The Ideas of Work and Leisure – 4

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


The Spectrum of Work, Compensated and Uncompensated

Work is either toil or leisure or some combination or mixture of both. If it is sheer toil, it must be extrinsically compensated, since no one would voluntarily engage in it unless motivated by the dire necessity of having to earn a living.

When work is pure leisure, it may or may not be compensated. It is the kind of work we should be willing to do without extrinsic compensation if we had no need to earn a living. When it is compensated leisuring, it is usually work that produces marketable goods or services. The same holds true for work that involves some combination of both toil and leisure.

There are three pure forms of work:

  • (1) sheer toil that is compensated and thereby earns a living for the worker;
  • (2) pure leisure that is also compensated; and
  • (3) all forms of leisuring that can occupy time that is not taken up by sleep, play, and one or another form of compensated work.

In addition to the three pure forms of work, there are various admixtures of toiling and leisuring. At one extreme of the spectrum of compensated work there is sheer toil; at the other, there is pure leisuring. In between, there are admixtures of toiling and leisuring, in which either the component of toil predominates (and then such work is at the lower end of the spectrum) or in which the component of leisuring predominates (and then such work is at the upper end of the spectrum).

Work that is pure toil, done solely for the sake of the money it earns, is also sheer drudgery because it is stultifying rather than self improving. It improves only the materials on which the worker works, but not the worker himself or herself. It may be either manual work or mental work, but in neither case is it creative. In either case, it usually has deleterious effects upon the worker — upon his body if the work is mainly manual; upon his mind if it is mainly mental. Far from resulting in any self-perfection, it results in the very opposite — self-deterioration.

The tasks performed by such work are, for the most part, tasks that can be much more efficiently performed by machines or robots precisely because they are in essence mechanical rather than creative operations.

More than a century ago Karl Marx and, even earlier, Alexis de Tocqueville were right in describing such work as an activity that enhances or improves the materials worked on, but which at the same time degrades or deteriorates, both in body and mind, the condition of the worker. Neither of them could have anticipated the technological progress that has now eliminated many of those tasks from the sphere of human work. That progress promises a future in which machines will further emancipate human beings from the drudgery that a large part of the human race has until recent times suffered, under the dire necessity of suffering it or starving.

At the opposite and upper extreme of the spectrum of compensated work are the tasks or undertakings that persons would discharge or take on even if they did not have to work for a living. Included here are all forms of productive artistry, all forms of scientific research or philosophical thought, political activity that involves compensated employment by government, employment by religious and other social institutions, and all forms of truly professional activity, such as teaching, healing, nursing, engineering, military service, practicing law, and so on.

What characterizes all these forms of compensated leisure-work that makes it possible for us to think of a person doing such work even if he or she did not have to earn a living by doing so?

In the first place, such work is always self-rewarding and self perfecting, in the sense that the worker learns or grows, improves as a human being, by doing it.

In the second place, it is always to some extent creative work, involving intellectual innovations that are not routinized and repetitive. It is in this respect the very opposite of mechanical operations. It may involve some chores that are repetitive, but these are a minor part of such work.

In the third place, like other forms of work that involve little or no leisuring, such work is productive of goods valuable to others and, therefore, marketable, or goods gratuitously conferred upon society. Like other forms of compensated work, which impose certain obligations to be performed for the compensation earned, such work, even though it is leisuring rather than toiling, can be just as tiring or fatiguing as sheer toil. But unlike those for whom work is sheer toil, those for whom work is compensated leisure may find some pleasure in the performance of their tasks. This makes the work they do play as well as leisure.

The larger the creative input of the work, the more it is self perfecting, the better it is as work for a human being to do. The more the work involves stultifying chores and repetitive mechanical operations that machines can perform more rapidly and efficiently than human beings, the less is it desirable work for human beings to do. It has less human dignity as work because it is self-deteriorating rather than self-perfecting, even though it produces market able economic goods or services, or results in other social values. It is more like the kind of work one hopes technological progress will alleviate or eliminate entirely by producing machines that will per form such tasks.

The degree of compensation for the work done does not always match the place it occupies in the spectrum of work. Work that lies at the lower end of the scale usually earns less than work that lies at the upper end of the scale, but that is not always the case.

Nor is it always the case that individuals who have some options with regard to employment exercise their options by choosing work that is more highly compensated. They may, for very good reasons indeed, reasons that express sound moral judgments on their part, choose work that lies at the upper end of the scale, but is not as highly compensated as work that has less of a leisure component and offers them less opportunity for the enjoyment that is provided by doing work that also has the aspect of play.

A well-paid job is not necessarily a good job, humanly speaking. It may be well paid for reasons having nothing to do with the character of the work or the quality of life it confers on the worker. The reverse is equally true. A good job, humanly speaking, may be poorly paid in terms of the marketable value of the products turned out by the work.

The foregoing delineation of the spectrum of compensated work does not exhaust the whole range of activities that are leisuring. What kind of activities constitute uncompensated leisuring?

Before I attempt to answer the question, let me call attention to the etymology of the English word “leisure” and the words in the Greek and Latin languages that our English word translates.

The English word “leisure” derives through the French word “loisir” from the Latin word “licere,” which means the permissible rather than the compulsory. This confirms one connotation that we have attached to the word “leisure”; namely, that it is an optional activity rather than compulsory. Regarding leisuring as permissible rather than compulsory leaves open the question whether, in addition to being permissible, it is also obligatory for ethical reasons.

The Greek word that our English word translates is “skole,” the Latin equivalent of which is “schola” and the English equivalent “school.” The connotation hereby given to the word “leisure” is that it always involves learning, some increment of mental, moral, or spiritual growth, and hence some measure of self-perfection.

These two connotations of leisuring – 1) an optional use of free time, (2) for personal growth or self-perfection — leave only one further connotation to be mentioned: In addition to producing self improvement, leisuring may also confer benefits upon other individuals or upon the organized community as a whole.

With this before us, we should be able to see why certain activities that human beings engage in without any thought of financial or economic compensation are leisuring in exactly the same sense as the activities we have called compensated leisuring.

These include all acts of benevolent love and friendship, among which are the acts of conjugal love and the rearing of children.

They include the political activities of citizens who are not holders of public office and who are not paid for the performance of their duties, as office-holders are.

They include travel and other experiences through which individuals learn, such as serious conversation or the discussion of serious subjects. They include sustained thinking and intellectual activity that enlarges one’s understanding, amplifies one’s knowledge, or improves one’s skills.

Every use of one’s mind in study, inquiry, or investigation, in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, in calculating and estimating — all these, when the work involved is purely for personal profit, are instances of uncompensated leisure.

Idling and Rest

We have already considered two kinds of activity by which we can fill our free time — uncompensated leisuring and play solely for the sake of pleasure. Two more were mentioned earlier in the listing of the six categories of human activity, but I have not discussed them so far. They are idling and rest.

I use the participle “idling” rather than the noun “idleness” be cause the connotation of the latter is one of emptiness or vacancy, a vacuum that is filled by mere pastimes or time-killing diversions.

When, in the past, the owners of factories or their managers resisted the demands of labor for reduced hours of work, they gave as one reason the deleterious or corrupting effects upon the workers of the idleness that would result. It did not occur to them that they themselves had ample free time to dispose of, which they did not regard as an occasion for idleness, but rather as an opportunity to engage in the pursuits of leisure.

The Latin word “vacatio” was the antonym for the Latin word “negolio,” which means business — an economically or socially useful employment of one’s time. From the Latin word, we get the English word “vacation,” which many take as signifying an opportunity for idleness. The Latin word like its English translation gives idleness the connotation of emptiness or vacancy when free time is devoid of anything but time-killing or time-wasting pastimes.

I mean something other than that by my use of the word “idling.” I give it a meaning that borrows from the meaning of the same word when applied to an engine that is idling. The engine is turning over, but the gears are not engaged, and so the automobile is not moving. It is not going anywhere. The engine is not serving the purpose for which it was designed and placed in the chassis of the car.

I think of human idling as a use of free time in which we are awake, not asleep, and in which we are not engaged in any purposeful line of thought. Our minds are turning over but are not moving in any intended or purposeful direction. All kinds of thoughts are likely to occur to us when we use free time to engage in idling, especially if the idling occurs toward the end of a day in which we have been engaged in work that is either pure leisuring, whether or not compensated, or has some leisure component in it.

Those who insist upon being busy all through their waking hours by engaging in some purposeful activity, whether that be some form of play or leisure, deprive themselves of the benefits of idling. Their lives are the poorer for it. The spontaneous creativity of their minds is seriously diminished or may even be totally suppressed.

“Rest,” like “idling,” is a word that calls for a brief explication. Many individuals use that word as a synonym for slumber. “Take a rest” means for them lying down and going to sleep. When they say “Take a rest from what you are doing,” they are recommending that you relax by ceasing work.

They have forgotten the meaning of the word “rest” when in the Bible it said that God, having finished the work of creation in six days, rested on the seventh when He contemplated the created universe. In that context, the word could not possibly have signified either sleep or relaxation.

They have also forgotten the meaning of the word when the Sabbath is called a “day of rest” — a day in which one does not work, nor does one play or leisure.

Still further, they may not know what theologians have in mind when they speak of souls in the presence of God as enjoying “heavenly rest.”

For Orthodox Jews in mediaeval ghettoes, or alive in the world today, the Sabbath or day of rest was a sacred day, devoid of the secular activities that filled the time of other days. It had the same character for the Puritans. Strict observance of the Sabbath prohibited not only work of any kind but also play of any kind. How, then, was the time of the Sabbath occupied — the time left free from all but biological necessities? The answer is prayer and other forms of religious contemplation.

Orthodox Jews, especially in the mediaeval ghettoes, did not need the day of rest to recoup the energies exhausted by six long days of unremitting toil. Sufficient slumber would serve that purpose. The Sabbath served another purpose for them. It expanded their lives beyond confinement to sleep and toil. It took them out of one world into another. It refreshed their spirits, not their bodies.

Rest, in the sense of contemplation, is the very opposite of the activities subsumed under all the other categories. All of them have some practical purpose in this life. Rest lifts us above and out of the exigencies of practical involvement of every kind.

Is there any rest for those who are not religious — who do not devote time to prayer and the contemplation of God? There is, if the contemplation of works of art and the beauties of nature has the same effect for them. It has that effect when the enjoyment of beauties contemplated involves a degree of ecstasy, which takes us out of ourselves and lifts us above all the practical entanglements of our daily lives.

The Orthodox Jew and the Benedictine monk fill much of their free time with rest. They lead three-part lives, constituted by sleep, work, and rest. The motto of the Benedictine Order is ora et labora (prayer and work). Chattel-slaves in antiquity and in modern times, serfs in the feudal system, and wage-slaves, as Marx called them in the early years of the industrial revolution, led two-part lives — of sleep and toil — with little or no play because they had little or no free time. They worked seven days a week and often as much as fourteen hours a day. The feudal serfs and nineteenth-century factory workers led three-part lives only to the extent that some time was allowed on the Sabbath for religious observances.

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