Labor, Work and Action – The Poet and Politics

The reading of “The Poet and the City”, by Auden, raised interesting points of discussion, among them, the distinction between workers and laborers. After reading the essay by Ranjit “On Homo laborans and Homo Ludens”, I acknowledged that this dichotomy is rather prominent in the 20th century. After reflection on past philosophical works that I read and studied, I saw what could be a possible link between W.H. Auden and Hannah Arendt, a Jewish German political philosopher, and her book: “The Human Condition” (1958). This work is mainly a theory of political action, however some parallels can be drawn with Auden’s essay. Arendt’s makes a vital distinction between three activities: labor, work  and action. Labor is a condition of life, where one caters for the biological needs and reproduction, whereas work illustrates a capacity of artisans/technicians to build artifacts for human use. Action, is however the only activity that allows for disclosing the agent identity, to reach freedom, and only action can take place within a realm of plurality.  Freedom in her view equals the possibility to do the unexpected and to have a new beginning. On the other hand Plurality, the second foremost characteristic of Action, is the realm where the novelty, the unexpected new, can be presented and acknowledged. Only this plurality brings meaning to the actions. A rather important aspect of this plurality is the crucial need for speech and words. Speech allows the disclosure of the self and in contrast to labor and work, only action allows for interaction and revealing of the actor’s identity. When engaging in Labor we are a mass, a species that are equal in fulfilling the needs of our bodies. As workers, there is a higher deal of individuality, however the artisan is still subordinate to the end product. Thus, action reveals the Who, rather than the What (which is what labor and work do).

The action of an individual can not be completely firm about the sort of self they reveal. Hence, the need for retrospective reflection and storytelling rises. The storyteller, the poet as a master of speech and words becomes crucial disclosing the real identity of the actor, as well as preserving it. The narrative of an act is thus almost more important than the act itself. This narrative needs an audience, and therefore the storyteller is also part of the plurality pertaining to the Actor. For Arendt it seems that the artist of words, such as writers and poets have an equal place with actors, however it is not fully clear whether painters and musicians are viewed that highly, or if they fall within the category of Work. Viewing poets and word artists in this manner could to some extent counter some of Auden’s concerns with the link between the Poet and Politics. For Arendt, the poet is more than necessary, he is crucial for the falsification and achievement of the real identity of actors and their actions, as well as for the continuation of the acts through time, making sure that the constant retrospective analysis allows for understanding of past political acts even in a society where norms and values are incongruent with the values and norms of the cultural time in which the act was produced. Despite being a theory of politics, the word politics encompasses more to Arendt than the mere political ideologies of governments or state. It is a more general theory of the Actor as a political being, that expresses his identity through the free and unexpected creation of acts in the public realm. For Arendt the private realm is the realm of laborers and workers, whereas the public realm is the audience that will be witness to your act and to your expression of the self. Hence it somehow criticizes Auden’s perception of the death of the public realm as the most important one for poets.

This sort of analysis is quite interesting as it allows the poet to exist to its fullest capacity and value, within the public realm of the world of politics; being not just part of it by the work it produces, but by shaping it as the master of speech and words, through the infinitum of time.

I found this link rather interesting, however I am not sure to what extent it is feasible to analyze further or even deduce such link. Arendt’s work is rather complex and detailed, and to be able to explain her whole theory of Labor, Work and Action in few lines is quite difficult. For those interested in her work, you can look at the second reference. It is a brief overview of what is included in “The Human Condition”.


Arendt, H. (1998). The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2010). Hannah Arendt: Arendt’s Theory of Action. Retrieved 19 February, from:

Ana Pires

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