, Newburyport, MA


September 2, 2013

Work, work, work!

Hesiod said the first mortals were made of gold and lived like gods, carefree and free of toil, without fear of want until, as he notes, untroubled by pains of old age as we know it, “they died as if overcome by sleep.” Sort of like celebrities before they enter rehab.

Ovid agreed that those days were spent in “firm content and harmless ease …’Twas always spring … (and) with “Milke and nectar were the Rivers fill’d.” Hey! We really were promised a rose garden!

This arrangement was totally messed up by Adam and Eve: God made One Thing off limits, and they just had to do it. Part of the penalty was painful toil, or what we call “work.”

But the mythical age of Gold was followed by the very real age of Iron and Hesiod’s tone changed: would that he were dead, he wrote, for now it was a race of iron, and all toil and misery day and night while gods dished out harsh troubles. Progress has its price.

Work is an expenditure of energy, usually to an extent we would not prefer. John Masefield said that to get the whole world out of bed and washed, dressed, warmed, and fed, thence to work, and back to bed again, “Believe me … costs worlds of pain.”

Edwin Markham’s “The Man with the Hoe,” is the worker-as-victim:

“Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,

The emptiness of ages in his face,

And on his back the burden of the world ... .”

Poppycock, said Henry Ford: Work dignifies a person! Henry’s did, but he was the top of the labor chain, needed people for his assembly lines and dismissed the side-effects of repetitive work on mind, body and spirit, contrary to modern research.

John Maynard Keynes’ outlook was even rosier: He predicted economic problems would be solved in a hundred years (from 1930, if you’re counting) and the real issue would be what to do with our leisure — fulfilling Sam Johnson’s observation that “Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.”

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