Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?
Six days a week it soils
with its sickening poison—
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.
. . .
Lots of folk live up lanes
with fires in a bucket
eat windfalls and tinned sardines—
They seem to like it.
Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets—and yet
No one actually starves.
—Philip Larkin, Toads
For most Americans today, Philip Larkin got it right. Work is a toad: squatting, soiling, sickening. Compared to working, even homelessness seems appealing. Whether we’re talking about the body-breaking labor of the field or the soul-crushing tasks of the cubicle, work just isn’t worth it.
In the introduction to their 2008 book, Why Work Sucks And How To Fix It, Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson state the matter candidly: “Why do you think Sunday night is tinged with dread? That is you telling yourself that the way we work is unhealthy. That life isn’t meant to be lived this way . . . everyone knows work sucks.” Even if we doubt that Thompson and Ressler’s book will solve the problem, we can at least agree that they, like Larkin, have got the pulse of contemporary society.
This extreme position, that work isn’t worth it, is itself a reaction to another extreme position, namely, that work is everything. The mentality of work-for-its-own-sake drew serious fire, and rightly so, from the philosopher Josef Pieper. Pieper strove to expose the ultimate emptiness of the work-a-day world, arguing that leisure allows for an act of wonder that moves us beyond the realm of work into contemplation.
But where does that leave work? Clearly it isn’t everything, but surely it isn’t pointless. So what is it?
I’d like to propose an answer so foreign to contemporary cubicle culture that it might just have the ability to shock us towards contemplation: work is wisdom.
Unique among all animals, man lives according to reason. It isn’t just something we do. It isn’t just one activity among many. It’s a radical qualification of who and what we are. Man is a rational animal. That means that reason radiates throughout our being; it spills over, even into the lower parts of our souls, even into our bodily actions.
But what does this have to do with work?
At the beginning of his commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, St. Thomas Aquinas says that there are two basic ways that reason can relate to order: it either beholds order, or it bestows it. When reason bestows order in external things, St. Thomas calls that “art.” When reason is actually doing this bestowing (as opposed to just knowing how), I see no reason why we shouldn’t call that “work.”
Whether we’re talking about carpentry or surgery, graphic design or software engineering, work always involves ordering things according to reason. Even “mindless” work isn’t really mindless; it’s just that we’re not actively reflecting upon the order we’re bestowing at that moment. At the risk of beating a dead horse, we could make the point by issuing a challenge: just try to come up with some example of something we call “work” that doesn’t involve giving order to the things with or upon which we are working. It can’t be done. That’s because reason is part of who we are, and it shows itself in everything we do. That includes work.
Now we can make a further point. According to St. Thomas, it belongs to the wise man to order. Why? Because wisdom governs all things by putting them in their proper place in light of higher principles. This involves order. So the wise general is the one who governs his army well for the sake of victory; the wise ruler is the one who governs his nation well for the sake of prosperity; the wise philosopher is the one who governs his thoughts well for the sake of truth. This means that the more important the things governed are, the more important the wisdom governing them will be. Wisdom has degrees.
St. Thomas makes this point beautifully. He says, “Wisdom . . . diffuses its likeness even to the outermost of things.” That is what work is all about. Work is the “outermost” diffusion of wisdom. It is the bestowal of order according to reason in external things that would not otherwise and on their own have such an order. When we shape the world around us through our work, we are giving it the shape of Wisdom.
That is why work is fundamentally good. It’s not because I exert my own individual autonomy through what I do or make. Nor is it because work is how I—one cog in the machine—contribute to the good of a supreme State. It’s because all human work is a bestowal of order through reason. It is a participation in the Divine Wisdom that shapes all things. Larkin may long for the courage to be homeless rather than work, but the beauty of his art betrays him. And even if Ressler and Thompson’s book is not a work of art (it is not), it’s still a work, and that means that, however faint the likeness, it is a diffusion of divine wisdom into the outermost of things.
Happy Feast of St. Joseph the Worker.