Hannah Arendt’s Theory Of Active Life

Hannah Arendt was a German philosopher of Jewish descent. She started her studies with the famous German philosopher Martin Heidegger. But when the Nazi regime came to power, she was forced to flee Germany. She settled in the United States. Hannah Arendt developed a political philosophy that focused on contemporary issues including totalitarianism and violence.

Her most notable works deal with the motives that drive people to commit heinous acts under totalitarian regimes. One of her most famous statements was that she firmly believed that many members of the Nazi Party were normal people who, under certain circumstances, committed unforgivable acts. She claimed that they would never have committed those acts if those circumstances had not been present. They wouldn’t even recognize themselves in committing those acts.

It was a statement that attracted quite a bit of criticism. Many people found it very uncomfortable. She maintained that many people who had been tortured, mistreated and murdered were not bad people. Rather, they had been misled in some way by their particular circumstances. It even cost her many friendships but whenever she got the chance, she defended what she believed in.

It may seem like this all happened in the distant past. But it’s actually very relevant today. Because many people believe, for example, that terrorists are crazy. But if we apply Hannah Arendt’s theories, we come to a different conclusion. Rather than question their psychological health, we consider other factors that lead people within an organization to choose the path of violence.

Hannah Arendt’s theory of the active life

In Hannah Arendt’s theory, there are three basic activities in a human life: labour, work and action. Work corresponds to the biological processes of the human body.

Two examples are eating and sleeping. They are necessary activities in life but they do not last forever. Once we finish them, the activity is over. These needs are vital to survival. We can’t live without it. So there is no room for freedom here.

The function of work

The second activity in an active life is work. This is the activity that produces things and results. It includes building, crafts, art and everything we create. It also includes activities such as the manufacture of instruments or objects, as well as works of art.

With this activity we try to take control of nature, by working with natural materials to build objects. This activity creates an artificial world like a house. It differs from manufacturing because the objects obtained are durable. The result of the work is something that produces something. We use it, but we don’t use it up.

When we perform the last activity, the action, individuals arise. They are built on what they are. That’s how they differ from each other. Action allows the occurrence of diversity. And this makes us perceive the differences in other people.

In this way we acquire an identity. It is based on the difference between the person performing the action and the other person. Only through action are individuals born. It is through this that what was personal becomes public, for it is shared with others. By acting and speaking people show who they are.

Areas of action

Each activity takes place in its own specific area. The personal realm (to produce), the social realm (to work) and the public realm (to act). The distinction between the public and the private realm is based on the tradition of the Greek polis.

The personal atmosphere is the house. In this area one cannot speak of freedom or equality but rather of a community of real needs. In this atmosphere we practice production. The personal realm is a natural space as opposed to the artificiality of the public realm.

The public sphere is the space of action and communication. In this area we show others who we are. This confirms our existence. The public world is a shared world. It is created by manufactured objects and actions that create intangible objects such as laws, institutions and culture.

This created space provides the actions and the objects with permanence, stability and durability. Action is fragile but the public space gives it stability through memory. The public space also contains public interests, which can be distinguished from personal interests.

But this distinction has been blurred with the appearance of yet another area, the social sphere. This area is the product of an exchange market in a capitalist economy. The capitalist socio-economic system has to deal with the entry of the economy into the public space. This public sphere is determined by public interests. And this gives personal interests a public significance.

The consequences of losing your voice

When the economy interferes in the public realm, a problem arises. The personal atmosphere is necessary because it offers a shelter. But now it becomes a substitute for the public sphere. As a result, personal interests and natural ties occupy the common public sphere. The result is that the public sphere and the actions of the citizens are separated from each other.

Here we can see totalitarianism at work. It is the triumph of the carefree individual in the public sphere. This individual thinks only of his own personal interests and his personal safety and wants this at any cost. But this type of individual is completely the opposite of a citizen who is actively involved in the world and the public sphere.

The “personal” individual is an individual only as long as it concerns its own interests. He easily lapses into social and political conformism. But totalitarianism doesn’t just end public life. It also destroys the personal life and leaves the individuals in absolute solitude.

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