Total Work #56: The New Aristocracy

Plus: The Tao is mystery, discount code, and notes toward a new society

Dear all,

In this issue, I’d like to share three things with you:

I. A sense of what it’s like not to see life as endless conquest

II. A discount code for the upcoming February course

III. My extensive notes on the need for a new aristocracy

I. The Tao Is Mystery—Or Life Is Conquest

The Core Taoist Teaching

The core Taoist teaching, especially as it's found in The Tao Te Ching (alt.: The Daodejing) can be reduced to five tenets.

In this reading, which is, above all, a meditation, I select five seminal chapters from TTC (the Hinton translation) to illustrate this tenet. They are Chapters 1, 11, 16, 25, and 34. In the spirit of Chan and Zen, I allow for a spontaneous question to emerge at the end of each chapter.

The poem (co-written with Daniel Doyon) below juxtaposes the grace of the Taoist teaching with the brittle sternness of the modern picture. * * *

Tenet #1: Stillness


Completely empty, completely still,

Tao is great mystery.

Therefore, I meditate.

Meditating on great mystery is nobody


Life is great, endless conquest.

Therefore, I strive.

Striving to conquer is Somebody.

II. Discount Code For Total Work Course In February

Here’s what some people had to say:

Andrew is Drano for the soul.

— Khe Hy, Founder, RadReads

This course was not easy, but it was one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life. I thought I loved work, but through this course I realized that my fascination with work is merely a crutch that is distracting me from the things I truly desire. Andrew has encyclopedic knowledge of everything from Buddhism to modern philosophy and fuses it all into a wide-ranging course that will wake you up to some of the pathologies of our society and to what a good life really is.

— Anonymous, Ex-Wall Street, Ex-VC world, Ex-crypto

The course was a real emotional journey for me. The second session broke me into little pieces, so to speak, and left me in a very reflective mood, questioning my craving for attention and validation through work and online endeavours. By the final session I felt quite lighthearted and able to look at my relationship to work with a greater degree of equanimity, neither ignoring it or being resentful towards it, but recognising its place as a way of securing right livelihood without asking it to bear such an existential load.

—James Simpkin, College Tutor, University of Craven

The next Total Work course will be in February. The regular course fee will be $450 USD. I’d like to offer Total Work newsletter readers a $100 discount. For those you sign up before December 21st, the amount will, with the discount, be $350.

The discount code is TWFEB2021.

For more information on dates and times and to apply, go to the old course write-up.

III. Notes Toward A New Aristocracy

1. Against the Grain

  • I trust that you’ve been feeling discomfort, confusion, bewilderment, and consternation here. That is understandable. What we’ve been exploring, in connection with Total Work, goes against the grain of what you’ve been told since you were a child. Parents, teachers, relatives, friends, educational institutions, organizations, nation-states: they’re all in cahoots! 

  • Understand that philosophy has often gone against the grain of common sense. The late wildman philosopher Rick Roderick once stated: philosophy “catches society unawares.” Has it caught you unawares?

  • Evidence: In The Republic, Plato contrasts doxa (common opinion, mere belief) with episteme (genuine knowing, understanding). In The Daodejing, Laozi says, “Those who speak do not know. Those who know do not speak.” The most famous anecdote, no doubt, comes from Plutarch:

    Thereupon many statesmen and philosophers came to Alexander with their congratulations, and he expected that Diogenes of Sinope also, who was tarrying in Corinth, would do likewise. But since that philosopher took not the slightest notice of Alexander, and continued to enjoy his leisure in the suburb Craneion, Alexander went in person to see him; and he found him lying in the sun. Diogenes raised himself up a little when he saw so many people coming towards him, and fixed his eyes upon Alexander. And when that monarch addressed him with greetings, and asked if he wanted anything, "Yes," said Diogenes, "stand a little out of my sun." It is said that Alexander was so struck by this, and admired so much the haughtiness and grandeur of the man who had nothing but scorn for him, that he said to his followers, who were laughing and jesting about the philosopher as they went away, "But truly, if I were not Alexander, I wish I were Diogenes."

  • On this score, I’d like to tell you one thing: if you’ve often felt weird, know that it’s OK to be weird, to dare to think, and live, outside the lines. Only don’t go and make weirdness into something you hold onto for good! In the end, even weirdness must come home again, must come home to what we share, and have always shared, in common.

2. An Open Secret

  • I have an open secret that I’d like to share with you. It’s that THIS IS WORK! I’M DOING WORK RIGHT NOW! And what can we say about this form of work?

  • I receive payment--household oikos. It supports our livelihood.

  • To the best of my ability, I exercise virtues such as modesty, humility, care, and responsibility: I hope it’s been beneficial for you. But if it’s not, I promise you I won’t fret over it.

  • While teaching, I experience enjoyment without attachment. Enjoyment without the belief that teaching this course has some Higher Meaning for me. It doesn’t. It’s just teaching. 

  • I pick up work, teach, and put it down. My wife and I barely talk about it at the dinner table.

  • The point? Not that I’m a moral saint or a sage. Rather that all of us can learn from this garden variety, homey example of good work.

3. Definitions

  • Well, what is work?

    • Primary Definition: Work involves applying deliberate efforts, over a certain duration of time, with the goal of procuring the means of survival--and perhaps then some (e.g., savings, investments, etc.)--for oneself and for relevant others. Range: sufficiency to abundance

    • Second Definition: Work also involves applying deliberate efforts to maintain, to keep in good working condition, etc. what enables one to survive. 

      • Therefore, sufficiency, abundance, and maintenance make up the orbit, or ken, of work.

  • It follows immediately that much of what, in modernity, we call “work” in modernity is not actually work. 

    • Working out; inner work; intellectual labor; an “artwork” in its purest sense (provided this is merely an act of creation); being in relationships; pursuing the common good; meditating--you name it! 

      • In a wise society, these would all be transmogrified into higher forms of leisurely activity: working out would become beautiful movement practice; intellectual labor would be regarded as the joy of thinking in contemplation; writing poetry would be, as Wordsworth knew, “emotion recollected in tranquility”; and so on.

  • A distinction will help us to see that “meaningful work” is a strict contradiction in terms. Work, we’ve seen, is focused on certain matters of provisional concern: on sufficiency, abundance, and maintenance. Meaning has to do with matters of ultimate concern. Specifically, meaning means being in touch, in direct contact with abiding reality. It follows immediately from this distinction that meaningful work is logically impossible: work is not meaningful, and meaning is not uniquely, or specially, work. 

  • So much for work. What about leisure? Leisure would have nothing to do with spare time, downtime, or free time (though having free time could make leisure possible). Leisure is a particular mode of being or a disposition: it’s an openness to the contemplation of reality and of our place in it. In leisure do I apprehend the lineaments of reality. Leisure, we might say, reveals not the possibility but the actuality of what is ultimately concerning. 

  • As we’ll see shortly, a wise society would put leisure well ahead of work since a wise society would, as Confucius and Socrates both did, care first and foremost about the quality of our souls. In brief, true leisure must come first.

4. Aristocratic Egalitarianism

  • Now I’m sure you’ve been waiting with bated breath for my own view of how all this hangs together. And what an anticlimax it will be! My view is called “aristocratic egalitarianism.”

  • First the concept: 

    • in the society I’m imagining, a new, genuine aristocratic ethos would emerge. Not hunting, playing cards, courting lovers, fighting, dueling, warring, going to balls, gossiping, etc. No, a genuine aristocratic ethos would entail humans being engrossed in leisure, as I defined the term above. This would be the genuine thrust of life, the “place” where “it’s all happening.”

    • And such a society would be egalitarian in the sense that each person would be able to participate, in myriad ways, in leisure. Leisure would be disclosable to each and all.

  • Now, in the wise society, work would be necessary yet secondary. Accordingly, work would be infrastructure and in this respect as important as pipes, roads, and WIFI. In fact, I’d support the Protestant affirmation of work in one key respect: I do think that everyone who’s so able should do some work in order, most especially, to cultivate the virtues of humility, care, responsibility, and generosity. To a certain, albeit limited, extent, work IS good for the soul!

  • And now for all the wrinkles:

    • By working, it should by now be clear, I don’t mean that everyone should be employed in a universal gainful employment system that I do not support. Instead, in various ways, people would want to pull their own weight while, in small ways, bettering the lives of other beings. Some would care for the elderly; others would be Woofers; and, yes, others might be programmers. 

    • Moreover, work, when done, would occur in accordance with natural rhythms: perhaps a short, one-pointed bit in the morning, perhaps a bit more in the afternoon. Throughout other parts of the day, leisure would reign supreme.

    • Finally, there would be natural times in one’s life when sabbaticals and gap years--times for genuine study and deep contemplation--would be roundly encouraged and everywhere lauded. 

  • The ecological-political, in forms outside of nation-states, would take shape as people would return to newfangled, human-scaled city-states. In such city-states, people would care as deeply about the common good as they do about all sentient beings and the biosphere. In the olden days, this was called the vita activa, and the vita activa can indeed be regarded as taking place in leisure.

  • Meanwhile, contemplation of the cosmological, upon which everything rests and in which everything is, would enable each and all to come to rest in an intelligible, abiding, beautiful, clear reality.

  • In closing, it might help, ever so briefly, to contrast the technocratic work society in which Workers live--a disenchanted (no magic, no God), anti-cosmic (no cosmos) modernity--with the wise society of contemplatives that I am imagining, a wise society nestled within a beautiful, wondrous cosmos (the Tao, if you will).

I hope you’re all well. Now, truly, is a time for contemplation. With kindness,