Total Work Newsletter #31: We Do Not See This As A Prison

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: First, I’ll be giving another TEDx talk on total work at TEDxABQ at the end of September. I’ll post the video when it’s available, probably in a couple of months. Second, I was interviewed by one newsletter reader, Paul Millerd. On his Boundless Podcast, we discuss, among other things, the good life and total work. You’ll find a link to the interview under #2 below. Third, I’ll put out the next issue of the newsletter two weeks from now.

To Live Was To Work

Lewis Mumford writing in his magnum opus Technics and Civilization (1934):

Mechanical invention, even more than science, was the answer to a dwindling faith and a faltering life-impulse. The meandering energies of men, which had flowed into meadow and garden, had crept into grotto and cave, during the Renascence, were turned by invention into a confined head of water above a turbine: they could sparkle and ripple and cool and revive and delight no more: they were harnessed for a narrow and definite purpose: to move wheels and multiply society’s capacity for work. To live was to work: what other life indeed do machines know? (p. 53)

The Liberal Arts And The Good Life

#1: HUMANITIES PLUMMET | Popular College Majors Changed Abruptly After The FInancial Crisis | 5 min. | Quartz | Analysis HT Paul Millerd

QZ Sum: “Majors like English and history took a nosedive after the crisis. Job-focused subjects like nursing and computer science made big gains.”

Key Quote: “What’s replacing the humanities? Mostly, majors with a very clear career path. Of the 20 majors with over 25,000 graduates in 2017, by far the fastest growing was exercise science, followed by nursing, other health and medical degrees, and computer science.”

A Bad Move: The humanities will be of great importance as we continue to live in bewildering times and need to discover how to make sense of it all.

#2: BOUNDLESS | Boundless Podcast: Andrew Taggart, Practical Philosopher, On The "Good Life" And ON How "total work" Has Taken Over Our Lives | 1 hr. | Think Boundless | Podcast

Think Boundless Sum: “Andrew Taggart is a Practical Philosopher who has a conversation with Paul about total work, living the ‘good life,’ nomadism, community, and the gift economy.”

#3: MORE BAD IDEAS | A University of Wisconsin Campus Pushes Plan To Drop 13 Majors | 5 min. | The Washington Post | News HT Paul Millerd

WaPost Sum: “Students at University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point are protesting the proposal, aimed at reversing declining enrollment.”

The Telos Challenged: “The plan to cut the liberal arts and humanities majors (see full list below) is in line with a failed attempt by Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2015 to secretly change the mission of the respected university system — known as the Wisconsin Idea and embedded in the state code — by removing words that commanded the university to ’search for truth’ and ’improve the human condition’ and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.’” (my underlining).

Observe: The end of the liberal arts (read more about this in Pieper’s Leisure) and the hegemony of the servile arts is such a bad idea.

#4: THE GOOD LIFE | The Good Life And How To Get It | 15 min. | Inc | Interview HT Paul Millerd

Inc Sum: “Most entrepreneurs crave balance in their lives but can’t even begin to imagine how to achieve it. Pete and Laura Wakeman of Great Harvest Bread are a happy exception.”

Wow!: This piece is wow-worthy. Definitely worth reading it its entirety.

The Relevance Of Philosophy In An Age Of AI

TimesTalks | Yuval Noah Harari - YouTube

Listen from 17:40 to 19:30.

Our Prison

In Review

In his little book Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1948), Josef Pieper, recall, is not interested in work per se but rather in a radically altered view of what it is to be human. He has picked up on two basic things. The first has to do with the metaphysical status of the human being. A human being is no longer a warrior seeking to be a hero (as he was in heroic societies) nor is he or she the descendent of an ancestor (think of Confucianism) nor a child of God (as was so in the medieval period). These metaphysical descriptions of the human being are all gone and in their place has emerged a novel identity: a human being just is a worker. Pieper is trying to understand what this world-historical change means for us.

The second insight is that this new identity covers up a loss that we can hardly experience save, perhaps, in still moments. It is the loss of the contemplative dimension in life. For it is not only that we are all workers now; it is also that the very idea of industriously working on the world in order to conquer it (and here I’m moving a bit into Lewis Mumford and Martin Heidegger territory) has usurped a more contemplative orientation to the world, one involving our radical, loving openness to being.

Let’s now proceed to Section II.

The Neologism “Intellectual Work”

Why, of all places, does Pieper start off with a seemingly harmless pair of neologisms–“intellectual work” and “intellectual worker”? Because (1) for the longest time intellectual activities such as philosophy were “at the furthest remove from the working world” (p. 8); because (2) investigating “intellectual work” can allow us to measure, so to speak, how far the conquest of total work has come (p. 8); and because (3) starting here quickly brings us face to face with the “real meaning” of total work (p. 9).

Apropos (1) - (3), it might help to think of a more up-to-date example. Suppose you’re thinking of taking psychedelics not for the purposes of fun or recreation but to further your inner search. What you might soon observe is how psychedelics, which would seem to be quite far afield from work, have already taken on something of the character of work. Now, for instance, doing psychedelics can be called “inner work,” “doing the work,” or simply “the work.” What appeared, at first blush, to be worlds apart from work is now showing itself as having been, at least in terms of its discourse, partially colonized by total work. You might go on to find, apropos (3) especially, that you can get clearer about the “real meaning” of total work by seeing how it operates in the world of psychedelics.

In the remainder of Section II, Pieper analyzes the three elements of the worker. I elaborate on each element below.

The Three Characteristics Of The Worker

Pieper expounds upon what he regards as the three characteristics of the Worker today: (1) ratio (or “knowing is work” [p. 13]), (2) effortfulness (“effort is good” [p. 17]) and, concomitantly, “the overvaluation of the ‘difficult’” (p. 19), and (3) willingness to fulfill a social function. I’m going to dwell a bit as well on the corollary to ratio, which is the birth of the autonomous subject.

1. Knowing Is Work

Pieper is trying to make us wonder about something we’ve been taking for granted and this something is not at all how human beings used to think about knowing. More: Pieper means to suggest that we’ve forgotten at least half of the equation with regard to what it takes to know anything whatsoever.

He suggests that the medievals had held to a two-part model of knowing, which consisted of intellectus and ratio (p. 11). Here, I quote him at length:

Ratio is the power of discursive thought, of searching and re-searching, abstracting, refining, and concluding [cf. Latin dis-currere, “to run to and fro” {this being the editor’s insertion }], whereas intellectus refers to the ability of “simply looking” (simplex intuitus), to which the truth presents itself as a landscape presents itself to the eye. The spiritual knowing power of the human mind, as the ancients understood it, is really two things in one: ratio and intellectus: all knowing involves both. The path of discursive reasoning [ratio–AT] is accompanied and penetrated by the intellectus’ untiring vision, which is not active but passive, or better, receptive–a receptively operating power of the intellect (pp. 11-12)

So, what is Pieper saying? (I’ll get around to why he’s saying it or why this discussion of epistemology should matter to us below.) He wants to reveal to us that a human, let’s say, stands in the world partially passively or receptively and partially actively. That just was our status as human beings: we could receive a gift and we could make something of that gift, with both receiving and making something being organic parts of an overall process. Put differently, when we seek to know the world, we’re always already involved in a process of apprehending and comprehending. It takes two, baby. Me and you.

From here, he goes on to say that intellectus (receiving, apprehending, just looking in the sense of opening oneself up to thing) had a higher ontological priority than ratio (discursively grasping). Whereas the former was angelic or “superhuman” (pp. 12-13), the latter was merely human. Though Pieper does not say this, he implies that thus were we placed in a hierarchy of being (or: a Great Chain of Being), with God on top, then the angels, then humans, then other animals, then vegetative life. We found and knew our place.

So situated contemplatively in the hierarchy of being, a human being, it follows, was not a worker and knowing was not essentially work (p. 13). Knowing, let’s say, was sweet and easy notwithstanding the requisite effort involved on the side of ratio: “Certainly, knowing in general and philosophical knowing in particular cannot take place without the 'nuisance of labor’ (labor improbus)…. Even so, there is something else in it, and something essential to it, that is not work” (p. 13, my italics).

What falls off from this it-takes-two form of knowing, which is, more generally, a way of placing human beings in the order of being, is the intuitive side. Pieper’s culprit is Kant, who, he thinks (though I believe this is a bit uncharitable), makes knowing entirely into an act of grasping, or “working on.” In the modern world, Pieper implies, we take knowing to be only whatever it is we can contribute to making the object comprehensible to us.

So what?

Corollary to Knowing Is Work: The Birth Of Autonomy

Pieper hints at the stakes of his argument shortly thereafter when he writes,

The other, hidden side of the same dictum–the side that does not immediately show itself–is the claim made by man: if knowing is work, exclusively work, then the one who knows, knows only the fruit of his own, subjective activity, and nothing else. There is nothing in his knowing that is not the fruit of his own efforts; there is nothing “received” in it. (p. 14)

Let us call this, using Kantian language, the birth of thoroughgoing autonomy. To be fully autonomous is to insist that only the goals I set myself, only the ends I make for myself, and only the moral rules I bind myself to matter, i.e., are binding on me. No authority outside of me can dictate how I live. This is one way of pointing to the anti-authoritarian energy evident in various radical political movements that refuse to accept existing institutions. It is not, I don’t mean to suggest, all bad, but I do wish to draw up its costs here.

I mean: its existential costs. If I believe myself to be fully an autonomous agent and nothing else, then I also believe that my life has nothing to stand on outside of the internal resources of my consciousness. These, then, are but some of the costs:

  • Intellectual Arrogance: An unwillingness to countenance others’ ideas as well as an easy dismissal of the claim that others may know better than you.

  • The Refusal of Gifts: Not only the refusal of particular gifts from other people (in letter or in spirit) but also the refusal of the possibility that human beings can give and receive without reducing those actions into a fully active exchange.

  • An Anxiety over Intimacy: A lack of ease with regard to letting someone else in, letting someone enter your “inner sanctum.”

  • A Rejection of the Divine or Superhuman: A knee-jerk reaction to anything that could be more than human (superhuman in the proper sense) with that more-than-human potentially having a role to play in how you lead your life.

A thoroughgoing autonomous life can become a stiff, closed-off, desiccated, lonely life. Pieper is asking us to let go of a full-fledged autonomy in order to let some of the light come into our lives and thereby illumine them.

Come now to the second characteristic: effortfulness.

2. Effort Is The Good

Here is a very strange thought indeed: “the truth of what is known is determined by the effort put into knowing it” (p. 15). How odd that the amount of effort, the extent of struggle, the degree to which we grapple with the difficult should be a measure of our knowledge of the truth. Yet so it has come to be for us moderns.

Kant is the whipping boy again for, as Pieper sees it, the Kantian “moral law by definition is opposed to natural inclination” (p. 15). Just as the medievals held to an it-takes -two with regard to knowing, so moderns hold to an it-takes-me with regard to knowing. And when it comes to ethical acting, moderns also insist that no help can come from “natural inclination” (cf. intuition/intellectus), only from the rational commands that I, as an autonomous agent, give myself. “It is simply part of the nature of things that the Good is difficult and that the voluntary effort put into forcing oneself to do something becomes the standard for moral goodness” (p. 15).

Let’s pause here and test our intuitions. Aren’t we moderns usually suspicious of the student who just 'gets’ things easily, doesn’t study all that much, and still gets the highest marks or grades? Did she really “earn” the grade or mark she got? Don’t we feel a bit ill at ease around those for whom something comes easily? For shouldn’t the most important things in life, we assume, come only as the result of blood, sweat, and tears? Without putting in the hard work, isn’t the whole thing trivial, insignificant, worthless? Surely, then, effort must be the Good or at least a mark of the Good–right?

Go further with this, for right now we think that effort IS the Good. But perhaps we think about it a bit more about this and come to the conclusion that effort, rather, is the key or the means to the Good. As one conversation partner put it, “Hard work was the key to my success.” But is hard work sufficient for success (here, construed as the Good)? Hardly. In some cases, it may not be necessary; in other cases it may be necessary or helpful. But in no cases I can think of is hard work sufficient to success.

You can see how much stock we’ve put into effort, into what I, as an agent, bring to bear on my interactions with the world to bring about what I take to be the Good.

Contrast the Kantian view so described with the Thomistic view that Pieper endorses. He quotes Aquinas: “'The essence of virtue consists more in the Good than in the Difficult’” (p. 17). And Pieper takes this to mean that “virtue perfects us so that we can follow our natural inclinations in the right way” (p. 17). Pieper illustrates this view by following Aquinas’s reasoning about loving one’s enemy. The latter, Aquinas argues, is not exemplary of doing what is Difficult but rather is revelatory of the kind of love that, being so great, can “overcome the difficulty” (p. 18) altogether. We might think of how forgiveness of one’s enemy could feel for the forgiver. Like an oceanic rebirth.

For those familiar with Daoist philosophy, this line of thought cannot but remind one of wu wei, of “action not-action” or “spontaneous action.” For the Daoist sage, action is ever-paradoxical from the point of view of language (active passive or passive active, doing not doing or not doing doing, etc.) but, in the realm of action and intuition, clear, direct, fluid, perhaps even obvious. We know this intuitively: we admit that certain people move with grace, elegance, lightness, litheness, and beauty and this is because they move effortlessly. Indeed, we praise someone when she “makes it look easy.” And that effortlessness, to be sure, is not opposed to powerfulness but, on the contrary, the highest expression of powerfulness. Think of an excellent dancer or of an amazing climber.

Why in the world would we want to live Prosaic lives of strain, struggle, and strife when we could lead Poetic lives of sweetness, grace, and beauty? What if, in short, effort weren’t the Good but simply a particular component of a larger, more fluid, more organic process we might as well call Life?

3. Our Work Should Have A Social Function

Why, though, such a monomaniacal emphasis on work today? Is it, as was true of the dream of magicians, about conquering and subduing nature? Surely in key part. Is it about smashing false idols and about making human self-assertion in this world paramount? Surely too in part. But neither explanation fully answers the question.

Pieper implies instead that work has become paramount because humanism (cf. Yuval Harari in Homo Deus) has become the default mode of modernity. We work to further the interests of humankind. Yet for us to be able to further such interests, each of us will need to turn our sights onto the social while making ourselves into “functionaries” (p. 21).

Let us be clear: the world has become secularized, so we’ve come to believe that there is no other world, no afterlife, nothing more than this. And the success of the Industrial Revolution has taught humans that they can imprint their will on the world. So, wouldn’t it be prudent to pour everything we’ve got into our “'contribution to society’” (p. 20) so as to make it better?

A human being is not just a Worker; as C. Wright Mills in his book White Collar has shown, he is also a Professional. So it is that a human being becomes, after World War II, a Professional Worker oriented toward fulfilling social services on behalf of the social good. And this drama endlessly repeats itself as each social service is fulfilled and the next thereafter begun…

This, you might object, seems overly socialist in spirit, and perhaps to a large degree it is. Hasn’t capitalism freed me up to pursue, and this singularly, my own self-interest, come what may? Perhaps we can come to Pieper’s aid by appealing to social entrepreneurship. In that domain, it is still largely assumed, you are only worthwhile to the degree that you are doing something socially usefully or socially beneficial. If you aren’t working in that way, then aren’t you leading a meaningless or, even worse, a self-indulgent life? So, Pieper’s claim may not be outdated after all.

My hunch is that Pieper has two unstated targets–state socialism and utilitarian philosophy–in Section II, yet I think it becomes easier, and more edifying, to comprehend Pieper’s basic point about our social function being fulfilled via the work we do once we frame his argument in terms of phenomenal technological advancements, secularism, and humanism. Technology avers, “Do what magic only promised: transform the world so as to bring it under human dominion.” Secularism avers, “This is the only world there is.” To which humanism adds, “And you had damn well do your part to promote the claims of homo sapiens.” How can you do so? Manifestly, through the work you do.

That there could be Great Matters transcending the extension of the human will and intelligence as we know them, the world as we know it, and other human beings as we know them: this possibility cannot be countenanced within the “immanent frame” (Charles Taylor) presented by the modern world.

Intellectual Labor Revisited

I want to skip over Pieper’s discussion of the servile and liberal arts to draw this exposition to a conclusion.

For Pieper, intellectual labor is a good test case because (a) “all human knowing is [now] accomplished exclusively in the manner of discursive activity” (p. 20), (b) “the effort that goes into thought is a criterion of its truth” (p. 20), and whatever the worker does ought to be socially beneficial or useful. Remark #1: This development essentially involves a shrinking of the human being into a kind of slave. Remark #2: Looking at Pieper’s sketch, you don’t need to be greatly imaginative to conjure up contemporary images of the creative class, knowledge workers, social entrepreneurs, and social activists.

A Big So What?

Is this whole thing we call human life just about us? Pieper, I believe, is concerned about the impoverishment of the modern world as humanism and secularism come to be givens in human experience. He is, I also believe, trying to point us to our own myopia, our inability to see how our lives have been framed by certain assumptions, which assumptions get played out as we pursue what we take to be lives worth leading. As articles of faith, we believe that human beings are central figures on the world stage; that this life is the only life we have to lead; that there is no life beyond the one with which we’re familiar; that value in our lives accrue through our own, very human activities; that supreme effort, struggle, and suffering is at the heart of our experience and our effortful endeavors; and that work is the way in which we leave our lasting or ephemeral stamp on this world.

We do not see all this as a prison. Why not?

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Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?

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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.