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Work, for the night is coming!
 May 2007


If all the year were playing holidays

To sport would be as tedious as to work...
William Shakespeare, Henry IV part I, act I, scene ii

Who first invented Work - and tied the free
And holy-day rejoicing spirit down?
Charles Lamb, letter to Bernard Barton (1822)

Yet that work [of Adam, before the fall] was not laborious but joyful, being the exercise of his natural powers.
St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, part I, question 102, art. 3

Labour becomes attractive work, the individual's self-realisation, which in no way means that it becomes mere fun...
Karl Marx, Grundrisse, notebook VI (1858), tr. Martin Nicholas (Penguin, London 1973), p 611

If any would not work, neither should he eat.
St Paul, Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, chap. iii, v. 10

Refrain from much business, and you will never sin.
Hermas (1), The Shepherd, fourth similitude

The obligation to earn one's bread by the sweat of one's brow also presumes the right to do so.
Pope John-Paul II, Centesimus Annus (1991), #43

If the world cannot hope to be be happy in its work, it must relinquish the hope of happiness altogether..
William Morris, Art and its Producers (Morris, Collected Works, ed. May Morris; Longmans, London 1910 - 1915), vol. xx, p 353

Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it, in God's name!
Thomas Carlyle (1795 - 1881), Sartor Resartus (1834), bk ii, chap. 9

The idea of an eternity of rest vexed and troubled many nineteenth-century American Protestants.

Daniel T Rodgers, The Work Ethic in Industrial America (University of Chicage Press, 1978), p 7

Work, work, work! It would be glorious to see mankind at rest for once!
Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862), Reform Papers (1866), ed. Wendell Glick (Princeton University Press, 1973), p 156

Work is the curse of the drinking classes.
Oscar Wilde, see H Pearson, Life of Oscar Wilde (1946), chap. xii

Why should I let that toad, WORK
Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?
Philip Larkin (1922 - 1985), Toads

In reality, work is done in order to satisfy the producer's need to produce as well as the consumer's need to consume.

A medley of opinions on work

It seems that there are almost as many attitudes to work as there are people who do it - or who don't do it, as the case may be. I could easily fill the whole space of this article with pithy quotes about work. But then I might be accused of idleness, of being unwilling to get down to the work of doing a bit of writing of my own. Somewhere in Yorkshire, England, there is a village charmingly named Idle, with a building bearing the sign Idle Working Men's Club. Of which I, though Yorkshire born, am not a member.

Attitudes to work have changed and developed over the course of history. Classical Greek civilisation was dominated by aristocrats who regarded work as a necessary evil, fit only for slaves, and considered 'leisure' to be the only way of life for a civilised person. According to Homer (2), the gods hate men and for that reason oblige them to work. But then, the Greek concept of work was narrow; it comprised mainly manual labour. Strange as it may seem, in a society of great sculptors, even their work fell into the category of ignoble toil. The Greek historian Plutarch wrote (3) that no well-born young man would have wished to be a Phidias or a Polyclete.

Aristotle wrote (4) that in a well-ordered state the citizens should have leisure and not have to provide for their daily wants, but also that the citizen's special characteristic is that he shares in the administration of justice, and in the government of the state.

Thus, some tasks were considered respectable, even noble, such as those of the judge or the governor, or indeed of the philosopher; other kinds of work were definitely not so. The same notion persists today in other forms. For example, certain economists argue, in effect, that it is the the work of the entrepreneur that has real economic and social value, while the toil of mere private-sector employees is worth little; as for most government employees, the value of their work is zero or negative! We might call this inverted Aristotelianism. But such nonsense hardly deserves a grand title.

The Judaeo-Christian tradition

The Jewish tradition sets a high value on work and indeed describes God Himself as a worker (5): the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the world, fainteth not, neither is weary. The book of Genesis explains that Adam's work in the garden of Eden was part of God's plan, not a consequence of Adam's disobedience (6): the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to till it and care for it.

Christian theology has continued and developed this tradition. The fifth-century philosopher Boethius looked forward to working (7) in that heavenly city where...will be everlasting joy, delight, food, labour, and unending praise of the Creator. A little later, St Benedict propounded a famous principle: to work is to pray. In the thirteenth century, St Thomas Aquinas gave us the positive view quoted at the head of this article, an ideal of work as joyful self-fulfilment.

However, mediaeval thinkers saw the practical work of the world as lower in status than the monastic duties of prayer and contemplation. St Thomas classified worldly work (8) in a hierarchy of worthiness: agriculture ranked highest, followed by handicrafts, while commerce was disparaged (9): trading, considered in itself, has a certain debasement attaching thereto.

After the Reformation

The Reformation brought radical changes in attitudes to work. Martin Luther, a friar who became disillusioned with the cloister, turned mediaeval thinking upside down: he argued that the monastic life was inferior in value to the work of the secular world. But he retained a mediaeval distaste for commerce. It was John Calvin, the puritanical Genevan Protestant, who introduced the view that profitable business could be a virtuous Christian calling.

The Italian historian Adriano Tilgher, writing in the 1920s, vividly summarised (10) this aspect of Calvinist doctrine: Gain is the sure sign that one's occupation is pleasing to God; the greater the gain, the more one is certain that one is serving God through one's work....Work, earn, enrich yourself; do these things that the world may reflect the glory of God and of his saints: there lies the foundation of the modern world with its cult of work for its own sake, its religion of accumulation and wealth, its horror of rest and pleasure.

One readily sees how Carlyle in the nineteenth century echoed Calvin in the sixteenth, and how their thoughts resonate today in the world of American evangelical capitalism. Whether all this is truly Christian, or for that matter Jewish, is an interesting question. If riches increase, set not your heart upon them, thus sings (11) the psalmist; is bible-thumping America listening?

The Industrial Revolution

In the nineteenth century we see various interweaving trends. The growth of capitalist industry led to the dehumanisation of work, as traditional handicrafts were replaced by mechanical processes and former craftsmen became mere machine-minders. Work moved further away from the ideal of psychologically satisfying activity, St Thomas's 'joyful exercise of natural powers'.

Marx complained that workers were being 'alienated' from their own labour, meaning that they no longer worked with their own tools and materials in their own time, but instead were totally under the control of their employers; they had become 'wage slaves' rather than independent artisans. Radical 'arts and crafts' enthusiasts, led by William Morris and John Ruskin, called for a return to craftmanship. Trade unions accepted the concept of factory work, but strove to make it more acceptable by demanding better pay, healthier conditions, shorter hours and greater security.

The leisured classes

In the twentieth century, democratic societies came to take a dim view of idle toffs. In nineteenth-century Britain, there was a quite numerous class of young and middle-aged ladies and gentlemen who were rich enough to live without working, and who jolly well did so. Many London concerts took place on weekday afternoons, because the concert-goers belonged largely to this class and were therefore free to listen to music in the afternoon. This would seem strange, even unacceptable, today.

Yet modern societies find it normal that older people of all classes should spend two or three decades doing no remunerative work. That did not happen in Jane Austen's day. Until the mid-twentieth century, retirement generally meant the last few years of one's life. The first British state pension, the 'Lloyd George' pension of 1909, was payable from age 70. At that time, mortality rates were such that only about 30% of new-born boys could expect (12) to live to the age of 70, and those who reached that age could expect, on average, to survive another 8 years.

Today (13), more than 80% can expect to reach the state pension age of 65, and their life expectancy is then 16 years. At 60 it is 20 years; at 55, it is 24 years. Even longer for women; the fair sex is more durable, but retires sooner.

Premature retirement

People are living far longer, yet retiring far earlier. Not because we all want to retire in our fifties (personally, I kept at it to the age of 62), but because the modern economy tends to impose early retirement. Our obsession with competition and productivity means that employers are obliged continually to cut their payrolls to the bone. And it is generally the oldest employees who have to go, partly because they are the most expensive.

But there is another reason. The idea that people with abundant experience are valuable is ridiculed in a world where everything is supposed to change at a breakneck pace. Instead of valuing older workers for their maturity and knowledge, business today rejects them because they are deemed to be less willing or able to change their ways. And long experience is of limited use if today's business world is quite different from that of ten years ago.

Earlier retirement and increasing lifespan combine to make the cost of adequate pensions, whether state or private, ever more prohibitive. It seems that the economy is changing so fast that we have to retire so early that our pensions are becoming unaffordable.

Too rapid change

What conclusion should one draw? Common sense would suggest that the pace of change is simply too rapid. But common sense cuts no ice with libertarian economists, who argue that the pace of change is dictated by the market, and you can no more argue with the market than with the tides. At least we are entitled to protect ourselves against the ravages of high tides. Protect ourselves against the destructive effects of the market? That is inadmissible.

So, what of our contemporary attitudes to work? As in earlier times, they are confused. Basically, we need to work for two quite distinct reasons. Primo, we need the results of work. We need the results that we produce for ourselves by unpaid work, primarily at home; we need the earnings of paid work, so that we can buy the results of other people's work. Secundo, we need the satisfaction of "exercising our natural powers" or "achieving self-realisation" through work. In practice, not through work alone, but also through the social life that normally accompanies work in any organisation. Employment, after all, is not just doing a task and earning an income; it is also being part of a working community.

Free-marketeers disagree. They argue that the only purpose of paid work is to produce what consumers want to buy, in other words to satisfy the demands of the market. In Adam Smith's words (14), consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumers.

Slaves of the Market?

This view is too narrow. If work has no purpose except to serve the market, then there can be no objection to the instant extinction of employment at the whim of the market. It is this principle that leads to the excessive precariousness of work in the modern free-market economy. Supporters of Smith's principle refuse to accept that, in reality, work is done in order to satisfy the producer's need to produce as well as the consumer's need to consume.

Readers who are abreast of free-market fashion will, of course, retort that I am talking nonsense. How can one keep jobs in existence merely because their holders want them, if the market does not want their output? In our fast-changing world, we just have to accept that practically all employments are transitory. The market says so, and that's that.

Yet, only a generation ago, employment was considerably more stable. It was not unusual to work for decades, even for the whole of one's working life, with one employer. How was this possible? The answer lies in the pace of economic change. In those days, the pace was slower and more in tune with the human life-span. The world changed, as it has always done and always will; but it changed at a more tolerable pace.

One may well argue that today, when people are living longer and therefore need to work longer, the pace of change needs to be a little slower than before. Instead, it is a good deal faster. The main reason is that we human beings, within our own countries and throughout the world, have deregulated the markets and left ourselves more exposed to their vagaries. We have done this of our own choice, under the baleful influence of misguided libertarian theorists. We have only ourselves to blame for the consequences.

* * * * *


*Work, for the night is coming is the first line of a hymn by Anna Coghill (1836 - 1907), an earnest young English lady who wrote it at the age of 18. The usual tune is by Lowell Mason (1792 - 1872), a prolific American composer of church music.

1 The 'Shepherd of Hermas' is a collection of texts written around the year 150 by Hermas, said to have been a brother of Pope Pius I. These texts were widely read by early Christians and were even considered for inclusion in the canon of Holy Scripture.

2 See Adriano Tilgher, Homo Faber (Libreria di Scienze e Lettere, Roma, 1929), chap. I

3 Plutarch, Life of Pericles, sect. ii. Phidias and Polyclete were famous sculptors.

4 Aristotle, Politics, tr Benjamin Jowett, bk II part ix and bk III part ii

5 Isaiah, King James version, chap. 40, v.28

6 Genesis, New English Bible, chap.2, v. 15

7 Boethius, De fide catholica, conclusion

8 St Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle's Politics, bk. I, vi to ix

9 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, part II/II, question 77, art. 4

10 Adriano Tilgher, loc. cit. supra, chap. IX

11 Psalm 62, King James version, v. 10

12 Institute of Actuaries, English Life Table no. 7 (males), based on deaths registered 1900/1910

13 Government Actuary's Department, Interim Life Tables for UK males, based on deaths registered 2001/2003

14 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776), bk IV, chap viii

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