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Can Work be Good as an End in Itself?

According to Juliet Schor’s, The Overworked Americans, half the people with jobs are putting in 50 hours a week. North Americans work a month more now than they did in the 1950s, a month more than most Europeans do today, a good month more than Europe’s medieval serfs, and a good two months more than those slackers in ancient Athens.

Work is necessary, and it’s good in its place: as a means to an end, the end being to provide the necessities of life. From the time of the Greeks to the rise of industrialism that was the idea, work was a means to an end. But when work was over was the time of true human life, time for family, friends, community, for the life of the mind and the life of the spirit.

During the Middle Ages it was believed that sloth, restlessness and the inability to enjoy leisure were all closely connected. Sloth was held to be the source of restlessness, and the ultimate cause of ‘work for work’s sake.’ It may well seem paradoxical to maintain that the restlessness at the bottom of a fanatical and suicidal activity should come from the lack of will to action; a surprising thought, that we shall only be able to decipher with effort.

Josef Pieper

To ensure food for humanity by forcing part of it to work was after all a very human expedient; which is why it will probably be tried again. But in one sense there is a significance in the old slavery. It stands for one fundamental fact about all antiquity before Christ; something to be assumed from first to last. It is the insignificance of the individual before the State. It was as true of the most democratic City State in Hellas as of any despotism in Babylon. It is one of the signs of this spirit that a whole class of individuals could be insignificant or even invisible. It must be normal because it was needed for what would now be called “social service.” Somebody said, “The Man is nothing and the Work is all,” meaning it for a breezy Carlylean commonplace. It was the sinister motto of the heathen Servile State. In that sense there is truth in the traditional vision of vast pillars and pyramids going up under those everlasting skies forever, by the labour of numberless and nameless men, toiling like ants and dying like flies, wiped out by the work of their own hands.

G. K. Chesterton

Properly speaking, the liberal arts receive an honorarium, while servile work receives a wage. The concept of honorarium implies that an incommensurability exists between performance and recompense. Wages, on the other hand, are intended as payment for the specific work performed.

Thoughts about Work

A perpetual holiday is a good working definition of hell.

George Bernard Shaw

Adam Smith estimated that if national income were more fairly distributed, nobody would be poor and nobody need work more than a few hours a day.

Automation threatens to render possible the reversal of the relation between free time and working time: the possibility of working time becoming marginal and free time becoming full time. The result would be...a mode of existence incompatible with the traditional culture. Advanced industrial society is in permanent mobilization against this possibility.

Herbert Marcuse

All work, even cotton spinning, is noble.

Thomas Carlyle

Few people realize how much of their happiness, such as it is, is dependent upon their work, upon the fact that they are kept busy and not left to feed upon themselves.

John Burroughs

Find a job that you love and you will never work a day in your life.


I would rather be a failure at something that I loved than a success at something that I hated.

George Burns

If a man has important work, and enough leisure and income to enable him to do it properly, he is in possession of as much happiness as is good for any of the children of Adam.

R. H. Tawney

In its extreme form the passion for work, naturally blind to every form of divine worship and often inimical to it, turns abruptly into its contrary, and work becomes a religion.

Josef Pieper

It is better to do nothing than to do harm. Half the useful work in the world consists of combatting the harmful work.

Bertrand Russell

Labour: one of the processes by which A acquires property for B.

Ambrose Bierce

When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work, ask him whose.

Most jobs are boring and of little intrinsic value. For every job that improves the lot of humanity and makes the world a better or more interesting place to live in, there are scores that do nothing of the sort.

Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.

J. M. Barrie

That state is a state of slavery in which a man does what he likes to do in his spare time and in his working time that which is required of him.

Eric Gill

The proletarian is the man who is fettered to the process of work.

The man who chooses his work because it fulfils a purpose he approves is the only one who grows in stature by working.

Fulton Sheen

The secret of being miserable is to have leisure to bother about whether you are happy or not. The cure for it is occupation.

George Bernard Shaw

The things one is paid a salary for doing are never, in my experience, serious; never seem in the long run of any particular use to anyone.

Malcolm Muggeridge

There is dignity in work only when it is work freely accepted.

Albert Camus

To inflict on a man the most terrible punishment so that the most ferocious murderer would shudder at it beforehand, one need only give him work of an absolutely, completely useless and irrational character.


I think that where it is possible to do work that is satisfactory to a man’s constructive impulses without entirely starving, he will be well advised from the point of view of his own happiness if he chooses it in preference to work much more highly paid but not seeming to him worth doing on its own account.

Bertrand Russell

To live well is to work well.


Our culture feels in its bones that ‘hard work is good.’ Aquinas, the great medieval philosopher, propounded a contrary opinion: ‘The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than in the difficult. Not everything that is more difficult is necessarily more virtuous; it must be more difficult in such a way that it achieves a higher good as well as being more difficult.’

Josef Pieper

Work is a product of misery, and discontent. I only work because I’m unhappy. If I was happy I should never work.

Malcolm Muggeridge

One must work, if not from taste then at least from despair. For, to reduce everything to a single truth: work is less boring than pleasure.


Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill-paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.

Bertrand Russell

For all the fact my father was a very rich man, he went to work every day. He always taught us the value of work, and that work is fun and good, and everybody should work.

Fred Eaton (of Eaton’s Department Store)

Work is the essence of who I am.

Carol Heilbroner

In his well-known study of capitalism Max Weber quotes the saying, that “one does not work to live; one lives to work,” which nowadays no one has much difficulty in understanding: it expresses the current opinion. We even find some difficulty in grasping that it reverses the order of things and stands them on their head.

Work never hurt anyone. It’s lack of it that destroys people.

Katharine Hepburn

When you see the traces of untimely weariness on a man’s face, in nine cases out of ten, you may be sure that overwork is not to be blamed; what is to be blamed is the anxiety of not having any work to do; that has sunk the eye and pinched the mouth. Literary or artistic people with a vocation and no means are the classical instance and well deserve to be.

Ernest Dimnet

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