Saturday, November 10, 2012

History of Ideas : Work.


What follows is a very brief history of work and may form the starting point of a future post on why I despise office work so much.** 
Classical Greece. 
Few societies detested work more than classical Greece where all non-voluntary work was considered demeaning and only fit for inferior souls.  Voluntary work on the other hand was considered almost virtuous because it was free from the will of others and therefore more pure.  Hence craftsmanship was considered demeaning only if conducted through the necessity of earning a living but a nobleman would not demean himself by carving his own table if he choose to do so from his own free will. 
Aristotle and Plato both considered manual labor worthy only of slaves because unlike athletic training, such labor wore the body and the mind down, leaving those cursed with this toil unsuitable for participation in the political life of the state. 
For Aristotle, work was a curse that prevented the development of virtue and the proper use of reason. 
Even merchants were treated with contempt by the philosophers.  Plato placed them at the bottom of his hierarchy in the Republic claiming they are driven by appetite rather than reason and that such people should never have political influence.

The middle ages.
In the Christian dominated middle ages work was viewed as both a curse ("By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground" - Genesis 3:19) and as a duty. St Benedict believed labor was a penance; Thomas Aquinas thought all humans had a duty to work to improve themselves and to help others. Work however was still viewed as an activity lacking intrinsic value. 

The Reformation. 
The reformation introduced the so called 'Protestant work ethic'. Work was transformed into something positive - a calling from God,aka, a vocation. For Martin Luther, to devote oneself to ones vocation was to serve God: "The works of Monks and Priests, be they never so holy and arduous, differ no whit in the sight of Gods from the works of the rustic toiling in the field or the women going about her household tasks ". (Luther 1520).  Work had become a religious duty.  A son would typically perform the same work as his father as part of Gods natural social hierarchy. 
The 16-century Protestant reformer John Calvin went even further.  For Calvin, because work was Gods will, everyone had the duty to choose the profession that would bring the highest riches. However these riches were not intended for consumption but as a sign of success in a God given vocation and therefore reassurance and satisfaction in fulfilling Gods wishes.

The Enlightment and the Romantic
In his reply to the nineteenth-century Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote : "Yet even in the case of the most sublime service to humanity, it is not because it is work that it is worthy; the worth lies in the service itself, and in the will to render it - the noble feelings of which it is the fruit; and the nobleness of will is proved by other evidence than work, as for instance by danger or sacrifice, there is the same worthiness. While we talk only of work, and not of its object, we are far from the foot the the matter'". Here Mills reveals a the Romantic view of work, which shifts to debate from the actual activity and economic necessity of work to the meaning of work itself. For a Romantic, the death of God created a void which can only be filled by meaning realized by the individual.

Modern Times.
Today we are all Romantic individualists regarding our work.  While most of us no longer believe in a God given vocation, we do believe in Potential and self-transformation and the self-made man. "Unleash your Potential" and "Be all you can be" are common advertising slogans for colleges and universities, while corporations frequently promote work as being self-transformative and self-improving. It's a form of narrative that is complex in that it contains a few grains of truth covered by pop-psychology and self serving nonsence. More on that another time.

* Based on chapter 1 : "From curuse to vocation" in Work by Lars Svendsen.
** Yes, I dodged the problem of defining work.

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