However powerful our technology and complex our corporations, the most remarkable feature of the modern working world may in the end be the widely held belief that our work should make us happy. Our choice of occupation is held to define our identity to the extent that the most insistent question we ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were but what they do, the assumption being that the route to a meaningful existence must invariably pass through the gate of remunerative employment.
It was not always this way. In the fourth century BC, Aristotle defined an attitude, which was to last almost two millennia, in the phrase “All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.” For the Greek philosopher, financial need placed one on a par with slaves and animals. The labor of the hands, as much as of the mercantile sides of the mind, would lead to psychological deformation. Only a private income and a life of leisure could afford citizens adequate opportunity to enjoy the higher pleasures of music and philosophy.
Early Christianity appended to Aristotle’s notion the still darker doctrine that the miseries of work are the appropriate means of expiating the sins of Adam. It was not until the Renaissance that new notes began to be heard. In the biographies of great artists, men like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, we hear early references to the glories of practical activity. While this reevaluation was at first limited to artistic work, and even then only to its most exalted examples, it came in time to encompass almost all occupations. By the middle of the eighteenth century, in a direct challenge to the Aristotelian position, Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert published their twenty-eight-volume Encyclopédie, filled with articles celebrating the particular genius and joy involved in baking bread, planting asparagus, operating a windmill, forging an anchor, printing a book, and running a silver mine. Accompanying the text were illustrations of the tools employed to complete such tasks, among them pulleys, tongs, and clamps, instruments whose precise purpose readers might not always understand, but which they could nonetheless recognize as furthering the pursuit of skillful and therefore dignified ends.
Purported to be a sober compendium of knowledge, the Encyclopédie was in truth a paean to the nobility of labor. Diderot said as much in his entry on “Art,” disparaging people inclined to venerate only the “liberal” arts (such as music and philosophy) while ignoring their “mechanical” equivalents (such as clockmaking and silk weaving): “The liberal arts have sung their own praise long enough; they should now raise their voice in praise of the mechanical arts. The liberal arts must free the mechanical arts from the degradation in which these have so long been held by prejudice.”
The bourgeois thinkers of the eighteenth century thus turned Aristotle’s formula on its head: satisfactions which the Greek philosopher had identified with leisure were now transposed to the sphere of work, while tasks lacking in any financial recompense were drained of all significance and relegated to the haphazard attentions of dilettantes. It now seemed as impossible that one could be happy and idle as it had once seemed unlikely that one could work and be human.
Aspects of this evolution in attitudes toward work had intriguing correlatives in ideas about love. In this sphere, too, the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie yoked together what was pleasurable and what was necessary. They argued that there was no inherent conflict between sexual passion and the practical demands of raising children in a family unit, and that there could hence be romance within a marriage—just as there could be enjoyment within an economic enterprise. On behalf of both marriage and employment, the propositions co-opted satisfactions hitherto pessimistically, or perhaps realistically, confined by aristocrats to the subsidiary realms of the love affair and the hobby.
The true range of obstacles in the way of unlocking our potential was accurately acknowledged by the German sociologist Max Weber when, in his lecture “Science as a Vocation” (c. 1918), he described Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as an example of the sort of creative and healthy personality “who appears only once in a thousand years.”
For the rest of history, for most of us, our bright promise will almost always fall short of being actualized; it will never earn us bountiful sums of money or beget exemplary objects or organizations. It will remain no more than a hope carried over from childhood, or a dream entertained as we drive along the motorway and feel our plans hovering above a wide horizon.
[There is an] unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the magnanimous bourgeois assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love. It isn’t that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfillment, only that they almost never do so. And when an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, will weigh down on us like particular curses. In denying the natural place reserved for longing and incompleteness in the human lot, the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages and our unexploited ambitions and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to become who we are.
Painting by George Tooker: Landscape with Figures (1965-66)