Total Work Newsletter #2: Otium Cum Dignitate... Or Bust!

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 “occult” all other aspects of life. In these newsletters, I’ll be documenting, reflecting upon, and seeking to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1800 and quite possibly well before then.

Consider This...

If work were a dirty word, then we’d be swearing all day.

Otium Cum Dignitate... or Bust

#1: Because, Apparently, There Is No Afterlife... The Case for the 32-Hour Workweek 5 min. | Atlantic | YouTube

The Atlantic’s Description: “Since 2006, Ryan Carson, the CEO of Treehouse, has maintained a four-day workweek for his employees…. Citing the benefits of a more flexible schedule, Carson believes that the reduced time in the office ultimately leads to an overall more productive work environment.”

That Darn View of Balance Again…: To begin with, kudos to Ryan Carson for trying to minimize the scope of work in modern life. And now, yes, for the but. Carson tells the interviewer: “I can’t buy time.” He gives this as a reason for tapering back to 32 hours. True enough: time can’t be bought. But, while doing so, he presupposes a modern conception of human existence, one that’s divided between work and “life” and thus in need of “balance.” Is this how human existence needs, or ought, to be divided up (and then sutured together)? The older work-life balance view, perhaps dating back to the 1800s, and the newer work-life integration view should both be rejected.

Mum on Metaphysics: Carson again, here voicing the Protestant work ethic: “I’m workin’ hard. I’m busy. It’s good.” Later, he concludes, “I don’t believe there’s an afterlife or anything, so this is it.” Hmm… is this so? It’s not for nothing that total work arises just as secularism, or “the immanent frame,” is gaining traction. Could, I wonder, there be a close-knit relationship between an ethos of hard work and a presumption that there’s no “afterlife or anything [more than this]?” Indeed, could, at this stage, the first be occulting the second?

Hittin' Below The Belt, No?

Thanks to and as seen, presumably in NYC, by @devaujla

Sure, Policy Genius, write an imagist poem, William Carlos William-style, to archly critique the value of poetry and, by implication, that of whatever is not useful or easily instrumentalized. If taken at its word, then Policy Genius, an insurance start-up, is advocating for our engaging in forms of deliberation that are centered, above all, on the perpetuation of bare life and on the mitigation of risk. To be sure, there’s a place for such deliberation in, and on, daily life. Yet it is precisely by entering into the hard, the uncertain (which line? when to begin? when enjamb? when a hard stop? how resume? in fine: whence and whither?), and the mysteriousness of things that, allegorically speaking, we approach genuine life and the possibility of genuine death.

#2: The Domestication of the Machine Musk and Hawking Endorse Ethical Guidelines to Shape the Future of AI 3 min. | Access AI | Guidelines

Access AI’s Description: “Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have joined other prominent AI researchers in pledging support for a new set of principles designed to govern artificial intelligence…. The 23 guidelines are designed to ensure the development of artificial intelligence is beneficial to humanity. ”

Remark: These 23 guidelines are intended to replace the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.” These are: the principle of non-harming humans, that of obedience to humans, and that of preserving its own life, provided that it doesn’t conflict with the first two principles.

Robots as Slaves: Notwithstanding their efficacy or even, from our human vantage point, their apparent reasonableness, both the 23 guidelines and the original three laws unwittingly construe robots as slaves to human beings. Not rebelling or revolting against human rule; not acting disobediently; not committing suicide: these are reminiscent of the ancient Greek and Roman treatment of slaves as “tools for work” (James C. Scott, Against the Grain, p. 180), We should observe the ways in which plants (cereal grains), animals (livestock), humans (slaves and, to a lesser degree, wage and salary laborers) all came, in Scott’s words, to be “domesticated.” As we face “the sixth extinction,” shouldn’t we return to First Principles in order to ask about how human beings have construed the Other and about the possibility of our acting out of loving kindness for the Other?

Intermezzo: When Once Contemplation Came First...

The Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus (204-270 CE) could once write unabashedly and, it seems, without a moment’s hesitation:

And indeed men, whenever they become too feeble to contemplate, undertake action as a shadow of contemplation and reason. For since the weakness of their souls does not make contemplating fit for them, not being able sufficiently to grasp the object of contemplation, and through this not being fulfilled, yet desiring to see it, they are brought to action, so as to see what they cannot grasp with intellect. Thus whenever they make, they themselves want to see it and they want others to contemplate and perceive whenever their intention as far as possible becomes action. We will find then in all cases that making and action are a weakness or a side-effect of contemplation, a weakness if one has nothing after the action, a side-effect if one has something else that is superior to the action to contemplate it. (Ennead IV.31-43)

We needn’t agree with Plotinus that action always is but a “shadow of contemplation” (for instance, 4th BCE Athenians, committed as they were to the flourishing of the polis, would have defended the primacy of political action), yet, all the same, it’s fascinating to see how it seemed evident to him (and, of course, to his philosophical disciples) that the life of contemplation was to be put first. In modern culture, those like Plotinus can barely be heard, let alone intuitively understood, and by many might be regarded as a touch dotty.

#3: Were the Middle Ages So Dark? The Middle Ages: Medieval Work & Leisure by Hugh O'Reilly 5 min. | Tradition In Action | World History

Preamble: I include this short Encyclopedic entry not to endorse a medieval Christian worldview but, from the standpoint of the historian, to reveal how life once was, indeed how different its rhythms are from the frantic pulses of the post-industrial modern society to which we belong.

In Brief: Work, in this period, followed the rhythms of the seasons as well as those of Christian holy days. It ceased, therefore, at nighttime and gave way to key religious observations. We read, “Altogether there were about 80 days of complete rest with over 70 partial holidays, that is, about three months of rest spread over the year.”

Leisure & Festival: “The organization of leisure had a religious basis: every holiday was a festival and every festival began with religious ceremonies.” According to Josef Pieper in his books What is a Feast?, In Tune with the World, and Leisure, leisure finds its ultimate expression in the sacred or, let’s say to soften the point a bit: in the ultimate. In leisure, one apprehends the ultimate.

Is Otium Cum Dignitate Just A Dream?

There’s More Than Smog in Manchester, Eh?

On Christmas Day, I received a curious Oxford English Dictionary Online Word of the Day in my inbox: otium cum dignitate. According to the OED, the word has come to mean: “Leisure with dignity; dignified leisure or ease; spec. [specifically] retirement from public life.” This meaning, it seems, can be traced back to Cicero (about whom more below) and probably was still alive, in some form, during the Early Modern period.

I looked further under the entry and found an apt example of skepticism dating from the middle of the Victorian period. In 1863, the well-regarded English novelist Anthony Trollope wrote, in Rachel Ray (mind you, not to be confused with the American celebrity chef): “Otium cum dignitate is a dream.” Charles Dickens, great critic of industrial capitalism that he was, would have agreed.

All of which made me wonder: What, really, is otium cum dignitate, and is it true that, today especially, dignified leisure is just a dream?

Got Any Free Time To Spare?

As my friend Christopher Brewster (@cbrewster) pointed out to me, the length of the workweek in the United States has been shortening since the end of the nineteenth century–from approximately 69 hours in 1830 to around 40 hours today. According to the Federal Reserve of St. Louis, the average workweek for all employees was around 34.5 hours in the US in December 2017. Ostensibly, therefore, the number of hours people work (in terms of wage or salary laboring) has decreased since the height of the manufacturing age and after the transition toward service and knowledge work. (Though let’s be careful with the scope of this claim since this is only running from the second century after Industrial Revolution up to the present. Here, again, see the the piece above about festival and holiday in the medieval period.)

But hang on a second because these numbers may nonetheless be more than a tad misleading. In Of Time, Work, and Leisure, which was penned in 1962, the late political theorist Sebastian de Grazia starts to chip away at the proposal that Americans in the early 60s had more ample “free time” (I’ll get around to the crucial distinction between “free or spare time” and bona fide leisure below) than those living in prior decades. I’ll spare you his meticulous, and sometimes tedious, analysis, and only ask you to follow his reasoning. Just start paring away your free time. Here’s how:

Given the novel post-industrial divide between the home and the workplace, first consider how long your commute to this separate entity, “the workplace,” is. (A dental hygienist who cleaned my teeth the other day reported that her commute to work was 1.25 hours one-way. Since she works five days a week, she can subtract 12.5 hours from her free time.) Subtract those numbers from how much free time you have.

Next, consider all the prep work you need to do before arriving at work. Subtract again. Next, calculate how much time you spend getting ready for the workday as well as how much time it takes you clean up after you leave. Subtract again. Next, consider all the housework you need to do to maintain your home or apartment. Estimate and subtract again. Next, if you own a home, consider, however roughly, you long you spend each week with sundry home maintenance projects. Subtract. Next, look into how much work is needed to get your kids ready for school. Subtract. Next, how much work is involved in feeding, bathing, clothing, etc. your entire family. Subtract again.

Lastly, perhaps, add up the ways that new apps such as Slack are intruding into your life whenever you grab for your smart phone. Give some number to the length of time you spend looking at these apps and replying (perhaps even in the current lingo: “putting out fires”) and subtract once more.

I don’t mean this accounting to be exhaustive (though it is rather exhaustive and doubtless work-like), and I gather you get the idea: look for any places where you’re involved in what Ivan Illich, in Shadow Work (1980), calls “shadow work,” the kind of unacknowledged work, historically performed most often by women, that actually makes possible the continuation of gainful employment. Today we would also need to include all the shadow work associated with completing tasks formerly done by other service workers (such as printing out our own airport tickets, completing self check-out, writing Airbnb reviews, and so on). (It’s a complicated question whether social media is often a form of shadow work, but there I think we’d need to make, wherever possible, some fine-grained distinctions.)

When, in brief, are you not busy? Not occupied? Not being, or trying to be, useful? When not getting things done?

Not that much free time after all, huh?

I’m not done yet, though. This quantitative analysis, however crude, soon yields to the analysis of our qualitative change in outlooks. Close your eyes, take a moment, and ask yourself when you’re not thinking about work, about plans or projects, about uncompleted tasks, about looming deadlines, about how to improve efficiency, enhance productivity, or optimize performance. By meditating in this fashion for only a few minutes, you’ll soon realize that work thoughts have actually colonized your mind to the point at which it’s hard to think about what your mind would be like without them. One conversation partner said that he thinks about work while he’s in the shower and doubtless in many other places. Wherever we go, our work thoughts tag along with us.

How come we don’t notice how work thoughts intrude into our mental lives, setting up almost permanent settlements there? How did it come to boa constrict our imaginations? How, slowly eating as it does into our lives, does it disable us from imagining what is truly other?

Assuming that Treehouse members aren’t using Slack all day (while they’re at home, among friends, or at a “third space”), it stands to reason that, however reasonable, the 32-hour workweek on its own leaves all the terms in place, not the least the quasi-sacred status accorded to work in the modern world. And what an uncannily mundane idol that is.

Hurry Slowly, Will Ya?

According to de Grazia, free, or spare, time is not to be confused with leisure. Just as the Daodejing says that tall and short, beautiful and ugly, and all other conceptual pairings depend upon each other, so work relies upon free time. How so?

Free time is simply the quantity of time utilized in order to relax and recharge for the sake of working more, again. Eating (if understood as “refueling”), relaxing while watching TV, exercising (to maintain health in order to improve productivity at work), even sleeping (as we heard from Alexandra Zatarain in Issue #1) can be regarded as ways of recharging for the sake of work. Production’s cozy bedfellow is consumption. I remember living with a former girlfriend who, then a med student, would study furiously (hard work, ya know?) and then, when the test was over, drink herself into a stupor. Hard work needs pleasure as its other.

Think I’m exaggerating? The New York Times recently re-ran a story, originally published in 2013, entitled “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive.” In this case, the editor saw fit to append a note to justify the re-publication: “We’re resurfacing this story from the archives because who doesn’t want to be more productive?” Um, yeah. Later on, in the article: “Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less.” Check and mate.

Baldly put, all recent moves toward “slowing down” in order to be more productive are playing the same soundtrack, #HurrySlowly being an especially apt example of this. This too is total work in action.

Therefore? Yes, therefore, salaried, gig, and temp work all need not just shadow work but also free time to persist in their existence. And, of course, so do the institutions and organizations that rely upon the paid work/shadow work/free time matrix.

Thankfully, leisure, otium, will turn out to be something radically, heterogenously different.

Say, Who’s Got The Otium Anyway? (Anyone?)

I wanted to see who’d written about otium cum dignitate, and, sure enough, I found a short research paper “The Concept Cum Dignitate Otium in Cicero’s Writings” by Arina Bragova. Parsing the concept into two categories, the political and the social, she suggests that Cicero reserved the former for “the best citizens who were wealthy, powerful people, who took an active part in governing the Republic.” For them, the meaning of the concept was “[political] peace in the Republic.”

Set aside the political category because it’s with the social category that I wish to tarry. Here, dignitate cum otium means “peaceful leisure full of studies in [the] absence of danger.” I’m reminded of Wordsworth who once wrote that lyrical poetry is born of “emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Opposed, orthogonally, to “ceaseless, tensed, busied activity,” therefore, is not free time but tranquil leisure, which is oriented toward the contemplation of the cosmos and of our place within it. Otium cum dignitate is not a dream; it is, in fact, what’s most awake in, and as, reality.

We can catch the slightest glimpse of what I mean if we return, for a moment, to the Early Modern period, a time some sociologists took to calling a “festival culture.” Concerning the circulation of non-work terms, I quote at length from Peter Burke’s illuminating article, “The Invention of Leisure in Early Modern Europe,” Past & Present 146 (Feb. 1995):

Despite these absences from the vocabulary of early modern Europe, there was no lack of terms opposed to “work”. On the contrary, there was a veritable superfluity of them. In Latin the term otium, part of the complementary opposition of otium and negotium, vita contemplativa and vita activa, which replaced Aristotle’s rather different contrast between the theoretical and the practical life, was defined by the Romans, redefined by Church Fathers, and transformed by medieval monks to form part of their vocabulary of contemplation, before the word was revived and adapted once again by Renaissance humanists. For the Romans, otium was the complementary opposite of political activity or negotium, associated in particular with the seasonal withdrawal of the upper classes from the city to their country villas. For Tertullian and Jerome, on the other hand, otium was a pejorative term, more or less “idleness”, though Augustine and Ambrose showed less hostility. For medieval monks, it referred to their essential activity, religious meditation, while for humanists it denoted the life of study as opposed to the “business” of trade and politics. (pp. 139-40)

Tertullian and Jerome’s swipe at otium makes me realize that in time I’ll have to disentangle whatever is non-work from the Christian sin of “idle hands” and from the secular vice of laziness. For now, it’s enough to have revealed that whatever is not work needn’t thereby be classified as free time but instead could very well arise as something altogether other.

And if leisure were, for us, an “essential activity”?

Leisure, not actually a place, surely not a quantity of time, is, in truth, a cultivated state of mind. A mind–whether in intellectual study or in meditative nonconceptuality–bending toward the apprehension of reality. No-mind sometimes. It is stillness amid the stillness, stillness ever-stilling. Walls falling away, the world melting, actions snapping, all burning, aching questions ceasing to be because, in this, this now, there would be, there is just being. Call that, if you’re scrambling for an inadequate name for the unnamable, love. Or: eternity.

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Special Thanks To…

My friend Dev Aujla (@devaujla) whom I initially met when, in 2015, we were both mentors at the Banff Center and who recently tweeted the anti-poetry ad; to my friend Christopher Brewster (@cbrewster) for the articles on the length of the workweek and, over these past five or so months, for discussing total work with me; and to my wife Alexandra Taggart for re-designing the total work logo gracing this newsletter. (Can I say about my wife: “a total eclipse of the heart?”)

Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?

Feel free to send comments, suggestions, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <>.