How To Care Less About Work–But Not Do Less Of It

My piece on total work recently appeared in Quartz. I’m including the opening paragraph below.


We live in an age of “total work.” It’s a term coined by the German philosopher Josef Pieper just after World War II—describing the process by which human beings are transformed into workers, and the entirety of life is then transformed into work. Work becomes total when all of human life is centered around it; when everything else is not just subordinate to, but in the service of work. Leisure, festivity, and play come to resemble work—and then straight-up become it.

You can read the rest here,


‘Caring Less About Work, We Open Ourselves Up to the Vertical Dimension of Life….’

We live in an age of total work. Consider the successful startup CEO who puts in 100 hours a week while transforming the rest of his life–sleeping, eating, meditating, working out, commuting, socializing–into a work-like means for enhancing productivity. Or the drug abusing lawyer working for a prestigious Silicon Valley law firm found dead by his ex-wife who pictured him, in his final moments, “vomiting, unable to sit up, slipping in and out of consciousness,” and yet who “had managed, somehow, to dial into a conference call” and then to die. Or, not the least, our daily tragedies, all the moments when we sense that there must be more to life, something else, something greater, only to then let this something pass us by as we wait for this something unknown to arrive. Sadness falls over us as we realize that each day we betray our imaginations, closing ourselves off from what, unspeakably, has been lost and is now nearly forgotten.

Total work, a term coined by the German philosopher Josef Pieper just after World War II, is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers, the entirety of life into work. By this means, work will ultimately become total when it’s the center around which all of human life turns, when everything else is not just subordinate to but is also put in the service of work, when leisure, festivity, and play come to resemble and then to become work, and when there remains no other dimension to life beyond work. To see this, think of any given day: probably, you arrange your sleep and schedule social engagements around work; at night and in the morning you prepare for work; you commute to and from work; you eat lunch while doing work; you occupy your thoughts with what needs to be done and with how to get through things; you work out, rest and relax, eat well, and remain in good health for the sake of being more productive; you believe in working on yourself as well as on your relationships; you think of your days off in terms of getting things done; and you take a good day to be a productive day.

Plainly, despite our belief in the supreme value of work, caring as much as we do about work is causing us needless suffering. I speak daily with individuals from Silicon Valley to Scandinavia, from Central America to Southern Europe about their “obsessions with work,” obsessions that, by their own accounts, are making them miserable. Nevertheless, the prevailing assumption underlying total work is that work is worth caring a lot about in virtue of the fulfillments and rewards it supplies, so much so that it should be central to a good human life. But what if this assumption were incorrect with the result that our lives were grounded on an unsound foundation? What if the idea were not to do less work but to care less about the work we do?

We can begin to care less about work either by becoming completely indifferent to life and so not caring about anything or by developing an aversion to working, procrastination being one form of this, indulgence in pleasure another. And yet, neither approach seems to hold much promise: the first because it turns us into nihilists who believe that nothing is worth living for, the second because it leaves us stuck in a cycle of aversion for work and attraction to pleasure, an unending pattern Buddhists would regard as the manifestation of deep unsatisfactoriness (“dukkha”). Thus, the only option remaining is to care less about work because we care more about other, more important things. What, then, are those more important things?

Most of us have had meaningful experiences–finding love unexpectedly, seeing moonlight draped over rooftops, feeling awe when asked an intriguing question, catching a glimpse of eternity–that we summarily dismiss as being no more than passing moments or that we turn into merely nostalgic episodes to be recalled wistfully now and again. I wonder, though, whether these experiences aren’t instead clues revealing a vertical dimension to life and, if so, whether we could dilate into them as they arise. I call this dimension “vertical” because it lifts us out of our ordinary, workaday lives as well as our self-centered cares and concerns just as it opens us up to being immersed in what’s actually occurring, disclosing something of the vastness of existence. I can think of four such experiences, all of which can be regarded as sophisticated forms of play.

Love is playful. When we fall in love, we may experience genuine joy quite possibly for the first time in our lives. For Pieper, “Joy is the response of the lover receiving what he loves.” We long for the one we love. And not only do we long for him or her; we also learn, through love, to care more about others than we do about ourselves. What’s more, love ushers us into a state of awareness where the world seems kindlier, more forgiving, more open, and less fraught by injustice, depravity, and degradation. In love, we feel that nothing needs to be done, and love shows us what, and who, we’re capable of being.

In its purest form, art is also play, the free play of the imagination. In the act of aesthetic perception or creation, we come to embrace beauty. And what’s striking about beauty is not just that it slows down and channels our attention in the direction of the object, soliciting us to dwell in its presence but also that it attracts us, transporting us to it while lifting us out of the world of utility. Transforming the space around us into something captivating, beauty seduces us into staying there to take it all in or as much as we can. What might it mean for us to make room for more beauty in our lives and, even better, if we were to make our lives themselves more beautiful?

While, in some social circles, it’s controversial today to propose that religion should continue to matter to us in a secular age, I believe it holds within itself the truth that there is more to life than the temporal, impermanent realm of human existence. Notwithstanding their significant differences, all existing religions, whether a theistic religion like Christianity or a non-theistic religion such as Buddhism, bear like seeds glimpses of eternity. Religions are vessels of eternity. When we’re graced by an experience during which clock time falls away and we contemplate “the numinous,” we feel, being in a state of happiness beyond words, more and more at one with things. Mystical poets are not advancing philosophical propositions when they say, “I am the transparing sea and the liquid sky and the intimate hills far off and within.”

Philosophy, finally, is an activity severed from work. As the loving, reflective pursuit of living wisely, it takes us well beyond the useful and the expeditious, and in so doing it invites us to inquire into the connection between human existence and the existence of all things. Initially, it may seem that asking philosophical questions such as “Who am I?,” “What is this all about?,” “How should I live?,” and “What is love?” leads us to knowledge of ourselves and the world. Up to a point, this is true. Yet, higher up, philosophy seeks to awaken us to the very mystery of existence. Beginning in wonderment, it brings us to genuine, unalloyed awe.

Caring less about work, we open ourselves up to caring more about the vertical dimension to life, about what matters more. Love, art, religion, and philosophy shepherd us beyond the world of total work, helping us to remember why we’re here, allowing us to shed our worries, anxieties, irritations, and busynesses, affording us experiences of what is truly meaningful, letting us rest for a while in the unfolding present. In this, we are, again, like children.

Exasperated, a character in Voltaire’s Candide named Martin exclaims, “Let’s stop all this philosophizing and get down to work.” What a waste of time, he seems to be saying, and maybe you’re thinking the same thing. We could, of course, follow Martin’s advice, or we could insist upon working less without caring less about work, or we could try to find a time management guru who will continue a regime of total work by plying time-saving techniques. But then aren’t these approaches just more of the same: total work in action? Keeping your head down, easing up a bit, and using work to work more efficiently will all ensure that you’ll someday regret the awakened life that will have ultimately, tragically passed you by.


Josef Pieper on the Waning of Philosophy in the Time of Total Work

In preparation for writing a couple of articles for Quartz and Aeon on total work, I thought I would try to make some sense of Josef Pieper’s insightful Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1948), In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity (1965), “The Condition of Philosophy Today,” and “The Condition of Philosophy in the Modern World” (1950). Pieper was obviously very concerned about the possibility of philosophy in the modern world. Why?

In 1950, Pieper saw that philosophy was threatened on two sides. He argues that philosophers, following Bacon and Descartes, sought to make philosophy “useful” while the world of work continued to expand its claim to be “total,” the result being philosophy’s obsolescence. Some years later, in another essay entitled “The Condition of Philosophy Today,” he offers a third side, the view according to which philosophy should aspire to the precision of science and yet this it is incapable of doing. He suggests that philosophy exists in a free space, negatively free in the sense of not being encroached upon by state power or, I’ll add, by market logic and positively free in that it opens us up to a profound sense of wonderment at the fact of existence. In light of these encroachments on all three sides (and I believe Pieper, who was writing against totalitarianism, would have been disheartened had it seen the ways in which market logic under late capitalism have seeped into our daily consciousness, reshaping us in its image), the more work becomes total, the more use and power control the terms and conditions of the world, the less philosophy is possible and thus the less philosophy is able to cause the kinds of “concussions” (Pieper’s marvelous word I can use wish were my own!) that may disclose to us the vertical dimension of life and, more specifically, may engender within us the glorious mystery of the totality of existence.


As I see it, all of these books and essays seek to tell a single story about the hegemony of total work, of work’s becoming total and at the same time about the eclipse of art, love, philosophy, and religion whose collective power resides in their ability to awaken us to the vertical dimension of life, the dimension that makes life worth leading, the placeless place where all questions fall away in the encounter with an immense presence.

In his book on the festive (which is published almost twenty years, in the mid-1960s, after his post-World War II book on leisure), Pieper shares a quote with us that, to me, gets to the heart of the book I’m trying to write. It is that we’re witnessing (or have witnessed) “the transformation of the individual into a worker” (In Tune with the World 54). I would rather say: the transformation of the human being into a worker. That is the central question of the book I would like to write: how did human beings get transformed into workers? In Leisure, Pieper suggests that this is an ‘anthropological question’ (a question concerning what is man) or an existential question, not first and foremost an economic or political question. What he suggests in passing there is that “work and unemployment are [now] the two inescapable poles of existence” (Leisure 32). What’s fascinating is that Pieper, a German Catholic, is writing during the aftermath of WWII and so what lurks less in the shadows and more in the foreground is totalitarianism. He suggests that one manifestation of totalitarian thought is the following: “For the process of production itself is understood and proclaimed as the activity which gives meaning to human existence” (Leisure 40). What’s intriguing is that liberal democratic capitalism shares with totalitarianism the same impulse or the same proposal that production is the alpha and omega of human existence. Quartz, a successful online business and entrepreneurship newspaper with a very large readership, ends its daily brief with: “Our best wishes for a productive day.” But this only goes to show that the heterogeneous space where genuine thought, beauty, love’s transport, and mystery dwell have been occluded, are almost lost.

In closing, let me try to state as clearly as possible the philosophical questions I am grappling with:

1.) What is one of the defining features of the modern world? It is the power that work wields over our lives, the way in which work took over the world. (Which is not to say that the birth of the supposedly self-regulating market, the emergence and hegemony of nation-states, the disenchantment of the world, the rise of the autonomous individual, etc. aren’t also defining features for surely they are.)

2.) How did it come to pass that there was an epochal transformation of persons into workers? That is, how were human beings transformed into just or only or exactly workers and nothing else? I’ve placed an early bet on the relationship between the Protestant ethos and the rise of capitalism (I’m re-reading Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism alongside R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study). The Protestant Work Ethic may be the key to understanding this epochal transformation, though I’m not sure that this is the entire story.

3.) How can I flesh out the specific ways in which work has become ‘total,” the specific ways in which it manifests itself in our consciousness, our actions, our lives?

4.) Finally, as Josef Pieper asks, “can a full human existence be contained within an exclusively workaday existence” (Leisure: The Basis of Culture 23)? I answer in the negative. Love, art, philosophy, and religion disclose what I call the vertical dimension of life.

Did Homo Sapiens Make Two Faustian Bargains With Work?

This essay should be read as a work of science fiction or as speculative rumination. The idea, in what follows, is to push the envelope with regard to my thinking about the place and value of work in modern life. Whether many of the claims contained herein are true I really couldn’t say.

A Day of Thinking

I’m trying to gather together a series of insights that occurred to me yesterday, so bear with me here. I had a philosophical conversation with a young Swedish man who realized that he had never found meaning through work and nor, as I suggest, could he because “meaningful work” is impossible. I had a second philosophical conversation with an Argentine man, a COO who observed that the very wealthy, successful, and high-status businessmen he knew, those who put work first, were unhappy. I also read some remarkable essays yesterday. Three are worth mentioning. Derek Thompson’s “A World Without Work” reveals a journalist who can’t climb outside the bounds of total work and for this reason is perpetuating some delusions (about which more below). More carefully and provocatively, Marshall Sahlins, in his seminal “The Original Affluent Society,” makes a case for the easy subsistence and relative abundance of hunter-gatherers during the paleolithic period (a view seconded, I think, in some of the pages of Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.) Sahlins’s proposal contradicts the commonsensical view that human civilization was an unqualified good and one that surely brought about immense progress in culture as well as human happiness. The most profound of the three, I think, is Bob Black’s “The Abolition of Work,” a stirring anarchist essay published in 1985 and one that remains both important and prescient today. To round things off, I had a great call with the writer Michael Coren who made me think that the trouble with total work may very well extend back farther than the Protestant Reformation (as Weber seems to have thought). His prodding spurred me to think further.

How can I begin to make sense of all these things? My tentative thesis is that homo sapiens has accepted two Faustian bargains. One occurs at the outset of the Agricultural Revolution, the other at the dawn of the Protestant Reformation.

I’ll start with the present context and then tack my way backward.

Total Work Is Everywhere

Total work is everywhere. To work on yourself, you can work out, work through your troubled relationships, or complete Byron Katie’s program of self-inquiry aptly called The Work. All of which would, as it is so often said, be hard work. Weekends are said to be good in virtue of your having gotten a lot done, time off is filled with endless tasks and To-Do Lists, and meditation, itself yet again hard work, is said to make you more productive at work. What’s more, countless apps, time management gurus, and courses in life hacking promise to make you more efficient. Even taking drugs is now work: no longer done just to get fucked up or to have non-ordinary experiences but, as some would say, because ayahuasca or LSD is “the work.” What is going on here?

A lesser-known twentieth century German philosopher named Josef Pieper turned out to be a prophet. Just after World War II, he observed that what could come to pass would be a period of “total work,” a time when the center of our lives would be work, everything else turning around it while slowly, almost imperceptibly turning into it. He noted the dramatic historical reversal evident in the movement from Aristotle’s view that we work in order to embrace contemplative leisure to Weber’s bourgeois view that we live in order to fulfill a “secular calling.”

In the twenty-first century, Pieper’s omen has come true: we live in a time of total work, and we are on the verge of becoming total workers. Each day I speak with people from Scandinavia to Wall Street, from Central America to Silicon Valley who are not overworked but total worked and are suffering deeply as a result. Those 60-100 hours individuals I speak with log each week in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street are, by my lights, not the thing itself, are not just instances of overwork in need of “moderation” but are rather, and more emphatically, symptoms of the hegemony of total work. It’s a deep predicament into which we’ve fallen as well as a historical development I seek to challenge.

Basic Theses

1. The First Noble Truth, according to the Buddha, is that human life insofar as we ordinarily experience it is suffering (dukkha).

2. The Second Noble Truth, as I construe it, is that the cause of human suffering is mental confusion.

3. I used to think that doing the wrong kind of work caused suffering, the right sort of work bringing enjoyment, but in this I now realize that I was deeply mistaken.

4. We are extraordinarily confused about the place and value of work in human life. As I’m now beginning to see, the chief (but not sole) cause of human suffering is work itself, regardless of the kind of work one does. This doesn’t mean that some work isn’t better than others (surely it is), but it does mean that no work is exempt from at least some modicum of suffering and all work requires sacrifice, however small or large. I’ll come to our sacrifices below when I discuss our Faustian bargains.

What Is Work?

Work is doing whatever I (or we) need to do in order to survive and to continue to survive. Period. Nothing more and nothing less. Storing and saving will begin to be human inventions after the Agricultural Revolution (which is dated to 10,000-12,000 years ago), and, for us in civilization, it is one way in which we continue to survive. In The Protestant Work Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism, Max Weber observes that a “person does not ‘by nature’ want to make more and more money, but simply to live–to live in a manner in which he is accustomed to live, and to earn as much as is necessary for this.” This he terms traditionalism, and here I wish to draw a generalization based on his vital observation. It is that a human being does not “by nature” want to work more and more just in order to survive (or to accumulate and thereafter invest capital); he simply wants to live “in a manner in which he is accustomed to live” and so to do just enough in order to make this happen.

How did this traditionalist view, this sensible intuition get radically overturned?

The First Faustian Bargain

A Faustian bargain, as I’ll use the term in what follows, means accepting a deal that seems really good to you at the time but turns out, often much later on, to be the kind of raw deal that carries massive unintended, harmful consequences. It seemed like a good idea for Faust to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for worldly power, but it turned out to be a very raw deal indeed.

The Myth of the Fall, as it’s beautifully detailed in Genesis, can be interpreted as humankind’s first Faustian bargain, the one that tracks our moving into an agrarian society some 10,000-12,000 years ago. It seemed like a good idea for human beings to (a) gain consciousness of themselves (upon eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, “the eyes of both of them were opened” [Gen 3:7]) and for humankind to (b) have dominion over all other sentient beings. Yet in exchange for consciousness and dominion, homo sapiens had to work, women henceforth being engaged in “painful labor” to reproduce the species and men henceforth bound to “painful toil” in the fields.

We have enough evidence now to determine that the early neolithic period must have been brutal. As Harari describes it, farming, unlike hunting and gathering, was back-breathing and anxiety-producing. Sickness surely reared up as humans formed settlements, lived in close quarters, lacked proper sanitation, and died young. Agrarian work has caused humankind immense human suffering since.

What seems clear, though, is that this Faustian bargain could be the way in which humankind could achieve dominion over the rest of the world. Perhaps not just the Cognitive Revolution, perhaps not just homo sapiens’ capacity to cooperate, perhaps not just our ingenuity when it comes to making and using tools (homo sapiens as homo faber), perhaps not just these and other revolutions but work itself could enable us to remake the world. We know from reading Harari’s Sapiens, Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction that humankind has grown from a small, unremarkable band to 7.1 billion people at present and, while expanding thusly, has caused animal extinctions and ecological degradation of all kinds while remaking the world. As I see it, this Faustian bargain says, “Thou shalt inherit the earth, remaking it in thy image, yet thy great sacrifice shalt be the extent to which thou shalt suffer in and through thy work. Thou shalt be like gods and like slaves both.” Imagine that: like gods and slaves both. What a strange fate!

The Second Faustian Bargain

What’s encoded in the first Faustian bargain are a few basic ideas about the nature of work. (1) Work is “toil and trouble,” as Adam Smith once wrote, and (2) work is a tolerable necessity. We’re familiar with the first, but only listen to people today for a few precious moments and you’ll very soon hear them say, upon your questioning the value of work, “Dammit, man, but you’ve got to work! You have to work! What are you–some damn hippie?” They are encoding in their knee-jerk statements the idea that work is a necessity. But is it? Must we? And: did it have to be this way?

In any event, up until modernity most cultures reasonably relegated work to the slaves, the serfs, the peasants, and the artisans. Those of noble birth, those in positions of power, and those occupying the priestly class usually saw work as something that was beneath them. In an aristocratic culture, for instance, work was regarded as worthy of contempt. “Let slaves and slavish types work; we would not deign to lower ourselves to do that!” Human suffering through work could be “solved” by distinguishing between those classes of people exempt from work and those not so exempt. Only some bore the brunt of the raw deal while others enjoyed the fruits of the labor, and some such metaphysical beliefs about the precarity of the cosmic order ensured that slave revolts weren’t live options.

The reason Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic strikes me as such a profound treatise is that it can be interpreted as containing, as a seed within itself, a novel Faustian bargain, the second one, a bargain that is much more radical and far-reaching than the first. Remember that the first Faustian bargain goes like this: in exchange for consciousness (what Zen might critically call subject-object dualism) as well as, and more emphatically, dominion over the world you shall work. Yet still work was slavish, and no one in his right mind would want to work. It is simply understood that some class of people would need to work for the sake of the rest of us. Capiche?

Something uncanny happens on the road to modernity. Oh, holy of holies, it comes to pass that everyone from rich to poor comes to want to work! Isn’t that a marvel? Is it even fathomable? As I read Weber’s treatise, homo sapiens made a dramatic, and perhaps irreversible (?), turn as we accepted a second Faustian bargain. This one states, “In exchange for (a) greater scientific and then technological domination of the earth (cf. the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions) and for (b) the justification of human existence, you shall put work front and center in your daily life and in human culture, according work near-infinite value.” Work was no longer slavish; work was divinized. Somehow.

I want to dwell on point (b). What I believe is undeniably mind-blowing is that work could come, in modernity, to seem as if it were a justification for a particular human life  as well as for humankind. As one five-year-old American child very recently put it, “I was born to work.” If someone were to ask, “Why is humankind here? Why do we exist? What would enable us to overcome our existential Angst, our anomie, our acedia, our creeping nihilism?,” the second Faustian bargain would seem a great blessing since it would do away with our existential doubts, assuring us that we were born to work.


Let me be candid. What makes this brief contrarian history of work of the kind I’ve begun here a dangerous endeavor is that it flies in the face of what we’ve come to learn and to believe. We moderns believe that work is at least a necessity. Is it? But we believe much more than this! Going much, much further, we moderns also believe that work (a) brings us fulfillment and (b) enables us to find, or create, meaning. Does it bring fulfillment? Is meaning through work even possible? Indeed, more than this, we believe that it is our very reason for being.

Our delusions about the place of work in human life and modern culture run very deep. We do not know that work itself, not just this kind or that, is causing us suffering, immense, often unspoken suffering. We should at least ask whether the whole thing has been worth it.

Was All This Worth It?

Was either Faustian bargain worth it? I’m not so sure. In “The Abolition of Work,” Bob Black writes at the outset, “Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost all the evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work.” Was the domination of the earth in exchange for supreme human suffering worth it? I don’t know. Was being able to have a justification for human existence (I’m “born to work,” you “live to work,” we worship work) in exchange for the unfolding of the Geist of total work worth it? I doubt it. Or has the ever-unfolding, possibly inexorable logic of the Geist of total work on the backs of human lives been too high a cost for homo sapiens to pay? I’m beginning to think so. Slaves to work, we suffer mightily our ideas.