What Caught My Attention
Hannah Arendt is a German philosopher who has refused to call herself a philosopher, but her work has been praised as being influential and brilliant (though controversial) in its originality and in its bold departure from what other philosophers have written about the human condition. What I found most compelling, and even appalling, is the way in which Arendt differentiates between “labor” and “work”; those are words that are most often used interchangeably but for Arendt, they are worlds apart in their true meaning.
Work vs. Labor — a rather radical position by Arendt
In The Human Condition Arendt describes work and labor as two vitally different things. The laborer of today is similar to the slaves of ancient Greece, she explains. In fact those individuals whose whole lives totally revolve around labor (perhaps an example would be the farm laborers who toil in fields all day) brings them closest to the animal world of any other humans. In other words, to be trapped in a life of labor is to be almost animal (barely human). Basically she is saying, to be a laborer is merely surviving, not really living per se.
This didn’t shock me but she seems to denigrate common people who have no skills other than knowing how to use work tools; but an argument can be made that these laborers also have families, children, dwelling places, customs, values, and traditions, no matter how primitive their labor. Perhaps many laborers also have hope for a better life, so they aren’t animals; they are humans, people, with thoughts and voices.
Arendt suggests that part of the reason laborers are close to becoming animals is that their labor produces “necessities” for the rest of society. This would fit well when turning one’s attention to the farm laborers; because what they produce (food) is an absolute necessity for the rest of society. Hence, her assertion that today’s laborers are similar to the slaves of the Hellenic society. In fact Arendt (p. 83) writes that ancient peoples justified having slaves “â€¦because of the slavish nature of all occupations that served the needs for the maintenance of life.” And so the institution of slavery was defended because “â€¦to labor meant to be enslaved by necessityâ€¦ [and] since men were dominated by the necessities of life, they could win their freedom only through the domination of those whom they subjected to necessity by force” (Arendt, 84). She implies that today’s laborers are also enslaved by the necessities of society of which the laborer is actually not a part.
I agree with Arendt’s view of work — to a point
She believes “work” is far more dignified than labor because work has a beginning and it has an end. People in modern society go to work, and come home; they work until 65 or so and retire; a beginning and an end, in Arendt’s view. This is reasonable in the context of Arendt’s comparison of work with labor, because laborers’ work is never done.
In order to provide the materials that workers need to be productive, Arendt takes a position that I agree with. She says that “material” has been removed from its “natural location, either by killing a life process,” as in the instance where trees are cut down in order for humans to have wood for building; or by at least “interrupting one of nature’s slower processes, as in the case of iron, stone, or marble torn out of the womb of the earth (Arendt, 139). While she humanizes the earth through the use of “womb,” she also calls the extracting of natural resources by humans “violence” and that humans have always been “destroyer(s) of nature” (139). How true indeed, the thought that mankind has destroyed nature; according to the World Resources Institute, “more than 80% of the Earth’s natural forests” have been destroyed (National Geographic, 2010).
In conclusion, Arendt praises the “violence” mankind has visited upon the natural world, because the results of man’s exploitation of the earth give him the tools to enjoy work (an assumed occupation). This violence, however, allows those who “work” to enjoy the “very opposite of the painful, exhausting effort experienced in sheer labor” (Arendt, 140).
Arendt, H. (2013). The Human Condition: Second Edition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
National Geographic. (2010). Deforestation and Desertification / Forest Holocaust. Retrieved April 10, 2015, from http://www.nationalgeographic.com.
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