The Human Condition

A review of The Human Condition by Rob Mason

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a political philosopher.  Her major work, ‘The Human Condition’ (1958) is about the ‘active life’; the ‘active’ life is described in her book under three forms of activity;
1) Labour, which corresponds to the biological life of man as an animal;
2) Work, which corresponds to the artificial world of objects that human beings build upon earth; 
3) Action, which corresponds to our plurality as distinct individuals. Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else that lived, lives or will live.
Hannah Arendt argues that a person’s particular life story can only be told at the end of their life because the meaningfulness of each individual act is then understood within the context of   circumstances of that person’s life story.
“Whatever the character and content of the subsequent story may be, whether it be played out in public or private life whether it involves many or few actors its full meaning can reveal itself only when it has ended.  Action reveals itself fully only to the storyteller that is to the backward glance of the historian who indeed knows better what it was all about than the participants.  All accounts told by the actors themselves though they may in rare cases give an entirely trustworthy statement of intentions aims and motives become mere useful source material in the historian’s hands and can never match his story in significance and truthfulness.  What the storyteller narrates must necessarily be hidden from the actor himself at least as long as he is in the act or caught in the consequences because to him the meaningfulness of his act is not in the story that follows. Even though stories are the inevitable results of actions, it is not the actor but the storyteller who perceives and ‘makes’ the story.

  1. This unpredictability of outcome is closely related to the revelatory character of action and speech, in which one discloses ones’ self without ever knowing himself or being able to calculate beforehand what he reveals.  The unchangeable identity(essence) of the person  though disclosing itself intangibly in act and speech, becomes tangible only in the story of the actors life; but as such it can be known, that is grasped as a tangible entity only after it has come to its end.  In other words, the human essence of whom somebody is, can come into being only when life departs, leaving behind nothing but a story.”  HANNAH ARENDT