The Love of the World – The Human Condition – The Distinction between Labor, Work and Action.
Hannah Arendt considered calling “Amor Mundi: The love of the world” to her book “The Human Condition”1; and said at that time: “What is most difficult is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it.”2. She did it and she wanted that we should love the world, which does not mean accepting it without criticism, nor reject it with contempt. Above all, it means a firm confrontation and an understanding of what the world is. She wants everyone to think about how human activities have been understood throughout Western history to rethink the role and place of human beings in the world and to be able to act better and with more commitment at the present time.
Arendt in this work “The Human Condition”1 makes an essential distinction, which helps us to put things in their places and makes us try to understand the state of humanity in the contemporary world we in which we live. She wants us to think about what we are doing here and contemplates the human condition from the point of view of the activities that the human being is capable, which have nothing to do with human nature.
There are three fundamental human activities – labor, work and action. They are fundamental because each of them corresponds to one of the basic conditions by which the human being lives on the earth – to labor corresponds life; to work corresponds worldliness; and to action corresponds plurality. We should never forget that one of the main characteristics of human beings is plurality, each of them being capable of original perspectives and actions that do not fit in any type of arrangement or prediction model.
The three capacities and their corresponding conditions together constitute the Vita Activa, which is defined in juxtaposition to the Vita Contemplativa. And the discussion about the relative importance of these two does not interest Arendt, as this has led to the abandonment of many important ideas about them and about how the Vita Activa has changed since ancient times, which is what she studies in “The Human Condition”3.
Arendt also remembers us what other thinkers considered and what importance they gave to each human activity. For example, Adam Smith regarded the Vita Contemplativa as unproductive. All thinking activities or the like, given that they have no materiality, cannot be transformed into products, nor exchanged in the market or measured, are seen as unproductive labor. So with Adam Smith the focus turned to productive labor, production and work, because he “wished to explain and to secure the unhampered progress of a limitless accumulation of wealth” 4.
Regarding Karl Marx, he already thought that Vita Contemplativa should be considered, because ideas, knowledge and ideologies are very important, but they are always contingent on base, which is labor. For Marx, the most important thing to understand historical development, the way humans shape the world is labor. According to Arendt, we have then “the sudden, spectacular rise of labor from the lowest, most despised position to the highest rank, as the most esteemed of all human activities”. “Labor found its climax in Marx’s “system of labor”, where labor became the source of all productivity and the expression of the very humanity of men.”4
In modern times, the main characteristic of the human condition is that humans have focused on labor to the detriment of other forms of human activity. But if what was important to Marx was labor and to Adam Smith was the production of work using labor, in Arendt’s case she was more concerned with action. She wanted to understand how we can pass on the ideas we have for practical life, to do something with them in the world. Action is for her to bring thought, the space of freedom of each, to the world which is also characterized by plurality.
To see more about the action that happens in freedom and plurality, which is the experience of doing politics, and what is this freedom, see our post “Creativity in different Human Activities“.
Filipe Novais, Porto, Europe.
Note: This text is part of a Paper I wrote and presented at a management and arts conference in June 2018, titled “Creativity in the World and Leadership in Organizations” (22 pp). If you want to read the Paper, I can email it if you contact me to firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Arendt, Hannah, “The Human Condition”, Ed.1998 (1st ed.1958). The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
2. In a letter of Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers on August 6, 1955, “Out of gratitude, I want to call my book about political theories Amor Mundi.” In “Correspondence 1926-1969”. Mariner Books, NY; Ed.1993.
3. “Barak Kalir presents the work of Hannah Arendt”; in Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam; March 2017. This conference is a very good introduction to “The Human Condition” and other works of Hannah Arendt. Video on:
4. Based on Arendt, 1998, op.cit.; pp.101.
Image: Hanna Arendt; from RTP, Câmara Clara, 2006.