Why do we work? Do we work for money, for success, to define ourselves in the world, or for some other reason?
First of all discuss the following statements with a friend and see if you agree.
Now read what the philospophers have to say and tell us in the comments which one(s) you agree (or disagree) with!
If you don’t work then you are not truly human.
Work keeps us away from more important ‘higher’ activities.
Work is a means to fulfill personal ambitions which are more important than being ‘happy’.
Work conflicts with our inclination to relax and have a good time.
While driving through Canberra with a friend, all of sudden he leaned across me to deliver a two-fingered salute to a quiet, bland-looking office block – which I subsequently discovered was his old workplace. This set me thinking: why do so many people spend 40 hours a week doing an activity they don’t enjoy?
I asked around and it seems that a dislike for ‘work’ is quite common, at least in Canberra. Further exploration gave rise to the frequently cited view that if it involves an activity that one enjoys, then it is not work. But what exactly is work and what is leisure? Why do some people enjoy work and not others?
It is not difficult to understand how work came to be held in such poor regard. Both Plato and Aristotle dismissed physical work as a “lower” activity and that a truly rational life, to which mankind should aspire, is marked by an absence of physical labour. Perhaps my friend was simply expressing his devotion to a “rational life”.
More recently, John Locke agreed with the Greeks, but for an altogether different reason – he suggested that work is “against nature” and humans are naturally inclined to a life of hedonistic and idle pleasure. For Locke, Hume and the hedonists the ideal is a life of luxuriating laziness. Work, therefore, is simply an unpleasant means to a necessary end.
Then along came Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel simply did not accept the idea that humans are naturally passive beings who only work to meet their needs. For Hegel, work is distinctively human. Fundamentally work is relationship between the individual and his/her environment and out of this complex relationship one is able to become a true “being-in-the-world” – self-aware and distinctively human.
Moving forward half a century to the late-19th century, Nietzsche, in his typical way, wasn’t quite so effusive. “Behind the glorification of work and the tireless talk of the ‘blessings of work’ I find the same thought as behind the praise of impersonal activity for the public benefit: the fear of everything individual.” However, a more careful reading of Nietzsche suggests an understanding of work as long as it reflects the individual’s “will to power” and not merely “…relentless industry from early till late.” At the conclusion of Thus Spake Zarathustra, he writes, “My suffering and my pity for suffering – what does it matter? Am I concerned with happiness? I am concerned with my work.”
So, what is work? A demeaning and unworthy activity? A necessary evil in an industrial world? Perhaps. Or perhaps there is a more positive take: work is a potentially fertile garden that needs careful tending and preparation. And with the right amount of care, over time this garden may grow an abundance of produce about which one can be rightly proud.
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