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Sources of Human Value

For Arendt 'Humans are conditioned beings because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence.' Arendt introduced the concept of 'vita activa,' which helps in understanding the nature of the questions we pose, when coming in contact with any event that has influence on our life activities. Vita activa is the Human Behavior Space (Figure 3.1). It is the why and what of human activity.

With the term vita activa, I propose to designate three fundamental human activities: labor, work, and action. They are fundamental because each corresponds to one of the basic conditions under which life on earth has been given to human beings.

Labor, work and action, are the activities for which we design, the activities for which we have built and created the world of tools, the world of education, and the world of laws, as well as all the constructed spaces we now call civilization. This is the world we refer to with the generic term 'technology.' Arendt defines labor as:

the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body, whose spontaneous growth, metabolism, and eventual decay are bound to the vital necessities produced and fed into the life process by labor. The human condition of labor is life itself.

In this condition, the question asked is in the realm of the tactical: the question is 'How?' How do I survive? How do I find food? How do I build shelter? This is a condition related to the 'having' side of the human being, a side interested in the quantity of things, their performance, durability, appropriateness for the task, numbers and the sequence of action. A condition concerned with the tactics of life.

Perfecting the performance of tools is also a 'how' question, suitable to the 'having mode,' a mode dominated by our interest in acquiring things which are fixed and describable. According to Fromm:[1]

Most of us know more about the mode of having than we do about the mode of being, because having is by far the more frequently experienced mode in our culture. ... Being refers to experience, and human experience is in principle not describable.

Fromm points to a quality unique to humans: the quality of being, of becoming through experiences and learning. This is the quality that completes us, and gives meaning and reason to why we need to move always forward, searching for more ways to experience life, for why we need to learn, to explore in order to have more worth and merit. The quality that allows us to become. To leave a mark through our work and deeds. To have mattered, for others. To be seen through their eyes.

For Arendt, work is the activity that corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence. Work provides an 'artificial' world of things, distinctly different from all natural surroundings. In other words, the creation of worth, using our tools, and the answers to the question Why?

  • [1] Fromm, E. (1976). To Have or To Be. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
 
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