Two mistakes hidden by ‘meaningful work’

Number of Hours Spent Working

Imagine you spent a millisecond working every day. Imagine further that this millisecond was the length of time required for you to meet your material needs. Would you think at all about a concept such as ‘meaningful work,’ a concept that, according to Google Ngram Viewer, only came into prominence during the 1970s?

‘Meaningful work’ may be a sign of a widespread cultural ideological blind spot. ‘If I’m going to spend the largest part of each day as well as most of my adult life working,’ one reasons, ‘then wouldn’t it be crucial for me to pursue and secure meaningful work?’ In this accounting, what falls out of focus is concrete historical reality: the fact that people are working longer and longer days, and this fact has been taken both as a given and as a starting point for the further questions they raise about careers, fields, and so forth. I call ‘meaningful work’ an ideological blind spot, then, because it hides the fact that there is (or so I would conjecture) a clear correlation between the greater length of time one works each day and the more intense desire for meaningful work.

If you didn’t work more than an hour or two each day or only a partial day, wouldn’t you wonder, with Aristotle, about how best to use your ample leisure time? And wouldn’t leisure be precisely that which is invested with meaning concepts such as wisdom, understanding, love, fraternity, neighborliness, and the like?

The liberal arts tradition insists that the goods of knowledge are to be pursued in the slow, contemplative time of leisure and that this is how a human being becomes humane. In leisure, what also spring forth are the goods of friendship, which are revealed in hosting, ceremony, celebration, and festival.

Drudgery or Meaningful Work?

I used to make the mistake of believing either that one did meaningful work or that one did drudgery. And if one is to spend the lion’s share of one’s waking hours working, then one would want to avoid drudgery while pursuing meaningful work. But this view is incorrect since there are many ways of working that are instances neither of drudgery nor of meaningful work. Home upkeep (provided one lives in a small home), cooking, and mending clothes are only some examples of work that, if performed by ‘minding what one is doing’ (Gilbert Ryle), are beautiful, fully realized acts.

But this is not all. There are assuredly many forms of work that would qualify as dignified, humane, and decent, such forms of work being neither drudgery nor ‘meaningful.’ And were someone to work only part of any given day and but a small portion of any given week, then he would have ample time to do precisely what he wanted to do. Doing precisely what he wants to do would, one hopes, be identical to pursuing the basic questions of living or, what is the same thing, to figuring out how it is best for a human being–for him–to live.