beings and is what differentiates them from nonhuman animals.
For Marx, what determines the value of what humans produce is not the intrinsic worth of that which is produced. No, a product's value is determined in the public marketplace where it is either esteemed and demanded or neglected and rejected by the public. The decision about value is based solely upon a product's usefulness as a necessary commodity that makes life easier or longer. Marx rightly called this the "original sin of capitalism" where the intrinsic worth of things begins with the transformation of a nature's products into a value only in relation to other things which, in turn, leads to supply and demand in the exchange market. What happens ultimately in the public marketplace and in Marx's society, however, is that the products of homo faber—"works of art" which are not subject to life, labor, and consumption—become "useless" because they possess no public value even though they may be of immense private worth. What emerged from a thought—an inspiration—escaped the prison within the self and through animal rationales is reified by the homo faber and assigned worth because it expresses the immortality of the human hand evident in reification. But, in the public marketplace of Marx's society, the products of homo faber end up being valued as "worthless" because they are not necessary for the continuation of society nor can they be consumed by human beings to survive and to increase the total amount of labor power available to society.
Logically, in a world where labor is the most highly valued commodity and is what makes human beings valuable, the most "worthless" commodity is human thought. Let the philosophers beware!
In contrast to Marx, Arendt believes that labor and work provide the fundamental precondition for humans beings to engage in "action" and this third element of the human condition is what differentiates human beings from nonhuman animals. Never possible in isolation because action requires other people, action makes the crucial difference because only action is revelatory of the unique and unrepeatable human beings who initiates the act (the "doer"). That is, what one does and how one does it provides the foundation for action and reveals the glory of "who one is" as a unique and unrepeatable human being in all of human history. This "who" is what lies behind and motivates action and, in this sense, "to act" is not "to do"—as an animal laborans or homo faber—but is the freely-willed choice on the part of a human being to disclose oneself in the public realm for who one is. "The greatest man can achieve is his own appearance and actualization," Arendt writes (p. 208). To act, then, requires power (κρατία) not in the sense of a machine's power (Mächt) or the potency of labor, but in the sense that one's words and deeds possess a "dynamism" (δυνάμις) in the public sphere, that is, one's words and deeds act like dynamite to break through society's commonly accepted status quo, reaching beyond and into the extraordinary.
"Leaders," then, are "doers" who "act"—those who set something into motion that others—"followers"—bring to completion. This definition veers away from how people in the modern age typically conceive of leadership and power, namely, as synonyms. As noted previously, due to the plurality of human beings, the outcomes associated with a leader's action are unpredictable and might well be brought to a very different conclusion than that intended by the leader. For example, Einstein's paper on Brownian Motion confirmed the atomic theory of matter and positioned Einstein as a leader in that field. How his followers utilized that theory to massacre millions of Japanese citizens in Nagasaki and Hiroshima may not have been a direction Einstein had hoped his research would take and, likely, would have caused Einstein to suffer. But, nevertheless, it was the direction his followers took. Likewise for God. Setting into motion all of creation and entrusting humanity to rule it, human beings quite likely have taken God's creation in directions that God did not intend, causing God to suffer. And, likewise for modern genetics. Who is to say that the Human Genome Project and cloning will move in the direction intended by those scientists who discovered the process? That is why, for Arendt, leadership and suffering are more likely synonyms than are leadership and power. A leader suffers not only during one's lifetime by entrusting one's idea to others; a leaders also suffers after one's death as others bring one's idea to completion. Action, then, reveals itself in its fullness only to the historian who can assess the complete and entire story, from the inception of the leader's idea, to the direction(s) it is taken by followers, and ultimately, to the facts associated with those outcomes.
Although action is characterized in the modern era as a "process" having no end, Arendt argues that humans continue to possess the power needed to reverse the processes set into motion which followers have taken in deleterious directions. That power is the power to forgive, a public act—a promise—which undoes violence and destruction by freeing a man of his trespasses so that he can begin a new. Most importantly, what is forgiven is what was done for the sake of who did it (p. 241). To forgive is an action that requires true love; it reveals the heroic words and deeds of a unique, extraordinary human being. This action—the only authentic miracle human beings can produce—is what possesses the power to save the world from the deleterious processes set into motion by followers who have seized upon a leader's ideas and taken them in directions the leader did not intend. The historian is the only person who is capable of telling this story.
Lastly—and, interestingly, directing attention right back to where Arendt began her book—while many hoped the Archimedean point would simplify understanding nature, now that humanity has surpassed that point with Sputnik, man's landing on the moon, and now artifacts of homo faber landing on Titan (one of Saturn's moons and reporting back facts about its atmosphere and terrain― which ushered in the modern era―understanding has not been simplified but has instead become much more complex. The pre-modern drive to seek a "cosmic" power not only universally (as in creating the universe) but also concretely (as in creating/re-creating the miracle of life) is now considered a blasphemy, as science and technology have driven humanity to seek cosmic and universal laws divorced from "terrestrial" and "natural" laws. Humanity no longer asks the theological question "Why did God create man?" but uses science to inquire into those forces, energies, and processes that have created man. Asking "How? and "What?", scientists collect and analyze data that have led many thoughtful people to posit that apes became humans. This is all a myth, Arendt assets, because no matter what people think to the contrary and no matter how "God-like" they make scientists, science itself can "prove" nothing and assert no "truth." All science can report are data that confirm or disconfirm a hypothesis at a given level of the probability of error.
For the modern age, the ultimate point of reference has become the pattern of the human mind not God, what Arendt calls "the Archimedean point within." No longer asking pre-modern questions "Why is it?"—questions that lead to the contemplation of a Supreme Being—modern man asks "How is it?" so that homo faber now directs his energies at the reproduction of things—like human life—that he has never made. In this way, homo faber has become synonymous in the modern age with animal laborans as the public market values "productive" thought—the "useful" thought of science and technology—not "unproductive" thought—the "useless" thought of philosophers.
All of this comes at a high cost, however. "Things" now result not from forms or ideas present in a soul but from mental labor and power. As a consequence, the human mind which designs and crafts instruments that are subject to scientific laws now has man making and acting not according to nature but "from within" as this is now patterned by science. And, for the modern homo faber, in particular:
The result has been the rise of radical doubt of the Cartesian type, where human beings possess certainty about nothing except that happiness is found as the homo faber demonstrates his worth as an animal laborans. What makes human beings immortal—the human condition of action which is a freely-willed decision—is sold to the highest bidder in the public marketplace. The body is no longer sold as labor power; instead the "productive" power of the mind commands a high price in the public marketplace. But, the mind's higher powers are valued only as means to achieve other ends—to describe how things work so that they can be reproduced—not as ends in themselves—inquiring into "Why?" and "Who am I?"
those laborers in the Industrial Era who were enslaved by the Iron Cage
of a factory, citizens of modern society have done themselves one worse,
namely, they have allowed their minds to become enslaved in an "Iron
Cage" of work. As Camus noted, labor is absurd, but labor requires only
physical exertion. A laborer can go home at the end of the shift
and put the day behind. What is really absurd are workers who
"sell" their minds to the highest bidders and can never go home, can
never put work behind, yet believe themselves free and getting the most
out of life.
Aristotle. (1991). The metaphysics. In J. D. Kaplan (Ed.), The pocket Aristotle (W.D. Ross, Trans., pp. 105‑156). New York: Dimension.
Arendt, H. (1998). The human condition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Camus, A. (1983). The myth of Sisyphus and other essays (J. O’Brien, Trans.). New York: Vintage International Editions.
Toennies, F. (2004). Community and society (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publications.
Weber, M. (2001). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism (T. Parsons, Trans.) New York, NY: Routledge.