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Total Work Newsletter #30: We ARE All Workers Now (Preface and Section I)

September 8 · Issue #30 · View online
Total Work Newsletter: How Work Took Over the World
Total Work, a term coined by the philosopher Josef Pieper, is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers as work, like a total solar eclipse symbolized in the logo above, comes to obscure all other aspects of life. In these newsletters, I document, reflect upon, and seek to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1800 and possibly as early as 1500.
Announcement #1: I recently launched a side business, Askole (pronounced “ah-SCHO-lay”), with the hope of helping technologists examine what they’ve been taking for granted. Let me know what you think, if you like. The name of the company will make more sense once you read through my exposition of Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture below.
Announcement #2: What follows is a lengthy exposition of the English Preface and Section I of Leisure: The Basis of Culture. There’s a lot here to mull over, take in, and reflect upon. For this reason, I think it makes sense to put out the next issue of the newsletter (#31) two weeks from now. In the meantime, happy contemplating!

#1: PROTESTANTS VS. CATHOLICS | What If Emailing During Your Commute Counted As Work? | 3 min. | NYT | News HT Bill Meador
#2: SILICON TAKEDOWN | The Expensive Education Of Mark Zuckerberg And Silicon Valley | 5 min. | NYT | Opinion
#3: BULLSHIT JOBS | Bad Form | 5 min. | Taki's Magazine | Opinion
More On The Nature Of Bullshit
The article above makes me think of Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit and of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs. I clarified their views in a business presentation I gave in June 2018.
First excerpt from that presentation
First excerpt from that presentation
Definitions Of Bullshit Speech And Action
Second excerpt from that presentation
Second excerpt from that presentation
#4: WE'RE ALL WORKERS NOW | What Is Labor Day? A History Of The Workers’ Holiday | 5 min. | NYT | History
An Exposition of The English Preface and Section I
Summary of “Preface to the English Edition”
I would surmise that this preface was included in the 1958 English translation of Pieper’s book, which was originally published in German in 1948 (based on two lectures he gave one year earlier, in 1947). Despite Pieper’s straightforward style of writing, it can be difficult to understand quite what he’s arguing.
As I see it, Pieper is making four interlocking claims:
  • Claim 1: Living Religious Worship is Central to the Existence of Genuine Leisure.– Genuine leisure can only exist if genuine religious worship also exists. So, for its very existence leisure rests upon religious worship. (This may already seem puzzling to you since you might think that leisure doesn’t require anything but the absence of work to make it possible. What Pieper is inviting us to see in his short book is how many misconceptions we have about work, leisure, rest, and religion. So, while we read, perhaps we had better suspend judgment and simply try to follow his argument as closely and carefully as we can.)
  • Claim 2: Culture is the Flowering of Leisure.– Suppose that in some place and time genuine leisure actually exists. Only then is culture–in the specific sense in which Pieper wishes to use the term–possible for those living in that specific place and time. According to Pieper, culture is born of genuine leisure. My metaphorical formulation: culture is the flowering of genuine leisure; it is what arises out of a particular “state of soul” he’ll describe in Section III.
  • Claim 3: Culture is What Lies beyond Utility.– His third claim is really a combination of a negative and a positive definition. The negative bit first: culture, for Pieper, is what lies beyond our needs, wants, and uses. Culture, therefore, cannot be an object of consumption or a thing to be craved or devoured. Pieper employs the Latin expression, bona non utilia sed honesta, to suggest that there is indeed something good that is ostensibly not useful but is surely honorable. So (and now the positive bit), culture can be said to be the realm of the good and honorable, to be that which is good unto itself. (Wait for how this brings Pieper, in later sections, to briefly discuss the fate of the liberal arts, the arts once centered on whatever are goods unto themselves.)
  • Claims 4.1 and 4.2: Philosophy is an High Expression of Culture.–Philosophy is a vital, lofty expression of culture (claim 4.1) and, as such, enables us to touch Reality (claim 4.2). Pieper: “In the tradition of which I am speaking, the philosophical act [or just: philosophizing] is a fundamental relation to reality, a full, personal attitude which is by no manner of means at the sole disposal of the ratio [i.e., of the effortful contributions of reason alone–more about ratio in Section II]; it is an attitude which presupposes silence, a contemplative attention to things, in which man begins to see how worthy of veneration they really are” (p. xv).
So, religious worship makes possible genuine leisure (claim 1); genuine leisure makes possible culture (claim 2); culture, being good unto itself, goes beyond utility (claim 3); culture makes possible philosophy (claim 4.1); and philosophy, which is a blessed gift, enables human beings to affirm the existence of the world (claim 4.2).
Before moving on, I want to pan back a bit because we’ve just reached a very important “existential attitude” (in the words of the late Pierre Hadot). Though we won’t be dwelling on Pieper’s second essay, “The Philosophical Act,” we can already, in this brief exposition of his main theses, catch a glimpse of the existential attitude that Pieper would like to disclose. It is a contemplative openness to all that is, a receptivity that, being loving and generous, allows the contemplative to embrace the entirety of existence. (In this respect, it is the opposite of, as well as an antidote to, nihilism.)
To get a feel for the mood being described, just listen to the Daodejing 34 (or you might wish to read Genesis 1:31 with a view to feeling your way into this attitude toward life):
The great Tao flows everywhere, both to the right and to the left.
The ten thousand things depend upon it; it holds nothing back.
It fulfills its purpose silently and makes no claim.
It nourishes the ten thousand things,
And yet is not their lord.
It has no aim; it is very small.
The ten thousand things return to it,
Yet it is not their lord.
It is very great.
It does not show greatness,
And is therefore really great. (Gia-fu Feng/Jane English translation)
It is this “existential attitude,” this heart-openness to being, that Pieper believes is being eclipsed by “the world of total work.”
Section I: From Aristotle to Weber
The following discussion is divided into four parts.
What This Is: A Defense of Leisure
Pieper starts off Section I in a rather surprising way: with an imagined objection and a reply. The objection is that just after World War II when 80% of buildings in Germany had been razed is precisely the time for West Germans to throw themselves into the process of “re-building” our “house” (p. 3). Wouldn’t this, therefore, be exactly the wrong time to be making a case for leisure? Isn’t that a rather silly and impractical thing to do?
Pieper’s reply is that what comes metaphysically before merely “securing survival” (p. 3) is “putting in order again our entire moral and intellectual heritage” (p. 3). To take genuine stock of such a heritage, he implies, leisure will be of the utmost importance. His further suggestion is that if we are going to set Western civilization back on course, then we’d do well to return to our foundations, and one of these is leisure.
Leisure and Not-at-leisure Turned Upside-down
Pieper is at pains to show us, in the starkest way possible, what went on behind our backs. To wake us up, he takes two maxims: one from Aristotle from the 4th C BCE and the other from Max Weber from 1905. So, roughly 2300 years, or the length of Western civilization, separates these two important figures.
And what Pieper discovers is almost too astonishing to believe. It is nothing less than a radical reversal, one that is best described as a “transvaluation of values” (Nietzsche) with regard to leisure and not-at-leisure, work and non-work. He observes that in ancient Greek around the time Aristotle is writing, the primary term was scola or schole, which meant “leisure” and from which we derive our term for school. The secondary term was work, which meant more literally “not-at-leisure.” Aristotle’s aristocratic position was: “We are not-at-leisure in order to be-at-leisure” (quoted in Leisure, p. 4). Pay close attention to (a) the concepts available to the Greeks (schole and aschole or askole) as well as (b) the order of valuation (schole > aschole).
Now consider Max Weber’s articulation of the modern view: “one lives for the sake of one’s work” (quoted in Leisure, p. 4); also: “work for the sake of work” (p. 5). It’s obvious to us that work is the primary term and non-work terms (such as time off, a break, a vacation, a national holiday, retirement, and so forth) are derivative terms. All the derivative terms might be glossed as: “not-currently-being-employed” or “not-presently-occupied” or “not-busy-right now” [1]. Pay close attention to (a) the concepts we take for granted (work set over and against whatever is not work) as well as (b) the order of valuation (work > non-work [idleness, laziness, wasting time, etc.]).
If you get what has already gone on behind our backs, then you can’t help but feel genuinely astonished. It’s not just that some cultures “agree to disagree”; and it’s not just that there is simply a diametrical opposition between the Ancient Greeks and modern Americans (though, to be sure, this is so); it’s that our living discourse, the very concepts that are ready-to-hand, actually hides from us what was evidently so for cultures before ours. Our language, and therefore too our deeply embedded values, occlude from view an entirely, radical different way of being in the world. We don’t even know what we don’t know.
Well, how did things turn upside down? Not an easy question to answer! This has been and will continue to be one of the questions asked in the Total Work Newsletter.
Servile vs. Liberal Arts
It might seem as if Pieper’s remark in the following bit comes out of the blue. What in the world do the servile and liberal arts have to do with the world of total work?
To begin with, he wants to make a case for the importance of a living history: if we are going to use concepts such as “servile arts” (which might be defined today as useful professions and skillful trades, i.e., those things that are useful for survival), then we need to know that the concept “servile arts” doesn’t make sense to apply except when it’s distinguished from “liberal arts.” The two are a conceptual pair. History–to put the point more clearly than Pieper did–is exceptionally relevant for how we live today because it reveals to us mistakes we’ve been making as well as concepts we’ve been taking for granted.
There’s another, unstated reason why Pieper brings up the distinction between the servile arts and the liberal arts here. It is that he refers, in later passages of this essay, to the liberal arts as a bastion against the encroachment of total work. For liberal arts are precisely those activities that are good and honorable unto themselves (the Latin formulation he opts for later on is: bona non utilia sed honesta), those activities, therefore, that are beyond the scope of work. So, what gives them pride of pride, Pieper implies, is that they reveal to us is a space of freedom beyond our ordinary cares and concerns, which are centered on our continued survival. (In my book The Good Life and Sustaining Life, I make a similar distinction.) It is through the liberal arts that, when rightly understood, we may apprehend our place in the general order of things.
The Figure of the Worker
Pieper concludes Section I by alluding to the methodology he will follow throughout the rest of the essay. His principal metaphysical question is: “What is a human being?” He argues that the modern answer is: “A human being just is a Worker.” His central target, then, is to disclose how human beings’ self-understanding has changed (you might say: how we’ve come to misrecognize ourselves and each other). So he writes, “An altered conception of the human being as such, and a new interpretation of the meaning of human existence as such, looms behind the new claims being made for ‘work’ and the ‘worker’” (p. 7). That’s a very understated way of saying that a whole lotta shit is at stake here! What Pieper means to investigate, in brief, is how the figure of the human being has shifted from being man as a contemplative being to man being a Worker after the passage to modernity.
Living well after this passage to modernity, we grow up believing that we are simply and completely Workers.
In Sum
Let’s stand back from this exegesis and ask, “What is really at stake in all this?” First and foremost, at issue is metaphysics: who, or what, are we, fundamentally? Who, really, am I? The modern view is that we are Workers. But are we? Secondly, it is economics: how did the newly-born discipline of economics–new as of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries–come to win out to the point at which we’ve come to believe that we can understand ourselves entirely in those terms? The economic view is that we are homo economicus, rational beings wholly committed to pursuing our own self-interest. But are we really homo economicus? Lastly, it is religious: what Home have we lost, has gone so lost and so missing that it is difficult for us to even be aware that such a Home ever could have existed, let alone could be lost? The secular view is that we are godless–and the better for it. Is that truly the end of the story?
I leave you with these questions.
[1] One conversation partner, who works at a big tech firm, recently told me that she doesn’t know how to rest. If you really get what Pieper is arguing above, then what she says about herself would also be true for most of us.
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Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?
Feel free to send comments, suggestions, thoughts, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <>.
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For Newcomers
Looking for some clarity about the nature and history of total work? Start by reading my brief overview of total work on my Patreon account <>, Next, take a look at the first issue of this newsletter <> Next, check out my Quartz at Work pieces (December 2017- present), which are available here <>. Lastly, visit my website, <>, which is devoted to investigating this topic.
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