Hannah Arendt: War as a Violation of the Human Condition

Dr Paul Bunyan

A monument on Freedom Hill in Kyiv 

War represents a violation of the human condition in so many ways. In what many consider to be her magnus opus The Human Condition, the philosophical and political theorist Hannah Arendt stresses the conditioned nature of humanity and contrasts this with totalitarian ideologies wherein all-powerful beings can control the processes of history and nature.

Arendt’s main concern in much of her writing was to argue for the importance of politics and insight from her existentialist and phenomenological perspective and method. In The Human Condition Arendt identifies three different components of or what she terms the vita activa (the active life) – labour, work and action.  

Labour refers to the human body and those biological and cyclical needs which must be addressed for human life to be sustained. Possibilities and potentialities for life and indeed politics become secondary when such basic needs are denied or violated. In war this basic human condition is accentuated and laid bare.

Work in contrast to labour refers to the fabrication of more permanent structures. Work provides shelter and safety from the unpredictable world of nature, providing a degree of stability, including the creation of public spaces where everyday life, including political action, become possible. In war where cities are reduced to rubble and landscapes to scorched earth, a sense of permanency, stability and hope for the future can be devastated.

The third and most important category of human activity for Arendt is action. As a German Jew, who escaped from Germany during the time of Hitler, the spectre of totalitarianism was central to Arendt’s philosophical and political outlook. Action or praxis relates to the human condition of plurality, the fact that humans are born equal but also as unique individuals.

For Arendt, the activity of politics provides the capacity for humans to exercise their freedom and realise distinctive potentialities and possibilities in the context of a public realm. At a time when anti-political sentiment has grown in the wake of, amongst other things, Trump, Putin, Brexit and Party-gate, Arendt reminds us of the importance of politics and that war as a manifestation of totalitarianism violates the human condition and the possibilities and potentialities of the vita activa.

Dr Paul Bunyan is a Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences at Edge Hill University.


Image by Mickey Estes from Pixabay

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