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May 01, 2022 2 min read



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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