Total Work Newsletter: How Work Took Over the World

By Andrew Taggart, Practical Philosopher, Ph.D.

Total Work Newsletter #34: The Source Of Leisure Is Worship





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November 12 · Issue #34 · 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.
Announcements: (1) I’m pleased to announce that, thanks to the efforts of one reader, Daniel Doyon, as well as to those of my wife Alexandra, my e-book The Art of Inquiry is now available on Amazon. Over the years, a number of people have told me that this was their favorite book of mine. (2) My new company Askole has hit the ground running. If you’re a C-level executive involved in tech and if you or your team need to start thinking hard about big questions related, for example, to ethics, then let’s talk. (3) And finally, in this issue I discuss Section V, the last section, of Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture.

The Work Ethic
Here is the wonderful opening of Daniel Rodgers’ The Work Ethic in America, 1850-1920 (1974 [first edition] /2014 [second edition]):
This is at bottom a study not of work but of ideas about work. In particular it is a study of those threads of ideas that came together to affirm work as the core of the moral life. By now reiteration of that claim has dulled its audacity. But in the long run of ideas it was a revolutionary notion. In and of itself work involves only an element of burden and, for most people, the goad of necessity. Few cultures have presumed to call it anything more than a poor bargain in an imperfect world. It was the office of ideas to turn the inescapable into an act of virtue, the burdensome into the vital center of living. That presumption–the work ethic–begins in a momentous act of transvaluation.
But it is change of another sort that is the focus here. The transvaluation of work so central to Western history ran its coarse in a society whose everyday labors were vastly different from those of any nation on the other side of the industrial revolution. Whether in Calvin’s Geneva, Puritan England, or Jacksonian America, the work ethic belonged to a setting of artisans’ shops, farms, and countinghouses. It was the ideology of that simple but dynamic world that intervened between the manors and the factories, the distinctive credo of preindustrial capitalism. To ask which came first–the economic structure so vastly in contrast with the older, peasant life [i.e., a materialist structuralist analysis] or the new conceptions of work [i.e., the history of ideas]–is, it seems to me, to bustle down a profitless alley. The work ethic and its economic context were not related as cause and effect, phenomenon and epiphenomenon, but took shape together as values and practice fused and collided, quarreled with and reinforced one another, in an inextricably tangled relationship. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the process had created in the American North an expansive, though still largely pre-industrial, economy and an unequaled commitment to the moral primacy of work. In all the talk that came later, when Americans wrote of work, this setting of farmers, craftsmen, and merchants remained the moral norm.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, that world began to give way to a new one of mills and massed wage earners, machinery and subdivided labor. The factory system represented in one sense the triumph of the work ethic. Harnessing a restless faith in change to an immense capacity for work, Northern entrepreneurs turned the land into a stupendous manufacturing workshop, which by 1920 was the wonder of the world. But it was an ironic triumph. For in the process, Northerners so radically transformed work that the old moral expectations would no longer hold. Born as much in faith as in self-interest, the industrial revolution in the end left in tatters the network of economics and values that had given it birth. (xix-xx)
The Good Life, The Work Ethic, Silicon Tech, And More
#1: SECULARISM & THE GOOD LIFE 101 | What My Harvard College Reunion Taught Me About Life | 5 min. | Atlantic | Fancy Listicle HT Paul Millerd and Khe Hy
#2: ASSESSING TECH | On Neo-Luddites And Optimists In The 21st Century Internet Age | 10 min. | UXYZ Blog | Literature Review
#3: FUTURE OF WORK | A Reflection On The Future Of Work And Society | 10 min. | ILO | Report HT Bill Meador
#4: HISTORY OF THE WORK ETHIC | Whatever Happened To The Work Ethic?| 15 min. | City Journal | Long Form Essay HT Paul Millerd
#5: CHINESE SILICON VALLEY | Crazy Work Hours And Lots Of Cameras: Silicon Valley Goes To China | 10 min. | NYT | Feature
The Spiritual Lives Of Tech Users
L.M. Sacasas in a blog post entitled “Christianity and the History of Philosophy”:
In his survey of medieval classifications of knowledge, particularly that of Hugh of Saint Victor in the twelfth century and Thomas Aquinas’ in the thirteenth, Ovitt finds a generally positive estimation of the mechanical arts even while they retain the lowest rank among the various arts. In his estimation, more than their admission into the theologians’ classifications of knowledge was needed to generate the particular enthusiasm for technology that would come to distinguish Western society. What was needed was the decoupling of “labor, and labor’s tools from the realm of the sacred and the control of theologians” and a renewed interest in judging technology by its products rather than its effects on the spiritual lives of its users. (My underlining)
The Amish, as Kevin Kelly has observed, foreground the effects of technology on the spiritual lives of the community.
The Source of Leisure Is Worship
A 1979 Poll
In 1979, Connie de Boers published a summary of a poll conducted by POLLS Archive, a social science research outfit based in Amsterdam. In a Gallop International survey of 18-24-year-olds living in Brazil, France, India, Japan, the Philippines, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, the US, West Germany, and Yugoslavia, respondents were initially asked “Why Man Works.” Four possible answers were provided:
  • To earn money
  • To do his duty as a member of society
  • To find self-fulfillment
  • No answer or no opinion
Here, I’m not concerned with how citizens of individual nations answered this question, though I am definitely intrigued by the framing of the question. To put some labels on these three possible substantive responses, we can call the first Traditionalism (which is what Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, referred to as the survivalist answer), the second Socialism, and the third Protestantism (or: Protestantism mixed with Romanticism).
All three answers ranged from neutral (Traditionalism) to individually or collectively positive (Protestantism and Socialism, respectively). The following were not possible answers:
  • Because physical labor is a curse cast upon human beings (Hesiod, Work and Days).
  • Because physical labor is punishment for Original Sin (Genesis).
  • Because of chattel slavery (see Michael Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology).
  • Because of debt peonage and in order to (try to) pay off debt (which is what happened in many company towns and which is, in part, what’s also happening with American graduates trying to pay off their student debt). (Or, to put the point slightly differently: because there is no debt forgiveness or debt jubilee.)
Why begin my discussion of Section V of Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture this way? Because while Pieper may miss the mark in particular respects (I’ll turn to criticisms of his book in the next issue of the newsletter), his gift to us is to help us shed the very modern and very short-lived illusion that work is invariably and inherently a good and wonderful thing. The success of the Protestant Reformation, multiple industrial revolutions (we may be entering the fourth industrial revolution according to some thinkers), and the perpetuation of this work-obsessed ideology via public schools, colleges and universities and through political speeches and economic reports has led us to believe that work, beyond question or examination, is sacrosanct. Pieper shows us how to beg to differ.
In Review
Let’s recall how far we’ve come together:
  • Section I.– Pieper asserts that leisure, not work, is the foundation of Western culture (see the Table of Contents, p. v). This, no doubt, is a highly contestable claim, one he does not really defend here and not fully in Section V (about which more below). Yet he does try, through a kind of show-and-tell, to reveal to us how Aristotle and Plato saw leisure–namely, as the opening onto the Absolute, I might say–and how physical labor provided no more than infrastructural support for this contemplative openness. The quickest formulation of this difference comes through a comparison of Aristotle’s epigram from Politics (we non-leisure, if we must, in order to leisure) with Max Weber’s (we post-Protestants live to work). What for ancients would have seemed akin to slavery for it was in political and contemplative freedom that the freeman found life good, we take as our central focus and the source of our greatest ambitions.
  • Section II.– Pieper is curious about a neologism, “intellectual work,” because not only does it join together hitherto unlike terms (the vita contemplativa expressed in the intellect and the vita activa manifested through work) but it also subordinates the former (the intellect) to the latter (work). That is, intellectual explorations become, after this transformation, a kind of work. From here, he goes on to elucidate the three characteristics of the Worker: (i) the idea that knowledge, or more generally everything cares about, flows solely from his agency; (ii) the idea that the good = the difficult (e.g., “No pain, no gain.”), and (iii) the Socialist idea that the purpose of work is for human beings to fulfill their social function. Apropos (iii), I suggested that though this may only sound Socialist (why not entertain the Protestant possibility that it is through work that I achieve self-fulfillment?), it’s worth broadening the claim so that it means: “The purpose of work is to advance Humanism.” In this respect, work cannot countenance the more-than-human world nor can it subordinate itself to some transcendent dimension. What we see in this portrait, then, is a unique construal of thoroughgoing secularism.
  • Section III.– Where does the craving or ‘impulse’ to always work come from? Pieper argues that its source is acedia, which does not mean “laziness” or “idleness” but rather a restless spirit ill-at-ease with itself. The affliction of acedia just involves human beings’ alienation from themselves and the beauties of the world. You might say that our blindness to our acedia, our inability to feel the inner contours of the Flow of reality (to use Shinzen Young’s terms), becomes the condition of possibility for the punishment we bring to bear on ourselves: our interminable, indeed Sisyphusian looping through tasks. We are in exile from Ultimate Reality and we do not even know it nor, indeed, do we know that we do not know it.
  • Section IV.– How might we resist the imperial conquest of life by work? Pieper proposes two options: either everyone can become a Worker and nothing else, or everyone can become more than or other than a Worker. He rejects the first proposal, one that certain Marxists and socialists used to urge, on the grounds that it’s actually a furtherance of the spirit of total work. Instead, he urges us to welcome the latter. That welcoming could be partially political in the sense of, say, passing a law that forbids any business to operate on Sundays, yet it can never be wholly political. Why not? This is precisely the question, a religious one, that Pieper seeks to answer in the the final section, Section V.
The Opening Paragraphs of Section V
Remember that, as I was writing about the opening of Pieper’s book, I summarized his most basic thesis as follows: living religious worship is central to the existence of genuine leisure.
As he begins Section V, he asks what the “ultimate justification” (p. 50) for genuine leisure is. He asserts that Humanism cannot be its ultimate justification. If that’s true, then what is the basis of leisure (that is, what supplies leisure with sufficient reason to exist)?
Pieper claims that in the very center of leisure is festival (= celebration) (p. 50). This, I hope, sounds quite strange to you. By now, you will have realized that leisure in Pieper’s eyes is nothing like our ordinary sense of the term as something like ‘time to do as I or we like.’ No, genuine leisure is not that!
He believes that he has a case for festival/celebration on the grounds that it contains precisely the three elements that are antithetical to total work: namely, relaxation (or, what is the same thing, openness to the Other) as against agency; effortlessness as against the equation of the effortful with the good; and being at leisure as against fulfilling one’s social function (p. 50).
But if it is true that at the very heart of leisure is festival/celebration, then what is the justification for festival/celebration? Here is where your secular colors might show if they haven’t so far. Pieper says that “leisure [at whose heart is festival/celebration] would derive its innermost possibility and justification from the very source whence festival and celebration derive theirs” (p. 50). Yes, man, and what is this? “And this is worship” (p. 50, italics in original). Wow!
Boy, we’re in for a ride now, aren’t we?
Celebration/festival and the Divine
Pieper keeps moving in a deductive step-wise fashion. The next claim is that it is in festival/celebration that we, as human beings, are in tune with the world (p. 50). It’s not for nothing that, in 1963, Pieper publishes a wonderful book In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity–and, check it out, in 1989 publishes a set of essays entitled What is a Feast? His antidote to total work had been on his mind for some 40 years! (Pieper died in 1997.)
Now, when are we most in tune with the world? That is to say, which occasions are the most festive? There is no question for Pieper that the most festive occasions are religious in spirit (p. 51)!
Hear the man out before you stop up your ears. How gloriously festive is any secular (i.e., human-centered) holiday such as Labor Day (p. 51), Christmas, or Veterans Day? How festive is any festival that lacks the cultus?
I cannot help but quote the late scholar of religion Mircea Eliade at some length:
Religious man assumes a particular and characteristic mode of existence in the world and, despite the great number of historico-religious forms, this characteristic mode is always recognizable. Whatever the historical context in which he is placed, “homo religiosus” always believes that there is an absolute reality, the sacred, which transcends this world but manifests itself in this world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real. He further believes that life has a sacred origin and that human existence realizes all of its potentialities in proportion as it is religious–that is, participates in reality.
It is easy to see all that separates this mode of being in the world from the existence of a nonreligious man. First of all, the nonreligious man refuses transcendence, accepts the relativity of “reality,” and may even come to doubt the meaning of existence. The sacred is the prime obstacle to his freedom. He will become himself only when he is totally demysticized. He will not be truly free until he has killed the last god. (The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion)
The festive, when it is oriented toward the sacred, is a blessed transformation of ordinary life and a sanctification of the world. How do we live at all, let alone vibrantly, vibratingly, without it?
Leisure and the Cultus
Perhaps, you grant, the sacred must suffuse the festive, yet must it be also at the heart of leisure? (After all, from a logical point of view, Pieper’s claim that the festive is “at the heart” of leisure doesn’t entail the conclusion that whatever is true of the festive is necessarily true of (the entirety of) leisure.)
Pieper’s analogy–“Worship is to time as the temple is to space” (p. 52)–is meant to draw our attention back to the creation of the temple. The latter is precisely what is set apart from the principle of utility, that which is “‘cut off’ by enclosure or fencing from the rest of the land” (p. 52). Here would the (Greek) gods reside and here too would every seventh day be a “‘festival-time’” (p. 53), which cannot, in its essence, be grasped according to the logic of use. Pieper’s worry about the destruction of the temple soon becomes clear:
Within the world of total work, the “festival” [i.e., the artificial festival] is either “a break from work” (and thus only there for the sake of work), or it is a more intensive celebration of the principles of work itself (as in the “Labor Days,” and thus belongs, again, to the working world). (53)
Sacrifice, Gratuity, and Fallenness
The following two short sections jostle from the true spirit of festival to the fallen nature of work without genuine leisure.
Regarding the former, it is defined by sacrifice, gratuity, and magnanimity. Oh, that thy and my cup shall runneth over is a far cry from the Protestant Benjamin Franklin’s anal form of prudence. In the time of the festival, there is no thought of calculation but only of pure giving and pure receiving. It is not exactly–what is mine is yours–but rather–the world, in this time out of time, is a place of extraordinary plenty and let us all partake in it. I read Matthew 26:6-13 in the spirit of (poignant) celebration:
Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”
As for the latter (namely, the fallen natures of artificial ‘leisure’ and work), Pieper insists that (a) work without genuine leisure is inhuman (p. 54) and (b) work without worshipful leisure is toilsome and boring. In (b) scenario, “Mere time-killing and boredom gain ground, which are directly related to the absence of leisure, for only someone who has lost the spiritual power to be at leisure can be bored” (p. 54). It is truly as if modern culture has accepted boredom and despair as the price of severing the tie with the divine.
We are grieving without knowing it and without knowing what it is we’ve lost. What may still save us is the sacred.
Worship, the Origin of Leisure
Looping back again and again to the idea that the origin of leisure lies in worship, we might ask, “If so, Pieper, why have you not given us a demonstration of this fact? You have argued your way this far. Why no further?” For two reasons, I believe. The first is that this is an essay and, as such, is intended to serve as no more than a provocation. If it gets under your skin, then good. If thought-fragments leave you bewildered, confused, bewitched, or quizzical, then so much the better.
The second is that philosophy can only bring us, through rational demonstration, only so far until it must yield to mystical insight or faith (cf. Pope John Paul, Faith and Reason). Philosophy, of this kind, is not only in love with earthly wisdom but also, and this very deeply, in love with its Other: the ineffable ground of being.
Granting all this, we can nonetheless say a bit more than Pieper actually did, for he has provided us with three clues as to what is at the heart of the religious festival–to wit, relaxation, effortlessness, and being at leisure–and we know that the festive, the feast day, the Sabbath is the core from which leisure proper emanates. Ergo, we can ask, “In what ways might relaxation, effortlessness, and being at peace disclose themselves in and through genuine leisure?”
Recall that on my construal relaxation = openness to the Other. To be radically open is to welcome whatever is within, withal, and without. In this spirit do I welcome whatever I have suppressed in my subconscious mind, letting it come up and speak its truth, be accepted in sweetness and in pain, and perchance be grieved over. Likewise do I stand humbly and gratefully before whatever was too often ‘beside the point’ or beyond my purview. And most especially might I open my heart to an enchanted reality in which I, being far from the center of Life, am no more, but also no less, than the vessel of its appearance in this particular instance. In the fullness of leisure, I receive what is on high, the Source of Life, with my entire being. In all these ways, therefore, am I so utterly in tune with the world that I have no words, only tears, to express the glory of existence. Hallelujah. Hallelujah…
The second element is effortlessness, which is like fluid alertness combined with an overall wellbeing. I resist nothing and flow with everything not unintentionally yet without the angry violence of strenuous effortfulness. This is what, in earlier issues, I have referred to as the Daoist sense of wu wei.
And I am, above all, filled with abiding peace, a peace that “surpasseth understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Being at one with all that is is like unto embracing the mystery of existence with a gentle smile. Have I ever been so completely and sweetly at peace until now? I cannot say that I have.
Is There Cause for Hope?
The spirit of total work reigns supreme, spreading itself into newer, farther corners of the world. Pieper knows this. Yet he is also acutely aware that he cannot just summon forth the spirit of cultures anchored in worship nor can he simply cite Plato or Aristotle in the hope of causing a sea-change in our understanding and intuitions about genuine leisure and work. All this would, in Nietzsche’s terms, be but “antiquarianism”: a pointless, desiccated exercise in being right without carrying the day.
He believes, nonetheless, that there is cause for hope thanks to the possibility of divine re-establishment (p. 58). How do I interpret this elliptical remark? Today there very well could be a people who tap into the sacred and out of this mystical intuition might re-establish their lives on a divine basis. Pieper, being a Roman Catholic, asserts that such a foundation would need to be Christian, but must we go there with him? I’m not convinced. Might we embrace a certain perennial philosophical point of view and aver that whoever has been touched by the divine–be he or she Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, or whatever–may he or she or they show us the way? This I believe.
Yes, but the way to what? To being “‘rapt’ to the love of ‘invisible’ reality” (p. 60) and thereby ready to set our life-courses according to this rapt love.
Next Time…
In the next issue, I’ll take up some pointed criticisms of Pieper’s book. It has been said that his book is aristocratic in spirit; that it neglects the need for a transformation of work; that it overstates the scope of the totalization of work; and that it collapses the many meanings of work down to one. I’ll argue that some of these criticisms are based on mistaken interpretations while also suggesting that Pieper doesn’t make enough room for the many meanings of work.
- - - - -
What I’m Reading…
1.) Recently finished:
  • Moses Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (1980). A definitive account of the rise and decline of slave societies in Ancient Greece and Rome. I came to the book in the hope that it could provide me with a way of thinking about the changing value of work. (It didn’t, though my background knowledge expanded.) Finley’s key thesis is that aristocrats’ desire for the land to be cultivated was matched by a lack of supply of laborers and this, in combination with other factors such as conquest, led to chattel slavery being the “solution” to this problem in Ancient Greece and Rome.
  • Eugene Gendlin, Focusing (1978/1981). The book feels like a document from the countercultural 1960s. Although overblown in its claims about how we can have “body shifts” in our longstanding stucknesses, Gendlin’s talk of the “felt sense” has already proved helpful in the way I ask some questions of conversation partners in my philosophy practice.
  • Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018). Though a pretty thin book filled with the usual leftist bromides, it nonetheless helped me “tip the scale” with regard to whether I should at least get off my social media. His basic argument, itself pretty smart, is that social media companies have, from the very beginning, adopted the wrong business models, the result being that users are prey to people in the business of behavior modification. In 2012, I deleted my short-lived Facebook account (2009-12). I’ve never used anything else but Twitter (which, since reading the book, I’ve put on hold) and LinkedIn (which I’ve stayed on because, for all its flaws, it can be useful [in the proper sense of that term]).
  • Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (1967). Wiener invented the term “cybernetics,” and in this book he discusses the “second industrial revolution” in one seminal chapter. (At this point, we’d probably say that the second revolution actually occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the third one occurring around the 1960s.) The book, on the whole, is a set of disparate reflections from a polymath.
2.) Currently reading:
  • Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934/2010).
  • Daniel T. Rodgers, The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920 (1978/2014).
  • Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (1984/1999).
3.) Up next:
  • Yuval Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018).
  • Keith Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers (1999).
  • George Ovitt, The Restoration Of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture (1987).
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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