I started reading The Origins of Totalitarianism ( sorry no original book can not be inked to ) since I personally thought this book is explaining the current condition world wide today perhaps coincidentally.

Now, while it takes time to read the above book, so that I can not simultaneously read her The Human Condition, according to Wiki she seems to be distinguishing the labor and works there. Here is the quote from the Wiki.

Arendt admits that her distinction is unusual as it has not been attempted previously by the thinkers who concerned themselves with the subject, like for instance Karl Marx, yet it cannot be ignored. Labor is one of the three fundamental forms of activity that form the vita activa. It is repetitive, never-ending and only includes the activities that are necessary to the sustenance of life, such as the production of food and shelter as well as physical reproduction, with nothing beyond that. The condition to which labor corresponds is sheer biological life. Socially, it was the type of life that was destined for slaves in the Ancient Greek city-states. Within this life-world, slaves were considered as such not due to the harshness of their lives but mainly because these lives were composed of necessity alone, as a sum of their own physical needs and the ones of their masters added on it. The products of Labor is thus consumed as soon as it is produced without leaving any lasting trace behind. Work on the other hand, being the second activity, has a clearly defined beginning and end. It leaves behind an enduring artefact such as a tool, a manuscript, or a building. The condition to which this activity corresponds is the World and was socially connected with the free citizens of the ancient city-states, especially their acts in the realm of politics they were called to undertake. As the ancient world-view which sustained these concepts gave way to the modern however, political life waned and the private life of necessity entered the public realm. This led Labor out of the constraints of the household to become a significant value on its own right. In modern day democracies therefore, the concept of equality which is considered to be one of its pre-conditions, has been skewed into one of similarity as it is now based on common necessity, the realm of Labor. Arendt points out that equality can only be applied to things that are unequal like the distinct personalities of free citizens. Necessity is what is similar to humans and thus equating people under Labor is not real equality but a kind of debasement.

I would like ask, what exactly is the purpose of her distinguishing between the two?

Is the Work, according to her, having higher status stuff from the labor??

I am going to read the Human condition later anyway though, I am happy if anyone can give me good answer prior to it due to the reason I mentioned above.

  • 2
    It sounds like Arendt wants to tie labor to human "nature" and work to human "culture" (for lack of a better word). Perhaps in a similar sense most animals do labor but do not work.
    – Drux
    May 2, 2015 at 7:45
  • 1
    I hadn't read her at all, but I'd guess that it is probably for the same reason that physicists differentiate between force and work. You can exert force on something without producing any work.
    – Lie Ryan
    May 2, 2015 at 10:50
  • Thank you very much, both of you. Let me add +1 for your advice. Drux might be correct since it was that time when I was just taking a quick look at the Wiki of my native language, that she seems to be categorizing human beings into 4 categories ( but in English too ), though the nuance has different sound in my native language. According to not English one, she seems to me connecting to tie the labor to the politics. it looks liked so to me. So Drux might be correct if the politics can be swapped with culture. Thank you very much anyway. Have nice philosophical days for both.
    – user13955
    May 2, 2015 at 14:01
  • @KentaroTomono Thanks, you are a very polite member of this community!
    – Drux
    May 2, 2015 at 20:29

2 Answers 2


In the ancient theorisation of the body politic, social and economic there was a four-fold distinction between priests/philosophers, warriors/kings, merchants/artisans and labourers/slaves (Platos Republic and the Rig Veda).

Marx collapses these into two in the modern era: Labour vs Capital

Arendt is making a similar distinction but theorising it differently - don't capitalists 'work'?

She distinguishes Labour from Work:

Labour is connected to neccessity and the entirely conditioned will; to being a means - ie to tools, to unconstructive and property-less work (for them); to slaves and to animals; it is connected too to inaction; to the lack of speech; thus vita laborans.

Work is connected to freedom and the unconditioned will - free-will; to being an end; to constructive property and being property-owners and to citizens; to being human; to be human is to act. Thus vita activa.

So whilst, Marx as a theorist of the economic order theorised a duality: Labour vs Capital; Arendt distinguishes between Labour vs Work.

Her main observation is that in the ancient polis labour was small-scale and restricted to the house-hold ie the private realm and did not dominate the public order which was the realm for politics: for the free discourse of citizens; for her this labour has escaped the private realm and entered the public sphere.

To answer your final question: work being aligned being aligned with what is human in us has the higher dignity.

  • 1
    In which case you should try reading the Republic by Plato; I think it's usually a good idea to get a wide view of ideas normative to a subject; so one knows where one stands. May 2, 2015 at 15:15
  • Shes examining the historical roots of anti-semitism... May 2, 2015 at 18:37
  • Hm... on the preface Jaspars is telling the different story. What I am reading is the German version which is the newest. Jaspars is telling that this book is telling about that the historical change of that most terrific, the most dangerous Nationalism=Hyper-Nationalism which we had seen in the totalitarianism ( my translation ) and he is recommending to read the book 3 first ( so that readers can comprehend the whole meaning what this books wants to say before the history of Jewish problems dealt in book 1, 2 ). Although, I am not stopping to read this book.
    – user13955
    May 2, 2015 at 19:05
  • Ok, I thought you were conflating Jews/Capital given your comment above. May 2, 2015 at 19:08
  • I didn't check your word "conflate". Sorry for that. My intention was not that such typical one. But if you hear she herself says like this, Jewish people look like to have become the victim naturally to me. Book 1 Chapter 1 : The antisemitism reached the highest point when Jews lost their their social role and social function but only holding the wealth with them. We can see the very example according to the previously I mentioned as a rule here. ( The rule is, ordinary people's wrath sprung up when they see the people without social authority ( to continue ))
    – user13955
    May 3, 2015 at 1:20

The best summarising quote I can think of is the following:

In other words, the [Marxist!] distinction between productive and unproductive labor contains, albeit in a prejudicial manner, the more fundamental distinction between work and labor. It is indeed the mark of all laboring that it leaves nothing behind, that the result of its effort is almost as quickly consumed as the effort is spent. (The Human Condition, 2nd ed., p.87)

There are the two aspects represented you asked for in the question: What is the main difference between labour and work and the purpose of it and is there a ranking in between them?

Regarding the main difference

Here, the classical difference Arendt offers is the one between animal laborans and homo faber.

The former acts in the mode of labour, as its activity is directed solely to the recurring, to the necessities of life and sustaining it (as it is). Therefore, whatever is made through labour (i.e. it is not unproductive in a literal sense), is made only to be consumed, and not to last. See her discussion of the Greek distinction of the circular movement of nature (eternal) vs. the mortality of man, whose life cuts through the circle rectliniarly (ibid, pp.18-9).

The latter instead is about humans as producing the world they live in by their own hands. They produce conditions of their lives that do so persitently, outlasting their own lifespan. Work is what produces the artificial, the culture, and settles a specifically human worldliness (see e.g. pp. 7-8).

A quote elaborating this:

Unlike the productivity of work, which adds new objects to the human artifice, the productivity of labor power produces objects only incidentally and is primarily concerned with the means of its own reproduction; since its power is not exhausted when its own reproduction has been secured, it can be used for the reproduction of more than one life process, but it never “produces” anything but life. (ibid, p. 88)

This is also why work creates new kinds of labour, as when modern humans have to maintain their houses and machines. Therefore, jobs that produce goods not used, but more or less immideately consumed, or only maintain the products of work - not enriching culture - are not falling under this philosophical concept of work, even if it is in a factory. Although her examples are less clear. Like when she argues against equating labour and work to unskilled and skilled work with the following argument:

Every activity requires a certain amount of skill, the activity of cleaning and cooking no less than the writing of a book or the building of a house. (ibid, p.90)

Regarding a ranking

The vita activa as analysed by Arendt contains more than the three modes of activity she writes about: Labour, work, and action. What is made clear in the introductory quote, though, is that "productive" and "unproductive" are used prejudicial, i.e. unjustifiably preferring one over the other.

The main point of her book is to point out that all three modes of activity are part of the human condition, i.e. none is more important than the other. The most specifically human of them, though, if anything, is action:

Action alone is the exclusive prerogative of man; neither a beast nor a god is capable of it, and only action is entirely dependent upon the constant presence of others. (The Human Condition, 2nd ed., p. 23)

Regarding the purpose

So, why distinguishing at all? The shortest answer would be: Because phenomenologically, there is an important difference. Enrichment of culture is simply something that labour cannot provide. The mode of activity in fact is different exactly in the way described, the inherent intent and purpose (especially consumption vs. use) is.

Another aspect is that in distinguishing the thing-character of labour and the world-character of work, we better understand how labour is linked to nature:

This destructive, devouring aspect of the laboring activity, to be sure, is visible only from the standpoint of the world and in distinction from work, which does not prepare matter for incorporation but changes it into material in order to work upon it and use the finished product. From the viewpoint of nature, it is work rather than labor that is destructive, since the work process takes matter out of nature's hands without giving it back to her in the swift course of the natural metabolism of the living body. (ibid, p.100, emphasis mine)

  • I think Ardent might have "misread" for somewhat reason I can not provide with. Marx did not cut the labor-work in such ( animal-human ) way. In Marx's ideas, such distinction is simpler. "Human beings are the existence that makes tool, which differentiates them from other animals."
    – user13955
    Apr 30, 2017 at 10:13
  • @KentaroTomono: The reading of Arendt throughout the book is of course complex. My take would be that she correctly shows that on one hand he describes important insights like the one you mentioned (tool-crafting is not specifically human, though - and falls under her concept of work), on the other he leaves us "with the rather distressing alternative between productive slavery and unproductive freedom" because of defining humans as animal laborans (p.105).
    – Philip Klöcking
    Apr 30, 2017 at 10:45
  • This would be an agony. For instance, your quote, Enrichment of culture is simply something that labour cannot provide. No, only labor can "provide"...otherwise, I mean, how under this capitalistic system? :)
    – user13955
    Apr 30, 2017 at 11:07
  • Because...."the real "enrichment"" of "all human kinds" can be accomplished "after" the capitalism is "defeated" which IMO would be a never ending story....thank you anyway. (m_m)
    – user13955
    Apr 30, 2017 at 11:10

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