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 siesta.

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 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, like sloth.”

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 once.

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?


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