Labor, Necessity & Freedom: The Ideas of Hannah Arendt

Reading time: 6 minutes

And what else, finally, is this dream of modern society but
the age-old dream of the poor and the destitute, which can
have a charm of its own so long as it is a dream but turns
into a fool’s paradise as soon as it is realized.

Hannah Arendt

To Labor is to be Enslaved by Necessity

Because peasants and slaves labored, both were classified by Plato and Aristotle as slaves. To labor meant to be enslaved by necessity. Insofar as activities necessary to maintain life are performed by human and non-human animals, activities necessary for preservation of life were not considered distinctively human. Karl Marx and Hannah Arendt use the term Animal Laborans to characterize the existential conditions that compel the human animal to engage in activity compelled by nature. 

Animal Laborans was the defining aspect of the human condition for Karl Marx. Activity necessary for survival is simultaneously productive and limiting. Labor’s productive aspect allows the individual – and the species more generally – to survive. But labor limits us in the sense that efforts to survive never free the laboring animal from repeating its labor all over again.  Labor always remains for Marx “an eternal necessity imposed by nature”. 

Excluding Labor & Necessity from Life

The institution of slavery in antiquity (though not in later times) was not a device for cheap labor or an instrument for profit. It was rather an attempt by the ancients to exclude labor from the conditions of man’s life. Plato and Aristotle thought slaves were necessary because they conceived of all occupations concerned with life’s maintenance as slavish. To be master of slaves was the way to master necessity in antiquity. Since laboring, by definition, meant to be enslaved by necessity, slavery was the device used to exclude labor – and necessity – from the conditions of human life. What humans share with animals – the necessity of engaging in goal directed behavior to subsist – was not considered human. Aristotle accordingly argued that the term “Man” should not be used for members of society totally subject to necessity. Organisms that were totally subject to necessity were instead called “slaves”. 

The Dream of Freedom

The principal task of the revolution envisioned by Marx  involved emancipating humankind from labor: only when labor is abolished can the “realm of freedom” supplant the “realm of necessity”. In his masterwork (Das Kapital) Marx observed that “the realm of freedom begins only where the rule of immediate physical needs ends.” 

Yet Marx did not envision a humanity entirely disburdened of the necessity of subsisting. He instead anticipated a society in which labor was organically integrated into each individual’s life. In such a society, there would be no laborers, but only people who spend some of their time laboring, people “who do this today and that tomorrow, who hunt in the morning, go fishing in the afternoon, raise cattle in the evening, are critics after dinner, as they see  fit, without for that matter becoming hunters, fisherman, shepherds or critics” (The German Ideology). 

The High Price of Freedom from Necessity

The violent injustice of forcing one part of humanity into the darkness of pain and necessity was the most egregious price paid for the elimination of life’s burden from the shoulders of slave holders in antiquity.

Yet a different aspect of slavery in antiquity underscores a less appreciated aspect of labor. Since the “darkness  of pain and necessity” that constitutes labor is natural and inherent in the human condition, the price of freedom from necessity is the substitution of vicarious life for real life.Under the conditions of slavery, the enslavers lived vicariously. By off-loading all labor, the enslavers inevitably relinquished contact with the biological life cycle that governed everyday life. Herodotus observed such impoverishment in the experience of slaveholders when he noted:

We walk with alien feet; we see with alien eyes; we recognize and greet people with an alien memory; we live from alien labor.

Arendt observed that the toil and trouble of obtaining – and the pleasures of incorporating – the necessities of life are closely bound together in the biological life cycle.  The recurrent rhythms and conditions of human life occur in a unique movement, such that the perfect elimination of the pain and effort of labor not only robs biological life of its most natural pleasures but also deprives the specifically human life of its very liveliness and vitality. The human condition is such that pain and effort are not just symptoms which can be removed without changing life itself: they are rather the modes in which life itself, together with the necessity to which it is bound, makes itself felt. For mortals, the “easy life of the gods” would be a lifeless life.

Loss of Trust in Reality

Arendt observed that the abolition of labor leads to loss of trust in two realities: the reality of life and the reality of the world. 

Trust in the reality of life depends on the intensity with which life is felt. For Arendt, vitality and liveliness can be conserved only to the extent that we are willing to take the burden, the toil and trouble of life, upon ourselves. 

Trust in the reality of the world resides in the world’s durability. The longevity of the built environment far exceeds that of the human lifespan. “If one knew that it would come to an end with or soon after his own death, the world would lose all reality, as it did for the early Christians…” The ubiquity of consumerism and the tendency to consume and discard goods as soon as they are produced accelerates such distrust, as does the continually enlarging scope of virtual reality.  

Changes in the World Do Not Necessarily Change Us

Technological changes cause change in the world, not changes in the basic condition of human life on earth. While technological changes tend to remove us from contact with the biosphere such changes do nothing to diminish our dependence on it. Our awareness of natural processes may be eclipsed by technology but our dependence on natural processes persists. While slaves in antiquity served as a constant reminder of the necessity which was off-loaded onto them, Arendt foresaw the danger of living in a world where necessity becomes increasingly invisible. 

For Arendt we “cannot be free if (we do) not know that (we are) subject to necessity, because (our) freedom is always won in (our) never wholly successful attempts to liberate (ourselves) from necessity.”

To the extent that we compulsively off-load labor onto computers and machines we face the same “lifeless life” as the slave owners of antiquity. Contact with the natural processes of production and consumption have been replaced by a society in which only the consumptive aspect of the production consumption process remains visible. Arendt foresaw the perils of a society that ignored the productive aspect of the life cycle upon which it depended. 


Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. University of Chicago Press.  1958

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