What is work?

The first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end; and therefore the question must be asked, what ought we to do when at leisure?

–Aristotle, Politics

[Under capitalism,] one does not work to live; one lives to work.

–Max Weber

Transvaluation of Values: Total Work

It was obvious to the Greeks that leisure came first and so in Aristotle’s Politics the question is how to undertake work (and what work to undertake) in order to be at leisure. It was obvious to Aristotle that the highest form of life–the contemplative life–could only be realized in leisure. His question is a genuine one: when we’re at leisure, how shall be so wisely?

Aristotle’s view has been largely lost except in quaint corners. Writing immediately after the end of World War II, Joseph Pieper observes that it is obvious to us that ‘one lives to work.’ Not only has the relationship between work and leisure been reversed; but also, and more substantively, there has been a ‘transvaluation of values’ which has transformed the very meaning and value we attribute to work and to that which is not-work. Work comes first and its many fledgling derivatives (spare time, leisure time, break (from work), weekend, vacation, sick leave, paid leave, etc.) come second. No one can even grasp weekend unless one first seized upon work-week.

This transvaluation of values is so strange, so momentous, so counterintuitive to any reasonable person (why would anyone prefer working to having a leisurely conversation?) that it begs for explanation. I have none in hand. To understand how work became, in Joseph Pieper’s words, ‘total,’ we must first inquire into what work is. This I do, in a time of leisure, below.

What is Work?

I want to say that work is primarily the sort of activity we undertake to meet our material needs. Let our (human) material needs be adequate food, water, shelter, care of the body (more specifically: health care), warmth, coldness, and shelter. Material needs are only those which a human being must satisfy on an ongoing basis to avoid perishing. Vinay Gupta has an accurate view of the six ways to die:

  • too hold
  • too cold
  • thirst
  • hunger
  • illness
  • injury

We could say that we work, in the primary sense, to avoid death by these means. Or–in a positive formulation–we could say that working intends to supply us with adequate warmth, coldness, water, food, and care of the body.

The assumption is clear from the Book of Genesis: we wouldn’t need to work if what we needed to survive were immediately ready to or close at hand. This claim is less demanding than the one that states that we wouldn’t need to work if we couldn’t get hungry, thirsty, etc. The nearly self-evident and more modest claim I’m advancing is that we wouldn’t need to work if an adequate supply of food, water, and so on were always in hand or near hand.

So, unless we have slaves or are independently wealthy, we ourselves must work. Call this Work[1]:

  • Work[1] is an activity undertaken to directly meet our material needs.

But now it seems clear that we work in ways that indirectly allow us to meet our material needs as well. How else would we count housework, washing our clothes, and the like if we didn’t call them instances of work? Yet doing housework is not an activity that directly meets my material needs: cleaning the floor is not the same as chopping vegetables to be eaten.

So we arrive at Work[2]:

  • Work[2] is an activity undertaken to routinely maintain that which enables us to directly meet our material needs.

Examples: routine car maintenance, housework, oral hygiene.

But now I think of cases where I’m injured and doing physical therapy, of cases where another person is performing surgery, of cases where my house is flooded, etc. I don’t bail water out of my home to directly meet my material needs or to routinely maintain that which is in good order.

Thus Work[3]:

  • Work[3] is an activity undertaken to restore that which enables one to directly meet one’s material needs.

On this accounting, we have a primary form of work (Work[1]) as well as two secondary forms of work (Work[2] and Work[3]). The reasonable person would only engage in the minimum amount of work that would, directly or indirectly, be necessary for him to his material needs and thus enable him to spend most of his time in leisure. But this bold, now difficult to hear claim cannot yet be substantiated.