Total Work #55: Let's All Become Aristocrats

Dear readers,

May You Live In Interesting Times

An apocryphal Chinese proverb states, “May you live in interesting times.” I’ve had the felt sense that we’ve been living in interesting times since 2007. I’ve felt it in my bones.

The current Covid period is no exception. What is it asking of us? What telling us?

I’m reminded of the oft-quoted line from Fight Club (1999): “You met me at a very strange time in my life.” That is exactly right! I do meet people at very strange times in their lives. That is, in fact, precisely the experience I’ve had since 2011 when I first began philosophizing. Therefore, rest assured that if your life is becoming increasingly strange that it might be trying to tell you something significant. Maybe it’s an omen. A lesson. A sign. Keep your eyes open and listen closely.

Right now, it is not yet true what Yeats once opined: that “things fall apart.” My poetic sense says that things, in truth, are fraying at the seams while crumbling all around us. (Yes, you caught my mixed metaphor. I mean both metaphors here, intend them both.) Lives. Livelihoods. Institutions. Perhaps the world order. Fraying, I say, and crumbling but not yet collapsing.

And I notice, during this time, that people are starting, here and there and, yea, more than here and there, to become unhinged or undone. Aggression, anger, animosity, ill will, as well as other smoldering viperous emotions are expressing themselves within and without.

During interesting times, it is especially wise (a) to double down on practices that are grounding as well as (b) to open up to genuine introspection. The former, while keeping our feet on the ground as we act, makes the latter possible. We must, after all, learn how to walk again. There is no other way.

The Barbarians, Aristocrats, Christians…

It’s in this context—flexed, fraying, bordering at times on brutish—that I want to invite us to reflect on a historical turn we made and that made something of us, that led us to mistake our way.

In the medieval period, French scholar Jacques Le Goff “describes three lines of transmission: Judeo-Christian (primarily biblical), classical, and ‘barbarian’” (Paul Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant, p. 28). Freedman tells us that the biblical heritage contained “conflicting suggestions” pertaining the value and role of labor, yet the classical and barbarian lines were unequivocal.

By and large, the classical tradition “praised cultivated leisure and deprecated manual labor, associated as it was with slavery” (Freedman, p. 30). That’s right: as I suggest in the chapter on Classical Athens in The Total Work Manifesto (in progress),

Work was, above all, a class matter, which signaled significant status differences. What must be held firmly in mind is that, in Classical Athens, labor was, barring exceptions, in addition to being hard and painful, ignoble (without tîmê [i.e., without honor—AT]). Little to no honor accrued to the laborer whereas the tragedian, the statesman, or the rhapsode might enjoy the praise of other citizens. And yet, as “infrastructure,” labor enabled some to lead full lives (eudaimonia).

And what of the barbarians? In the medieval period, the “barbarian legacy” (that’s Le Goff again cited by Freedman [p. 30]) “placed a high value on craftsmen such as swordsmiths, even crediting particularly skilled artisans with magical powers. But the exaltation of war in these cultures, and their identification of wealth with plunder rather than productivity, assured the celebration of the warrior over the mere toiler” (ibid).

Leisure for aristocrats; war for the barbarians: both were vanquished, as Albert Hirschman argued so persuasively in The Interests and the Passions: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph (1977), by the bourgeois “interests” as well as by the Protestant ethos. Bellicosity has become just as outré as hunting and country balls.

For it is, via the Protestant Reformation, that the Christian heritage—ever ambivalent about labor, ever torn this way and that way—ultimately won out in modernity. We are living out the consequences of that victory today.

…And Us

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber argues, in such a creative manner, that Calvinists and their ilk should be credited the transformation of an ethos which, as it happens, was amenable to the embrace of a new mode of production that would, later on, be called “capitalism.” (Michael Walzer, in The Revolution of the Saints [1965], provides us with a fascinating study of the political consequences of Puritan practice in England.)

Here’s my basic thought, friends: Protestantism’s greatest conceptual innovation involved “democratizing” labor, the unfortunate result of which is that most people were henceforth transformed into wage slaves. While the Industrial Revolution and the present Technological Revolution are indeed seminal developments in the history of the West (both ongoing, the latter now in full swing), nothing has been more formative, in my opinion, than the Protestant Reformation at the level of ideas and practices.

History has a tragic dimension: no gains without costs; no upward slope without blood on your hands. And so, without supporting chattel slavery in Classical Athens or peasant labor in medieval Europe, we had better reckon with the costs of the “democratization” of labor in modernity. Whereas before labor was relegated to certain classes of people, now almost all of us need to bear the full weight of labor. Once you factor in student debt obligations, an inhumane gainful employment system, plus the ideological capture that has occurred via “meaningful work” and “callings,” you realize that modernity, bringing us certain kinds of freedom to be sure, also has exacted a heavy toll on us.

But must it be so?

Democratizing The Aristocracy

My proposal is this: let’s ditch the Protestant innovation and now, due to technological advancements, give the aristocratic heritage a fresh airing. What is terrible about the aristocratic dispensation is that it has typically used the will of the few to subjugate the hapless many. Some taste freedom—and because of it contemplation of the cosmos—on the backs of many who do not. We know who—the meager peasant—bears the cost of the clergyman’s decent meal.

Why not reject the political underpinnings of the aristocracy while at the same time endorsing its ethos? What if, supposing that Oshan Jarow is right, UBI were to make possible at least the ability to say no to gainful employment when such is demeaning and degrading? Could there be a “safety net” ensuring that one can say no to domination and, in time, yes to genuine leisure?

And therefore what if it were possible to “democratize” the aristocratic attitude such that labor were something that we may need to do (it’s fine enough so far as it goes) while letting labor, and possibly too UBI, make possible a flowering of the contemplative and—rightly understood—political life?

Why not? Now is just the time when wild ideas might find their way through the crack in a splintered door.

I conclude with a quote from Ludvig Wittgenstein’s "Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough":

One must start out in error and convert it into truth.

That is, one must reveal the source of error, otherwise hearing the truth won’t do any good. The truth cannot force its way in when something else is occupying its place.

To convince someone of the truth, it is not enough to state it, but rather one must find the path from error to truth.

With kindness for you all,


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