Two boo’s for ‘living in order to work’


Call me puzzled. I can’t help but recall a wealthy man I used to tutor while I was living in New York City. He was an heir to a famous American dynasty and was doubtless so wealthy that none of his grandchildren would ever need to work. Despite this, he worked very long hours, founding and co-founding companies, some of which would be very familiar to you. Why would someone who doesn’t have to work long, hunger to work–and to do scarcely anything else?

I’ve only begun reading Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, which was originally published in 1899. On the opening pages, Veblen makes plain that barbarian cultures initiated a class distinction between laborers and elites (who were engaged, variously, in politics, warfare, religion, and sport). Until very recently in human history, it simply appeared self-evident that, provided that an economic order had advanced to the point at which not everyone needed to work (there could be slaves, women, and a class of male laborers, say), leisure was regarded as obviously preferable to working, that one worked (if one did, if one had to) for the sake of leisure, and that whatever we mean by ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ or ‘significance’ must needs be sought in non-work. Furthermore, leisure was the honorable, dignified, laudatory term and the second term–whatever is not leisure, i.e., work–would be derived from the leisure concept.

It is therefore surprising (a) that the wealthy, early 50-something man I used to tutor should choose to spend most of his life working and (b) that someone who is out of work would, even if financially secure, find his life boring because he is not working. What is going on? It is a question I cannot yet answer.

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Our 2 conceptions of work: work as toil vs. work as performance

Yesterday, I wrote about the three ways of making a living, and I still have many implications to spell out. Today, I set this subject off to the side and turn to a related topic, this being our conceptions of work.

I believe that there are only two conceptions that vie and belie each other, that each has been with us roughly since the beginning of human history, and, what is more, that they are in competition with each other in the modern age. I will argue further that although the first conception is more prominent, it is also mistaken. In contrast, the second conception, though rarer, is actually in stride with human excellence.

The first conception is that work is toil to be endured. Evidence for the existence of this conception can be found, already in the form of common sense, in the Book of Genesis where, as punishment, God tells Adam that he shall spend his days toiling in the field while Eve shall be burdened with the labors of childbirth. My (very) speculative thesis is that this idea of work as toil coincides with the birth of agriculture 10,000 years and so ago. It is not for nothing that aristocrats in many early heroic societies tended to distinguish between leisure and warfare (their noble pursuits) and animal husbandry, farming, artisanship, and slavery (the plebs’ various fates).

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Love, friendship, and work

In Sources of the Self, the philosopher Charles Taylor argues that what is distinctive about the modern world is that many of us have come to regard the claims of ordinary life as being ultimately fulfilling. Someone’s falling in love, raising a family, maintaing a close-knit group of friends, and doing meaningful work would, on this modern view, be sufficient for him or her to flourish.

While it is true that many people are drawn to these goods, it is equally true that one or more may not be so easy to come by. Searching for unconditional love may seem futile, the project of being a good lover utterly perplexing. Cultivating genuine friendships may seem arduous, sorting the genuine ones from the fair-weather especially painstaking. And discovering the kind of work that moves one to be be fully engaged in living may fall, one may believe, into the hands of the precious and fortunate few.

From time to time, philosophical friends and I puzzle through these questions concerning the art of love, the fashioning of genuine friendship, and the nature of meaningful work. To learn more, see ‘What We Talk About.’

On doing lots of things and doing them well

The chief problem with thinking of work in terms of a career is that one gets in the habit of thinking that one can only do one thing well. But then at some point one gets stuck because that sort of thing is no longer desirable or because one can no longer stomach the idea of doing that thing every day for another 10 years. Whereas a creative, reflective, talented person, someone who’s thrown off the idea of a career, quickly realizes that he can do lots of things and do them well.

It wouldn’t take this kind of person long to recognize how much easier it is to get by in this freelancers’ world by doing lots of things and doing them well than it is to try to shoehorn oneself into doing one thing really well and doing that thing over and over again. Easier and interesting versus harder and boring…

What is more, apart from the interesting variety to be discovered in doing lots of things and doing them well, apart also from the daily learning involved, and apart finally from the recognition of one’s increasing capacities and greater self-worth, it may turn out that there is unity underlying doing lots of things and doing them well. Finding this underlying unity, which is a philosophical adventure, would help the inquirer to make sense of his work life so that he would no longer feel scattered about or pulled in multiple directions but would see himself coming together and made lighter by self-understanding.

Tree cutting

Socrates’ greatness was to be able to play with children, and to consider that his time was thus well spent…. Socrates lives a human life simply and humbly.

–Pierre Hadot, The Present Alone


Yesterday I bought bananas for Joan. She said she had plenty. Now I have four bananas to eat.

The rain from the past three days carried silt and stone from the neighbor’s yard into the back courtyard. At first, I thought the stones and such might have fallen from the sky since the fence separating the houses seemed well intact. As I cleaned up the mess, however, I saw how the rock could have passed beneath the wooden posts and settled like a temporary installation next to the august compost bin. The faux art would have to go into the rubbish bin, which is where it went, and now the courtyard is clean again.

On Sunday, Joan asked whether I could cut down an overgrown branch that might pose a hazard this winter. Calling this long arced being a branch is rather like calling a redwood a happy little tree. A branch it is not; half the tree it was, half a wishbone, half a life. I said I could come Monday and on Monday morning I put on the garden gloves, pulled out the hand saw, slipped on my sunglasses, and looked up at the branch (read: tree) like a manly man.

Let me tell you about this manly man. First he says Hmm… and then proceeds to ponder things mathematically. Should this branch fall that way, he reasons, it could very easily take out the tree beside it; and should it fall too far other way, it could smash in the other neighbor’s window. He calculates probabilities, devises a plan, and starts to cut.

I simply prayed.

I was relieved when the falling branch–20 feet long? 80 feet wide?–didn’t break the window of the brownstone next door. It fell cleanly into the middle of the courtyard. Then I cut the long branch into small logs, stacked them in a neat pile; broke the twigs, piled them neatly; swept the ground and left the patio newborn as the rain came and washed it.

Andy told Joan that he was impressed by my three stacks: leaves, small branches, logs for firewood. Joan tells me again that I am her best tenant ever. She is 89 years old. I am storing up her praise.