Alain de Botton
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
However powerful our technology and complex our corporations, the most remarkable feature of the modern working world may in the end be internal, consisting in an aspect of our mentalities: in the widely held belief that our work should make us happy. All societies have had work at their centre; ours is the first to suggest that it could be something much more than a punishment or a penance. Ours is the first to imply that we should seek to work even in the absence of a financial imperative. our choice of occupation is held to define our identity to the extent that the most insistent question we ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were but what they do, the assumption being that the route to a meaningful existence must invariably pass through the gate of remunerative employment.
It was not always this way. In the fourth century BC, Aristotle defined an attitude that was to last more than two millennia when he referred to a structural incompatibility between satisfaction and a paid position. For the Greek philosopher, financial need placed one on a par with slaves and animals. The labour of the hands, as much as of the mercantile sides of the mind, would lead to psychological deformation. Only a private income and a life of leisure could afford citizens adequate opportunity to enjoy the higher pleasures gifted by music and philosophy.
Early Christianity appended to Aristotle's notion the still darker doctrine that the miseries of work were an appropriate and immovable means of expiating the sins of Adam. It was not until the Renaissance that new notes began to be heard. In the biographies of great artists, men like Leonardo and Michelangelo, we hear the first references to the glories of practical activity. While this re-evaluation was at first limited to artistic work and even then, only to its most exalted examples, it came in time to encompass almost all occupations. By the middle of the eighteenth century, in a direct challenge to the Aristotelian position, Diderot and d'Alembert published their twenty-seven-volume Encyclopedie, filled with articles celebrating the particular genius and joy involved in baking bread, planting asparagus, operating a windmill, forging an anchor, printing a book and running a silver mine. Accompanying the text were illustrations of the tools employed to complete such tasks: among them pulleys, tongs and clamps, instruments whose precise purpose readers might not always understand, but which they could nonetheless recognise as furthering the pursuit of skilful and dignified ends. After spending a month in a needle-making workshop in Normandy, the writer Alexandre Deleyre produced perhaps the most influential article in the Encyclopedie, in which he respectfully described the fifteen steps required to transform a lump of metal into one of those deft and often overlooked instruments used to sew on buttons.
Purported to be a sober compendium of knowledge, the Encyclopedie was in truth a paean to the nobility of labour. Diderot laid bare his motives in an entry on 'Art,' lambasting those who were inclined to venerate only the 'liberal' arts (Aristotle's music and philosophy) whilst ignoring their 'mechanical' equivalents (such as clock-making and silk-weaving): 'The liberal arts have sung their own praise long enough; they should now raise their voice in praise of the mechanical arts. The liberal arts must free the mechanical arts from the degradation in which these have so long been held by prejudice.'
The bourgeois thinkers of the eighteenth cenrury thus turned Aristotle's formula on its head: satisfactions which the Greek philosopher had identified with leisure were now transposed to the sphere of work, while tasks lacking in any financial reward were drained of all significance and left to the haphazard attentions of decadent dilettantes. It now seemed as impossible that one could be happy and unproductive as it had once seemed unlikely that one could work and be human.
Aspects of this evolution in attitudes towards work had intriguing parallels in ideas about love. In this sphere too, the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie yoked together what was pleasurable and what was necessary. They argued that there was no inherent conflict between sexual passion and the practical demands of raising children in a family unit, and that there could hence be romance within a marriage—just as there could be enjoyment within a paid job.
Initiating developments of which we are still the heirs, the European bourgeoisie took the momentous steps of co-opting on behalf of both marriage and work the pleasures hitherto pessimistically—or perhaps realistically—confined, by aristocrats, to the subsidiary realms of the love affair and the hobby.