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Hannah Arendt and the source of human values

Hannah Arendt was a literary intellectual, defined by Thomas Pynchon as, “people who read and think.” Like Socrates, Hannah Arendt thought and went where thought took her. Arendt’s thinking led her many places, but one of the more interesting topics she thought about was the source of human values. Arendt shared Nietzsche’s and Marx’s belief that moral values are made by humans and not, as the Enlightenment believed, independently existing principles of right and wrong. As Nietzsche and Marx are both earlier in history and more forceful in their language then Arendt (and also, notably, men), Arendt’s own thinking on how values are made gets less attention than it merits.

Arendt devotes much of her most important book, The Human Condition, to elaborating three different categorical distinctions important for how she thinks our experience of existence shapes how we make human values. She calls the first distinction the social/private/political distinction, the second the labor/work/action distinction and the third the earth/world distinction. To understand these three distinctions correctly is to follow Arendt’s thinking on human values, and they are best taken in reverse order.

The earth and the world distinguish the physical reality of human existence (the earth) and the interpretive, incomplete, collectively built mental picture of human existence that each of us walks around with in our mind’s eye (the world). The earth and the world both allow for our experience of individual existence while at the same time benefitting from cultivation by coordinated groups.

Labor denotes the endless, repetitive cycle of human activity necessary to keep ourselves alive on the earth. We need food, drink, shelter, and health in order to survive. Work, by contrast, refers to deliberate human activity aimed at building and/or maintaining the world. For example, what you imagine when someone says, “Babylon” is the product of a collective human enterprise generations. We call humans who have successfully built and preserved world “civilizations.” The distinction between work and labor is that between plowing a field and doing archaeology. Both might be slow, labor intensive tasks performed while one wilts in the hot sun but one task sustains our bodies while the other one refines our imagination of the past. Finally, Arendt separates action from work and labor. Actions are deeds done in the moment for all to see, and, Arendt argues, show you who a person really is. Actions are not premeditated efforts like works or labors, they are done because a person must do something without the luxury of premeditation.

For Arendt, the distinction between these three kinds of activities, labor, work, and action, leads her to think of them as corresponding to different kinds of human values, the social, the private, and the political. The social zone of human values are where virtuous laboring traits are the highest values. Likewise, the private refers to where excellent work shines as the highest virtue and the public is the zone where acts shine as the highest virtues (heroism, courage, altruism). Arendt builds the competition between competing human moralities as a kind of three ring circus, where the stages do not change much, but which one dominates the spotlight tends to be highly dependent on history and chance.

German stamp, 2006. Deutsche Post AG, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

To demonstrate the volatility of this spotlight, Arendt noted the transition of the value of labor in Western culture. Arendt wrote that laboring, the activity most venerated in speech by modern industrial societies because industrialization has made consumption a co-dependent group activity. Ancient Athens, meanwhile, saw laboring exactly the opposite way. Because staying alive was the most basic concern, Athenians saw it as the least valuable activity because it was the least transcendent. Athenians found laboring so base the most privileged employed slaves to keep from doing it themselves. Arendt tells this story not to apologize for Athenian slavery or to celebrate America’s labor obsession, but to show by example the historical plasticity of the hierarchy of human values in Western thought as it has gone from one extreme to the other.

Arendt’s thinking on human values, if one follows her along, takes us on a path to self-understanding and humility, but also one of purpose. Arendt’s shows that our hierarchy of values is transitory and unstable, in part because our mental picture of the world is incomplete and the facts of our future existence on the earth is uncertain. While Arendt’s thinking challenges us not to think of our values, our works, or our actions as more transcendent than they really are, she does so to sound a note of hopeful defiance. In Arendt’s view, the slow, patient efforts of humankind – making art, teaching history, building houses, raising crops, protecting the rights of individuals in courts of law, moving people with the right words in the right moment – these activities mean all the more in allowing us self-made dignity and comfort in a world that grants us no such thing by entitlement.

Featured Image credit:  The temple of Hephaestus, as seen from the Ancient Agora, Athens, Greece. Jebulon, CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

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