The human condition



Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was one of the leading social theorists in the United States. Her Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy and Love and Saint Augustine are published by the same press; I’ve only just made the connection between the fact that I’ve included St. Augutine’s Confessions here too. The Human Condition was published in 1958, and is frequently referred to as Arendt’s most influential work (it was her second major publication, though many more followed). In it Arendt differentiates political and social concepts, labour and work, and various forms of actions; she then explores the implications of those distinctions. It also marks the full maturation of her theory of political action, the vita activa (active life) – as corresponding to the existence of a public realm and read in contrast to the vita contemplativa (contemplative life). The Human Condition was quickly recognised as a formative study of the state of modern humanity, framing an exploration of humankind from the perspective of the actions of which it is capable. The problems Arendt identified in 1958 - diminishing human agency and political freedom, and the paradox that as human powers increase through technological and humanistic inquiry, we are less equipped to control the consequences of our actions - continue to confront us today. It’s always enjoyable when deceased thinkers have forecast the future (i.e. our present) condition with frightening clarity. A quote from her in 1962 should feel alarmingly familiar and prescient – so much so in fact, that it seems to stratify time:

‘In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world, the masses reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true.’

This is the Trump era, the post-truth era, the ‘old hobbling up like the new’ - neatly summarised and forewarned over 50 years ago. Her work The Banality of Evil on the trial of Adolf Eichman should also be required reading at this time.