Human Condition, The
This is a difficult read, although initially more frightening than it ends up actually being. Arendt’s intellect is intimidating to say the least, and the manner in which she launches into a discussion of the human condition in the modern age is altogether unlike anything I’ve ever seen before — “unique” is certainly an understatement. She completely renovates the discussion of political and social theory, but does it in a way that makes it seem logical and even natural. The scope of her knowledge is breathtaking, as she deftly handles everything from Ancient Greek property rights to modern day astrophysics, displaying an impressive working knowledge of Greek, Latin, German, French, and Italian in the process.
The book’s greatest value is in its content. In addition to Arendt’s revolutionary proposal of the vita activa (contrasted with the vita contemplativa) as broken up into the three separate areas of labor, work, and action, she also develops background arguments in each of these three categories that could have become books unto themselves. Her discussion of slavery in ancient Greece and Rome was one of the highlights. It was utterly fascinating to learn that unlike modern slaves that exist for production’s sake, ancient slaves existed chiefly to free their masters from the necessities of everyday labor (day-to-day maintenance such as cleaning and cooking). This distinction does not seem like much on first glance, but it completely shifted the manner in which these two separate cultures thought about labor and human liberty:
The opinion that labor and work were despised in antiquity because only slaves were engaged in them is a prejudice of modern historians. The ancients reasoned the other way around and felt it necessary to possess slaves because of the slavish nature of all occupations that served the needs for the maintenance of life. It was precisely on these grounds that the institution of slavery was defended and justified. p.83
In order to have freedom to pursue the truly worthy human deeds (politics, oration, philosophy), they had to enslave these servants. Arendt’s documentation of this shift is perhaps the most memorable part of the book.
I also enjoyed Arendt’s writing style. Though she tended to lose me with some of her longer sentences, the meaning is always very clear when you take the time to parse down each phrase and aside. She is precise, if not concise. She is seemingly without pretension; neither arrogant in the way that she boldly takes down to size intellectual giants like Marx, Adam Smith, Bentham, Kant, or any of the Stoics or Epicureans, nor overly humble when she kneads the entire mass of political philosophy into a new (and more appropriate) form. Also, she seems to intuit that her ideas are complex and not immediately penetrable; some of the concepts in the first chapters that leave you scratching your head she knowingly addresses in more detail later on, without calling too much attention to the repetition and further elaboration. It’s as if she knew you wouldn’t have any idea what she was talking about the first time and wanted to inconspicuously help you, avoiding any embarrassment on your part.
My biggest problem with the book is its lack of stated purpose or overall thematic vision. I know she mentioned early on that the idea was to get people to think more, and I can respect that. But I was left confused with what she was actually proposing. I understood that she seemed to value action higher than either work or labor, but she was fairly clear in her condemnation of some of the worse outcomes of unplanned action as well (unpredictability, irreversibility). So what, then, is a reasonable model to follow, according to Arendt? Or is it just about developing more appropriate categories for these ideas? The introduction (which I recommend reading AFTER the text itself) addresses this issue but doesn’t fully resolve it either. All in all, the genius of the discussion itself more than makes up for this lack, and that indeed was probably her intention all along.