The Pursuit Of Work, And The Quest For Ideals

In 1893 Leo Tolstoy published an essay whose title was rather clumsily translated into English as “Non-Acting.”  In it the great novelist compared the relative merits of two positions, one held by Emile Zola, and the other held by Alexandre Dumas.  Both Zola and Dumas had been asked to state their opinions on what they believed to be the basic forces that move, or should move, humanity.  Tolstoy, mystic that he was, saw these rival opinions in terms of a cosmic competition between “the force of routine, tending to keep humanity in its accustomed path,” and “the force of reason and love, drawing humanity towards the light.”

Tolstoy’s conclusions may not be to everyone’s taste, but his observations–as always–reveal profound moral truths.  As in so many philosophical discussions, it is not so much the final conclusion that matters (if such a thing is even possible), but the observations made along the way, that are important.  Let us first hear what Zola and Dumas have to say; we may then indulge some of our own thoughts on these matters.  Zola presents himself as the apostle of work.  His views were given during a speech to a group of young people, the relevant parts of which I have extracted below.

I have reached an age at which we begin to regret our departed youth, and to pay attention to the efforts of the rising generation that is climbing up behind us.  It is they who will both judge us and carry on our work.  In them I feel the future coming to birth, and at times I ask myself, not without some anxiety, what of all our efforts will they reject and what they will retain?…For it cannot last except through them, and it will disappear unless they accept it, to enlarge it and bring it to completion…

I say the young, but the term is vague, distant, and deep as the sea, for where are the young?  What will it–the young generation–really become?  Who has a right to speak in its name?…At any rate, gentlemen, we are assured that your generation is parting company with ours, that you will no longer put all your hope in Science, that you have perceived so great a social and moral danger in trusting fully to her that you are determined to throw yourselves back upon the past in order to construct a living faith from the debris of dead ones…

And thus it seemed that Science, which was supposed to have promised happiness, has reached bankruptcy.  But did Science promise happiness?  I do not believe it; she promised truth, and the question is whether one will ever reach happiness by way of truth…

I am therefore also going to finish by proposing to you a faith, and by beseeching you to have faith in work.  Work, young people!  I well know how trivial such advice appears; no speech-day passes at which it is not repeated amid the general indifference of the scholars.  But I ask you to reflect on it, and I–who have been nothing but a worker–will permit myself to speak of all the benefit I have derived from the long task that has filled my life.  I had no easy start in life; I have known want and despair.  Later on I lived in strife and I live in it still–discussed, denied, covered with abuse. Well, I have had but one faith, one strength–work!  What has sustained me was the enormous labor I set myself.  Before me stood always in the distance the goal towards which I was marching, and when life’s hardships had cast me down, that sufficed to set me on my feet and to give me courage to advance in spite of all.  The work of which I speak to you is the regular work, the daily task, the duty one has undertaken to advance one step each day towards the fulfillment of one’s engagement…

Work!  Remember, gentlemen, that it is the sole law of the world, the regulator bringing organic matter to its unknown goal!  Life has no other meaning, no other raison d’etre; we each of us appear but to perform our allotted task and to disappear.  One cannot define life otherwise than by the movement it receives and bequeaths, and which is in reality nothing but work, work at the final achievement accomplished by all the ages…It is true this solves no metaphysical problems; it is but an empirical recipe enabling one to live one’s life honestly and more or less tranquilly; but is it a small thing to obtain a sound state of moral and physical health and to escape the danger of dreams, while solving by work the question of finding the greatest happiness possible on this earth?

Nothing is less wholesome for men and nations than illusion; it stifles effort, it blinds, it is the vanity of the weak…The only strong people are those work, and it is only work that gives courage and faith.  To conquer it is necessary that the arsenals should be full, that one should have the strongest and most perfect armament, that the army should be trained, and should have confidence in its chiefs and in itself…A man who works is always kind.  So I am convinced that the only faith that can save us is a belief in the efficacy of accomplished toil.  Certainly it is pleasant to dream of eternity.  But for an honest man it is enough to have lived his life doing his work.

So Zola sets himself up as the apostle of work, or unrelenting labor.  There is much merit in this view.  I know from my own experience that what has sustained me in life has been the single-minded focus on goals and achievement.  One cannot philosophize unless one has earned the right to do so.  There will be many times in our lives when we do not know the answers to complex problems; but, if we keep our heads down and continue to put one foot in front of the other, solutions eventually present themselves.  Work distracts our minds from troubling questions for which life has no answer.  Work gives us meaning, purpose, and that forward momentum which is such an essential psychological ingredient in success.

And yet Zola very much overstates his case.  He could not help himself; he was an impassioned activist, a man burning with a sense of injustice who had no patience for slow deliberations.  But is it really true that work is the only thing there is?  Is the search for transcendent ideals useless, or, as he characterizes it, unwholesome vanity?  No.  Work is what we must do to live, prosper, and achieve our dreams; but the search for a higher meaning is not only the sole thing that can truly satisfy a man’s soul, it is the sole thing that can be called a Supreme Good.  The only soul that is permanently satisfied with work is the soul of the beast:  the ox, the donkey, or the squirrel foraging for its nuts and seeds.  Tolstoy had this to say in response to Zola’s glorification of labor:

The most cruel of men–the Neros, the Peter the Greats–were constantly occupied, never remaining for a moment at their own disposal without activity or amusement.  If work be not actually a vice, it can from no point of view be considered a virtue.  It can no more be considered a virtue than nutrition.  Work is a necessity, to be deprived of which involves suffering, and to raise it to the rank of a merit is as monstrous as it would be to do the same for nutrition.  The strange value our society attaches to work can only be explained as a reaction from the view held by our ancestors, who thought idleness an attribute of nobility and almost a merit, as indeed it is still regarded by some rich and uneducated people today…

In my opinion not only is work not a virtue, but in our ill-organized society it is often a moral anaesthetic, like tobacco, wine, and other means of stupefying and blinding oneself to the disorder and emptiness of our lives.  And it is just as such that M. Zola recommends it to young people.

It is a pity that these two great minds–Zola and Tolstoy–were drawn to such opposite extremes on an issue like work.  It apparently never occurred to either of them that the ancient Greek admonition for moderation would have provided the right balance they both seemed to be looking for.  That is:  work in excess becomes stultifying blindness, but work in moderation is a positive virtue and indeed a necessity for the healthy man.  The wise man needs both action and philosophical speculation; each complements the other, and each gives meaning to the other.  But neither Zola nor Tolstoy were able to make this nuanced observation, because neither of them was as well-rounded as he should have been.

We will now consider Alexandre Dumas’s comments.

Each new generation indeed comes with ideas and passions old as life itself, which it believes no one has ever had before, for it finds itself subject to their influence for the first time and is convinced it is about to change the aspect of everything…

[Man] sees around him a universe which existed before he did and will hast after his is gone; he feels and knows it to be eternal and he would like to share in its duration.  From the moment he was called to life he demanded his share of the permanent life that surrounds him, raises him, mocks him and destroys him.  Now that he has begun he does not wish to end.  He now loudly demands, now in low tones pleads for, a certainty which ever evades him–fortunately, since certain knowledge would mean for him immobility and death, for the most powerful motor of human energy is uncertainty…

Who is in the right in this dispute?  All are right while they seek; none are right when they begin to threaten.  Between truth which is the aim, and free inquiry to which all have a right, force is quite out-of-place notwithstanding celebrated examples to the contrary.  Force merely drives further back that at which we aim.  It is not merely cruel, it is also useless, and that is the worst of faults in all that concerns civilization.  No blows, however forcibly delivered, will ever prove the existence or non-existence of God.

Zola recently, in a remarkable address to students, recommended to them work as a remedy and even as a panacea for all the ills of life.  Labor improbus omnia vincit.  The remedy is familiar, nor is it less good on that account; but it is not, never has been, and never will be, sufficient.  Whether he works with limbs or brain, man must have some other aim than that of gaining his bread, making a fortune, or becoming famous.  Those who confine themselves to such aims feel, even when they have gained their object, that something is still lacking, for no matter what we may say or what we may be told, man has not only a body to be nourished, an intelligence to be cultivated and developed, but also assuredly a soul to be satisfied.  That soul, too, is incessantly at work, ever evolving towards light and truth.  And as long as it has not reached full light and conquered the whole truth it will continue to torment man.

Well!  The soul never so harassed man, never so dominated him, as it does today.  It is as though it were in the air we all breathe.

Dumas recognizes that man cannot be satisfied by work alone.  The soul is an essential component of our existence, and it will try to seek out the Ultimate Good despite our attempts to prevent it.  A rational man will philosophically accept that he needs, on the level of the corporeal body, a daily routine of work to calm the tumescence of his roaming soul; but he will also, during his free and quiet moments, recognize that philosophical speculation is just as essential for his health.  He will instinctively feel that his search for the Ultimate Good–that which confers the happy life–is far more important and vital than punching the employer’s time-clock, stuffing his face with expensive foods, or studying the numeric results of compound interest in his brokerage statements.  As Cicero says in On Moral Ends (V.72):

At the same time [the true philosopher] will appreciate that virtue has such power, and moral goodness has such authority, that by comparison the other goods, while not rendered entirely worthless, are so deficient in value as to appear to be worthless.

Work is vital because it keeps us mentally healthy, assists us in focusing our thoughts, teaches us about our fellows, and provides us the resources needed to pursue the great mysteries of our existence.  We must find a way to balance out these two extremes, represented on one end by Zola, the apostle of labor, and Tolstoy and Dumas on the other end, the apostles of other-worldliness.

Each becomes an unmitigated evil in the absence of the other:  work without thought is slavery, and thought without work is dissolute vanity.


Read more now in On Duties, and soon (Fall 2018) in the upcoming On Moral Ends: