Category Archives: Work – Classics

Marcus Aurelius On Getting Out Of Bed

(Statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome. The piazza was designed by Renaissance artist and architect Michelangelo Buonarroti in 1536–1546.)

My brief summary of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was one of my most popular posts last year with over 30,000 views. While re-reading the actual text, I was struck by the relevance to modern life of the first paragraph of Book V. Here is my modern translation:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I am rising to do the work of a human being. What do I have to complain about, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?” — But it’s nicer here …

So were you born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands? — But we have to sleep sometime… Agreed. But nature set a limit on that — as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There’s still more of that to do.

You don’t love yourself enough. For if you did, you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts. Is not then your labor in the world just as worthy of respect and worth your effort? (Book 5, Paragraph 1)

Brief Analysis – If we love life we will do what’s necessary to preserve our lives, and that includes working. This isn’t meant exclusively in the modern sense of doing a job—although that’s part of it. Rather it implies that living demands physical activity. If you slept all the time you wouldn’t be living, and if you resist activity you act contrary to your nature, which is to say you don’t love yourself.

An immediate objection to Aurelius’ line of thinking is that some work is too demeaning, boring, or harmful to align with our natures or, to put it another way, it isn’t work that we were born for. Now our jobs may not be particularly satisfying, but I think Aurelius would consider almost any labor that enables our survival as aligning with our nature. Of course, some work is so harmful to oneself or society that he wouldn’t recommend it, but I think he would say that most labor qualifies as good enough. (I’ve written previously about the idea of doing what you love.) The key for him is that we work with others, as he writes later: “When you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, remember that your defining characteristic — what defines a human being — is to work with others.” (Book VIII, Paragraph XII)

Another objection is that Aurelius’ advice doesn’t help, for example, the clinically depressed. I think this is a valid objection. If he is just saying “get up and get going,” that is bad advice for those suffering from diseases of the brain and body. On the other hand, a friend of mine who is a psychiatrist once told me that people often do better when they cease ruminating and work, volunteer, engage in a hobby, etc., Anything that focuses their mind is therapeutic. For some, this may be impossible, but focusing on something other than introspection is a good strategy for fighting depression. I’m not saying it’s the best or the only strategy, but sometimes you might just be better off going to work.

And a final thought. Remember to get enough sleep too!

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(Translations by George Long, available online from the Internet Classics Archive of MIT. These would be closer to the original Greek.)

In he morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?- But this is more pleasant.- Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?- But it is necessary to take rest also.- It is necessary: however nature has fixed bounds to this too: she has fixed bounds both to eating and drinking, and yet thou goest beyond these bounds, beyond what is sufficient; yet in thy acts it is not so, but thou stoppest short of what thou canst do. So thou lovest not thyself, for if thou didst, thou wouldst love thy nature and her will. But those who love their several arts exhaust themselves in working at them unwashed and without food; but thou valuest thy own own nature less than the turner values the turning art, or the dancer the dancing art, or the lover of money values his money, or the vainglorious man his little glory. And such men, when they have a violent affection to a thing, choose neither to eat nor to sleep rather than to perfect the things which they care for. But are the acts which concern society more vile in thy eyes and less worthy of thy labour? (Book 5, Paragraph 1)

When thou risest from sleep with reluctance, remember that it is according to thy constitution and according to human nature to perform social acts, but sleeping is common also to irrational animals. But that which is according to each individual’s nature is also more peculiarly its own, and more suitable to its nature, and indeed also more agreeable. (from Book VIII, Paragraph XII)

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose: What We Really Want From Our Work

The basic ideas of Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us have entered the intellectual mainstream, but they haven’t had much impact upon the world of work. This is a shame.

The key insight of Pink’s research is that money only motivates employees up to a certain point, beyond which it no longer works as a motivator. This does not mean that employees do best when paid low wages—everyone needs enough to live a decent human life—but it does mean that beyond a certain point people aren’t motivated by more money. After a certain point, intrinsic motivation, which comes from within yourself is much more powerful than extrinsic motivation, which comes from outside sources like money.

What people really want from work is: 1) autonomy: self-directed control over their work; 2) mastery: the chance to get better at our work; and 3) purpose: a reason to be motivated to do our work. The key is to pay people enough so that they aren’t thinking about money but thinking about work. And once you do that, the science shows that giving workers the autonomy to master and find purpose in their work will lead them to being happier and more productive. Here are links to all of Pink’s books about work:

Summary of Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness”

In 1932, at age 60, my exact age as I write this post, Bertrand Russell penned a provocative essay, “In Praise of Idleness.” Russell begins,

… I was brought up on the saying: ‘Satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do.’ Being a highly virtuous child, I believed all that I was told, and acquired a conscience which has kept me working hard down to the present moment. But although my conscience has controlled my actions, my opinions have undergone a revolution. I think that there is far too much work done in the world, [and] that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous …

Russell divides work into: 1) physical labor; and 2) the work of those who manage laborers (those whose work allows them to buy what the laborer’s produce, essentially almost everyone else.) In addition, there are the idle rich, who “are able to make others pay for the privilege of being allowed to exist and to work.” Russell despises this type of idleness, dependent as it is on the labor of others. But how did this all come to be?

For all of human history until the Industrial Revolution, an individual could produce little more than was necessary for subsistence. Originally any surplus was taken forcefully from the peasants by warriors and priests, but gradually laborers were induced to believe that hard work was their duty, even though it supported the idleness of others. As a result, laborers worked for their masters, and the masters, in turn, convinced themselves that what was good for them was good for everyone. But is this true?

Sometimes this is true; Athenian slave-owners, for instance, employed part of their leisure in making a permanent contribution to civilization which would have been impossible under a just economic system. Leisure is essential to civilization, and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labors of the many. But their labors were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good. And with modern technique it would be possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilization.

Russell saw that 1930s technology was already making more leisure time possible. (This is even more true with 21st-century technology.) Yet society had not changed in the sense that it was still a place where some work long hours, while others are unemployed. This is what he called “the morality of the Slave State …” He illustrates with a thought experiment. Suppose that a plant manufactures employs a certain number of people who work 8 hours a day and produce all the pins the world needs. Now suppose that an invention allows the same number of people to make twice as many pins.

In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

Russell notes that the rich have always despised the idea of the poor having leisure time.

In England, in the early nineteenth century, fifteen hours was the ordinary day’s work for a man; children sometimes did as much, and very commonly did twelve hours a day. When meddlesome busybodies suggested that perhaps these hours were rather long, they were told that work kept adults from drink and children from mischief. When I was a child … certain public holidays were established by law, to the great indignation of the upper classes. I remember hearing an old Duchess say: ‘What do the poor want with holidays? They ought to work.’

Russell acknowledges that there is a duty to work in the sense that all human beings depend on labor for their existence. What follows from this is that we shouldn’t consume more than we produce, and we should give back to the world in labor or services for the sustenance we receive. But this is the only sense in which there is a duty to work. And while the idle rich are not virtuous, that is not “nearly so harmful as the fact that wage-earners are expected to overwork or starve.” Russell admits that some persons don’t use their leisure time wisely, but leisure time is essential for a good life. There is thus no good reason why most people should be deprived of it, and “only a foolish asceticism … makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists.”

In the next few paragraphs Russell argues that in most societies the governing classes have always preached about the virtues of hard work. Working men are told they engage in honest labor, and unpaid women told to do their saintly duty. The rich praise honest toil, the simple life, motherhood, and domesticity because the ruling class wants to hoard their political power and leisure time. But “what will happen when the point has been reached where everybody could be comfortable without working long hours?”

Russell argues that what has happened in the West is that the rich simply grab more of what is produced and amass more leisure time—many don’t even work at all. Despite the effort of the rich to consume more—their yachts sit mostly unused—many things are produced that are not needed, and many people are unemployed. When all this fails to keep enough people working

we have a war: we cause a number of people to manufacture high explosives, and a number of others to explode them … By a combination of all these devices we manage … to keep alive the notion that a great deal of severe manual work must be the lot of the average man.”

It seems we are determined to be busy no matter what the cost.

The key philosophical idea for Russell is that physical labor, while sometimes necessary, is not the purpose of life. Why then do we so value work? First, because the rich preach that work is dignified in order to keep the workers content. Second, because we take a certain delight in how technology transforms the world. But the typical worker doesn’t think that physical or monotonous labor is meaningful. Rather “they consider work, as it should be considered, a necessary means to a livelihood, and it is from their leisure that they derive whatever happiness they may enjoy.”

Some object that people wouldn’t know what to do with more leisure time, but if this is true Russell thinks it “a condemnation of our civilization.” For why must everything be done for the sake of something else? What is wrong with deriving intrinsic pleasure from simply playing? It is tragic that we don’t value enjoyment, happiness, and pleasure as we should. Still, Russell argues that leisure time isn’t best spent on frivolity; leisure time should be used intelligently. By this, he doesn’t just mean highbrow intellectual activities, although he does favor active over passive activities as good uses of leisure time. He also believes that the preference of many people for passive rather than active pursuits reflects the fact that they are exhausted from too much work. Provide more time to enjoy life, and people will learn to enjoy it.

Consider how some of the idle rich has spent their time. Historically, Russell says, the small leisure class has enjoyed unjust advantages, and they have oppressed others. Yet that leisure class

… contributed nearly the whole of what we call civilization. It cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations. Even the liberation of the oppressed has usually been inaugurated from above. Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism. The method of a leisure class without duties was, however, extraordinarily wasteful … and the class as a whole was not exceptionally intelligent. The class might produce one Darwin, but against him had to be set tens of thousands of country gentlemen who never thought of anything more intelligent than fox-hunting and punishing poachers.

Today “the universities are supposed to provide, in a more systematic way, what the leisure class provided accidentally and as a by-product.” This is better, but the university has drawbacks. For one thing, those in the ivory tower are often “unaware of the preoccupations and problems of ordinary men and women.” For another thing, scholars tend to write on esoteric topics in academic jargon. So academic institutions, while useful, “are not adequate guardians of the interests of civilization in a world where everyone outside their walls is too busy for unutilitarian pursuits.”

Instead Russell advocates for a world where no one is compelled to work more, but allowed to indulge their scientific, aesthetic, or literary tastes, or their interest in law, medicine, government, or any other interest. What will be the result of all this? Russell answers this question with his quintessentially beautiful prose:

Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least one percent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.

Reflections – The hopeful nature of this last paragraph nearly move me to tears. And these are not mere quixotic ideas. Open source code, Wikipedia, my own little blog and millions like them all attest to the desire of people to express themselves through their labor.

Moreover, recent research shows that more money is not what people want from work—people want autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their pursuits. This is consistent with what Russell is saying. Give people time, and many will produce good things. So much creativity is wasted in our current social and economic system, where people are forced to do what they don’t want to do, or when they are denied the minimal amount it takes to live a decent life. In my next post, I will look at the surprising scientific evidence about what motivates people to work. Spoiler alert. It is not what you think.

Karl Marx for Dummies

In yesterday’s post, I discussed Professor Barry Schwartz‘s recent New York Times article “Rethinking Work.” I concluded that post by noting that no discussion of the nature of work is complete without a consideration of the economic conditions of the society or societies in question. And any such discussion must reflect upon the thought of Karl Marx.

Marx would say that Schwartz was talking about what Marx called alienated labor. The basic idea is that most workers aren’t happy with their work because it does not express or elaborate their being. Workers in modern capitalistic societies are alienated from the process and products of their labor, and ultimately from other people too. They work for money, but derive little satisfaction or meaning from their work. This short video provides an excellent introduction to the basic ideas of Marx’s philosophy. (I also recommend Terry Eagleton’s excellent book, Why Marx Was Right.)

Kant: Should We Develop Our Talents?

The philosopher Immanuel Kant famously argued that you ought to develop your talents. In fact, he argued that we have an absolute duty to do so. But is he correct? Should you develop your talents?

I don’t think there is a “categorical imperative,” (something that commands independently of one’s desires) to develop your talents. If you enjoy developing a talent, then, by all means, do so; skills and achievements are human goods. Moreover,  you’ll probably be happy as a by-product of developing such talents.

But if you don’t enjoy developing a talent, or if developing it would be stressful, or if one isn’t interested in developing it, then there is no moral imperative to do so. Just because I could be a good soldier, doctor or gymnast doesn’t mean I’m obligated to be one. No matter what the pursuit, if I don’t find satisfaction in it, it’s probably best not to pursue it.

But if you develop the skill and talents that you want to, that make you happy; you have a good chance to be successful, as Thoreau said long ago:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment;
that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams,
and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined,
he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

But this is all too idealistic. In our society, we are often forced to do things we don’t want to. In fact, most people in modern capitalistic societies do work that they would prefer not to do. And even those with high paying, prestigious positions usually prefer sailing, traveling or golfing to their actual jobs. This is an indictment of our system. Modern society does not create the conditions under which most can flourish. So what do we do? If we have no choice but to engage in alienated labor, then we must choose between the labor or homelessness—again, an indictment of our capitalistic system. 

But if we are lucky to have a choice, Thoreau’s words ring true. We should then pursue our dreams and hope the rest of the world benefits from our choices. Oh, that there could be a better world!

Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not. ~ George Bernard Shaw