To philosophize is to cease living

by Oscar Brenifier, February 2009


Discuss / diskuter



Among cultures and thinkers, there are many different visions of work. We don’t want to do an extensive study on the matter, but just provide some intuitions on how the opposition functions between “life” and “work”. As a proof of this, we could already mention the fact that the word “work” itself, in some languages like French: “travail”, or Spanish: “trabajo”, come from the Latin word tripalium, which was then an instrument of torture, or a contraption to immobilize animals, when animals are defined precisely by their mobility. Work is therefore linked to constraint and pain. “Negotium” is another Latin word for work, and it means the absence or rest, of leisure, the absence of what the French call “temps de vivre”, literally: time to live. Aristotle recommends to not give citizenship to the working man, Rousseau criticizes the agitation and the torment involved in working, Pascal pretends we use it not to think about our self, Nietzsche considers that work is a police that is used to control everyone in order to stall the development of reason, of desire and of independence. The concept of alienation has been an important accusation against the idea of work. But the concept of “work” carries as well its fan club. On the favorable side, Arendt thinks that work provides pleasure and good health, Comte affirms it provides social cohesion, and Voltaire writes that it protects us from three terrible scourges: boredom, vice and need. And we will notice that the defense of work does not simply rest on its practical usefulness, but as well because it contributes to existential growth. These “opposing” authors are here mentioned to show that in no way we take our ideas for certitude: they constitute mere work hypotheses.

One might criticize as well the fact that we do not distinguish and rather confuse here different meaning of “work”: as a social function, as a way to earn a living, as an activity, etc, and therefore we don’t distinguish for example the pleasant and free activity of the thinker from the physical and painful activity of the laborer. We shall plead guilty on this account, we do not want to oppose a “noble” intellectual work to a “base” physical work, we find interesting not to oppose those conceptions of labor, since they interchange easily, especially today, even if that opposition can still be very true in many circumstances. For an intellectual can write a book for economic and status reason, a sort of necessity, when the mason can construct a house for the mere pleasure of building something. As well, we will not enter in the debate about the nature of man as “homo faber” (man as a fabricator), who naturally tries to accomplish something in his life, or man as “lazy”, as a “sinner” who engages in the sin of sloth when he tries to get away with doing his share of work. We just want to give some hints about the existential reticence to work, in order to justify and give meaning to the fact that life and work are rather incompatible in many ways, and that work is often accomplished under the strain of necessity, for example as “earning a living”, an endeavor that often if not very often, men would rather do without if they actually were asked to freely choose without any constraint. And indeed, this might be an explanation of why philosophy, which is a practice involving work, a lot of work, by learning a culture, acquiring skills and confronting oneself, without any kind of immediate necessity or easy reward—it is not the most obvious mean to earn a living or become rich—has never filled a football stadium. Of course, if philosophy is a mere discussion about life and happiness, of the kind we would naturally have while taking a drink at the bar, then it is evidently another issue. And that is the direction that some “philosophers” take in order to make philosophy more popular. But if philosophy is work, struggling with oneself and other, in order to produce concepts or being, it will tend to be rejected by the majority as an obstacle to the “good life”.

Work generally opposes it self to life, since it is an obligation when life is desire. Friedrich Schiller, being at the same time a philosopher, poet and dramatist, did not appreciate this rather Kantian dualism between what he called “sensuous drive” and “formal drive”, an opposition which he wanted to resolve through a “play drive”. He claimed that when the philosopher will rebuke his listener by the aridity of his speech, he will bring him back through this “play drive”, because man loves to play, for example with ideas. But of course, this implies that emotions be educated by reason, and emotions resist such an endeavor, although it must be possible, otherwise how could children grow? For the German humanist, in the “beautiful soul”, duty and inclination are no longer in conflict with one another. Expressing oneself does not have to be linked to primitive banal feelings, but can be connected to higher order emotions, to beauty. Human freedom expresses itself therefore as a capacity to go beyond animal instincts. But of course, this implies some kind of work, no such accomplishment springs forth naturally. If it is natural, it is an acquired nature, a specificity of man which is as well called culture.


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