Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

The middle classes are apparently abandoning the work ethic in favour of leisure. Aristotle would have strongly approved - on condition that they knew what to do with it.

The dignity of labour' is not a concept Greeks would have understood. There are two reasons. First, they did not have any unified concept of 'work' as one of man's great functions. Instead, they saw a multiplicity of different occupations, one as boring as the next, whose purpose was simply to keep one from penury. In other words, work had no positive value. second, Greeks did not distinguish, as we do, between a person and what he had to offer. So to work for someone else was to make your very existence dependent on, and therefore subject to, another. This was shameful, almost the equivalent of slavery. As Aristotle put it, 'the condition of the free man is that he does not live for the benefit of others.' Servile dependency was one of the proud Greeks' worst fears.

There were two consequences of these attitudes. First, the Greeks never developed an ideology of work as a healthy activity beneficial to the individual and socially valuable in its own right. second, they defined 'wealth' and 'poverty' not in terms of the amount of money you possessed but whether you could live without working for someone else. …

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