In September 2018, about a year ago now, I gave a TEDxABQ talk on Total Work. The organization’s posting the videos on YouTube has been delayed time and again. Since I’m not sure, at this point, whether they will be released, I thought it could make sense to include a copy of the talk transcript here. I do so below. I hope you find it edifying.
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I. SCIENCE FICTION: Work Taking Over The World
Imagine that work had taken over the world. Then would it be the center around which the rest of human life turned. Then everything else—the games once played, the songs once sung, the loves long fulfilled—would first come to resemble and thereafter to become work. And then there would come a time, itself largely unobserved, when the many worlds that had existed before work took over the world would vanish completely from cultural memory.
And how, in this world of total work, would people speak and think and act? Everywhere they looked they would see the pre-employed, the employed, the post-employed, and the unemployed, with no one uncounted in this census. Everywhere they would laud and love work, opening their eyes to tasks and closing them only to sleep. And everywhere an ethos of hard work would be championed as the key to happiness and success, laziness being the greatest vice.
In this world, eating, excreting, exercising, meditating, and resting would all be conducive to good health, which would, in turn, be conducive to being more and more productive. In this world, no one would drink too much and everyone would live indefinitely long. To be sure, off in some quaint corners, rumors would occasionally spread about death or suicide from overwork, but such sweet melodies would rightly be regarded as praise songs for the ultimate sacrifice. In all corners of the world, therefore, people would act with the sole intention of fulfilling total work’s deepest longing: to see itself fully realized.
This world, it turns out, is not a work of science fiction; it is unmistakably close to our own.
II. TOTAL WORK: A Prophecy Come True
It is West Germany, 1947. The country, now divided in two, has been shattered by war, with nearly 80% of the buildings in major cities having been destroyed by allied forces. The West German people, therefore, are very, very busy. They have not only a country but also lives to rebuild.
In this context, a lesser known German philosopher named Josef Pieper is sending his fellow citizens a message. He is urging them not to put their heads down and get back to work immediately but rather to stand back and reflect upon themselves and upon the situation they find themselves in. His book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, is published one year later in 1948 and is then summarily forgotten.
And what dangerous message did this strange book contain? Nothing less than a prophecy of a future in which total work would transform all human beings into Workers and nothing else while transforming all aspects of life into work.
His prophesy has since come true: in the twenty-first century, we believe that we are all, and only, Workers.
III. HISTORY: From Curse to Culture-wide Burnout
Yet this, I say, is cultural madness. But then how did we get here? How did work take over the world?
The story I mean to tell consists of 4 chapters. In first chapter, I’ll discuss the ancient Greek slave society; in second, the medieval tripartite society; in third, our Protestant heritage; and in the final chapter, our cultural exhaustion.
Chapter 1—Ancient Greeks: The Ancient Greeks came up with two insights relevant to our inquiry. The first was that labor, insofar as it tied one to the interminable needs of the body, was itself a kind of enslavement. The second was that freedom–both political and contemplative–was a supreme good. And so, they invented a slave society so that the many–slaves–could free up the few–the aristocrats–who could then pursue a life devoted to politics and contemplation.
Chapter 2—Medievals: What needs to be underscored about the medieval tripartite society is that it was rank-ordered from top to bottom. On the top were clerics, or those who prayed, as well as aristocrats, or those who fought, while on the very bottom were peasants, or those who worked the fields. Theirs must have been lives of “toil and trouble.” For the Greeks, then, work was ignoble, servile, contemptible, a curse. And for medievals, work was penance for Original Sin.
Chapter 3—Protestants: But then something astonishing happens as we enter the modern period. Luther and especially Calvin end up turning the value of work on its head. Truly, after the Protestant Reformation, our ideas about work would never be the same.
Henceforth work would be exalted: a duty for all of us, a responsibility for each of us, the primary source of ultimate fulfillment in life, and perhaps even the way in which we leave our lasting stamp on this world. In time, work would become the key to happiness, meaning, and pretty much everything.
Chapter 4—Us: Yet this period in which work was exalted is now being eclipsed by a new kind of cultural exhaustion. For Nietzsche, a culture becomes decadent when it gets stuck in worn-out values while being unable to create new ones for itself.
By now, total work has expanded into nearly every human domain. And now in its finale, it is birthing a civilization spiritually exhausted.
This, then, is the road we have traveled: for the longest time, work was a curse; then a necessary evil; then—and this almost miraculously—an object of exaltation. Only now has work delivered us into a culture-wide burnout.
We are burned out and we can go no further.
IV. THE SABBATH: Be Still and Find Yourself
Perhaps the most radical act you can perform today is to observe the Sabbath, that is, a day of complete rest. A day not to “relax,” not to “recharge,” not to “restore” yourself so that you can engage all the more in work the following days and months and eons but rather a day devoted entirely to the contemplation of why you’re here.
All the Abrahamic faiths observe a day of rest for its own sake as do Hindus, Buddhists, and many indigenous peoples. Secular culture, however, does not because it cannot. Since its idol is work, it can do no more than give us weekends, vacations, and Labor Days, all of which serve as “downtime” to be used for “unwinding” and “restoring” before we resume the ceaseless busyness of our workaday existence. And so, I ask you, “Might we have lost some of the wisdom that these other traditions know and know so well?”
Listen very closely to the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel as he speaks of the essence of the Sabbath: “The Sabbath is not [he writes] for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not [he goes on] an interlude but the climax of living.”
Summing up the main conclusion of Josef Pieper’s book on leisure, the philosopher Roger Scruton once joked, “Don’t just do something; stand there!” And so, I say to all of us: may we all stand there or sit here and thereby find out who we really are.
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