Labor, Work, Action

Here is the summary for Saturday, January 30th.  Here is a printable copy..  If you have access to a printer, try and make your own copy, or bring a mobile device to read it on.  We will meet here at 4:30.

Arendt distinguishes between three elements of human life.  First, labor consists of the actions we take to stay alive.  It produces things that are meant to be consumed or used up, such as food, tools, and clothing.  Second, work produces lasting objects that build the human world. Work is what creates the environment for the third element of human life, action.  Action is made of the words and deeds that reveal ourselves to one another.

The Hierarchy of Labor, Work, Action, and Contemplation

The essay basically revolves around the question of what an active life consists in.  Arendt presupposes the classical distinction between a life of action and a life of contemplation, so she takes them to be two distinct ways of life.  Even if one claims that the goal of all action is contemplation, there are people who go through their whole lives without contemplation, and no one can live a life which consists only of contemplation; the “[a]ctive life, in other words, is not only way most men are engaged in but even what no man can escape altogether.”1  Contemplation depends on all sorts of activities, like the labor required to stay alive, the work needed to build homes, and the action required to organize people in a peaceful way.

The active life has always been described by those who follow the contemplative way.  It always seems to be a privation, a lack of the conditions that make contemplation possible, compared to the attitude of quiet that contemplation has.  This misses many details about the active life.

Christianity, with its emphasis on the hereafter, gave a religious sanction to the dismissal of the active life, while the command to love one’s neighbor was a counterweight.  However, the origin of the hierarchy is to be found in Greece after Plato, which considered the philosopher to be superior to the citizen.

The Greek valorization of the contemplative life was heavily contested in the 19th century by philosophers like Marx and Nietzsche, but this did not quite result in a valorization of the active life as such.  Instead, it was labor that rose to the top of the hierarchy, because all Marx and Nietzsche really did was reverse the Greek-Platonic view.

Contrast this with Arendt’s list of the human activities, labor-work-action, in which action gets the top spot.  A hierarchy with action in the top stop is pre-Platonic; when the concern for contemplation appeared, the hierarchy of the trio was altered and work became more important than action.  Arendt thinks that the the Platonic dialogues basically show us the rise of the craftsman.  Labor remained at the bottom, but politics was only praised to the extent that it was like craftsmanship, thank is, work: “Only if seen in the image of a working activity, could political action be trusted to produce lasting results.  And such lasting results meant peace, the peace needed for contemplation: No change.” (169)

In the modern age, the reversal involves glorification of labor.  But really, it is not labor as such — Smith, Locke, and Marx all held it in contempt — but rather productive labor.  Again, it is about lasting results.  For example Marx re-interpreted labor in the image of work, at the expense of political activity:

“Political activity was no longer seen as the laying down of immutable laws which would make a commonwealth, have as its end-result a reliable product, looking exactly as it had been blueprinted by the maker—as though laws or constitutions were things of the same nature as the table fabricated by the carpenter according to the blueprint he had in mind before he started to make it.” (169)

Political activity was supposed to “make history”, not a commonwealth, and that history had as its end product a classless society.  The “great re-evaluators”, on the theoretical level, left the hierarchy in place.


Arendt will focus on the oldest version of the hierarchy: labor-work-action.  She takes the distinction between work and labor from a line in Locke: “the labor of our body and the work of our hands.”  She says every European language has two etymologically unrelated words for what we think are the same thing.  For example, in French there is travailler and ouvrer.  In each case, the word for labor has the sense of a bodily experience, and can even be used for pangs of birth.  

Labor is an activity which corresponds to the biological processes of the body.  We make the things we need to keep our bodies alive.  Moreover, labor is attached to the cycle of birth and death.  Labor never comes to an end; it is endlessly repetitive. Work ends when the object is finished, while labor is caught in the circle of the living organism and only ends with death.

Labor makes consumer goods, and laboring and consuming are the two stages of the biological life.  Labor, unlike all other human activities, is necessary.  The ultimate goal of the revolution in Marx is not just the emancipation of the working class, but the emancipation of man from labor, for “the realm of freedom begins only where labor determined through want” ends.  However, this emancipation is not possible through political emancipation, but rather technology— “to the extent that it is possible at all”.

Goods for consumption are the least durable of things.  “They are the least worldly and, at the same time, the most natural and the most necessary of all things.” (171)  While labor cannot produce anything lasting, it is productive in another sense.  We produce more than we need. This natural abundance is what allows us to enslave or exploit others, while liberating ourselves.  This liberation of the few is only possible without the excess of labor.

Since labor is attached to life itself, it is also attached to “life’s toil and trouble” and “the sheer bliss with which we can experience our being alive.” (172)  The “joy of labor” is not an empty idea:

“There is no lasting happiness and contentment for human beings outside the prescribed cycle of painful exhaustion and pleasurable regeneration.  Whatever throws this cycle out of balance—misery where exhaustion is followed by wretchedness or an entirely effortless life where boredom takes the place of exhaustion and where the mills of necessity, or consumption and digestion grind an impotent human body mercilessly to death—ruins the elemental happiness that comes from being alive.” (172-173)

Every job has some labor in it, even the highest, insofar as they are jobs by which we make our living.  Their repetitiveness, which often feels exhausting, is what provides a minimum of animal contentment which is just as necessary as moments of great joy.


The work of our hands, as opposed to the labor of our bodies, creates the world of human artifice we live in.  Not consumer goods but use-objects, and their use does not cause them to disappear: “They give the world they stability and solidity without which it could not be relied upon to house the unstable and mortal creature that is man.” (173) However, their durability is not absolute.  We use them up or they decay:

“If left to itself or expelled from the human world, the chair will again become wood, and the wood will decay and return to the soil from which the tree sprang before it was cut down to become the material upon which to work and with which to build.  However, while usage is bound to use up these objects, this end is not planned before, it was not the goal for which it was made, as the ‘destruction’ or immediate consumption of the bread is its inherent end; what usage wears out is durability.  In other words, destruction, though unavoidable, is incidental to use but inherent in consumption.” (173)

The things work produces have their own “objective” independence.  It is that durability which makes their independence from man, gives them their objectivity, and lets them “stand against” for a time the needs of their living users: “Against the subjectivity of men stands the objectivity of the man-made artifice, not the indifference of nature.” (174)  Without the artificial environment, we would not see nature as “objective”.

Durability, objectivity, and reification are the result of work.  It is reification.  Solidity comes from matter which is transformed into material:  

“Material is already a product of human hands that have removed it from its natural location, either killing a life process, as in the case of the tree which provides wood, or interrupting one of nature’s slower processes, as in the case of iron, stone, or marble torn out of the womb of the earth.  This element of of violation and violence is present in all fabrication, and man as the creator of the human artifice has always been a destroyer of nature.  The experience of this violence is the most elemental experience of human strength, and by the same token the very opposite of the painful, exhausting effort experienced in sheer labor. . . homo faber becomes lord and master of nature herself insofar as he violates and partly destroys what was given to him.” (174)

Work is determined by means and ends.  The object of work is an end product in two senses: the process comes to an end in it, and that the process is only a means to this end.  In contrast with labor, where labor and consumptions are two stages of the same process, fabrication and usage are totally different processes.  Fabrication ends and is not repeated.  The craftsman’s repetition comes from the need to earn a living, the element of labor in his work, or the demand for multiplication on the market.  The repetition is not tied to the process in itself.2

Work is also reversible.  What is made by human hands can be destroyed by them, and no product of work is so vital that we cannot destroy it.  In work, we have a form of mastery that is not present in labor (because our bodies depend on it) and in action (because it depends on other people): “Alone with his image of the future product, homo faber is free to produce, and again facing the work of his hands, he is free to destroy.” (175)

Making is determined by means and ends, and this is most obvious in the role which tools and instruments play in it.  Man is a tool-maker.  Tools are also used in the laboring process, but they are primarily used to lighten the burden; it is an anthropocentric position, and their fitness is dictated by objective aims.  They are use-things for laboring, not the result of laboring itself.  The main point of of work, when done as labor, is not the purposeful effort or the product, but the rhythm of the process it imposes on the laborers:

“Labor implements are drawn into this rhythm where body and tool swing in the same repetitive movement—until in the use of machines, which are best suited to the performance of laboring because of their movement, it is no longer the body’s movement that determines the movement of the implement, but the machine’s movement that enforces the movements of the body, while, in a more advanced state, it replaces it altogether.” (175-176)

It is an important point that the question of whether man should adjust to machines or if machines should adjust to man never appeared with respect to labor tools—because tools of workmanship are servants of the hand, while machines make laborers adjust to them.  Our most basic experience of instrumentality comes from the fabrication process, where it is“true that the end justifies the means; it does more, it produces and organizes them.” (176)  The end justifies the violence done to nature to get the material, and the end product organizes the work.  Everything and everyone is judged in terms of suitability: “the validity of the means-end category is not exhausted with the finished product for which everything and everybody becomes a means.” (176)  While the object is an end for the means, it is not an end in itself, not so long as it is used.  It is immediately put into another means-end chain, such as comfortable living, or as an exchange object.  Utilitarianism, as the philosopher of the worker, “gets caught in the unending chain of means and ends without ever arriving at some principle which could justify the category, that is utility itself.” (176) The usual way out is to make the user, man, the ultimate end.  But this Kantian solution is inadequate:

“By elevating man the user into the position of an ultimate end, he degrades even more forcefully all other ‘ends’ to mere means.  If man the user is the highest end, ‘the measure of all things,’ then not only nature, treated by fabrication as the almost ‘worthless material’ upon which to work and bestow ‘value’ (as Locke said), but the ‘valuable’ things themselves have become mere means, losing thereby their own intrinsic worth.  Or to put it another way, the most worldly of all activities loses its original objective meaning, it becomes a means to fulfill subjective ends; in and by itself, it is no longer meaningful, no matter how useful it may be. . . . From the viewpoint of fabrication the finished product is as much an end in itself, an independent durable entity with an existence of its own, as man is an end in himself in Kant’s moral philosophy.” (177)

The issue is not instrumentality as such, but rather the generalization of the experience of work in which utility is established as the ultimate standard for the world..  This is always a temptation.  But it can never answer the question, what is the use of use?

In the sphere of work, there is only one kind of object to which the unending chain of means and ends does not apply: art, which is the most useless and most durable thing men make. A couch can be a masterpiece to a later generation, put in a museum, and removed from all possible usage.  The purpose of art is to attain permanence by transcending utility.


Life has a non-biological sense; it manifests in words and deeds.  Words and deeds are our entrance into the specifically human world:  

“Since through birth we entered Being, we share with all other entities the quality of Otherness, an important aspect of plurality that makes [sic] that we can define only by distinction, that we are unable to say what anything is without distinguishing it from something else.” (178)

Only man can express otherness and individuality; we communicate ourselves, not just some thing, like thirst or hunger.  In man, otherness becomes uniqueness.  Every human is conditioned by plurality: we live together.  Acts and speech are always tied to the fact that we live among equals; they are always somehow tied to the question of “Who are you”.

The disclosure of who one is is implicit in the fact that speechless action does not exist, or is at least irrelevant; the person who acts is also the one “who identifies himself as the actor an announces what he is doing, what he has done, or what he intends to do.” (179)  The disclosure of who one is is hidden from the person themselves; it is really only visible to others.  But action without a “who” is meaningless, whereas anonymous art keeps its power.  Consider the monuments to unknown soldiers:

“The unwillingness to resign oneself to the brutal fact that the agent of the war was actually Nobody inspired the erection of the monuments to the unknown ones—that is to all those whom the war had failed to make known, robbing them thereby, not of their achievement, but of their human dignity.” (179)

Men live in a web of relationships, woven by deeds and words, of the living and the dead.  Every new act falls into that web and can begin a new process.  Because of this already existing web, action almost never succeeds.  And because of this unpredictability, action produces stories, intentionally or not, as often as work produces things.  The stories appear in documents, poetry, and monuments.  The stories are different from their reifications; they tell us about their subjects, their heroes, more than the table tells about the craftsman.  While everyone starts their own story, no one is the author of it:  

“And yet, it is precisely in these stories that the actual meaning of a human life finally reveals itself.  That every individual life between birth and death can be eventually told as a story with beginning and end is the prepolitical and prehistorical condition of history, the great story without beginning and end.” (180)

Every life has a story and history is the story of mankind because they are the outcomes of action; we are not made.  The absence of a maker is the main reason for the frailty and unreliability of human affairs.  Every action sets off a chain reaction of unpredictable processes.  That is inescapable; it cannot be avoided by limiting one’s actions to limited networks or by calculating outcomes with computers.  One deed can be enough to make big changes.

Actions are not only unpredictable, they are irreversible.  Actions cannot be destroyed like tables.  The irreversibility and unpredictability of action can not be erased, only tempered.  Irreversibility can be tempered by the faculty of forgiving, and unpredictability can be tempered by promises.  Forgiving is about the past, and promising is about the future.

Being forgiven releases us from the consequences of past actions; without that, we would always be tied to past deeds and the future would close up.  Promises give islands of security in the unpredictable future, without which there would be no continuity or durability.  Without being bound to promises, we would never achieve any sort of identity or continuity that a “person” needs in order to have a story told; “each of us would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of his own lonely heart, caught in its ever changing moods, contradictions, and equivocalities.” (181)

That sort of subjective identity, of binding oneself through promises, is different from the object-related, objective, identity which arises out of work.

“Without action, without the capacity to start something new and thus articulate the new beginning that comes into the world with the birth of each human being, the life of man, spent between birth and death, would indeed be doomed beyond salvation.  The life span itself, running toward death, would inevitably carry everything human to ruin and destruction.  Action , with all its uncertainties, is like an ever-present reminder that men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin something new.  Initium ut esset homo creatus est — ‘that there be a beginning man was created,’ said Augustine.  With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world—which, of course, is only another way of saying that with the creation of man, the principle of freedom appeared on earth.” (181)

1 Arendt, Hannah. “Labor, Work, Action.” The Portable Hannah Arendt. Ed. Peter Baehr. New York: Penguin, 2000. 167-181. Print. Hereafter Arendt (2000).

2 Too bad we didn’t read Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility”.


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