, Newburyport, MA

September 2, 2013

Work, work, work!

As I See It
John Burciaga

---- — 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.”

Sounds like a return to Hesiod’s age of Gold — and a long way from Dickens, who kept his eye on labor bosses, exposed the vulnerability of workers, and it was a damned undignified sight. Bob Cratchit was but one of many parents with sick or handicapped children and forced to work for abusive bosses like Scrooge.

Empathy for women as laborers was more rare. The early ballad simply titled “A woman’s work is never done” avoided the good face put on women’s role in the labor scheme of the Bible. This was in spades, and Proverbs paean to the “virtuous woman” could have been written by Henry Ford: Her toil was repetitive, demanding and filled with pressure, responsibility and no wage; but if done without complaint, her prize was to be called “virtuous” — but hardly a day off, sorry to say.

And no sympathy at all for slaves, whose lives were debilitating toil nourished largely by the lash. There was “no eye to mark their sufferings with a tear,” wrote Thomas Day, just misery multiplied before sinking to sleep — “and wish to wake no more.”

H.L. Mencken lacked Dickens’ subtlety: All democratic theories include the “dignity of labor,” a delusion that is one of the worst, he said, though without it the worker has nothing but a belly-ache.

What to make of all this? Is it recognizable, applicable? Well, yes. We still seek a human age of Gold — of abundance and leisure without the kinds of work we don’t prefer. But our reality is the ongoing age of Iron wherein the gods treat us harshly and idleness means atrophy if not death.

We are constantly in, or seeking, jobs, careers, trades, professions, businesses; and when forced to be idle, are threatened in self-respect, self-image, well-being or family survival.

We may feel Thoreau’s life is impossible, even undesirable, for us. But so, perhaps, the one we now have. Somewhere between may be a better world altogether.


John Burciaga of Newburyport writes on politics, social issues and religion, and may be reached at