02 Sep 2012

Contemplating the Work Ethic on Labor Day Weekend

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Chaucer’s monk did not subscribe to the work ethic. He preferred hunting:

What sholde he studie and make hymselven wood,
Upon a book in cloystre alwey to poure,
Or swynken with his handes, and laboure,
As austyn bit? how shal the world be served?
Lat austyn have his swynk to hym reserved!

–Canterbury Tales, Prologue, 184-188.

William Deresiewicz, in the American Scholar, contemplates the meritocratic cult of work… before downing tools and knocking off for Labor Day.

Go to a dinner party—especially, say, of young professionals—and you’re apt to find yourself in a game of competitive sleep deprivation. “I can barely get six hours a night.” “Six hours! I’m lucky if I can manage five!” Sleeplessness, of course, is a proxy here for work. This one’s in the office until 10. That one “complains” that he never gets a weekend off. Sixty, 70, 80 hours a week. Doctors duel with architects; lawyers square off against bankers; academics aren’t to be denied; businessmen insist they have it worst of all. Each is secretly proud of her predicament.

To every age its virtue. For the Greeks, courage; the Romans, duty; the Middle Ages, piety. Our virtue is industriousness, in the industrial age. (It is one that would have been incomprehensible to other times. The Greeks had a word for people who worked harder than anyone else: slaves.) It is the Protestant ethic, in other words, made general by the Victorians as the factories rose. That it is a virtue, not merely a value, is proved by the aura of righteousness that surrounds it. A virtue is not just a personal excellence, it is something that is felt to call down blessings upon the community, that wins the gods’ approval, that possesses not just practical but metaphysical worth. We’re in a panic, as a nation, that we don’t work hard enough, and blame this iniquity for our “decline.” God—the one who blesses America—is withdrawing his favor. Hence the sanctimoniousness with which the topic of work is approached. If you don’t work as hard as people think you should, you’re not just morally inferior, you’re committing a kind of spiritual treason. And if you deny the value of work as a matter of principle, you’re treated like a heretic.

Hat tip to Daily Beast.


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