The Art of Work in the Age of Anxiety An Essay, 1119 SCBJ, SC Lawyer, November 2019, #48

AuthorBy Thomas Gagné
PositionVol. 31 Issue 3 Pg. 48

The Art of Work in the Age of Anxiety An Essay

Vol. 31 Issue 3 Pg. 48

South Carolina BAR Journal

November, 2019

By Thomas Gagné

Immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous.

– Bertrand Russell

Know Thyself. – Delphic Maxim

The idea of work caught my imagination the other day. Not work in the sense of preparing for a deposition, or some such, but the idea of work. And in the course of my mental meanderings, I recalled the above quote by Bertrand Russell. It struck me as odd that he, of all people, penned this little plum, given that during his ninety-eight years on this planet he was, what we would call today, a workaholic.

The man was a writing machine. His literary legacy included eighty books, two thousand articles and over four thousand letters. His great work, The Principia Mathematica, sought to derive all mathematics, no less, from logical precepts. He failed, defeated by mathematical paradoxes, but not without co-founding Analytic Philosophy, which would fill the rice bowls of philosophy professors for the next half century.

Logician, Cambridge don and mentor to the young Wittgenstein, Russell stuck his finger into a dizzying variety of intellectual pies – from ethics to epistemology, religion to politics. He was a liberal darling and a royal pain to conservatives. He was once dubbed “The Most Hated Man In England” after lambasting Britain’s role in the war -- the First World War - a practice he stubbornly clung to until it landed him in jail for a brief period.

Russell was a scion of Welsh aristocracy, so we can understand, at least, a class affinity for leisure. But is he seriously suggesting that wordlessness (“idleness,” I think, misses the mark) is the preferred state of being, even given his own hypergraphia? I don’t think so, even if there is authority to contrary.

Consider Genesis. Adam and Eve didn’t work. So what did they do? I imagine their playing, naming things (Adam seemed to have a talent for taxonomy), sleeping, eating, and fooling around – generally having a grand old time. The world’s first leisure class on an indefinite vacation. But it wouldn’t have been much of a story if things remained paradisiacal, so, like the kids they were, they did the one thing they were told not to do - eat forbidden fruit. Their punishment for their juvenile curiosity (and becoming, in effect, self-aware, in the first great act of self-discovery) seems, at this distance, severe. In addition to deportation, thanks to them humanity now had to survive by the “sweat of their brows” i.e., work in perpetuity.*

This story’s message regarding work is clear – work is punishment. From the beginning, as it were, western man found himself contra work. Work implied malfeasance, the surest sign of original sin. This left us the major literary and philosophical theme that if only we could return to our original state we could be happy again.

Later, however, the sting of having to work is mollified. In His Sermon on the Mount, Christ offered: “Consider the lilies of the field; how they grow, they neither toil nor do they spin.” Mathew 6:25. In other words, don’t worry, God will take care of you. It even becomes something a virtue: “A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.” Prov. 13:4.

This tension involving the moral value of work is especially apparent in the legal profession due to the predominate belief, especially in America, that hard work is essential in securing a respected place in society. So we cater to work, fetishism it, obsessively react to its whims, obsequiously heed the master’s voice-the clarion tinkle of a smart-phone, or the jolly jingle of a tablet.

We often despise work, enlisting certain days to reflect our resentment of it. We have “Hump day” or “Thank God it’s Friday.” If we should have a day off, perfect strangers will ask - “Not working today?”, as if...

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