How to Think More Deeply About Work

If we want to work better, first we need to think better

“The Seasons” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder from the Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection. Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We spend much of our lives working. And much of the time we are not working, we spend talking about work, recovering from work, fretting about work, or wondering if we should work more or work less.

But less often do we stop to think more deeply about work. What, after all, is work? Why does it loom so large in our lives? And when it comes to questions like these, philosophy can help throw more light on what work is and why it matters.

What is work?

In his book on the philosophy of work, Lars Svendsen says that work, at the most fundamental level, is about acting on the external world so that “one can get the necessities of life.” You work hard in the garden, turning over the soil and planting your seeds in neat rows. And, sometime in the future, you will be able to feast on the crops you have planted.

Melon farmer, circa 1370. Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Work is not just about getting the necessities of life here and now. Rather than just shaping the world in the present, work is also about our relationship with the future. It is about making sure we continue to have access to what we need in an uncertain world. As the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament says, it is perhaps wise to put in work now so that our future will be one of greater ease: “He that tilleth his land shall be satisfied with bread: but he that followeth vain persons is void of understanding” (Proverbs 12:11).

But work is not just about attaining external goods — both now and in the future. Many of our preoccupations around work are related to internal goods. These are the kinds of questions that worry us: Is our work meaningful? Is it satisfying? Is it enjoyable? Does it meet our desire for status? What does it do for our identity, our particular role in the world? And is our work useful to others?

External and internal goods do not always align. And this often makes our relationship with work complex. Do we take the higher-paying but lower-status job? Or do we take the lower-paying but higher-status job? How do we manage the trade-off between material security and a more meaningful life? What if our work is fun, just the right level of stretching, and materially beneficial, but at the same time, it could be harmful to others? Can it still be called “good” work?

The origins of work

We’re used to thinking these kinds of questions are integral to human existence. And in contemporary societies, perhaps they are. But according to some accounts, we haven’t always been so preoccupied with work.

Many ancient myths talk about a time before human beings needed to work. In the Old Testament Book of Genesis, the first humans live in a state of innocence and leisure, plucking fruit from the trees and living in harmony with other creatures. But a fatal act of disobedience leads to their expulsion from paradise and to the curse of work:

Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Greek mythology also looks back to a charmed Golden Age. In Works and Days, written around the turn of the seventh century BCE, Hesiod tells of the first human beings, who lived in a state of abundance and did not have to wrestle what they needed from the soil:

They had good things galore; a bumper yield
Of corn sprung volunteering from the field.
They shared the harvest, peaceful as you please,
And gentle, willing, dwelt in bounteous ease.

If both Greek and biblical traditions see work as a symptom of a fall from an earlier state of grace, the Chinese tradition takes the opposite view. According to philosopher Mencius (372–289 BCE), early humans lived not in a state of primal abundance but of primal lack.

In the time of the ancients, Mencius says, grain did not ripen, the terrain was covered in thickets of trees and shrubs, and the people were at the mercy of wild animals. So the sage kings imposed order on the land. They removed the underbrush, channeled the rivers, and opened up space for agriculture, teaching people how to cultivate grain.

Tao Hong’s “Returning Peasants in a Spring Evening” from the 1600s. Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

An original affluent society

These stories may all contain an element of collective folk memory. For most of our history, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. Humans lived in small groups, hunting and foraging for food and their daily necessities. This may seem like a strenuous way to go about making a living, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

The idea that people in hunter-gatherer societies work less than those who live in settled agricultural societies goes back to the mid-1960s when anthropologist Marshall Sahlins first talked about hunter-gatherer society as “the original affluent society.” In his 1972 book Stone Age Economics, Sahlins wrote:

A good case can be made that hunters and gatherers work less than we do; and, rather than a continuous travail, the food quest is intermittent, leisure abundant, and there is a greater amount of sleep in the daytime per capita per year than in any other condition of society.

Over the decades since Sahlins first proposed the idea of the original affluent society, many anthropologists have challenged his view, arguing that it is more a reflection of our romantic view of the past — playing into biblical and classical myths — than it is a reflection of reality. And there are certainly downsides to the hunter-gatherer way of life: scarcity, risk of violence, high infant mortality, and disease.

Nevertheless, several decades after Sahlins first talked about the original affluent society, contemporary anthropological data tends to broadly support the claim that hunting and gathering cultures tend to work less. Recent research among the Agta people in the Philippines, for example, also suggests that the move from hunting and gathering to farming leads to a net increase in work.

But also, in hunter-gatherer societies, the boundaries between work and non-work may be more thinly drawn. Among the Agta, leisure time plays an important social role. Time spent hanging out, chatting, and making jokes is not just downtime. It serves a vital role in refining, sharing, and handing on sophisticated cultural knowledge, which allows the Agta to flourish in their particular niche. Leisure, in this sense, helps sustain the existence of the Agta as much as work does.

The invention of hierarchy

One additional consequence of the move from hunter-gatherer societies to settled agricultural societies — and to the towns, cities, and civilizations that followed — was the invention of hierarchy.

Hunter-gatherer societies are often markedly egalitarian. They don’t exhibit the same static hierarchies that settled communities do. But once communities settle, hierarchies tend to emerge according to the increasingly specialized work that people do, according to gender, or according to the wealth that people have managed to accumulate.

In China, Mencius argued that the ordering of the world into well-functioning societies necessitated a kind of hierarchy. And this meant a division between those who labored with their hearts (or their minds — the Chinese character xin means both) by governing others and those who labored with their strength and who were themselves governed:

It is said, “Some labour with their hearts; some labour with their strength. Those who labour with their hearts rule others; those who labour with their strength are governed by others.” Those who are governed by others feed others; those who govern others are fed by others. This is the righteousness common to the world.

Contemplation, leisure, and slavery

Mencius splits the idea: On the one hand, there is intellectual work, the activity of the mind. And on the other hand, there is physical work, the activity of the body. This division was made with similar starkness over in Greece, with Mencius’s contemporary Aristotle (384–322 BCE).

Aristotle saw human activity hierarchically: At the top of the hierarchy is theōria, or contemplation. Below this is praxis, or practical activity, which for Aristotle encompassed both politics and ethics. And below this, there is technē, or craft (see the lesson here) and the bodily labor performed by slaves.

For Aristotle, there is an inherent dignity and goodness to thinking. But there is little inherent dignity to be found in craft and physical labor. The purpose of physical work, as far as Aristotle was concerned, is to provide leisure. If people can get somebody else to work so they can have more leisure, then so be it.

This led to Aristotle’s notorious support for the institution of slavery. He justified slavery with the deeply problematic claim that some people are naturally slaves while some are naturally rulers. In Politics, Aristotle wrote:

For if something is capable of rational foresight, it is a natural ruler and master, whereas whatever can use its body to labour is ruled and is a natural slave. That is why the same thing is beneficial for both master and slave.

Greek slaves working in a mine, fifth century BCE. Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The claim of mutual benefit seems puzzling. But for Aristotle, if intellectual pursuits — born out of leisure — are the highest end for human life, slavery gives the slave (who is naturally not given to contemplation) a way of participating in this.

Slavery was deeply embedded in Greek society. But Aristotle’s defense of the institution is not without unease. He argued that slavery was a just institution, but then he made a reversal and said that those who claimed the opposite and said it was unjust were “right, up to a point.” But if Aristotle recognized slavery as an injustice, at least to some extent, as Svendsen wrote, “He took [it] to be a necessary injustice. He seemed to think: somebody has to do the dirty work, and it had better not be me.”

Obviously, Aristotle’s conclusions are deeply unpalatable. But even today, how we think about work is deeply entangled with questions of hierarchy. And this raises all kinds of uncomfortable questions about the kind of work we do, how different kinds of work are rewarded, and how our own comforts may ultimately depend on the discomfort of others.

How to think better about work

So how can we think better about work? The first thing we can do is recognize that work always involves a balance of external goods (putting food on the table, bringing in the harvest) and internal goods (fulfillment, well-being, fun). Not all of these things will align, and that alignment, or lack thereof, may shift over time. There are always trade-offs to be made. Recognizing this opens the way to making better decisions about our working life.

The second thing we can do is recognize how our attitudes to work are tangled up with questions of hierarchy, status, and how tasks are divided in society. Being more clear about our own anxieties around status and recognizing that status is slippery—what counts as status in one context doesn’t matter at all in another context—is the first step to being able to question well-established hierarchies and status assumptions. And then we can begin to free ourselves from entrenched ideas about the value of work.

And finally, if we are going to think better about work in general—not just our own work but the work of others—it can help to consider broader questions of justice and injustice. Because if our comforts depend on the discomfort of others, then perhaps we need to rethink human activity more broadly so that we can start to redress these deep-rooted issues.

Further reading

David Kaplan’s “The Darker Side of the ‘Original Affluent Society’” is worth reading. You can find it in the Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Autumn 2000), pp. 301–324

Jared Diamond’s essay, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” is a fun read. You should be able to find it online. It was first published in Discover Magazine (May 1987), pp. 64–66.

Agnes Callard wrote an interesting piece in the New York Times recently asking “Should We Cancel Aristotle?

Writer & philosopher. PhD philosophy. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. Next book Hello, Stranger (Granta 2021). Twitter @willbuckingham

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