November 16, 2014


Toil as Curse and Grace (Dylan Pahman, 11/12/14, Acton Commentary)

In the midst of the now-common Christian affirmation of all forms of work as God-given vocations, the image of Sisyphus, vainly pushing his boulder up a hill in Hades, only to watch it roll back down again, might serve to remind us of the reality of toil, the other side of the coin. While human labor does have a divine calling, we do not labor apart from "thorns and thistles" and "in the sweat of [our] face" (Genesis 3:18-19). Contrary to common assumptions, this toilsome aspect of our labor has a higher calling of its own, acting as the means by which labor prunes our hearts to bear fruit to God.

Given this aspect of human labor, some might impute to Christians who laud the virtues of vocation that error which the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) charged to "the flatterers of work" in his day. "In the glorification of 'work' and the never-ceasing talk about the 'blessing of labour,'" he writes in The Dawn of Day,

I see the same secret arrière-pensée as I do in the praise bestowed on impersonal acts of a general interest, viz. a fear of everything individual. For at the sight of work--that is to say, severe toil from morning till night--we have the feeling that it is the best police, viz. that it holds every one in check and effectively hinders the development of reason, of greed, and of desire for independence. For work uses up an extraordinary proportion of nervous force, withdrawing it from reflection, meditation, dreams, cares, love, and hatred; it dangles unimportant aims before the eyes of the worker and affords easy and regular gratification. Thus it happens that a society where work is continually being performed will enjoy greater security, and it is security which is now venerated as the supreme deity.

For Nietzsche, work ultimately serves as a tool of manipulation. Those who praise work really just want to hold down the masses and suppress their intellectual development, aspirations, and individuality. The true god of those who laud labor is their own security. They hold out to workers the "easy and regular gratification" of daily work only in order to distract them from the truly oppressive reality.

Nietzsche's conspiratorial leanings might be overblown, but his general criticism that our daily work might be no better than the fate of Sisyphus, if only we could see it, should be taken seriously. For many people, the words of Ecclesiastes would more readily resonate with their jobs than any exhortation to view them as vocations:

Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done
And on the labor in which I had toiled;
And indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind.
There was no profit under the sun. (2:11)

On the worst of days (and for some even on the average day), working customer service in a retail store or the assembly line at a factory or cleanup at Chuck-E-Cheese's feels far more like "grasping after the wind" than fulfilling one's God-given station in life. Would we call out to Sisyphus, "Take heart; your work is divinely ordained!"? It was divinely ordained, but only as an instrument of retribution.

Even God favored the slacker Abel.

Posted by at November 16, 2014 9:55 AM

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