Man and Work. This is a subject that continues to worry the world of thinkers. And above all these questions: What is the meaning of work? What do we gain by working?
To ask oneself what one earns by working is to presuppose that one earns something while one is working. But what gain would we make the work?
A priori, we would tend to answer that by working, we “earn a living”. But what does it mean to make a living? If to win is to access one more thing, did not one have it before working, this life? To win is, indeed, to make a profit. In other words, to access one more thing, a surplus. To win is also to triumph: to the victor who has won is opposed the vanquished, who has lost. To Win is therefore opposed to losing: we say of something that we lost when we got it, and we did not have it anymore – we forgot it, we stole it or removed. But what could the work bring us?
The etymology of work (of tripalium, which in Latin means “instrument of torture with three pals”) indicates yet the idea that the work would be in itself painful: it would correspond to an effort, even to a renunciation or a sacrifice. This idea is present in the biblical account of Genesis: Adam, for the price of his disobedience, is condemned to earn his bread by the sweat of his forehead. To work implies in fact to make an effort: I apply my strength against something in order to transform it, and it is by this effort that I am led to overcome the thing as an obstacle and to surpass myself. But then, what do I earn while I work?
“Working” means: even while working. The formulation of the subject thus seems to orient us towards the examination of again which would be internal to the process of the work itself, and not external to it.
However, what does the work do for me? If it is a matter of work, of “making a living”, of what life are we talking about? If we mean that we earn money, is not money the only result of my work? But what could the proper value of the work hold? In other words, what are we working for?
In the analysis of our subject, the question “what do we gain by working? ” suppose we win something, the question is more about: what? So what is the meaning of work from this point of view?
Maybe we do not just win what we believe (the salary). It is then a question of questioning the common idea that, if one could live without working, one would not work, to consider the possibility that the work brings us something else, and has another interest. But we can also question the presupposition of the subject, and wonder, at a time of reflection: it could be that we gain nothing to work! In short, let’s see how our philosophical reflection on the subject will be conducted: What is the meaning of work?
In a first step, we will examine the hypothesis that the meaning of work would reside in a salary. But then, can the purpose of the work be outside the work itself? In a second step, we will ask ourselves what could make the value of the work as such. And finally, we will ask ourselves to what extent the work can be thought of as an activity which would be its own end in itself: what I would gain by working would be essentially the work itself, conceived as an act of self-realization.
First Axis: The Meaning of Work Is a Necessity
As soon as we conceive that by working, we make a living, then work becomes, at first sight, a necessity. Work is a necessity because to give it up would be to renounce oneself.
1) – Dignity
In fact, work defines man as one who refuses the external given. Man, unlike animals, prefers to invent and realize a world different from that which is given to him. The man thus refuses also the natural given inside. In addition to denying the external naturalness of work, the man denies himself by refusing to surrender to natural needs during working hours: he must not drink, eat or sleep; which imposes on him a rhythm to which he obeys out of working time, the first step towards autonomy. Indeed, the man constraints and constrains his environment permanently which gives him superiority over the animal. Work in this context allows the man to find his dignity.
2) – Reason for Living
Because work is an activity that produces a work that gives a reason to be realized. To imagine, to reason, to evoke what is absent and to connect everything in order to create agree in the invention of a form. Designing what we do not see enhances a man, which is necessary to the needs of men to differentiate themselves from animals. An artist, for example, cannot help imagining and creating new things. The satisfaction of a mason worker, craftsman or even an architect in front of an achievement created and/or realized by himself is immense and necessary.
3) – Self-Awareness
Work allows self-awareness and allows it to externalize itself. Man accesses himself and has freedom while working. By imposing a rhythm on itself, it is the man who frees himself: freedom does not give itself, it takes itself. Indeed a salary, paid at the end of every month, allows an employee to access mobility, food, leisure.
In this sense, we come to the idea that work is about meeting our needs. Work is, therefore, a necessity.
4) – the Work Aims to Satisfy Our Needs
At first, one could make the following hypothesis: the gain of the work resides in what it aims, namely the satisfaction of our needs. Because the need may appear as the reason to be of work: if I found in nature what to survive, I would have no reason to provide the effort that involves the work. Therefore, the job would be that effort I have to make to support my life. In other words, I have to produce to consume, which allows me to renew my strength.
And, if: we conceive the work differently. In the sense that ” by working one earns one’s living “, or ” one earns one’s life from work “, or ” the work aims for survival”?
On the one hand, we conceive, therefore, that work is the action necessary to extract from nature the means necessary for our subsistence. Work (as a transformation of nature and as a job) is what we must do to survive. (Read Arendt, in Condition of Modern Man. Plato, in Protagoras).
On the other hand, work is the foundation of society, it organizes the economic sphere of trade. So we do not earn anything to work because what we earn is immediately reinvested to get what we need to live. (Read Specialization, Division of Labor. Plato, in Republic.)
Then, employment is a zero activity, which brings nothing because we give and receive. In this, it is a fair contract. But in this too we gain nothing. (Read Marx, in The Capital.)
Finally, if we earn our living working, we also lose something (time, energy) so that in the end we do not gain anything to work because what is earned is immediately reinvested or used only to compensate for what was otherwise lost. But precisely because work is this life-related activity, is not it an activity in which we have everything to lose?
Second Axis: Work, a Loss of Time
Yet to say that work aims for survival is to make work an activity peculiar to the sphere of necessity. This is precisely the conception of the work peculiar to antiquity, as evoked by Hannah Arendt in Condition of the Modern Man: the work is conceived, in the Greek world, as belonging to a sphere of the necessity opposed to the world of freedom. The one who works fits into the regularity, and the repetition proper to the biological world defined by its cyclicity – it is the slave, that is to say, the one whose time has no value since this time does is not free. To the cyclicity of the natural world is opposed the time of the political world – the world of free men free from vital considerations.
Considering work as a waste of time or saying that you lose everything to work, the following points are highlighted:
1 – Work Is Enslaving
Work is a process of dehumanization, alienation, and exploitation in which the worker loses his human dignity. (See Marx, in The Capital).
The work is described by the Bible as a means of redeeming humanity, a divine punishment. In the Old Testament, work is a consequence of original sin (“You will earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.”)
In Greek (and Roman) antiquity, work was hardly honored; it was reserved for slaves; free men devoted themselves to study, to the discussion, to politics, to war, to the arts (especially music), and to physical exercises. The free man did not take care of his material needs, he left this care to the slave.
Among the Greeks, this activity is reserved for slaves because it distorts the soul. Work involves an incompatible and dehumanizing specialization, indeed man is not made for a job as a spade is made to return the land. The hand of man is not a tool but an organ. Thus laborious activity destroys this harmony created by the noble activities that instruct man by developing his faculties, by instrumentalizing his body. We will, therefore, say today, in the constant challenge of efficiency and profitability, that those who work lose their lives.
2 – Work, a Vile Activity
It is precisely because it is related to the vital, biological necessities that the work has this negative character. (Read The Bible, Hegel, in Phenomenology of the Mind.)
With the example of alienated labor, it is no longer desire, freedom, it is a need, necessity, hunger. If the man sells his labor force, he disposes of it and gives up the desire since he renounces what could realize his desire: he is enslaved to the satisfaction of needs, after work, thanks to the salary. By selling his labor power for a salary to feed himself, the individual submits to his appetites, to the necessity of nature. This man does not escape his inner self, work is then only a means to submit to it, hence the return to the inner natural given. […]
This loss is not only a loss for us (we lose humanity and dignity) but also for the nature that suffers the negative effects of our work. (Read Rousseau, in Second Speech. Serre, in Natural Contract.)
But, does this mean that one must not work (neither as a job nor as a transforming activity of nature)? Does not man have more to lose in idleness? Work is indeed the effort we make to rise above our initial condition.
Third Axis: By Working, I Win My Humanity
1 – the Process of Work Separates Me from My Animality
This is precisely what Marx asks himself in defining, in Capital, work as an essentially humanizing activity. “Work,” he says, “is, at first sight, an act that takes place between man and nature,” that is to say, an act by which, by transforming the nature external to himself, man becomes He transforms himself: “At the same time that he acts by this movement on the external nature and modifies it, he modifies his own nature and develops the faculties that are dormant there. What I earn by working, therefore, is not the outward result of my work, what I produce: what I earn by working is my humanity itself. Marx thus distinguishes the activity of producing animals and the work of man: “What distinguishes at first the worst architect from the most expert bee,” he says, “is that he has built the cell in his head before building it in the hive. ”
In other words, work is defined as the effort by which I am led to developing my faculties: it is the work that hums me, that separates me from my animal nature. Man is thus defined by Marx as essentially a worker: man becomes man only by confronting nature.
This conception of Marx also leads us to consider the following points:
– Work is not a curse but a chance that leaves the man out of his natural laziness that would have sentenced him to eternal idleness, boredom, and animality. (Read Kant, in Reflections on Education.)
– Work is the means by which man frees himself from nature and affirms and realizes his humanity as spirit. (Read Hegel, in Aesthetics.)
– Paid work is no exception to this positive dimension of work. (Read Sartre, in Being and Nothingness.)
Thus, according to Immanuel Kant, ” Man is the only animal that is dedicated to working.” It is in the transformation of nature that man asserts himself. For Hegel, work takes the man out of animality, to his immediate existence, by imposing on him the mediation of time (the interval between production and consumption) and the tool. Work is then not only the means to master nature but also to externalize. Work trains and educates, it transforms the world and civilization. It is therefore through work that man realizes himself as a man and defines himself. By shaping nature in his image, he reaches consciousness and freedom.
For Hegel, the slave preferred life to freedom, but by transforming the world by his work, he becomes in a way the master of the master, because the master depends on the slave for his material survival. The master is content to consume and enjoy the work of the slave, while the latter conquers his concrete freedom and concrete self-awareness through work.
But beyond this conception of the work according to which the work allows the man to separate from the animality: Can the work not be a means through which the man seeks happiness?
Fourth Axis: Through Work, Man Looking for Happiness
1) – Money
Work brings us the money that feeds us but not only. If the working hours make it possible to arrange a time for oneself, the money thus earned makes it possible to satisfy the desires necessary for the blooming of each one. However this arrangement of time, access to holidays are rarely sufficient, most of the time those who have a comfortable work have the most access.
” Money does not make happiness, but there is no happiness also without money. ” Yet work allows us to have money, and this money can help us to flourish in our quest for happiness. So, one is tempted to say that the man works to realize himself, to make his way in life – in short – to blossom better.
2) – Social Life
Often the work also brings a social life, thus bringing communication, exchanges and also a status. All this is necessary: to be appreciated, envy, be sympathetic, or unfriendly are stated that provide motivation for all to pursue one’s life. Through work, we try to make sense of our lives. This social opportunity that offers us the work, allows the man to tend towards the happiness that he seeks so much.
3) – Sometimes Nice Work
We must also choose his work so that it allows us to earn our living, to do a job that brings us pleasure becomes a gain itself because it brings us a new horizon, an open mind on the world, or our society, the creation and manual realization is also very rewarding. Work sometimes makes our life enjoyable especially when we enjoy working and our work brings us joy and pride.
What is the meaning of work? What do you gain by working? Work necessarily brings something into everyone’s life, but these gains are not equitable. These gains vary but also differ from one individual to another.
A certain number of conditions are necessary for the work to be a good: working conditions, schedules, remuneration, participation in the profits of the Enterprises, recognition, participation in the production process … The work can contribute to human development, the worker is considered a subject, not a tool.
Work, however, is not an end in itself. The ancients may have been wrong to despise work, but they were right not to make work the supreme goal of life, the sovereign good. Work enables man to free himself from need and to ensure material life, but man is not reduced to his biological functions; he also has cultural and spiritual desires. Work (like money) is a means and not an end; it must allow the leisure (otium) and the “contemplation”: the exercise of the thought rooted in the good life.
Work, like language, can be the best and the worst of things: an instrument of alienation and exploitation, it does not deserve to be glorified. The man, however, is an animal dedicated to work that tears him from animal life, allows him to master nature and to externalize himself. Man defines himself as a man through work; by shaping nature in his image, he reaches consciousness and freedom. A certain number of conditions are however necessary: just remuneration, participation, recognition … For the work to free us, we must release the work. Work, however, is not an end in itself.
I would like to finish this philosophical reflection on the subject – What is the meaning of work? – with the quote of the famous Ivorian author Bernard Binlin Dadié (in his book Climbié) in these terms: ” The work and after the work independence my child, not to be in charge of anyone such should be the motto of your generation. And one must always flee the man who does not like work. ”
What do you personally gain by working? How do you see the meaning of work?