Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition: What is an Active Life?

The Human Condition is one of Hannah Arendt’s most important works. In this book, she provides a broad account of what it means to live a truly active life.

Nov 20, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology
hannah arendt human condition


What are the conditions necessary to sustain politics? What is the relationship between political life and language? How should we understand an active, political life? These are some of the questions Hannah Arendt tackles in her  The Human Condition. We discuss the influence of Aristotle on Arendt, the relationship between Arendt’s and Martin Heidegger’s work, and the role narrative plays within the construction of the political space.


Hannah Arendt’s Ambiguity

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Photograph of Hannah Arendt, Barbara Niggi Randloff, 1958 via Münchner Stadtmuseum


It is nearly obligatory to begin an article on Hannah Arendt by acknowledging the challenge that arises when attempting to classify her work. Is she merely a philosopher, a journalist, a writer, or a public intellectual? Perhaps some of these terms are a superficial way to describe her (especially the last two, which should arguably be in quotation marks). So, if she is a “writer,” what kind of writer is she? If she is a philosopher, what type of philosophy does she engage in?


Examining an author’s bibliography can be helpful at times. Philosophers often enjoy writing about their predecessors, providing a ready-made taxonomy for those who wish to analyze their work. However, this is not the case with Arendt. Her work is diverse and, as the saying goes, difficult to pin down.


One approach to understanding her is to establish connections, despite the differences. This is how Julia Kristeva, a prominent contemporary philosopher, approaches Arendt. Kristeva identifies the underlying theme in Arendt’s work, spanning from her dissertation on St. Augustine to her theorization of contemporary totalitarianism, as “Arendt’s concept of human life as a political action revealed through narrative language.”


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This concept lies at the core of her greatest work, and one of the most captivating works of modern philosophy: The Human Condition.


Aristotle’s Influence on Hannah Arendt

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Aristotle, Jusepe de Ribera, 1637, via Fine Art America


Arendt’s thinking was profoundly influenced by Aristotle, whose perspectives greatly shape her own vocabulary. She both adopts and repurposes Aristotle’s ideas. One crucial distinction in The Human Condition aligns with an Aristotelian distinction: the differentiation between “production” and “action.”


Arendt’s work in The Human Condition serves as a series of warnings about the trajectory of modern social and political life. She seeks to delineate the limitations inherent in production, particularly the constraint imposed by reducing certain experiences to objects in space. This attempt to capture and solidify human experience is where our inclination towards the concept of “use,” means to ends, and utilitarian rationality begins.


In contrast, the concept of action that Arendt presents is meant to be self-sustaining. The activities she focuses on are those that find their fulfillment within meaningful action itself. Arendt is concerned with activities that “are exhausted within an action that is itself full of meaning.” This notion may initially appear perplexing, and understanding Arendt’s specific conception of action is crucial here.


The context within which she envisions this kind of activity is the idealized “polis,” a construct she draws on from numerous renowned classical writers and Greco-Roman history. The essence of the polis lies in the “organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together.” It is a space of mutual engagement, intersubjectivity (“I appear to others as they appear to me”), and consequently, of action and speech that transcend isolated individuals.


Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger on Language and Poetry

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Martin Heidegger, François Fédier, via Heidegger Gesellschaft


For Arendt, speech should not be understood merely as a tool for communication. She shares Martin Heidegger’s view of poetry as the purest form of language, emphasizing its self-contained nature and its role in supporting recollection. Heidegger was not only Arendt’s teacher but also her lover. His perspective on language, rooted in poetry and its self-contained and recollective passion, implies a notion of politics that either reduces it to an individual that can come to represent the political body as a single entity. This is what is known as the “assimilation of action to thought.”


Arendt’s concern then becomes how language, in this sense, can lead to the creation of a community or a space for political activity. In her proposed answer to this question, she draws inspiration from Aristotle. As summarized by Kristeva:


“It is phronesis, a practical wisdom or prudence, or even a judging sagacity—to be distinguished from sophia, theoretical wisdom—that props up and supports speech within the ‘network of human relations.”


The aim is to establish a sense of identification with others, to find a mode of speech that reintegrates the individual within a framework that prioritizes the demands of the collective, the political, rather than atomistic instrumental thinking. This highlights the importance of narrative and history in politics. It also underscores the significance of “courage” as a political virtue, which represents the primary and fundamental requirement of the polis.


Hannah Arendt on the Importance of Heroic Action

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Aristotle with a bust of Homer, Rembrandt, 1653, via The Met Museum


Aristotle’s primary concern is to demonstrate that excellence, both in ethical and political terms, resides within an individual’s character. It is a quality that can be identified and described independently of how the world responds to them. Of course, Aristotle acknowledges that part of possessing good character involves understanding how the world “reacts” to our actions, so to speak. However, he does not argue that one’s goodness is solely determined by eliciting a specific response from others. Hannah Arendt, on the other hand, does not shy away from this controversial stance.


According to Arendt, heroic action gains its heroic nature not inherently but through its memorability. It is significant insofar as it contributes to the construction or continuation of a particular narrative. The purpose of such action is to evoke a response, although not necessarily a completely predictable one. It serves as a sign, initiating a certain kind of action. These are not the kinds of stories one should derive lessons or prescriptions from.


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Achilles Dragging the Body of Hector by Pietro Testa, c. 1648/1650, via the Met Museum.


Arendt proposes that the narrative created by a heroic act should possess a dramatic and theatrical quality, meant to be performed and enacted. This notion aligns with how democracy is actually enacted and performed. In the House of Commons or the U.S. Senate, politicians are representatives in the truest sense. This entails acknowledging that they represent not only individuals but also their interests, desires, and the overall character of the communities they serve.


It is crucial to underscore that Arendt thinks of drama, and particularly tragedy, in a strictly Aristotelian sense. Rather than focusing solely on imitating individuals, this kind of drama places a primary emphasis on action and the essence of life itself.


The reason why politics cannot take place wholly behind closed doors while remaining healthy lies in the inevitable failure to adequately represent the people (or the relevant aspects of their capacities) to themselves. This failure undermines the legitimacy and effectiveness of the entire political organization. The conclusion Arendt wants us to come to is that open and transparent representation becomes essential for a healthy political system to thrive.


Hannah Arendt’s Original Contribution to the Philosophy of Action

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Friedrich Nietzsche by Edvard Munch, 1906, via Thielska Galleriet.


According to Arendt, futility poses a threat to the political realm. Kristeva highlights a significant aspect that may interest contemporary readers: Arendt should not be seen as an uncritical follower of Aristotle. Having been influenced by Heidegger and well-versed in Nietzsche’s work, she aims to build upon the questions raised by her predecessors and explore action, freedom of action, and the practical challenges they present. Her goal is to establish “little islands of a shareable world” by echoing and expanding upon the inquiries of Nietzsche and Heidegger.


Arendt’s work constitutes a fresh contribution to a long-standing discourse on the creation and recreation of the ethical-political world. While Plato considers virtue to be synonymous with wisdom because the Good is a consequence of the judicious (that is, the wise), Aristotle views human affairs as too unpredictable to be subject to the use of wisdom. This is where Aristotle introduces the concept of phronesis, a more contingent form of knowing that is inherently creative rather than passive.


Arendt advocates for the integration of contingency into political knowledge. She goes even further than Aristotle, embracing a radical form of contingency where specific stories—whether historical or mythic—form the foundation of political understanding, which is fundamentally a deeper form of self-understanding.


Herein lies the distinction between Arendt and her predecessors: While Heidegger believes that language implies the structure of political space, Arendt argues that narrative enables the realization of political thought. Narrative becomes the catalyst for political action. Because of this, Kristeva contends that Arendt’s political philosophy can ultimately be interpreted as a critical response to Heidegger’s philosophy of language.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.