Hannah Arendt: Vita activa versus vita contemplativa

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The contrast between the two ways of life, namely the vita activa and the vita contemplativa, was first elaborated by Aristotle. He believed that the "contemplative" life of the philosopher, dedicated to science, was par excellence and the source of the highest happiness. Aristotle considered the active life of the politically and socially active person to be less perfect, but he also conceded a high rank to this way of life, emphasizing in particular the value of friendship.

But what do we actually do when we are active? How is it that work - still despised in antiquity and preferably left to slaves - could rise to the highest activity in our modern society? These are the questions at the heart of Hannah Arendt's 1958 book Vita activa. Arendt criticizes the modern tendency to glorify work, while regarding political action as meaningless and superfluous.

The consequence of such an attitude is that man is no longer at home in his world, is unable to follow technical developments, and inserts himself willingly into the eternal cycle of working and consuming. But Arendt does not paint the situation as hopeless. In collective, public action she recognizes man's chance to overcome his alienation from the world. Instead of taking refuge in private hobbies or consumption, he must become politically active and always make a new start. At times, the book comes across as elitist cultural criticism. But Arendt's sharp analysis of the "jobholder society," in which the individual must function in order to maintain himself, is still highly topical today.

The factual present-day impossibility of a vita contemplativa is obvious, insofar as we do not speak of exceptional philosophers who are materially secured and, moreover, can keep out of the factors of the vita activa. Thus, one would have to imagine an apolitical chamber philosopher or so called "Garden hermits". These were hermits encouraged to live in purpose-built hermitages, follies, grottoes, or rockeries on the estates of wealthy landowners, primarily during the 18th century. Such hermits would be encouraged to dress like druids and remain permanently on site, where they could be fed, cared for, and consulted for advice, or viewed for entertainment.

That would be a life in maximum contemplation. Instead, however, it seems to be the case that we as humanity should rather strive towards the active life and perhaps take into account Arendt's words that this does not only mean wage labor, but also political and social participation.

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1 comment

Unlike antiquity, humanity can no longer afford the vita contemplativa. Allow me to explain… The United States has 5000 nuclear warheads; a stealth nuclear submarine fleet capable of parking a couple dozen nuclear warheads of the coast of any country and they would never know; the worlds’ foremost biological and chemical agents able to kill every living thing on the planet; satellites in space with laser capabilities able to annihilate all life on earth; spy satellites so powerful they are able to determine if we have food between our teeth; etc.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen? The WWII Generation is gone. War? There is no cost, just simply add it to the national debt. Long live Modern Monetary Theory.

Which generation will decide to use these WMDs? Is “might always right”? Who is educating the youth of this nation? Better yet, who is responsible for NOT educating the youth of this nation? The “Hollowmen” that’s who.

Here we go round the prickly pear prickly pear prickly pear. Here we go round the prickly pear …

I think men would be wise to educate the youth “how” Hitler went from a renegade revolutionist — a convicted con, I may add, for his attempt to overthrow the gov’t — who was sleeping with his niece to being appointed Chancelor by the Conservative Party.

Here we go round the prickly pear prickly pear prickly pear. Here we go round the prickly pear …

Let us not forget, the United States is the only nation to drop a nuclear bomb – two of them. By the WWII Generation, btw. Why? Oh … to save American lives. How easy will it be for a future generation to “first strike” because, well … it will save American lives?

Here we go round the prickly pear prickly pear prickly pear. Here we go round the prickly pear …

Let me ask you, do we have a choice anymore? How can one choose the vita contemplativa when the survival of all life on this planet is now dependent on the vita activa?

If not us, then who?

Michael Felli

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