Men do not work as a matter of course; still less do they want to work when they are not forced by necessity. Is working something essentially human or is it alien to the human as such and merely imposed upon men by outward necessity? There are societies belonging to primitive civilisation—notably the Australian aborigines—in which men do not work. They merely catch fish and gather berries when they are hungry. There is on the other hand a state of highly developed civilisation in which the bearers of cultural tradition think it unworthy to work. The intensity of work in modern western civilisation is a historical anomaly. Perhaps the weakening of the will-to-work which we experience in some parts of Europe is a reaction against this anomalous tempo of work. At any rate it is a symptom of the unsolved problem of the meaning of work.
If you ask “Why does man work?” the answer is generally: “Because unless he works he goes hungry. If this necessity ceases he stops working and plays.” This answer is obviously only part of the truth. There are people who want to work who do not feel at their ease without working or for whom work is an obligation of self-respect. They would feel themselves to be idlers parasites of human society if they did not take part in work which is the basis of existence for civilised humanity. There are people to whom work is a religious obligation a divine calling. The problem of the meaning of work leads us right into the ultimate question of the meaning of life itself.
Few people philosophise about their jobs. One does work and anyone who doesn't want to will soon see that he has to. For most people the question does not arise because there is no alternative; that is why history often leaves us without a definite answer. Most men work because they must; whether this is their only motive or whether apart from necessity there are other stimuli remains an open question. But the question takes on specific urgency when under certain social conditions the necessity to work has been somehow loosened or even removed. It is because of this close connection with outward necessity that work is suspected of being a mere servitude of human existence a burden which must be thrown off by those who have a higher idea of life.
This was the view of classical antiquity. To work for the necessities of life is something degrading for men. Work is good for what the Greek called banausoi—the Helots and slaves—not for the free Hellenes. The Greek free man should be exempt from this necessity: he the bearer of spirit shall lead a spiritual existence. Certainly he should not be inactive; activity belongs to the essence of the mind and therefore to a truly human existence. But this activity should not be work it should not have anything to do with preservation of physical life. The free man ought to create but he ought not to work. This accords with the Greek philosophical anthropology namely that the distinctive element of the human is the spirit while the body is the partie honteuse of man's existence. Therefore free spiritual activity grounded in itself and not tied to any biological necessity is the only worthy existence for man. Useful work aimed at preserving life is a mere continuation of animal existence; biological necessity is the lowest category of human purpose making the mind an instrument of animal instincts.
This depreciation of useful work has never been expressed more clearly or rationally than by Aristotle. But in this as in so many other respects Aristotle is a true spokesman of typical Hellenic views. Along with the Aristotelian theory of values this conception of work was introduced into the Christian Middle Ages and blended with the feudal class structure of society. Only it was no longer spiritual activity in the cultural but in the religious sense which forms the apex of this structure. The lowest class is that of the peasant his activity being the continuation of animal life; the highest is that of the homo religiosus; between the two extremes there is a scale determined by the Aristotelian classical opposition of spirit and matter.
This order of values broadly determines the views of the cultured European. He distinguishes between “low” work and “higher” (cultural) activities of man. Economic activity manual work is “low” whilst free creative cultural activity is “high”. And it is so much the higher as it is independent of the shameful link with the necessities of life. The highest spiritual activity therefore is that of the free artist or scholar who has not—or should not have—to worry about his living.
This Aristotelian scale of values which for centuries has dominated European civilisation has not remained unchallenged. It was in the middle of last century that a radical reaction took place in Karl Marx's economic theory of history. The devaluation of useful economic work gave way to its opposite which we might call “the myth of the working man”. Economic work to produce the necessaries of life now becomes the real substance of human history and of man's life; according to Marx this is the theme of all history. And the dramatic factor is merely the distribution of the fruit of this work. Let us not forget that the Greek devaluation of economic work was possible only on the basis of slavery. Whilst the Athenian gentlemen were philosophising in the market place their slaves had to do the drudgery under inhuman conditions as beasts of burden so that the Athenian gentlemen having gained an appetite from their philosophical disputes might have something worth while to eat on coming home. Similarly the aristocratic-clerical class-system of the Middle Ages was possible only on the basis of agricultural serfdom the thrall having to do the mean low work for the higher and the highest ranks the nobility and the clerical aristocracy. It is in view of these facts that the Marxian picture and its protest against hypocritical ideology and fictions gain their power of conviction. All this cultural existence it was said was based upon exploitation. At the cost of the drudgery of the peasant the higher classes could lead their parasitic spiritual luxury-existence. Idealism according to Marx solves the problem of the meaning of work by dividing it into two parts—spiritual activity and economic work; acknowledging only the first as human but at the same time living upon those who by necessity do the second. This idealistic conception then is characterised by an insincere dualism. It asserts the possibility of a spiritual life without economic interests whereas the spiritual life can only be lived because the economic necessities are provided by others who are stupid or powerless enough to do it.
I do not hesitate to give a large measure of credit to this Marxian “debunking” of a false dualistic conception of work. By this Marxian reaction the worker—now the labourer—becomes the “real man”. The one who according to the Aristotelian and the medieval theories was the lowest the producer of economic values now becomes the true bearer of human history and civilisation. The working man is the hero of the social revolution and its eschatology. He is the centre of the new myth and the content of the new religion.
This radical turn however would not have been possible without a thorough preparation in the bourgeois mentality and society. In a way Marxism is only a last phase of bourgeois capitalism. It was then that the transvaluation of values from the spiritual to the material economic scale of values took place. That economic values are the highest the genuine reality is not an invention of Karl Marx but of capitalist society of the 19th century. This pan-economism was practically the philosophy of the time long before Karl Marx gave it the theoretical form of “historical materialism”. “Money rules the world.” The dispute between Marx and the capitalists is merely concerned with the question who shall have money. The view they hold in common is that economic goods are the substance of life. Therefore they agree that the question why we should work cannot arise. Life consists of these two things: making money by producing material goods and consuming them.
This revolutionary transvaluation of the Aristotelian scale of values by which the lowest becomes the highest means the self-sufficiency of the economic motive of work: one works of course in order to live and life means enjoying the goods produced. While the classical solution is based on a fictitious idealism—fictitious because it presupposes the very unidealistic separation of society into a cultural élite and a majority of uncultural unfree economic producers—19th century economics both capitalist and Marxist represents a practical materialism in which man's life and economy are ultimately identical. The first solution corresponds to an anthropology in which man is essentially spirit imprisoned in a body. The second materialist solution corresponds to an anthropology in which man is essentially a body and mind or spirit merely a concomitant by-product of the body producing in its turn the so-called ideologies. Both solutions are equally unsatisfactory and unrealistic.
Christian anthropology avoids the idealistic as well as the materialistic onesidedness. It takes man to be a unity of body and mind because the body is created by God as well as the spirit. The classical hierarchy of values calling the bodily life “low” is impossible here. Therefore bodily work is in no way degrading unworthy of men. Instead of the opposition between the “low” and the “high” we find here the relation of ends and means of “within” and “without”. The body is the organ and the means of expression of man's divine destiny. Man must not be ashamed of his body and its needs both being created by God and therefore good. Work done by the body and for the body is not inferior but a consequence of God's will. The Bible does not show any trace of an ascetic devaluation of bodily and economic life. The medieval predilection for virginity and for a religious life detached from the world has its roots not so much in Christianity as in Hellenistic antiquity.
Luther's rediscovery of the Biblical meaning of “vocation” or “calling” had revolutionary consequences. In the Middle Ages it was only the monk and the priest who had a divine vocation not the layman. The idea of the homo religiosus being by his divine vocation the apex of the social scale dominated the whole of the structure of feudal society culminating in the Pope and—at the other extreme—the peasant in an almost slave-like abasement. He of course had no divine vocation; this was the exclusive privilege of the homines religiosi. It was a direct consequence of Luther's rediscovery of the New Testment message that every Christian whether a priest a monk a king or a housemaid being called into the service of God may look at the work he or she is doing as a divine calling or vocation. There is nothing “low” about the work of a housemaid. It is just as “high” as reading the mass or the breviary. It does not matter what you do provided that whatever you do is done as a divine service to the glory of God.
By this new idea of calling or vocation the fatal dilemma is removed: the choice is between the highest valuation of the spiritual with a consequent devaluation of the economic physical work or the removal of this dualism on the basis of a merely materialistic economy. If all work is divine service it is ennobled by this highest calling. The difference in value no longer lies in the kind of work which is done but simply in its having or not having this divine purpose. The housemaid the peasant the cobbler the industrial worker have equal title to divine nobility as the judge the abbot the artist or the king if they do their work as a divine “calling” or vocation. The valuation of work is shifted from the “what” to the “why” and “how”.
This new conception of vocation therefore ennobles the common man and his working day. Wherever a labourer does his work as God's servant he has a better claim to a spiritual existence than an artist or scientist who knows nothing of divine calling. The traditional conception of spiritual work proves to be false. Spiritual work is done wherever work has this highest perspective. Our traditional conception of spiritual work originates from that abstract idealism which separates spirit and body. This spiritual snobbery is the counterpart of materialist vulgarism. Both are overcome by a truly Christian understanding of vocation. This high valuation of economic work as being a service of God cannot fall a prey to materialistic vulgarisation any more; the valuation of intellectual or aesthetic work as being a service of God no more and no less than the work of the farm-labourer seen in the same perspective leaves no room for spiritual snobbery. The farmer Johannes in Gotthelf's Uli der Knecht who sits at night with his servant Uli to watch a calving cow and uses this time to talk to him about his problems as a Christian brother is enjoying a spiritual existence just as much as Johann Sebastian Bach composing a cantata in honour of God.
Work conceived as the service of God is at the same time serving men. On this basis the division of labour cannot lead to the formation of classes or castes. Employer and employee government and people are brothers. If people take their Christian faith seriously everyone knows that his specific function in society is service for the common good. Higher power as involved in higher office means so much greater responsibility for service. The Christian conception of vocation does not remove functional hierarchy. There is an Above and a Below there is graded competence. But all this is functional dienstlich as we say in German—a term which refers to service and has nothing whatever to do with distinction of value nor any connotation of unfreedom. The soldier has to obey the officer but the officer is not “more” than the soldier. In spite of functional subordination they are equal.
Karl Marx saw clearly that the division of labour as it has developed in history is closely related to the development of different kinds of feudalism of caste and class systems in which the so-called “higher” exploits the so-called “lower”. He saw further that all sorts of metaphysical and religious ideas have been used to justify these systems of exploitation. It is hardly his fault that he did not see the true social consequences of the Christian idea of vocation because empirical Christianity did not manifest much of it. It is within the so-called Christian world that the feudal structure of the Middle Ages and the class structure of modern society originated. Just as in classical antiquity society shows a cleavage between an unfree majority doing the economic drudgery and a free non-working élite forming the basis of a cultural life so in the age of capitalism there was a cleavage between those living on independent capital income and those living on dependent wages. Because capital income is independent while wage-income is dependent the capitalist can decide how the proceeds of the work are to be divided which of course he does entirely for his own profit. To oversimplify grossly: he takes the gold for himself gives silver to the management and the copper to the worker. In this fashion a modern caste system is formed within a society with equal political rights. There is a small élite having the means of a rich cultural existence while the larger masses are doomed to cultural helotism. The non-working élite lives at the cost of the hardworking mass on the backs of which it produces and consumes the higher cultural goods.
Onesided as this analysis may be there is so much obvious truth in it that the masses of the working people having once become aware of these facts—at the same time being misled by the onesidedness and exaggerations of this theory of exploitation—cannot have a right attitude to their work. This is one of the main causes of the present crisis of labour. The second cause seems to be of a merely technical nature but is closely related to the first: the progressive division of labour with its ultimate development the assembly-line method of production.
Once the owner of capital is separated from the actual work his only motive is profit. In order to increase profit he has to accelerate the process of work to get as much out of his invested capital as possible. The human factor the relation of the workers to their work is of secondary if any importance. More and more the machine thinks for the worker while the share of the individual worker in the meaningful whole of the work decreases. The relation of the worker to his work becomes more and more impersonal and the meaning of his work becomes invisible. He seems to be merely an unimportant part of the machinery whilst the meaning of what he does passes from his horizon. Much of the satisfaction felt by the farmer in his intimate relation to natural growth and the artisan in creating a useful object is denied the worker at the assembly-line.
The third cause of the crisis may be more important than the two others: unemployment and insecurity. The deep-rooted fear of unemployment shows more clearly than anything else that man does not work merely in order to get his living. Unemployment is dreaded even where its economic effects are minimised by insurance. Why then is unemployment so greatly feared? First because it throws a man out not merely of a job but of meaningful work which gives his life the dignity of creativity and service. Second because it gives the unemployed the feeling of being a parasite of society. He feels himself although innocently under sentence of the judgment “If any will not work neither let him eat”. He feels he is living at the cost of other people. He is ashamed to eat what others produce. It is this fear of unemployment inherent in our present economic system which more than anything else makes him hate this system and his working share in it. It is this permanent insecurity of the wage-earner which makes him conscious of his dependence and his social rootlessness.
It cannot be denied that these are features of our prevalent western economic system. It is another question whether a collectivist state-socialist system would make much difference to the worker's attitude to his work. A nationalised economy will not stop the progressive division of labour nor abolish the assembly-line. The nationalisation of capital will not remove the dependence of the individual worker. Whether a state-controlled economy will be able to avert unemployment is at least an open question. On the other hand it cannot be doubted—because it is already proved—that collectivism creates new factors which are unfavourable to a positive valuation of work. In a complete state-economy the worker would hardly be allowed to strike or to choose his own working place while he would always have to fear the punishment of an omnipotent employer.
It is one of the main effects of a truly Christian view of life that one does not accept the alternative of capitalism or collectivist state-economy. This “either-or” is a false abstraction disproved by history. Pure capitalism as seen by Marx does not exist any longer because of the powerful reaction of trade unionism and state legislation. We are however far from having exhausted all the economic reserves of a conception of work which is neither individualistic nor collectivist based neither on a false idealism nor on a false materialism but upon a Christian understanding of man and work.
The attitude to work is ultimately a religious question. Experience shows that even within the present economic system it is not impossible—though it is difficult—to do one's work as service for God and men. If we keep in mind what St. Paul could expect from the slave members of the Christian community we may come to the conclusion that the primary factor in the crisis of work is the disappearance of the Christian faith. While it is true that all kinds of slavery are a disgrace to a Christian society and have to be fought it is also true and even more true that a real believer can do his work as a service for God and men whatever the system may be. Capitalism in the Marxian sense is just as little reconcilable with Christianity as is totalitarianism. Both have to be fought equally as destructive of the dignity of work. But while it is a serious obligation of the Christian Church to overcome this fatal “either-or” it is the blessing of vital Christian faith to preserve the conception of divine calling even in the most unworthy conditions.
By the Christian idea of vocation all work is personalised as well as communalised. It is seen as part of one social body as a contribution within a working community. Everyone does his service in his place and within its limits and therefore gets his appropriate remuneration. The more this communal spirit is alive the less need is there of the stimulus of privileges for specific services. From this ideal picture of a Christian community we can deduce the nature of those factors which threaten and destroy the community of work.
First among these is the oligarchic misuse of the functional hierarchy i.e. the exploitation of the functional subordinates in the interests of a selfish plutocracy or a tyrannical bureaucracy. Whether it is the capitalist “boss” or the communist commissar that is exploiting his functional position for selfish ends makes little difference. By this selfish exploitation of a position of power they make it difficult if not impossible for the worker to look at his work as a service. The second danger is ochlocratic i.e. the fanaticism of equality which has no use for any kind of subordination. Nothing is more ruinous to the community of work than this egalitarianism. It destroys co-operation even more radically than does oligarchic misuse. The mere idea of radical equality poisons the atmosphere of work. Where the feeling is prevalent that any kind of inequality is as such an injustice there can never be a positive valuation of work until every thing is equalised. This perhaps is the most serious element in the crisis of labour at the present time.
Someone may object that of course division of labour and functional differentiation of competence must exist but that no kind of privilege should be derived from it. Every servant of the community ought to be treated with absolute equality. Our reply is first that wherever this view of equality prevails even functional differentiation will always be looked at with resentment and jealousy. Radical egalitarianism cannot stand any subordination. Secondly as human nature is it is impossible to get functional differentiation without the stimulus of privilege. Only in a society of perfect saints would it be possible to get a maximum of service and the necessary minimum of functional differentiation with its different degrees of responsibility without some kind of social privilege as a stimulus. Society has to pay for higher service the price of social privileges.
To ignore this fundamental social law means to ruin any kind of social order. Even Bolshevist society had to learn that. But this fundamental law is discredited wherever the principle of egalitarianism dominates people's minds. It is beautiful if individual Christians of their own accord renounce all privilege—examples are not too frequent!—but it is entirely false to make this a general principle of Christian ethics and to discredit privilege in any sense as unethical. Wherever this radical egalitarianism takes hold of people's minds its levelling results do not stop short of the dissolution of the social order. Equality is a principle of the highest importance within Christian ethics but radical egalitarianism is the most dangerous poison within any working community. No society and no positive valuation of work is possible where this egalitarianism prevails. In saying this we do not favour unjust inequality but we wish to discredit the identification of justice with equality.
Apart from egoistic motives it is only the belief in God's creation which affords a real motive for work. By it man knows two things: that being a spiritual-bodily unity he is destined to work; and that by being created as a person in community he is created for community in work. Wherever this faith prevails the motive of work is guaranteed even in the most unsatisfactory conditions.
Where there is at present a weakening of the will-to-work it is an outgrowth of our artificial civilisation and at bottom a consequence of secularism. As we have seen in our lecture on technics Western society has not proved capable of mastering the technical development in such a way that technical progress could be made serviceable to the human person and to the life of the community. Futhermore technical “progress” in combination with other factors has led to economic conditions—of which we shall speak in a later lecture—which make it difficult to keep the Christian conception of work. A worker who feels himself exploited by the capitalist can hardly be expected to think of his work in terms of divine “calling”. But let us not forget that these economic conditions as well as that false autonomous development are themselves the consequences of a deep spiritual disorientation. Neither the crazy technical development with its complete disregard for man and its mania of production for the sake of production and profit nor the “capitalist system” with its disregard for human personality and community could have originated in a truly Christian civilisation. In addition the weakening of the will-to-work is due in no small degree to a false abstract doctrine of equality derived not from a Christian but from a rationalist idea of man and to a Socialist or Communist utopianism which makes believe that in a completely socialised economy all problems would be solved.
It is also true that modern technics with its extreme specialisation has made it hard even for good Christians to look on factory work as a divine vocation. We should not however overemphasise this element of the present situation. Difficulties arising from technical specialisation are not comparable in gravity with the others. They can be overcome by creative efforts on the part of labour and management. Such efforts are already being made and extensive study is going on with promising results. The Christian community has a specific task in just this field namely to work out a concrete doctrine of vocation through its lay members who know the jobs and their threat to working morale and to demand and to create such technical and psychological conditions as are necessary to regain the lost sense of work as a divine calling.
On the other hand it is necessary to reshape the social structure of the worker's world in such a way as to take away his feeling of being a mere cog in an impersonal machinery exploited by impersonal forces. It will be part of this programme to dispel the great illusion of our day that the nationalisation or socialisation of industry would do away with impersonalism and exploitation. But while all this is true we should not lose sight of the fact that the main problem is neither technical nor social but spiritual. So long as the process of secularisation goes on as it has been doing now for two or three centuries I see no hope whatever of regaining a right atmosphere of work. Whether or not we achieve a reasonable compromise between Capitalism and Socialism the problem of the motive of work will continue to exist even if suppressed by compulsion. A true solution can only come through a return to that conception of work which the gospel alone can give—the conception that work whatever it may be is the service of God and of the community and therefore the expression of man's dignity.
Empirical Christianity has failed to work out this conception of work in an age of technics. It may not be too late to do that still but it will need no less than a great revival of Christianity in order to make this theory effective on a national and worldwide scale.
To close with let us have a look at the other possibility: the hypertrophy of the will-to-work i.e. work-fanaticism. This modern phenomenon is to be interpreted as a spiritual Mangelkrankheit
There is a vacuum in the soul an inner unrest from which one escapes by work. Work-fanaticism is proportional to the poverty of the soul. As nervous people cannot keep still man with his unrestful soul cannot but work. The modern Western world is somehow possessed with this work-fanaticism as a result of inward impoverishment. Of course there is also another cause of this phenomenon which however is closely related to the first namely the incessant increase of material claims. But do not let us forget that many who are not inwardly seized by this fanaticism of work suffer all the same from its consequences. Those who do not want to get under the wheels have to adapt themselves to the modern tempo of work. It is fair to say that Western man from sheer absorption in work no longer knows what it means to live. You may find even on a tombstone the words: “His life was work”. It is here that the fourth commandment comes in: the Sabbath belongs to the order of creation. Man is created by God in such a way that he needs the Sabbath. Where the Sabbath-rest disappears the human character of life also disappears.
It is a strange paradox of the present day scene that we are suffering from a work-fanaticism and work-idolatry as well as from a lack of will-to-work. This paradox cannot be understood merely by surface-psychology and sociology. Both these phenomena come from the same root the loss of the sense of the eternal meaning of life. When a man loses this divine perspective he throws himself into work and becomes a work-fanatic; or he sees no meaning in work and runs away from it if he is not compelled by necessity or by the state. Just as the true motive of work comes from having a place in God's plan so the desire of the soul for quiet and true recreation comes from the awareness of a higher destiny. God requires of us both that we do work even if outward necessity does not force us and that we do rest and give our soul a chance of breathing. It may be that in a near future the problem of leisure will prove just as pressing as that of work; indeed it is already becoming one of the major problems of our civilisation. Just as man's work can be emptied of meaning so can his leisure. The mere escape from work into leisure and into work from an empty life is no solution. The real solution is such a conception of life as gives room and meaning to both instead of exchanging one emptiness for another. It has been proved within the Christian community that a life grounded in God's will finds the right rhythm of work and leisure as expressed in the fourth commandment.