The riddle of meaningful work

A Misplaced Desire

The desire to do meaningful work or to do what one loves needs to be brought into question. I too once made the assumption that meaningful work stretches most of the way across a good life. I don’t think so any longer. Further philosophical and historical reflection reveals that the desire for meaningful work may be a riddle and one that is leading us astray.

Aristotle’s argument in the Politics shook free from me some basic assumptions about modern work. He writes,

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?

This argument caused me to ask what work actually is. In an earlier post, I argued that there are three conceptions of work:

  • [Primary] Work[1] is an activity undertaken to directly meet our material needs. (E.g., farming)
  • [Secondary] Work[2] is an activity undertaken to routinely maintain that which enables us to directly meet our material needs. (E.g., housework)
  • [Secondary] Work[3] is an activity undertaken to restore that which enables us to directly meet our material needs. (E.g., home rebuilding after a flood)

But if this is right, then what are we to make of the kind of work called ‘meaningful’?

Meaningful Work: A Large Mistake

One mistake that is frequently made is to define work in terms of meaningfulness. I saw this mistake more clearly only after re-reading Plato’s Euthyphro. Euthyphro’s definition of piety–piety is what the gods love–is shown to be in error. As Socrates says rather mockingly,

I’m afraid, Euthyphro, that when you were asked what piety is, you did not wish to make its nature clear to me, but you told me an affect or quality of it, that the pious has the quality of being loved by the gods, but you have not yet told me what the pious is.

Similarly, we moderns first make the mistake of speaking only of a certain kind of work (meaningful work), then of ascribing a quality to meaningful work (that it is loved by us). Doing so leaves us (i) mystified about what work actually is, (ii) why one would do it at all, and (iii) why, if one did, one would want to do it. (Put aside for now David Graeber’s claim that most modern work is simply ‘bullshit work’ anyway, hence making the demand for meaningful work even harder to meet.)

Now we can begin to unearth the assumptions underlying our conception of modern work.

Assumptions About Work in Modernity

1.) Work is supposed to be meaningful and, just because it is, it is to be loved by us.

Is this true?

2.) Work is undertaken for most of every day and over the course of a lifetime.

Does this have to be so? It’s not true in the case of my own life.

3.) Work = career.

Is this not a misidentification? An ideological confusion?

4.) One can expect to do one kind of thing over the course of one’s lifetime.

Can one? In all historical epochs? In our own?

5.) Good work represents a lifetime of achievement.

Or does a life achievement–say, becoming wise–lie elsewhere?

6.) Meaningful work is an adequate answer to the question of the good life.


Rejecting These Assumptions

Reject all six assumptions, and you are ready to reconsider the nature and place of work in a well-led life. Rejecting all six to begin with, however, may not even be necessary simply to get good thinking underway. You can start by rejecting 2.) and 4.), and you’ll end up rejecting the rest in time.

Why 2.)? Because were it to be imagined that one would only work a couple of hours each day or only a part of each day in order to meet one’s material needs, then one would already be open to Aristotle’s question about what to do with one’s leisure.

Why 4.)? Because one would become a generalist of sorts, learning to do a suite of things in one’s life and this, in turn, would easily lead to the rejection of 3.), 5.) and 6.).


Rejecting these assumptions, you would become open to the basic questions of human existence as well as to what humble role work actually plays in the overall conception of a life well-led. Better, you would be freed for good from all the words people, under the dispensation of modern meaningful work, use and misuse each day: busy, busyness, overwhelmed, cancel, reschedule, running late, sorry, etc.