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Total Work Newsletter #32: Acedia Vs. Leisure

Total Work, a term coined by the philosopher Josef Pieper, is the process by which human beings are t
October 6 · Issue #32 · 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: In this issue, you’ll find my short article on the death of the liberal arts as well as a lengthy exposition of Section III of Josef Pieper’s seminal Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Go back to Issue #29 if you’ve lost the thread of this series.

Drudgery And Dance Lessons
Take Me to the Moon on Vimeo HT Solveig Gautadottir
A complicated, messy picture of life in China: the drudgery of factory work juxtaposed with the dreams of a wannabe dancer. Read Hardy Green’s The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills that Shaped the American Economy (2010) to get a sense of company towns were built around textile mills, factories, and coal mines. (Also, Karl Polanyi’s classic The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time [1944].) Can one note a somewhat analogous phenomenon in China–the migration from country to city, the drudgery of factory work, and the possibilities–fleeting or real–of life beyond.
#1: WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF WORK ANYWAY? | The Future Of Work Is Five Different Conversations | 10 min. | Think Boundless | Essay
#2 DEATH OF THE LIBERAL ARTS | How Workers Killed The Liberal Arts | 7 min. | Quartz at Work | Opinion
#3: UNBUNDLINGS | Globalization's Three Unbundlings | 7 min. | Harvard UP Blog | Book Excerpt
#4: TOTAL WORK CRITIQUE | AMC's Quietly Extraordinary Lodge 49 Is the First TV Show To Understand The Post-Recession Economy | 5 min. | Paste | TV Review HT Misha Lepetic
#5: FLEXIBILIZE THYSELF | Yuval Noah Harari Explains Why The Secret To Surviving The Coming Tech Dystopia Is Not What You Think | 7 min. | GQ | Interview
Blick Art Categories
My wife is a visual artist who regularly orders art supplies from Blick (formerly: Dick Blick), one of the major art suppliers in the US. The other day she was reading some of the descriptions of the kinds of artists who’d be interested in this or that item, and I said aloud, “Wow, what if I looked at this in terms of total work?” The joke quickly became a reality.
I find three ways in which people of an artistic persuasion are categorized:
I. Professionals
  • Professional artists
  • Serious artists
II. Learners
  • Students
  • Beginners
  • Beginning artists (a vague term that could fall under category I or category II)
III. Hobbyists
  • Leisure painters (notice the misuse of “leisure” here)
  • Hobbyists
  • Amateurs (a term not used in Blick but I believe is fitting)
So what? Who cares? All of these are really only intelligible in terms of total work: the first (professionals) are workers (who, presumably, get paid for their work), the second (learners) pre-workers (in that they’re studying to be professional or serious artists, who will get paid for their work), and the third are non-workers (in that they do some other paid work or are retired and therefore paint as a “pastime” or “diversion”).
The Total Worker's Moleskine Notebook
As Seen by Alexandra Taggart in Staples
As Seen by Alexandra Taggart in Staples
Acedia Vs. Leisure
A Different Place And Time
Imagine yourself in an entirely different place and time. In this imaginary land, there is—you count—one king, some priests, some more warriors, and many, many peasants. The king is divinely appointed, the priests hand-selected to perform rites and rituals that maintain the order of being, the warriors commanded now and again to ransack nearby villages or lands to increase the wealth of the king and of the land.
To feed the king, priests, and warrior classes, there will need to be farmers, lots of them, and, as Yanis Yaroufakis makes plain in Talking to my Daughter about the Economy: Or, How Capitalism Works—and How it Fails (2017), there will need to be a hefty surplus. So, let’s say, quite obviously, that in this land agriculture has already been invented and let’s note in passing that sedentarism and the cultivation of a single staple crop both have both enabled the cities in this imaginary land to grow, a civilization to burst forth. 
As you look around, you may wonder who all these different people are. You may ask each: “Who are you?” And one, again, would say that he is the king, some that they are priests, some more that they are warriors, and many, perhaps countless more that they are peasants (or artisans). (If we need to, we can also imagine laborers working in mines or in shipbuilding or on infrastructure of some kind or another.) 
Look closely now at the lives of these peasants. Do you not see them performing backbreaking labor day in and day out? Do you not see how they fall ill and die due to the malaises of civilization (the lack of a good sewage system, the birth and spread of viruses, and so on)? Are they not rather malnourished and sickly looking? Do they not complain, if only among their own, of the burdens they carry? Do they cling to consolations provided by their ideology or archaic religion?
“How strange this place is,” you may remark. “How odd for your lot in life to be determined by your birth. And how peculiar that only a single class of people is obliged to work—and that these people stand for it!” At which point, I would turn to you and say, “No, how strange you and I are for it is since the birth of modern society that we have engaged in a large-scale social experiment that departs markedly and radically from the many, many traditional, hierarchically-arranged civilizations that resemble this imaginary society in broad strokes. Ours may be better in certain respects, yet it has its ‘shadow side’ too.” For if we set aside hunter-gatherer tribes and only consider the birth of civilizations made possible by the domestication of grains, we observe time and again this one—few—more—most structure. It is only in modern society that we have begun to try out an entirely new idea. This is the idea that everyone is only and completely a worker.
This experiment we find ourselves in is not, of course, all bad or all good, but it is most certainly peculiar. Let’s indeed marvel at this. In our time, there is little talk of a class of people called cenobites living at a monastery (a split-off priestly class, so to speak). There is no aristocratic class engaged in socializing, hunting, status-signaling, and conspicuous consumption (a warrior class grown decadent, so to speak). There is no king divinely appointed for life, no figure existing with “two bodies” (one earthly, the other divine). We are all a secular people tasked with our survival by dint of the work we do.
So what?
Well, what a workers’ revolt! How fortuitous for the workers that they—we, for we are they—have had the final say! What a revolt in morality! What a radical transvaluation of values! Not only are we the victors (without even needing to learn how to fight!); we are also the spreaders of our own discourse: our concepts like prudence, self-interest, diligence, thrift, moderation, and hard work now are the ones most everyone thinks in. We the victors hold up images of ourselves—to ourselves and to all those that came before us.
The class, mind you, that used to be the worst off has become, paradoxically, the only class, a set containing all human beings. What is a child for us but a being fit for future employment (pre-employable, let’s say)? What a student but one getting institutionalized and prepared for employment? What a homeless person but someone either too “lazy” for gainful employment or too “mentally ill” for it? What a gigger but someone underemployed? What a poor person but someone who needs to be re-skilled (huzzah! more institutional education! more debt!) so that he can compete for better paying jobs? What an older person but a creature that’s useless owing to his or her having become “post-employable”? Let us all be jobbers, jobbers, jobbers! For life (or for as long we can)!
We are all workers now, and it is almost impossible to see this because it’s always right before our eyes. Consider, to close off this opening section with a strange piece of evidence, the neologism “stay-at-home mother.” You can’t imagine that neologism in any society where it’s obvious that a mother would be at home with her child. In that other society, she would simply be called “a mother.” Indeed, in that society also, a mother who went to a separate entity called “a workplace” might actually be called “an abandoning mother” or a “moonlighting mother” or perhaps “an unfortunate mother.” (NB: Don’t mistake the point of this discussion about the neologism “stay-at-home mom.” This is not a critique of feminism but one way among many others of tracking the hegemony of total work. It’s not, to repeat, about the right women now have to be gainfully employed. It’s quite specifically about the presumption of careerism.) What is worth noting, then, is that the default setting has shifted: a mother, for us, is assumed to be someone who is gainfully employed, and, if she happens not to be, then this is because she has chosen to be a stay-at-home mother, a status which would then be regarded as “a luxury” or as “a pause from her career.” Weird.
In our society, the work society, you work, therefore, unless you can’t (think of disability here: it means, in the final analysis, not having the capacity to work in the sense of being gainfully employed) or unless you’ve chosen not to (for a time). We, therefore, find it especially mysterious when someone who is able to be a jobber choses not to work yet cannot provide us with an intelligible explanation (i.e., with an explanation that makes sense to us jobbers) as to why. Other examples could readily be adduced to demonstrate the metaphysical thesis that we are all and only workers now, but I think it high time that I return to Pieper’s text. 
The Point of the Above Exercise
One philosophy professor named J.M. Bernstein once said, “The point of my lectures on Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit is to make it possible for you to ‘open the book.’” That may sound pedantic or simply strange, yet it was actually quite an ambitious aim. The book in question is notoriously difficult to read (especially in English), and the professor wanted to offer the gift of making it possible for his students to read it, to follow the serpentine arguments, and to see whether they could make heads or tails of it. 
With regard to Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture, my ambition is somewhat similar to Bernstein’s—yet with a twist. Whereas Hegel’s book is long and, at first blush, impenetrable, Pieper’s essay seems really easy and readily digestible. Seems. In actuality, it is not. Hence, the point of the above exercise is to try to expand our imaginations so that we learn to see modern society with a certain uncanny eye. (As if we were aliens or as if we were on psychedelics.) Pieper, I believe, is asking this of us. 
In Review
Remember that in Section I, Pieper has tried to show us that the aristocratic society described by Aristotle has been turned on its head in modernity. Once, aristocrats spoke of schole or skole (leisure) and then needed to invent a new term (aschole or askole) to speak of work. If you were lucky (and therefore were not a laborer), then you didn’t non-leisure at all or else you non-leisured in order to leisure. After the Protestant Reformation, however, something momentous occurred. Rather quickly and surely cemented by the time the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in the nineteenth century, humans began to live to work. In Chekhov plays, we sometimes read: Character A: “Why live?” Character B: “To work!”
In Section II, Pieper chose to analyze the figure of the “intellectual worker” (translation: modern academic) in order to discover the dominant characteristics of the Worker today. These were: a birth of full-fledged agency that involved no support, epistemic or otherwise, from a being outside the circle of agency; effortfulness, the idea that the good just is nearly unbearable effort, is difficulty; and the proposal that one’s telos, or final aim, in life is to fulfill one’s social function on behalf of humankind. Pieper helpfully summarizes his elucidation of the Worker in the opening paragraph of Section III: “Our brief sketch of the “Worker” type has brought into the open three principal characteristics: an outwardly directed, active power; an aimless readiness to suffer pain [effortfulness and strenuousness]; an untiring insertion into the rationalized program of useful social organization” (p. 27). The last point could be updated to refer to the reign of utile: the hegemony of whatever is useful and so the unwillingness to accord any value to whatever is not deemed directly or immediately useful. 
Non-work from the Worker’s Perspective vs. Leisure from the Medieval’s Perspective
Begin by looking out of your eyes as a Worker and ask, “Well, what is non-work?” The answer? “[I]dleness and laziness” (p. 27).
Now perform a completely different thought experiment. Imagine yourself looking out of a medieval’s eyes and asking (note carefully) what the other to leisure is. The other to leisure “was precisely lack of leisure, an inability to be at leisure.” It was this “that went together with idleness; this “that the restlessness of work-for-work’s sake arose from nothing other than idleness” (p. 27). When the medieval, according to Pieper, looks out onto the continual stream of work-for-work’s sake, he observes—and let this be weird-sounding—idleness (acedia in Latin: about which more below).
What is going on here? 
Acedia at the Root of Total Work
What we have witnessed is a radical transvaluation of values (Nietzsche). That is, one hierarchy of values was completely overturned and displaced by a new hierarchy of values. In that new hierarchy of values, many concepts are reinterpreted and redefined according to the terms of the victors. The concept of idleness is but one clue of the massive victory that occurred well before we were born.
Let’s zoom in. As I read him, Pieper is arguing in Section III that acedia is at the root of total work. Let’s see what he means here.
What is acedia? Some recent books have misunderstood this term, suggesting that it’s the “noonday demon” or that it’s akin to depression. It is neither. Others, as Pieper points out, can only interpret acedia from the perspective of total work. Which is totally incorrect. Pieper states, then, that acedia, when properly understood from a medieval perspective, is the name we give to the condition in which “man finally does not agree with his existence”: that is to say, “that behind all his energetic [better word: frenzied] activity, he is not at one with himself” (p. 28).
To clarify the transvaluation of values I’m referring to, I’ve devised a chart in order to make this clear: [insert chart]
The implication is that work-for-work’s sake expands in modernity at least partially as a result of an essential cultural acedia: a restless, frenzied, anxious spirit that, not at peace with itself, is overtaking the world. In other words, total work is, again in part, a way of avoiding and denying the Void at the heart of modern life.
What is Leisure?
If, for medievals, acedia just is “‘disagreement with oneself’” (p. 30), then what, really, is leisure? Leisure is not a mere break from work; it is altogether other from the modern work/non-work dyad. It is a “condition of the soul” (p. 30).
Pieper’s tack is to see leisure as performing a deconstruction of the three characteristics of the Worker. Like so:
1. Leisure as Energetic Passivity
For Pieper, leisure matters first because it reveals to us a different sense entirely of “non-activity”: “an inner absence of preoccupation, a calm, an ability to let things go, to be quiet” (p. 30). To avoid confusion, we had better say that leisure is wu wei: an active, smooth passivity that feels like flowing water, a sense of being completely in sync with life as life goes along. Leisure is neither passive in the sense of sitting on idle hands nor is it active in the sense of being strenuously effortful. It is wholly other, wholly above, sui generis (Latin meaning “unto itself”). 
But this is not all. If leisure is a condition of the soul so described, then it is also an enabling condition for mystical insight: “Leisure is a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality [as it is]” (p. 31: my italics). The soul stills itself and in that stillness one becomes the bride (to use a metaphor from the Song of Solomon) readying herself for the appearance of the groom, i.e., the appearance of what is truly real. 
What Pieper wishes to bring out is something Daoists and Buddhists would readily recognize and accept: an experience of “receptive understanding,” “contemplative beholding,” deep “immersion’; “the recognition of the mysterious character of the world”; the sense of “let[ting] things go as they will”; an elementary “trust” (p. 31), a wide openness (p. 32), a letting go (p. 32). And out of this receptivity may emerge “[t]he surge of new life” (p. 32).
In sum, leisure, being itself not a break-from-work but a fundamental condition of the soul when at peace, opens us to the possibility of receiving, if such be the blessing, the gift that can only come from the other, from reality. In Christian terms, the gift is God’s mysterious revelation at the end of the Book of Job. In Buddhist terms, the gift is enlightenment.
2. Leisure as Celebrating Spirit
Recall that the second characteristic of the Worker is effortful burdensomeness. “Laboring is suffering, and such suffering-laboring is the lot of humankind,” says the modern worker. Not so, replies Pieper. Leisure, in addition to the openness of spirit described above, is “the condition of considering things in a celebrating spirit” (p. 33). What is beautiful about this image is that it recognizes not just agreement within oneself but “agreement with the world” (p. 33). Most beautifully does leisure live on “affirmation” (p. 33). 
Let’s be careful lest we take this as a modern panacea: that it’s good (i.e., healthy) for us to be grateful. Of course, that is true, but that is not at the heart of the pure mystical affirmation of the world. To affirm the world is to see, with the eyes of leisure, how beautiful the world is, provided that we come to it in the spirit of celebration. In such a spirit and therefore from this non-economic, non-political and wholly metaphysico-aesthetic perspective, the world does not seem fallen, ugly, or unjust. It is glory and bodies forth in the festival (pp. 33-34: a subject Pieper will return to at the end of Leisure: The Basis of Culture). Inhabiting this mode of consciousness, we reside so far from “toil or effort” (p. 34) that we are all sweetness, all cheerfulness, all gaiety and loveliness. (We may need to resort to old language to express truths not available to us within the purview of total work. Or we may need to find new words to say hallelujah.)
3. Leisure as Vita Contemplativa
Total work makes us feel that the immanent realm of human endeavor for the sake of other humans is the only, and somehow also the best, game in town. But this is false. The idea that human life just consists of the vita activa (the active life) is a—our—grand cultural delusion.
Pieper helps us to see that leisure is also what transports us beyond the social function, indeed beyond the poles of employment and unemployment (p. 36). So, he writes that “the power to be at leisure is the power to step beyond the working world and win contact with those superhuman, life-giving forces that can send us, renewed and alive again, into the busy world of work” (pp. 35-6). Everything is felicitous in this statement except for the bit about renewal. While it’s not untrue that leisure can enable us to re-enter “the busy world of work” with fresher legs and fuller lungs, that is not its point. Instead and more fundamentally, leisure rescues what is truly human in us (p. 36), which is also, only seemingly paradoxically so, most divine. (Pieper’s reference is to the end of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where Aristotle speaks of the contemplative as being akin to the divine.)
In other words, leisure is the rescuer of the vita contemplativa (the contemplative life). Come back to primitive times. Before there was ever work on the world, there was mystery as well as shuttering fright. Humans were thrown into an alien world and they opened their eyes, even before they developed language, to its mysterious energies. What is all this? How did we get here? What and who and for what are we? We are as a blank: we do not know. In brief, this primordial encounter with the mystery of life is the beginning of the contemplative life, which is our true home. From such a source may spring not just vibrant creative, cultural life but also unitive experience whose pulse is the overcoming of death.
Next Time
I think that’s more than enough to chew on and think about before we turn to Section IV in the next issue. In that section, you’ll discover two forms of resistance to total work: a misconceived one in Pieper’s view and a well-conceived one too. 
- - - - -
What I’m Reading…
1.) Recently finished:
  • Arthur Waley, The Way and its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought (1958). I especially loved how Waley discussed the three aims of quietism (a species of which is Daoism): power, truth, and happiness. The first seems to me a mistake but the latter two are on offer in Buddhism.
  • Nikil Saval, Cubed: A Secret History of the Office (2014). Charts the birth, rise, and hegemony of the office as the workplace of white-collar work. Saval observes that the white-collar class couldn’t fit into the Marxist framework (capitalists vs. proletariat) and this makes its status especially interesting and nebulous, yet Saval’s book suffers, from beginning to end, from unexamined leftist biases.
  • Yanis Varoufakis, Talking to My Daughter about the Economy: Or, How Capitalism Works–and How it Fails (2017). If you’ve read Karl Polanyi’s viscous prose in The Great Transformation (1944) and found long stretches of it confusing, then this is the book–or at least the opening part of it is–for you. It opens helpfully enough, providing a fitting distinction between societies with markets and market society (i.e., capitalism). Yet the book really fails to take coherent shape over 200 svelte pages, and this is owing, I think, to the fact that Varoufakis wrote the book without an outline over the course of nine days back in 2013. The framing device–it’s written as if he’s speaking to his 14-year-old daughter–is, only in patches, held onto as it appears often that he’s writing with the generally educated reader in mind. The first 50-odd pages, which take up long history and which, during one stretch, discuss the distinction between gift (“experiential value”) and exchange (“exchange value”), are my favorite.
2.) Currently reading:
  • Hardy Green, The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills that Shaped the American Economy (2010).
  • Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934).
3.) Up next:
  • George Basalla, The Evolution of Technology (1988).
  • Louise A. Mozingo, Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes (2011).
  • Yuval Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018).
Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?
Feel free to send comments, suggestions, thoughts, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <>.
If You’d Like to Become a Patron…
Thank you to my growing list of patrons! If you feel called to support my philosophical life, you can do so here <>.
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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