Treasure Hunt

Botton490x300NEW-thumb-490x300-1942 Alain de Botton in Lapham's Quarterly:

However powerful our technology and complex our corporations, the most remarkable feature of the modern working world may in the end be the widely held belief that our work should make us happy. 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, which was to last almost two millennia, in the phrase “All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.” For the Greek philosopher, financial need placed one on a par with slaves and animals. The labor 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 of music and philosophy.

Early Christianity appended to Aristotle’s notion the still darker doctrine that the miseries of work are the appropriate 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 da Vinci and Michelangelo, we hear early references to the glories of practical activity. While this reevaluation 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, Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert published their twenty-eight-volume Encyclopédie, 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 recognize as furthering the pursuit of skillful and therefore dignified ends.