Work and Play – Yesterday and Today
Europeans like to remind us that they work to
live while Americans live to work. Indeed, August in Europe
cities empty as the natives indulge in their annual summer
Europeans believe that
their lifestyle of more emphasis on leisure than work is superior to the American
one. It is filled with less stress, is less materialistic and less dehumanizing.
With more free time Europeans feel that they can focus on nurturing their
families, build their communities and cultivate their minds. Frenetic Americans
on the other hand don’t have much time for such a rich life.
Jeremy Rifkin writes in
“The Europeans Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future is Eclipsing the American
Dream” – cited in a recent New York Times article by Mark Landler – that “Americans
define freedom as autonomy and mobility, which requires amassing wealth. Europeans
define freedom in community – in belonging, not belongings. They put greater
store on leisure and even idleness. We consider idleness to be almost sin,
Recently a debate has
been raging in Europe over the mounting pressure to lengthen work hours due
to economic forces that are driving the need for more labor. Many Europeans
see this as challenging their central way of life.
All this sounds good on
paper. Arguments can be made for each cultural model. The American way seems
to produce faster economic growth and superior productivity, while taking
a psychological toll that is difficult to quantify. The Europeans lifestyle
seems to allow for more relaxation and better focus on personal development.
But are Europeans actually
less stressed out than Americans? Are their families more intact, less dysfunctional?
Are they less corrupt and more refined? Are their communities stronger than
those in America?
A fundamental point missing
from the debate, which can illuminate the entire issue, is the historical
context of the work ethic.
We who have grown up with
work as a cultural norm may think that this is how it always was. That is
not the case at all. Work, as we know it – jobs and careers – is a relatively
recent development. For much of ancient and medieval history, work has been
hard and degrading. Indeed, according to the Bible, work-labor is a curse,
a punishment brought on by the sin of the eating from the Tree of Knowledge:
“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.” Mortality is the theme
of the verse, as it concludes: “Until you return to the ground, since from
it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
The Greeks and later the
Romans also saw manual labor as a curse. The Greek word for work was ponos,
taken from the Latin poena, which meant sorrow. Manual labor was for
slaves. It was recognized that work was necessary for the satisfaction of
material needs, but philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle made it clear
that the purpose for which the majority of men labored was in order that the
minority, the elite, might engage in pure exercises of the mind--art, philosophy,
and politics. Plato recognized the notion of a division of labor, separating
them first into categories of rich and poor, and then into categories by different
kinds of work, and he argued that such an arrangement could only be avoided
by abolition of private property. Aristotle supported the ownership of private
property and wealth. He viewed work as a corrupt waste of time that would
make a citizen's pursuit of virtue more difficult.
The Greeks believed that
a person's prudence, morality, and wisdom was directly proportional to the
amount of leisure time that person had. A person who worked, when there was
no need to do so, would run the risk of obliterating the distinction between
slave and master. Leadership, in the Greek state and culture, was based on
the work a person didn't have to do, and any person who broke
this cultural norm was acting to subvert the state itself.
It was not until the Protestant
Reformation in the 16th century, and especially Puritanism, that
physical labor became culturally acceptable for all persons, even the wealthy.
This change was rooted both in theological shifts as well as materialistic
and economic changes. According to Max Weber, the German economic sociologist,
it was French theologian John Calvin who introduced the new attitude to work,
seeing it as a necessary penance for the original sin and the path to personal
salvation. Selection of an occupation and pursuing it to achieve the greatest
profit possible was considered by Calvinists to be a religious duty.
With time, attitudes and
beliefs that supported hard work became secularized, and were woven into the
norms of Western culture.
Ever since the Reformation,
the Protestant work ethic evolved until it bloomed into the “career” and “profession”
that is so prominent today.
It’s a fascinating study
to retrace the steps that shaped the role of work in our culture. At first
labor was seen as a curse. The primary occupation of a person was to pursue
knowledge and virtue. As generations passed, and people became used to the
“darkness,” material labor became a religious duty! To the point that it became
an end in itself, with all the alienation that it creates (as Marx explains).
How is it possible that
the Biblical curse of material labor was transformed into a religious responsibility?!
Central to Calvinist belief was the Elect, those persons
chosen by G-d to inherit eternal life. All other people were damned and nothing
could change that. While it was impossible to know for certain whether a person
was one of the Elect, one could have a sense of it based on his own personal
encounters with G-d. Outwardly the only evidence was in the person's daily
life and deeds, and success in one's worldly endeavors was a sign of possible
inclusion as one of the Elect. A person who was indifferent and displayed
idleness was most certainly one of the damned, but a person who was active,
austere, and hard-working gave evidence to himself and to others that he was
one of G-d's chosen ones
The primary error lies
in the initial understanding of the sin of the Tree of Knowledge. According
to the concept of “original sin” man is doomed, and an irreparable rift divides
matter and spirit. Thus material labor is either a curse or surrender.
In truth however, “original
sin” is a myth. Created in the Divine Image and retaining a Divine personality,
man was and is never doomed. Even when a dichotomy appears between matter
and spirit, in truth matter contains Divine sparks that can be redeemed. The
change created by the sin was only on a conscious level.
This also explains the reason for the curse of “By the
sweat of your brow you will eat your food.” The curse was actually a sort
of cause and effect brought on by eating from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge
of good and evil. When they ate from the tree, Adam and Eve altered human
consciousness: They created a schism between their material and spiritual
lives. Good and evil became intertwined. Work also brings exploitation. Benefit
for one creates alienation for another. Labor can be both good and bad at
As long as body and soul
are one seamless whole, the primary human preoccupation is to “serve and protect”
through spiritual work. This natural order was disrupted with the sin, and
because matter and spirit became disconnected, now man would have to invest
a large amount of his time in physical labor, “by the sweat of your brow you
will eat your food.” He would have to labor at work and struggle to discover
the spirituality within material labor. No easy task.
In order to repair this
distortion we need to recognize that the problem lies not with work in itself,
not with the individual drive for success and profit, but rather with realigning
and focusing our work toward the higher calling.
Whether you are European
or American we are all faced with the same challenge. Whether your primary
focus is on work or on leisure, we all need to permeate our activities with
a higher calling. Because after all, leisure is not an end in itself just
as work is not an end in itself.
Spiritual sparks abound
everywhere, the mystics tell us. “G-d leads the footsteps of man.” Wherever
you travel, on business or vacation, wherever you find yourself, both at work
and at play, spiritual opportunities are always to be found.
Many distortions have
permeated our culture. In America there may be too much emphasis on work.
But the emphasis on leisure in Europe has not necessarily created a better
society. Work or leisure – both do not guarantee happiness. Without soul,
leisure and free time can leave a deep void that is often filled with decadence.
Yes, it sounds good to say that one works to live (instead
of living to work). The question is what does one live for?
And what does living mean?