Total Work Newsletter #6: The Three Societies

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.

In This Issue…: I’ll be trying, however sketchily and this over some 2500 years, to look at how work went from being contemptible and base to laudable and estimable. I do so in the essay attached to the bottom of the newsletter.

'Someday We Shall All Be Workers'

The Italian politician Guiseppe Mazzini (1805-72) once proclaimed,

Someday we shall all be workers; that is, we shall all live on the rewards of our work, no matter what kind it may be. Human existence will represent a task accomplished (Cited in Adriano Tilgher, Work: What It has Meant to Men through the Ages, p. 122).

Had Mazzini lived some 50 years longer, he could have seen, after World World II, what he had envisaged. Human existence: a great task now accomplished.

The Three Societies

#1: The Future of Work in America

5 min. | Atlantic | Interview H/T Jacqueline Jensen

The Future of Work in America - YouTube

#2: Do Young Persons Want More than Goldman Sachs? Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness 5 min. | NYT | News H/T Michael Coren

NYT Sum: “With nearly 1,200 students signed up, a course that tells students how to lead more satisfying lives may be the largest in university history.”

Comments: This is really interesting, at least up to the penultimate paragraph: “For now, she [the Yale professor] is eager to see whether her teachings alter campus life.” I don’t think one can expect much life alterations given such a format and within such a short timeframe. That aside, what is encouraging about the popularity of the course is that it shows that people are starting to hunger for more from life. Not just finance or startups. Surely, some of these people must have a “spiritual urge” or “spiritual impulse” to see that reality is much vaster than they had been led to believe.

Elon Musk's Other World

Space X Heavy, its sights set on orbiting Mars, has successfully launched. Musk’s other world is not the Christian’s. In 1930, Adriano Tilgher foresaw, so to say, the birth of Elon Musk:

Man transferred [transformed? It is an English translation from the original Italian–AT] into worker no longer turns his thoughts to the next world, but concentrates on this one, not to contemplate it, but to transform it, since that is the only way to know it (Work: What It has Meant to Men through the Ages, p. 111).

Nietzsche’s claim that metaphysics has been deconstructed finds it confirmed by Musk: there is only whatever world humans set their eyes on. The next world is just another world refitted for human endeavors.

#3: Russell Weighs in... In Praise of Idleness, by Bertrand Russell | 20 min. | Harper's | Longform Essay

Two Brief Remarks: First, this is the essay I referenced last week in Issue #5; I think it’s worth reading in its entirety as it gives you a keyhole view into some of the interesting debates swirling in the early 1930s. Second, after I’ve read more about idleness, I now see that Russell’s view of it is historically myopic. Tacitus (whom I cite in my essay below) recounts how warriors saw farmers tilling and harvesting as being idle. What is called for, then, is a genealogy of idleness with a view to seeing how its meaning changed according to the exercise of power. Now, of course, we think an idle person is a lazy person, i.e., someone who is not pulling his own weight.

Forswunk, adj.

Susie Dent


A reminder of the 13th century word ‘forswunk’: exhausted from too much work. To be ‘foreswunk’ is to be exhausted before you even begin. Morning.

1:03 AM - 2 Feb 2018

According to the OED, foreswunk means to be “exhausted with labour.” I think it’s fascinating how Susie Dent suggests that the meaning is subtler than this. Imagine being “exhausted before you even begin.” Future dictionarists, living some seven centuries from now, will be equally fascinated by our word burnout.

#4: Is Health Care a Reward for Hard Work | Indiana Wins Federal Permission to Adopt Medicaid Work Requirements 5 min. | Wash Post | News

WP Sum: “Hoosier state becomes the second to get work rules that Obama administration refused to allow.”

Reflections: The left regards health care as a right, something to which every citizen is entitled without exception. The right, or parts of it, regard health care in terms of desert, that is, as a reward for hard work. While I incline toward the former, I’m not yet weighing in, only reflecting upon the debate. With regard to the desert argument, it’s interesting to see how the post-WWII governmental commitment to full employment (I’ll write about this more in the future) also carries a strong moral message: you must be a member of the workforce in order to qualify for care for the body and mind. Additionally, it presupposes, while re-enacting, the basic conditions of what I call “the work society”: every able-bodied and able-minded person who can work ought to work. Here see the three societies chart below.

#5: Well, We Haven't the Foggiest | Every Study We Could Find on What Automation will do to Jobs, in One Chart | 3 min. | MIT Tech Rev | Chart H/T Paul Millerd

MIT Tech Rev Overview: “There are about as many opinions [about whether we’ll see technological unemployment] as there are experts.”

Thoughts: The writers conclude, “[W]e have no idea how many jobs will actually be lost to the march of technological progress.” What the reviewers didn’t say is that many of the predictions are pessimistic in nature, some quite. I note this only in passing for, to be sure, it’s possible that the majority is wrong. Also noteworthy is the fact that few are appealing to ancient skepticism, which seems to me to be the most vibrant philosophy in the face of predictive uncertainty: how does one live with epoche, the suspension of judgment?

That Old Sense of Mystery

Compare the famous opening of the Daodejing with the modern dispensation. DDJ first:

The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name .

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.

The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.

Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.

Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.

These two spring from the same source but differ in

name; this appears as darkness

Darkness within darkness

The gate to all mystery

The modern dispensation according to Tilgher:

The old sense of mystery gives way to our modern craving to find a practical solution to urgent problems (p. 134).

This is one key to reading my concern with the epochal shift away from mystery and toward problematization. What if the world is not a problem to be solved, and what if it does not need saving? What is needed, or so I think, is to rediscover that fundamental, primal sense of mystery.

Thank Goodness for Hard-working Probiotics!

As seen in my local food coop

Read the copy above closely to get the joke.

The Three Societies

Reading a number of essays and books has helped me to sketch the chart below, one that should be seen as a first, fairly simplistic, but nonetheless illuminating take on how the value of work has changed over time:

Three Societies: My Take

The question I’m trying to answer and still cannot is:

  • How did our attitude toward work go from being contemptuous to laudatory? How, that is, did work go from being something that many humans begrudgingly did so that few human beings could devote themselves to politics, warfare, or contemplation to being something that everyone of us does (with the exception of those who are incapable of doing so) and is expected to do?

I think another, crisper way of putting the question would be like so:

  • How is Elon Musk possible? That is, what are the historical, cultural, economic, and religious conditions of possibility for the emergence of Elon Musk or of someone like him?

You see Elon Musk is trying to remake the world while also seeking to ensure the survival of homo sapiens; his doing could be regarded as the ultimate expression of homo faber. Just as some scholars have claimed that James Joyce’s Ulysses was the last novel in the sense that no further experimentation with form was henceforth possible, so could it be said that there’s no homo faber that can come after Elon Musk? (A pun on Musk as the “last man”?) Yet it was not so long ago in historical terms, only a few thousand years (if we count back to ancient Greece), only some 500 years (if we count back to the Renaissance), only a few hundred years (if we count back to just before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution [but see endnote 2 below]), that work was resoundingly condemned. How did work go from being base, ignoble, lowly to being that for the sake of which most human beings live? How did work come to justify human existence?

I. The Slave Society

In his excellent essay “Was Greek Civilization Based on Slave Labour?,” Moses Finley answers in the affirmative and opens the essay with two generalizations: “First: at all times and in all places the Greek world relied on some form (or forms) of dependent labour to meet its needs, both public and private” (p. 145). And: “Second: with the rarest of exceptions, there were always substantial numbers of free men engaged in productive labour” (p. 145). His conclusion is definitive: “slavery was a basic element in Greek civilization” (p. 161). Because chattel slavery was an accepted practice within the well-recognized institution of slavery, we are warranted, in Finley’s eyes, in calling ancient Greece a “slave society.”

It’s worth reading Finley’s final paragraph together to see why the Greeks may have discovered a vital political idea in and through slavery:

[T]he cities in which individual freedom reached its highest expression–most obviously Athens–were cities in which chattel slavery flourished. The Greeks, it is well known, discovered both the idea of individual freedom and the institutional framework in which it could be realized. The pre-Greek world–the world of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Assyrians; and I cannot refrain from adding the Mycenaeans–was, in a very profound sense, a world without free men, in the sense in which the west has come to understand that concept. It was equally a world in which chattel slavery played no role of any consequence. That, too, was a Greek discovery. One aspect of Greek history, in short, is the advance, hand in hand, of freedom and slavery.

I feel as if I’ve read Hegel claiming somewhere that tyranny is the freedom of one, oligarchy that of the few, and democracy that of the many, but I can’t find the quote at the moment. In any case, Finley’s argument is more potent than this potentially apocryphal quote because of the implication that the discovery of political freedom of the few (i.e., the free citizens) coincides with, while also requiring, the enslavement of the many. According to Hannah Arendt, the elites had hit upon a way of overcoming the “labor” ordinarily associated with the ceaseless “life process”: outsource the labor to a coerced class of people, and use war partially as a way of enslaving newly captured bodies. Hence, those most honored were the great statesmen whose lives achieved their ultimacy in the polis as well as the ascetic wisemen who, as Adriano Tilgher argues, attained to equanimity amid the flux of time

For Finley, it’s too easy to play the moral condemnation card just because we find slavery morally repugnant today; it’s far more difficult, as well as more important, to see, for instance, what view the Greeks took of labor and of work. It was undeniably true that, for them, one was not a free person if one was tethered to the necessities of the body, and it was equally undeniably true, at least for Plato and Aristotle, that the contemplation of the cosmos was higher than the craftsmanship associated with “work” (in Arendt’s sense of making durable products) as well as, at least on some interpretations, statecraft. You can see how freedom, henceforth of the metaphysical variety, could reach its clearest expression in the Neoplatonist Plotinus about whom a disciple once wrote: “Plotinus [a mystic] resembled someone ashamed of being in a body.”

II. The Tripartite Society

The late medieval French historian Jacques Le Goff (notably, his Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages, a work I cite often hereafter) is my guide to the medieval period. It became a generally accepted ideology that medieval society was structured according to the three estates:

  • The clergy (those who prayed)

  • The aristocrat warriors (those who fought)

  • The farmers or “peasant mass” (those who worked) (p. 56)

The king, it should be said, occupied a special place inasmuch as he was the epitome of the clergy as well as that of the warriors.

During this time, generally speaking, peasants were held in deep contempt (p. 92) and there was a blanket “condemnation to labor” (p. 77). The standard view was that labor was penitence for original sin (though Le Goff also cites the countervailing Pauline view from 2 Thessalonians 3:8: “Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you.”) Also prevalent was the Greco-Roman legacy: “Above all,” writes Le Goff, “there was the weight of the association of labor with slavery” (p. 75).

Le Goff accounts for the very “negative value” (p. 111) attached to labor by appealing to the hierarchy of the tripartite society:

If the oratores–the clerics–ultimately came to accept the bellatores [warriors] at their side in a position of eminence, both these groups were in accord in regarding the inferior order of workers, laboratores, with the utmost contempt. Labor was thus discredited by association with the baseness of the class that monopolized toil. The Church explained the serf’s lowly condition as that of society’s scapegoat, invoking man’s servitude to sin. Labor’s disgrace was the result of original sin, on which the text provides all the necessary commentary. (p. 110)

The clerics were contemptuous of labor because it tied those working to the corporeal, to the sins of the world and because the life of contemplation was best. And warriors were contemptuous of it because it was through warfare that they gained not only reputation but also booty. In another essay contained in this volume, Le Goff quotes Tacitus, a Roman senator living from 54-120 CE:

It was not as easy to persuade them [namely, warriors] to till the soil and await the harvest as to challenge the enemy and earn wounds as a reward. They held it lazy and spiritless to earn by the sweat of their brow what they could obtain for blood. When they were not making war, they gave themselves over to hunting and mainly to idleness, spending their time sleeping and eating, and the bravest and most warlike did nothing. (p. 76)

I want to make two points about this very interesting passage. First, the attitude of the warrior evidently prevails throughout much of the medieval period and can be seen to carry through into eighteenth century England, where gentlemen could still be seen hunting and sporting. Second, it’s fascinating to observe the transvaluation of the values of war/idleness and labor/idleness. For the warriors, tilling the soil was “lazy and spiritless.” For us moderns, doing nothing but “sleeping and eating” while waiting for war is the very apex of idleness! Where once, and indeed for a long while, warriors were powerful, now they are weak in comparison with modern-day merchants and entrepreneurs. The dyads (warrior: war/idleness, bourgeois: labor/idleness) have indeed changed, and were Nietzsche examining this passage with us today he would rightly claim that the meanings of idleness are in key part the products of those whose ideology has won out. It is we who are now calling those hunting foxes lazy when there is, we think, work of the day to be done.

A duly noted qualifier: Le Goff seems to suggest that around the twelfth century, there could have been the beginning of a revaluation of work. It could be that it is no longer the saint but the “saintly worker” became an exemplar. [1] I include this remark partly as a flag for further research. Could the medieval period, as far back as the twelfth century, be credited with setting the stage for the birth of the modern work ethic? [2]

III. The Great Mystery: The Inscrutable Revaluation of Values

In “Work and Leisure in Pre-industrial Society” (Past & Present 29 (Dec., 1964), pp. 50-66), Keith Thomas alludes to what I’ll call “the great mystery”: around the sixteenth century perhaps or possibly earlier, “With the awareness of the economic importance of labour comes a new insistence upon the duty of every man to work” (p. 59). For “[i]t is in the religious teaching of the post-Reformation period, among Catholics perhaps as well as Protestants, that the positive merit of hard work is most clearly asserted” (p. 59). Exactly, though woefully understatedly. How did this change of monumental world-historical importance occur?

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber famously traces this back to Luther and especially to Calvin, holding that it could have been the case that Calvin’s view of predestination led believers to find proof of their being among the elect and this proof would have been evident in the concept of vocation or “calling” (Begriff). Tilgher seconds Weber. Luther’s critique of the monastic order as well as his belief that all human beings should work is, for Tilgher, one part of the answer. To discover the other, main part, one must turn, he thinks, to Calvinists’ attempt to revalue work:

The only evidence [of one’s being among the elect] lies in his daily life and deeds. For though he cannot win salvation by good works, nevertheless the zeal and power to do good works is a sign manual of God’s favor. The elect do not live for themselves or for other men, but only for God, who is omnipotent and inscrutable Will. They are God’s instruments–or rather they are no more than outlets through which the divine activity flows in its great task of bringing the glory of the Lord down upon earth…. What more natural than for the man yearning to assure himself that his hope is not vain, to put himself to the test of trying to live as none but the elect can live? What sort of life would that be? He must not stand idly contemplating, but must practice self-control, concentration, fight down the softness of his flesh, uproot whatever might bend his heart toward the idle, sinful world and its creatures. Meditation, striving toward inner purification, is of little value for him. His task is to act upon the world and its creatures and force them to become the visible mirror of God’s glory. If he can do this, then his inner conviction of salvation may not be a vain hope. But he may never be sure (Work: What It has Meant to Men through the Ages [original, more appropriate title in Italian: Homo Faber], pp. 54-5).

So far, that’s a straight-up paraphrase of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Tilgher tries to explain the turn this way:

With Calvinism comes a new attitude toward labor. All men, even the rich, must work, because to work is the will of God. But they must not lust after the fruits of their labor–wealth, possessions, soft living [he’s imagining, I suppose, some aristocratic class willing to set by its stores or lavish spending]. Their sweat and toil have value only as they help to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. And from this paradox–the command to ceaseless effort, to ceaseless renunciation of the fruits of effort–must needs follow a new economic practice. [Must it?] The miser’s sterile hoarding, the money-lender’s usury, are both swept away. A new use–the only worthy use–has been found for profit. As soon as earned it is used to finance fresh ventures, to breed new profit, again to be reinvested… and so on to the end of time. (p. 58)

Hmm… I don’t know. As far as explanations go, it sounds kinda fishy. Were Calvinists at the center of this new revaluation of work and of business? Maybe. Was theirs the “command to ceaseless effort” combined with a this-worldly asceticism, which barred them from hoarding or spending and which therefore thrust them into investing and reinvesting? Possibly. Were Calvinists the ones who set the intellectual stage for capitalism? That is what they say. And is this really how the novel work ethic, the one we’ve come to take for granted as being as natural as air, was born?

To repeat: I do not know.

IV. The Work Society

Somehow, the work society is born. We really need to take a breather, readers, because the birth of the work society was a feat of such world-historical importance that it is scarcely fathomable. Work for so very, very long the bane of the many is now believed to be the boon of all. (Even the greatest man shall work!) Work, formerly the lowliest, now the highest. Work for so very long at best a bearable necessity now a thing of inherent value, a value unto itself. (Why didn’t Nietzsche or Foucault write a genealogy of work?) The powerful classes–the statesmen, the clergy, the warriors–not overthrown but–haha–outfoxed! The inherent goodness of work: the birth of a radically new value! Work as the highest good: the emergence of a new religion! The religion of the bourgeoisie!

And let us not forget: the work ethic, oh the work ethic! What an invention was this!:

The central premise of the work ethic was that work was the core of moral life. Work made men useful in a world of economic scarcity. It staved off the doubts and temptations that preyed on idleness, it opened the way to deserved wealth and status, it allowed one to put the impress of mind and skill on the material world (Daniel Rodgers, The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920, p. 14)

An ethic of work would, for us, become the core of moral life. Unbeknownst to us, we are, I submit, the subjects of a very large scale social experiment, one that may be only 200 or so years old. Imagine that each of us is endowed with the “right to work” on the assumption that it was by this means that each of us could uphold our “right to life.” Imagine our guiding ethic were the work ethic whose ultimate standard–pristine and shimmering in its diurnal quality–were hard work, whose gravest sin were laziness, and whose promised result were “deserved wealth.” Hear, on occasion, Seymour Lipsett, in his essay “The Work Ethic–Then and Now” written just after the collapse of the USSR, embracing R.E. Pahl’s conclusion: “The work ethic is alive and well: people enjoy working and there is plenty to do.” What relief!, Lipsett seems to be implying. Remember what that psychologist, the flow guy with the unpronounceable name doing a study concluded–namely, that people experience more “flow” at work than in leisure. (Never mind that the subjects have never known another kind of society, one that departed radically from the coordinates of the work society. And brush aside the fact that we don’t actually know what leisure is.) Listen, in January 2018, to Michael Jonathan Moritz of Sequoia Capital worrying, in The Financial Times, about Americans’ apparent slackening of the work ethic compared with China’s unapologetic embrace of unstinting hard work. Tune in to young fathers and mothers as they extol the supreme virtue of hard work to their young children.

And in the end, what does the work society produce? It produces the New Everyman: every child believing, at the age of 5, that he or she is “born to work.” And it produces its most magnificent hero, our messiah: Elon Musk, homo faber as savior of homo sapiens.

We have time, dear readers; we owe it ourselves to ask ourselves about the hidden costs of this wild social experiment, the one that was set up behind our backs and before our births. We still have time to disinter the assumptions upon which our lives have long rested and to behold them with the loving, discerning eyes of contemplation.


[1] In the twelfth century, Le Goff writes, “The concept of penitential labor was supplanted by the idea of labor as a positive means of salvation. Behind the growing importance of this new monastic view, it is impossible not to notice the pressure being exerted by new professional categories, such as merchants, craftsmen, and [manual?] workers, concerned with finding religious justification for their activity and vocation, anxious to assert their dignity and obtain assurance of their salvation, not in spite of, but rather because of, their profession. Once again, the image of such aspirations as projected in hagiography [the lives of saints] is instructive. With the beginning of the thirteenth century, the working saint was losing ground, giving way to the saintly worker” (p. 115).

[2] Also notable, and left out of my little sketch of a history, is the role of the craftsman. Both Le Goff and Tilgher claim that the craftsman–especially certain blacksmiths, goldsmiths, and minters–were held in high repute during the medieval period. Interestingly, the craftsman didn’t fit into the “three estates” ideology, yet the ideology nonetheless lived on.

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Afterthought: On Burnout in Medicine

For some reason, Revue, the newsletter platform I’ve been using, isn’t allowing me to set up a link to this New England Journal of Medicine article (H/T Paul Millerd) on burnout rates in medicine. Over the years, I’ve spoken with young medical doctors, and they would attest that this article describes their experiences pretty accurately.

Here’s a link to the article:


Some Quotes: “Burnout rates are now twice as high in medicine as in other fields,”

“Increasing clerical burden is one of the biggest drivers of burnout in medicine. Time-motion studies show that for every hour physicians spend with patients, they spend one to two more hours finishing notes, documenting phone calls, ordering tests, reviewing results, responding to patient requests, prescribing medications, and communicating with staff. Little of this work is currently reimbursed. Instead, it is done in the interstices of life, during time often referred to as ‘work after work’–at night, on weekends, even on vacation.”