Total Work #58: Concluding Chapter: A New Aristocracy

Dear all,

As a gift, I’d like to offer you a copy of the final chapter of my book on Total Work.

May you be well,


Conclusion: A New Aristocracy

I. Desultory Faux-leisure

In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), American sociologist Thorstein Veblen put forward his scathing critique of “conspicuous leisure” and “conspicuous consumption.” The “leisure class,” he saw, flexed their social power and status through sophisticated optics. Their distance from the working class was starkly visible in their antipathy toward anything smacking of work. Wealth bought them time and possessions, and both allowed them to show themselves off.  Rather than simply having portraits painted of them, they themselves could become the portraits worthy of the admiration, and the envy, of others. They were, in a sense, what they wore.

I’m reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a book that appeared 26 years after Veblen’s at the height of the Roaring Twenties. Decades after I first read it, I can still recall the lugubrious nature of the male and female characters lounging about with nothing to do in the midst of the summer heat. Words like “supine,” “languid,” “desuetude,” and “desultory” come immediately to mind. Everything, ah, was just too too much.

I worry, however, that we might hastily draw the wrong conclusion from such portraits. My intention, in this final chapter, will not, I assure you, be to fight windmills mistaken as gods. This is to say that I have no desire to pick apart Veblen’s critique. On the contrary, I second it. Verily. My aim, rather, will be to disclose a new possibility, which is that now is precisely the time to embrace a new aristocracy. Not decadence, desuetude, and, in the end, decay but rebirth. 

At the end of this book, we are presented with a pressure point, a bit of torque. If we’re not Workers and if we’re not conspicuous languid Lotus-eaters (or, for that matter, spandex-wearing Burning Man-meets-Wanderlust pseudo-spiritual seekers), who, damnit, are we? We must begin in earnest to inquire into this matter, for how can we avoid it any longer? And once we do, it won’t be a stretch to observe monastics and bourgeoisie joining hands with new aristocrats. They can join hands because they are, when seen from the right vantage point, one and the same.

II. What We Can Learn from Monastics

The Chan master Baizhang (720-814) was fond of repeating: “A day without work is a day without eating.” 

It is said that when master Baizhang got old, his monks hid his tools to save him from the chore of working. When Baizhang could not find his tools that day, he did not work. But he also refused to pick up his chopsticks and eat. That was how seriously he lived by his words. (Jeff Shore, Zen Classics for the Modern World 95)

Similarly, in his wisdom and compassion, St. Benedict (480-547), one of the fathers of Western monasticism, spoke in his Rule, a guidebook for running a monastery, about how monastics “should be occupied / at certain times in manual labor”: “let them labor at whatever is necessary

until about the fourth hour.” He continues:

And if the circumstances of the place or their poverty

should require that they themselves

do the work of gathering the harvest,

let them not be discontented;

for then are they truly monastics

when they live by the labor of their hands,

as did our Fathers and the Apostles.

Let all things be done with moderation, however,

for the sake of the faint-hearted.

And we have already heard St. Paul tell his missionaries in Greece that if you do not work, you shall not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). In various monastic traditions, then, the message is resoundingly clear: work is neither to be exalted (for pride and idolatry are grievous sins) nor should there be any “murmuring.” For as Benedict says earlier in the text,

Those who live in such a locality [where, in the context of apportioning wine, wine has become scarce] should praise God and avoid any murmuring. Above all else I urge there should be no murmuring in the community.

No eye rolling, no murmuring, no hemming and hawing, no grumbling. Not any of these and not a stone in one’s heart either. Instead, simple, loving, open acceptance. In the Buddhist context, we would speak of equanimity (upekkha). “[L]et them not be discontented,” let each do his part, and let all who are here join in working for the benefit of all.

“But why?” Such is the voice of prideful distrust and the answer comes precisely through proper, moderate engagement in work. For one of the virtues of work is that, in a concrete manner, it can teach one how to care, how to take proper care, how to care for what falls within one’s ken. That proper care can only fully come to light when pride--the stubborn self-will of the purportedly autonomous agent, that of the one who refuses to submit himself to what is higher--melts away. And it is work that teaches such a one how to place himself, out of genuine humility, at the behest of others. I work, brother, so that you may enjoy the fruits of my labor. What is mine, oh brother, is not mine but yours. And what is yours and mine, dear friend, is not yours and mine but all of ours.

To this extent, then, the Western monastic tradition has gotten right the essential point about how proper, wholesome work cultivates character. Yet in its profound wisdom, monasticism also goes beyond this insight about cultivating one’s character. Of course, it must; it can’t but. With great and simple clarity, it suggests that work too must be put down (“[l]et all things be done with moderation,” reminds Benedict) in order that there may be time for prayer and contemplation in the Christian tradition, for practice and ritual in the Buddhist one. Work, you see, is well situated, squarely placed just where it belongs. In this respect, the mind on work can, when working and when not, be brought to rest.

The Modest Virtues of Work

Evident in the above sketch but in need of being brought out more fully are the modest virtues of work. Three are especially noteworthy.


Rightly understood and outside of the machine of Total Work, work is humbling. Any task or project strongly urges the one so involved to approximate her efforts to what is required, not to what is desired. A field can break the man if he is not skillful, sensitive, and attentive. Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming is a beautiful account of how a Daoist approach to farming would look. Humility and listening would facilitate the lightest possible touch of the earth (wu wei) not just to ensure that humans accord with nature but also to enhance nature’s ways. In essence, I learn what the child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once termed the “reality principle”: reality’s recalcitrance kicks back whenever I seek to submit it to my will. Naturally, the yonder side of the reality principle is the grace--so sweet and gentle--of Daoism. 


A true cultivator must ache--slightly--with proper care. It is as if, having fallen into my lap, something were on loan to me, the recipient. I take care of it to the best of my ability before giving back what was never really mine in the first place. If, provided the work in question falls under the category of “right livelihood,” something comes to me, I watch over it, I take responsibility for it, I see it through to the end. I can’t, in good conscience and in accordance with what is just, simply fob it off on someone else. Good work means never passing the buck on what is rightfully, albeit provisionally mine. Each project is like a foster child I’m enjoined to foster.


It may seem paradoxical to suggest that the best work is that from which I am detached. And yet, however paradoxical the claim may be, it is nonetheless true. Through good work, I entrust myself to what is above and beyond me (humility), I take care of what is on loan to me (care), and I detach myself from being consumed by it or by its effects. I learn to dispatch what is here without grasping and, at the same time, while holding my vision steadily on what is higher, on ultimate matters of concern. To be sure, detachment requires measure, yet it is not reducible to the latter. Measure--putting work in its proper place; picking up the work, setting to it, and then setting it aside--draws its life-force (its qi) from detachment. Since whoever I am is not the Worker, I fulfill my responsibilities while my higher concerns fill and fill up my soul. 

Humbled, I regard the human form as rather fragile. Imbued with care for the contingent, I do not swear it off (for such is obstinate pride and hatred too). Yet I am neither attached to the work to the point of grasping after it nor am I repulsed by it such that I cannot stomach it. Work, thus, is not nothing but never anything close to anything much; not nothing yet clearly not a big deal; not nothing yet nothing to fuss over; not nothing but hardly worth a passing thought once, having finished the work of the day, I have made the proper transition to leisure.  

III. What We Can Learn from the Bourgeoisie

For all my rebukes of the bourgeoisie throughout this book, I acknowledge that there is much still to be learned from this class. In fact, Ken Wilber, following Hegel, would urge us to “include and transcend.” Not leaving anything out, we will take it all up while going beyond it.

Thus, we may ask, “And what can we take forward from the bourgeoisie?” Not, surely, the idolatry of work and not the myopia surrounding the eclipsing of the spirit. Then what?

The bourgeoisie--and Ben Franklin, as Max Weber saw, might as well be their purest representative--have shown us how to be temperate, prudent, orderly, frugal, moderate, and industrious. Through this inheritance, we have borne with ourselves the values of measure (not too much: temperance and prudence), of creating order in our endeavors, of sufficiency and abundance (moderation and temperance again), and of industriousness. Even industriousness? Yes, even this can be brought to a higher plane in the form of steadfastness, the capacity to see something through to the end.

In fact, it could be said that the bourgeoisie has taught us how to value the material realm of existence, providing a needed “course correction” in human history. While medieval Christians privileged the spirit over the body, the bourgeoisie, by virtue of their placing material prosperity first, has urged us to come to a metaphysic that can include the material realm of existence too. Even if we are not ultimately bodies, we are nonetheless, and for a short while, embodied. Even if we ought to move beyond notions of earthly success, all the same it is helpful to become facile in the way in which those time-sensitive games are played. In John 17:14-16, we’re reminded of this beautiful distinction:

I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.

How clear John is! Let us not pray to be “taken” out of the world but to be, right here and now, beyond worldliness. Pace the bourgeoisie, then, we musn’t be “of the world” and yet it is incumbent upon us to be able to skillfully live “in the world.” The secularizing spirit of the bourgeoisie makes this insight, thanks to the movement of Western history, so much more relevant to us, its recipients. The gift cometh into our hands.

IV. The Dawning of the New Aristocracy

When, in our pluralist and democratic age, aristocrats comes to mind, we might think of hunting with hounds, of gossiping endlessly at balls, of playing cards and billiards and other pastimes, of great houses staffed by butlers and other household staff, and more. In fact, it was not that long ago, as the excellent Kazuo Ishiguro novel The Remains of the Day (1989) recounts, that butlers were serving foreign dignitaries in opulent English manor houses, the world-historical affairs of World War II taking shape right there.

Given this picture of wealth, privilege, status, and rank all handed down to one at birth, why wouldn’t we be inclined to toss the idea of a “new aristocracy” out without so much as a moment’s thought? And, the skeptic goes on, do we really wish to return to an “honor code” which encouraged, among other things, duels to be fought, in the face of disgrace, to defend one’s honor? Might as well be done with the whole damn thing, right?

Yet that, I trust you can discern, would be flippant, unreflective, and wrongheaded. Flippant and unreflective because something in the aristocratic ethos deserves a fresh airing just now. And wrongheaded since precisely what was abandoned to make possible our bourgeois age may need to be recuperated, albeit in a much different form, for the time that is just now arriving.

Below, the view I wish to defend I’ll call “aristocratic egalitarianism.” It’s aristocratic in the sense that it, rightly, places leisure before work without, as I have already argued in my exposition of monasticism above, doing away with work. And it’s egalitarian in that putting leisure first would make it available to everyone, not just to the lucky few.

The Egalitarian Dimension

When, in Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV translation), someone comes to Jesus and asks, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?,” Jesus replies:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

For my purposes here, two points are worth underscoring. First, Jesus lays particular emphasis on love, on an ethic of love, regarding love as truly the cosmic animating force of his message and of all ethical conduct. Second, the neighbor--whoever he or she may be--is thus, in truth, none other than the ethical agent herself. That is, there is no essential difference between one and the other: more pointedly, there really is no “other” at all, none, in fact, to speak of. There is just Thy Self emanating forth in these transient forms. Hence, all neighbors are my neighbors, all beings my beings. Love, such radiant splendor, is the most natural expression of this essential oneness.

It follows immediately that egalitarianism, at some basic metaphysical level I mean, must be true. What must be true is that leisure must be equally available to all beings, including non-human sentient beings. To be sure, while nature has apportioned unequal intelligences, unequal physical capacities, various talents, and other unique differences to all living beings, it is, for all that, not defensible to claim that leisure is what is “earned” by some while being “forfeited” by others. Leisure is not a privilege and, given its metaphysical nature, is more primitive or basic than a political right. Aristocratic egalitarianism, therefore, holds and insists that all of us are, as it were, aristocrats; all, in this new dispensation, can accept and affirm leisure as their birthright; all ought to be able to contemplate their very existence in relative peace.

This, understand, is a normative claim. As such, it’s neither an empirical claim about how the world currently is (far, it seems, from it) nor is it a public policy recommendation. As a normative claim, it invites us to envision how a truly wise and sane world where leisure, necessarily, is put first would have to look, and it urges us to act in ways that make leisure possible for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for countless unseen others. Loving our neighbors as Our Self entails giving them, when needed, more than food and shelter; it entails making enough space for them in the hope that, by this means, they will open themselves up to true spiritual nourishment.

So far, you may have observed, the true protagonist of aristocratic egalitarianism has remained off-stage. Yet our discussion has taken us to the point where we can’t put off inquiring into the nature of leisure any longer. For it is in leisure that we find ourselves.

The Nature of Leisure

Concerning the nature of leisure, begin with what is false and throw it out. Leisure is not free time and, as such, cannot be measured by the dictates or pulsing rhythms of the clock. Nor is leisure the time during which we enjoy sensuous or mental pleasures. Having fun sex or ravaging a book are not acts that come out of leisure; they are simply acts of consumption. In fact, leisure cannot be juxtaposed with work in the way that consumption can be paired with production; in the way that laxity can be put in a dyadic relationship with strenuous effort; and so on. Quite frankly, leisure is not what you think it is and is nothing like what you think or feel it is. Give that all up.

Leisure, rather, is a glimpse of timelessness as well as a passage to the apprehension of reality, of what is. Naturally, for leisure to arise at all, all forms of busy-ification must have already come to a full stop. Only then can aspects of reality begin to disclose themselves. 

The beautiful, the good, the true, and the sacred are aspects of reality disclosable to the one truly in leisure. They are, as Nisargadatta once said in a different context, like rays emanating forth from reality, vestiges or signs of its effulgence fullness. Leisure is a blessing.

This is why leisure is the timeless time when and placeless place where contemplation can be undertaken. Contemplation is not conceptual grasping or seizing. It is instead an opening, welcoming, inclining toward what is appearing. All receptive, all supple, ever-gentle, contemplating is loving and thus is like shimmering leaves softly touched by midnight rain.

Vita Activa and Vita Contemplativa

Given, I’m sure you’ve noticed, my mystical disposition, I tend to stress the primacy of the vita contemplativa, or contemplative life, but this is only half of the story. The other half, as it happens, should flow from a proper form of contemplative life. That other half is the life of action. In short, contemplation comes first, wise action next. 

Leisure blossoms open in the vita contemplativa and the vita activa. Without leisure, as we’ve discovered during this long march through modernity, neither is truly possible; neither truly flourishes. From the vantage point of the work society, contemplation is sloth and laziness, and political action, as Benjamin Constant saw and, in some sense, worried about, is nothing but the apathy of the voting booth. The work society nullifies! Says the Worker, “Let someone else think for me: I’ve got work to do. And let someone else engage in the life of the political community on my behalf: I’ve got more consuming or scheming to do.”

See the contrast: in the wise, leisure society I envision, contemplation of who and what we are would not only be possible but also laudable. Moreover, out of this intuitive understanding--yea, this “cosmotheandric vision” as the late Raimon Panikkar called it--would come “engaged spirituality.” By “engaged spirituality,” Timothy Conway means that our multi-faceted planetary crisis requires political action flowing from deep spiritual knowledge. But such fully engaged at once ecological and political action, in the face of our climate emergency, begs for, first, the full decentralization of work and the contemplation deconstruction of its figure the Worker; second, the cultivation of higher forms of consciousness among as many living beings as possible; and third, intelligent, skillful, indeed wise action undertaken on behalf of all currently living beings as well as on behalf of those who may come after us.

Wisdom, here, invokes equanimity. As David Loy once told me while we were discussing his book Ecodharma, we must “do the very best that we can” without “knowing whether it will make any difference” while accepting that “that’s OK.” But what does this enigmatic commitment mean? One, you act while “abandoning all hope of results” as the Tibetan Buddhist slogan from the lojong training would have it. Two, you accept that everything you do may amount to nothing in the end. That is, you don’t delude yourself into thinking that any collective effort will contribute in any significant way or at all to the viability of the earth and to the well-being of future sentient beings, whatever these might be, that inhabit it. And, three, you embrace non-attachment in the fullest sense of the word. “Basically,” Kyogen Carlson states in Zen in the American Grain: Discovering the Teachings at Home, “nonattachment means all-acceptance with willingness and positivity of mind. All-acceptance means complete willingness to admit that things are exactly as they are.”

V. Seeing Through: Taking It All Apart

Total Work, you might say, provides a total philosophy in the sense that it offers us (a) a metaphysic, (b) a logic, and (c) an ethic. If, as Wittgenstein said, “a picture held us captive,” it stands to reason that such a picture intends to be, as for many it surely is, all-englobing.


The metaphysical picture embraced by, while animating, Total Work is based on the disenchantment of the world. There are no angels or demons, and the more-than-human world of mere matter is not animated. Reality, grasped by science, is here to be manipulated and modified according to human will and, by extension, advanced technology in order to fulfill human appetites (avaritia, or avarice, in Latin). 

In this disenchanted world, the human being, standing on his own, is an agent, a Doer of deeds. Doership presses itself quickly and forcefully into Workerhood. The destiny of the human being, insofar as he takes himself to be a Worker, is to treat everything as if it were workable. We know that the Worker is the one who works on the world, yet it must be pointed out here that he does not exclude himself from workability since he understands that perhaps the greatest test subject is the Worker himself, the one who endlessly seeks to improve himself by feverishly working on himself. Hence, the body and mind are also grasped in terms of what is workable.

With what aim? Achievement, to be sure, but this too is a vanishing point, easily giving way to the next. There is, in fact, no end in sight, nothing but endless growth, improvement, optimization, and the mirage-like promise of freedom. This is why French philosopher Jacques Ellul once spoke of technique as the epitome of the technological society. 

The watermark of our work society is the anxiety of doership.


By “logic” here, I mean the thought and emotional pattern of the Worker. This pattern is actually quite simple: the thought--”there is work that must be done”--may give rise to action or to procrastination. 

Emotions such as excitation, anxiety, impatient hurriedness, anger, a sense of overwhelm, and guilt all follow from something to be done. Excitation leaps up whenever something “meaningful,” “cool,” or “impactful” is to be done. Anxiety worries that it won’t be done at all or in time. Impatient hurriedness emerges just when one, faced with much to do, must push to get through it all. Overwhelm implies that there is perhaps too much that needs to be done; guilt arises whenever what is supposed to be done hasn’t gotten done.

Thought and emotional loops of this sort continue indefinitely. The mind of the Worker is now clearly understood. Wrapping in on itself, such a mind is cramped, unimaginative, and stiff. This mind is slowly dried out.


What holds this metaphysical-logical structure in place is ethics, or the realm of practical conduct, and this in a three-fold sense.

In the first place, the Worker posits that work--the work he actually does or the work he aspires to do--must be meaningful. If it is otherwise, then it is “clearly bullshit” and thus he is “wasting his time” (more on the latter in a moment). 

In the second place, he is stuck in an unceasing drama consisting of “I love work”/”I hate work,” of “Work is a calling or blessing”/”Work is a curse or sheer toil.” In both cases, he is caught in a mind-concocted story: an epic story in the first case, a tragic one in the second. The crux of the matter is that this unceasing drama is the dynamic principle that keeps “work must be meaningful” going, at least on the level of thought.

But what of concrete action? After all, as Max Weber well knew, the Worker measures everything according to the tangible fruits of his actions. In the third place, then, the work ethic--be it Protestant or Confucian--funnels all possible actions into two utterly disjunct categories: “optimizing for productivity” and “wasting time.” The older versions of the work ethic--from sixteenth century Puritans: orderliness and cleanliness set over and again the disorderliness and uncleanliness of the new urban poor; from nineteenth century America: hard work juxtaposed with laziness--are still here, only now they are fully secularized. Boundless productivity, the angelic side, is, at this moment in history, pitted against the demons of distraction and time-wasting consumption. The passing pleasures following from waywardness are to be guarded against. A night watchman must stand at the gates.

The work ethic is, above all, what ensures that the Worker is bound to concrete action and thus does not stand back to question the entire edifice. The ethic cultivates the character of the practitioner, promising him that he will become more consistent, reliable, and functional. It’s for this reason that technologists speak of maintaining “focus” and “concentration” on the task at hand: the ephemeral form of satisfaction that comes from working hard while “being in the flow” are tempting substitutes for the abiding peace, the boundless, noncontingent joy that is, in fact, our tenderest birthright.

VI. A Bridge to the Other Side

What is on the other side of Total Work?

Once it is in-your-bones clear that you are not the Worker, then the question arises: “who, then and truly, am I?” The answer will not be discovered among a field of objects--not among status, wealth, honor, or fame, but also not in the physical form or in the finite mind. If I am not the Doer, then who am I?

Moreover, after you’ve seen all the way through the illusion of meaningful work, then you can’t help but ask: “What, in essence, is meaning?” Meaning, it will turn out, is not an I-It relationship. Instead, it is closer to an I-Thou relationship, though even that is not, in a standalone sense, where meaning is to be found. In truth, meaning is an I-All relationship, a particular way in which one is woven into the soft yet supple fabric of reality. To say that meaning is I-All is also to encompass, out of love, all I-Thou’s. Of course, realizing what has just been said must come through intuitive understanding, through meditation.

Finally, the mechanism that, hitherto, has held Total Work in motion is the seemingly endless drama called “work is a blessing vs. work is a curse.” After both sides of the duality have been deconstructed, then one is able to maintain one’s seat in the throne of equanimity. Work simply is. Nothing more and nothing less. Almost trivial. “After Enlightenment,” a famous Zen Buddhist saying goes, “chop wood, carry water.” No mystification, not a single drop of ether, remains.

Only now is there a genuine opening wherein one can start to contemplate matters of ultimate concern. Here, leisure, perhaps for the first time, comes, shining forth. Naturally, the two questions, on the other side of the Total Work, that can’t go unasked any longer are: “Who am I?” and “What is really real?” This, for the Buddha, marked out the very beginning of the Noble Search: an earnest existential inquiry into the very heart of the ultimate.

I have nothing more to say. In fact, once everything in this book about Total Work is fully, immediately understood, then the whole thing can be discarded. Just throw it all away and begin living for real.