This blog post is the third in what has now become my four-part series on the coming age of automation. In the first post, I defended the historical link between work and subsistence because of society’s need for productivity. In times of scarcity, i.e. most of human history, every bit of productivity matters, and every member who isn’t productive is a potentially fatal drain on the rest. Under such conditions, it makes sense to use the powerful, albeit harsh, motivator of Necessity to extract more from people than might be gotten out of them otherwise.
In my second post, I looked deeper at what it means to live a life implied by those innocuous words, “motivated by Necessity.” I found that this clinical expression in no way communicated the brutal and desperate reality of such a life, and that many of the songs and writings of the people subjected to it yearned to be free from it. In fact, I found that the very word “freedom,” which today we take to mean “doing what I want,” for much of history meant “freedom from Necessity.” This freedom was in fact what separated the “aristocratic” from the “common” way of life. The aristocrats valued it while the commoners longed for it.
In this post I will start in the past and bring us to the present. I will pick up the conversation where I left off, with a discussion of the word “aristocracy” that so rankles our democratic sensibilities. I will argue that in Americans’ rightful rejection of aristocratic society we accidentally threw out something we should have kept. That something is an appreciation of how vital freedom from Necessity is to the good life. I will argue that our current view of work is one that sees the point of life as merely living, where the point of life ought to be living well. To see why this is so, we must begin with the end. The end, that is, of the era of hereditary aristocracy.
Aristocracy, Hard Work, and the American Spirit
Since a motley band of militias somehow defeated the British empire, it has been a point of pride for many of us Americans to distinguish ourselves from those high falutin folks across the Atlantic – namely, the British and the even more archaic continentals. This is true with regard to our political system, our rugged view of independence, and until World War II our largely isolationist foreign policy. But more than any of these, what has historically driven Americans’ sense of distinctness is the rejection of Europe’s aristocratic way of life. America had always been conceived as a land of opportunity for the enterprising (white) man, and this enterprising spirit dovetailed with stirring words like “all men are created equal” and a visionary system of government to produce a society diametrically opposed to the landed, hereditary aristocracy of Europe (though vestiges of it lingered in the South).
In a plethora of ways this rejection has been a good thing. Though the shape of our society with its largely segregated and gentrified neighborhoods may name us hypocrites, at least in ideal Americans have always believed in moral equality. You would be hard-pressed indeed to find an American saying that the moral worth of their local plumber is less than the worth of the person who inherited the family mansion on Broad Street. Though we struggle to realize its full potential, this assumption of moral equality is one of the best things about our culture and indeed one of the most important contributions American political thought has made to the entire world’s stock of political ideas. It is to this belief in moral equality we owe our rejection of aristocracy.
But, as that thoughtful Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville – himself a dastardly aristocrat – noted during his visit in the early 1800s, the quasi-religious way Americans praise the busy-bodied worker is as out of touch with reality as the powdered wig is with contemporary fashion sensibilities (though the advent of Hamilton may be giving that the lie). In our political discourse, the blue-collar man slaving away at a steel mill is an almost saintly figure. He, along with that other vanished breed, the rural homesteader, have been treated as if they are the living embodiments of the American spirit. In our imagination, they are morally upright and virtuous, living a life that is purer than the lives of those privileged, scheming “white-collar” workers who carry out their business in pristine offices, cubicles and studies.
This glorification of the blue-collar worker is due to nothing more or less than historical confusion. For most of history, the vast majority of productive work consisted in manual labor that far exceeded the “character building” variety we imagine in such romanticized images. Most people who have had to earn their living with their backs and hands did not retire in the evenings with sweat glistening from their golden skin to read Oliver Twist or play folk songs on the banjo to their children. The men came home after dark covered in grime, too exhausted to do much of anything, too poor to afford a banjo and too uneducated to read Dickens, while the women slaved over smoky stoves, hand-tearing washboards and grease-covered dishes. Their smiles were not ageless and wise. Their teeth fell out when they were 25, and most of them died before they were 40.
Thomas Jefferson’s image of the virtuous farmer, keeper of the American spirit, was as illusory in 1800 as our image of the sacrosanct steel worker or coal miner is today. These are hard lives that take their toll not only on bodies but minds. As Adam Smith noted years ago, such monotonous and toilsome occupations often serve to stifle the imagination, warp the bones and narrow the worldview. People do them because they are necessary, not because they fulfil the “American dream.” Though we ought to hold a deep and profound respect for the countless generations that endured such hardship to bring us to where we are today, it is a fundamental misunderstanding – perhaps even a betrayal of their very hope in a better future – to praise such a life as something to be aspired to. It has never been an end. It has only ever been a means to a higher end.
This point deserves emphasizing. While it is true that some hard work builds virtue, the glorification of a life spent performing back-breaking physical labor ignores the entire history of a human race that has longed to be freed from such work. We do not even have to look into the distant past to see how clearly this is true. In Bangladesh this very day, subsistence farmers leave their subsistence farms to go work in sweatshops. Why? Not because they see a life lived in gruelling toil as “virtuous” or the fulfilment of their dreams. A life lived working fingers to the bone, breathing the stifling air of thousands of bodies packed in tiny confines, with merciless managers screaming for more production, often locked in so that if a fire breaks out you will burn alive, is a life no human soul is so unimaginative or foolish to dream of. The people who work these jobs do so for their children. Many of our ancestors were indentured servants who sold seven years of their lives in exchange for a spot of land and the freedom to do with it with they wish. The sweatshop workers are indentured servants not for themselves but for their children. They hope to buy with their bodies their children’s ability to be free from the life of Necessity.
For most of human history, such freedom was the exclusive privilege of the aristocracy. This, I think, along with the inertia of a value set left over from times of scarcity, is why we Americans hold a naively romantic view of the value of hard work in itself. When we rejected aristocracy and embraced democracy, we rejected the values of aristocracy and embraced the values of democracy. In doing so, we only got it half right. The half we got right was that hard, necessary work done by simple people is every bit as worthy of our admiration as any of the songs, treatises or poems written by the so-called “nobles.” The part we got wrong, though, was that we forgot that there’s a difference between things we admire and things we aspire to. Though both are to be admired, there is a great difference between the things we do to live and the things we live for.
If we’d really paid attention to our ancestors, we would have seen the mistake immediately, because no one, either aristocrat or peasant, has ever lived a life of gruelling work for its own sake. The very idea is ludicrous. Like the sweatshop workers in Bangladesh, our ancestors have always endured such lives in hope that in so doing they or their progeny would be able, not just to live, but to live a good life. Somewhere between our own era of sweatshops – you might know it by its optimistic name, the “industrial revolution” – and today’s prosperity we lost sight of this basic insight. But it bears remembering.
The Good Life and the Purpose you Give Yourself
A lot of my thoughts in this post’s final section come from Aristotle. Now, Aristotle was wrong about a lot of things, most of them having to do with the idea that some people – men, Greeks and aristocrats, mostly – were naturally better than others. A lot of people think this ought to discredit him entirely, but I’m not much for the holier-than-thou attitude that’s all the rage these days. You know what I’m talking about: people who argue that Martin Luther King’s political action doesn’t count because he slept with prostitutes, or that Gandhi gaining India’s freedom is meaningless because he said good things about Hitler, or that our founding fathers planting the seeds of political equality in the 1770’s are worthless because many of them own slaves. Such attitudes seem like nothing more than self-deceptive self-righteousness to me. They can only be forwarded by people who hold the absurd notion that people 2,000 years from now will find no reason to find our views barbaric and outdated.
No, given the amount of times I’ve realized I’m wrong in the space of 32 years, I reckon there will be plenty more material for some self-righteous advocate to nitpick in two millennia. Thank the gods none of my writings will last that long.
But Aristotle’s have. I find that impressive. Unlike those sage souls whose clairvoyance allows them to pass judgment on the Gandhis and Kings of the world, I find it incredibly difficult to avoid being time-bound in my perspective. In no arena is this more true than when I try to differentiate aspects of society that are the product of my own time from aspects of society that stem from human nature. A sense of history shows how difficult this is. For example, the meaning of the word “freedom” had a quite different to Romans and Renaissance Italians than it does for us or the ancient Greeks. Likewise, the self-sacrificial acts of ancient Romans and members of medieval communes are genuinely shocking to those of us who have learned to conceive of man as “rationally self-interested.”
But it’s also history that helps us pick out nature from nurture. When something written 2,500 years ago still resonates today, for instance, it seems likely to be capturing at least some aspect of human life that is abiding, rather than temporary. When one studies Aristotle, this sense is amplified by the fact that every individual era of history that has interceded between ancient Greece and 21st-century America has also been inspired by his ideas. This is true from ancient Rome to the early church, all through medieval times, on into the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and modernity. To this day, writers like Hannah Arendt, Martha Nussbaum and Alasdair MacIntyre continue to draw on Aristotle for wisdom in dealing with moral and political issues.
I’ll do the same, not because I think the writings of old Greek dudes carries some mystical value but because I think things that have resonated for 2,500 years, despite the massive shifts that have occurred in our external world, are more likely to retain their relevance in the future. Certainly I think such is the case for our transition into an era of automation. So, inspired by Aristotle, here goes.
Humans do (or ought to do) things for a purpose. In his Politics, Aristotle wrote, “The purpose of war ought to be to gain peace; the purpose of work ought to be the ability pursue a full life; the purpose of doing what is necessary ought to be so that we can do the things that are excellent.” This is, in my mind, exactly right, and it is that last statement I want to focus on.
“The purpose of doing what is necessary ought to be so that we can do the things that are excellent.” What does this mean? The answer was hinted at above when I differentiated the things we do in order to live from the things we live for. The first things we do because we must, because Necessity demands them. But as I argued in my last post, a life consisting entirely of such work cannot be a good life. The good life means more than surviving. It means thriving.
What does it mean to “thrive?” For Aristotle, it meant living a fulfilling life. This in turn required two things. First, it meant freedom from Necessity. But this was not enough. In our own day, we can see that many people are free from Necessity and do not live good lives. The millionaire who throws himself off a balcony is proof of this, but we do not even need such exotic examples to see its truth. Choice itself presents problems for fulfilment. Anyone who has been thrown into existential crisis just trying to pick out the “right” kind of toothpaste at the supermarket will realize that “freedom from Necessity” only leaves half the work done.
What, then, is the other half? It is the ability to give ourselves ends. That is, to give ourselves purposes. As Americans accustomed to lives of work, we are not very good at giving ourselves purposes. This is an often overlooked reason so many of us are workaholics. Even those who do not need to work extra hours often do so because they simply do not know how to fill up their time. Many others fritter away their “free” time in front of televisions, computer screens and iPads. Not all time in front of such screens is wasted, of course – I, for one, find these present moments quite fulfilling – but much is.
How can we tell the difference between which moments are wasted and which moments are not? A simple guideline I’d offer is this: Those moments lived in pursuit of a self-chosen end, with a self-directed purpose, are moments well spent. A life full of these will be a fulfilling life. Those moments of free time spent listlessly waiting for something or someone else to come along and give you an end are poorly spent. A life full of these will leave a person feeling empty, thin, unfulfilled.
Lest I be accused of peddling an unsustainable view of the good life, let me clarify that there are a great many kinds of self-given ends that can lead to a good life. The end I give myself in a particular moment may be a soul-cleansing bout of humor at the end of a long workday, which for me means watching stand-up comedy or a sitcom I like. For other people at other moments, the end may be learning something new about the stage of development their confusing adolescent is going through. For still others, it may be learning a new jazz progression on the guitar. For me at this moment, it is writing a blog I know only five close friends will read, but which helps me practice my writing and clarify my own thoughts about what it means to live a good life, both privately and publicly.
The point is, we do not live merely to perform an unending succession of tasks given us from the outside. To live a full life means not merely waiting for something else – a boss, a flashy ad on the ‘net, or that nasty foreman Necessity – to tell us what ends to pursue. We neither live to work nor work to live. We work to live well.
When we study while waiting tables, it’s so we can get a job that’s more fulfilling, or one that enables us time and funds to do the traveling we’ve always dreamed of. When we wake up early five days a week and drag ourselves through rush-hour traffic, it’s so we can give not just any but a good – a better – life to our children. When we pick up extra hours at work for a couple months, it’s not so we can be spared the angst of empty free time, but so we can go on vacation of our choosing. And if we aren’t doing those things that are necessary for the sake of eventually doing something higher, we should rethink our reasons for doing them, because merely carrying out a series of tasks given us from the outside is one of the surest ways to find oneself in old age looking back on one’s memories and finding none there. In their place is a series of indistinguishable days, months and years that bleed into one another – a barren steppe where there might have been an ecosystem so teeming with memories you couldn’t relive all of them even if you tried.
A barren steppe is not the sort of landscape that ought to characterize the memories of a human being. It is more like the life of an ant eternally responding to external stimuli until finally, on one day entirely indistinguishable from any other, the stimulus stops. Or like the life of a moth flitting from light to light, driven entirely by the movements of heavenly bodies and the flicks of light-switches, all its movements directed from the outside and never a second (or even a first) thought. Such creatures have purposes, but a purpose alone does not a good (human) life make. The purposes that make up the good life do not come from the outside. To live the good life as a human is to give worthwhile purposes to oneself.
“Well, fine,” you say. “But here we are three blogs in and you still haven’t talked about automation! What does this ‘giving a purpose to yourself’ and ‘the good life’ business have to do with that, for cryin’ out loud?” The short answer is, everything. As for the long answer, if your ancestors could wade through two thousand generations of Necessity to bring you to a life potentially free from it, I think a week or two isn’t too much to ask for a vision of what that ought to look like.