The concept of work as a determinant of personal value and identity and as an indicator of good character and virtue would have been alien in many past societies. Modern capitalist societies tend to imbue work with a moral value that other societies would find strange.
Past civilisations have treated work as a degrading pursuit to be carried out by those at the bottom of their cultural hierarchy. For example, for “the society of New Spain (i.e. Mexico and South America) work did not redeem and had no value in itself. Manual work was servile. The superior man neither worked nor traded.”
In earlier non-market societies the separation between work and other activities was not so apparent. People were not paid to work, they just did what was required to provide their needs and much of this was done collectively. Their labours were natural and inevitable. However with the rise of more complex societies, a division of labour developed and work became not only a separate activity but also a different activity for different people.
Work in ancient Greece had no moral value and the Greek philosophers often disparaged it. Homer claimed that humans had to work because the gods despised them. Greek writers generally expressed distain for hard manual work. Indeed Greek society had no need for an ideology that exalted work as slaves didn’t have to be self-motivating.
In reality, many Greek citizens did work, but it was something they had to do, an unwelcome necessity that had no status or morality attached to it. Often they worked along side slaves, doing the same work for the same pay, but this only served to denigrate the value of that work. Even artisans and craftsmen were considered little better than slaves, at least by the aristocracy, although there is some evidence that individual artisans took pride in their work.
Whilst it is difficult to know how Greek workers thought of themselves, as they were illiterate and left no historical record, there is no doubt that the philosophers, poets, and the aristocracy held work in low regard. Poets made fun of politicians who had manual occupations and it was also a means of insulting an opponent in the law courts. Also the attitude to work varied somewhat from city to city.
In general however, according to the written records, working for someone else was thought to be especially degrading as it meant you were dependent on others and therefore not free. Greeks valued their freedom above any economic attainment and “preferred the insecurity of a daily-changing labour market to regular assured work” that limited their freedom to work as needed and when civic duties permitted.
Aristotle, like many of the Greek thinkers, viewed work as interfering with the duties of citizens and distracting them from more virtuous pursuits such as politics, art and philosophy. These could only be mastered through a long education which took time and leisure. Those who spent their time mastering the techniques of the mechanic or the artisan were spoilt in mind and body for contemplation and philosophy. The only good purpose of work was to earn enough money for a person to have leisure to contemplate philosophical issues, the most noble of activities. He wrote:
A state with an ideal constitution—a state which has for its members men who are absolutely just, and not men who are merely just in relation to some particular standard—cannot have its citizens living the life of mechanics or shopkeepers, which is ignoble and inimical to goodness. Nor can it have them engaged in farming; leisure is a necessity, both for growth in goodness and for the pursuit of political activity.
Plato also argued that work interfered with leisure which was necessary for the “practice of the art of government” and therefore those engaged in it should not be part of the governing class. Plato cited Socrates as claiming that not having to work is necessary to lead a virtuous life and to be a good leader or governor. P. D. Anthony points out:
We have become used to paying a certain respect to workers upon whose efforts our economic structure rests, but in a society in which economic values were subordinated to cultural and political ends, to be at the bottom of the economic structure was to be at the bottom of the dung heap.
As Greek culture spread to other parts of the world during the Hellenistic period, particularly to the Mediterranean region, so did this attitude to work. The Romans of the Roman Republic adopted a similar attitude to the ancient Greeks when it came to work. The Latin for work, ‘labor’, means “extreme effort associated with pain” and apparently comes from the same root as labare which means “to stumble under a burden”.
Cicero reflected common Roman thought in his belief that manual work and craft work or “the hiring out of a person’s arms” was “vulgar, dishonoring and beneath the dignity of a Roman citizen.” He wrote:
we have been taught, in general, as follows. First, those means of livelihood are rejected as undesirable which incur people’s ill-will, as those of tax-gatherers and userers. Unbecoming to a gentleman, too, and vulgar are the means of livelihood of hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery. Vulgar we must consider those who buy from wholesale merchants to retail immediately, for they would not get profits without a great deal of downright lying; ... And all mechanics are engaged in vulgar trades; ....
For Romans the most honourable pursuits were war and politics. Even professional work requiring intelligence and education, such as that done by doctors, architects and teachers, was considered to be unfit for the nobility. As in Greece, freemen worked alongside slaves in many occupations including craftsmen. This association helped to degrade the value of these occupations. Craftsmen were unable to take part in government and there is some evidence that the low esteem accorded to manual workers, merchants and craftsmen was not limited to the aristocracy. A former apprentice to a sculptor, stated:
If you become a stone-cutter you will be nothing more than a workman, doing hard physical labour... You will be obscure, earning a small wage, a man of low esteem, classed as worthless by public opinion, neither courted by friends, feared by enemies, nor envied by your fellow-citizens, but just a common workman, a craftsman, a face in a crowd, one who makes his living with his hands.
The ancient Jews too, thought of work as a painful necessity, although in their society everyone was expected to work and there was nothing to be ashamed of in being a worker. After all, according to the Old Testament, God worked at creating the world and on the seventh day he rested. Many Jewish leaders cited in the Old Testament also worked, particularly in agriculture, and so too some of the great Rabbis earned a living with their hands.
In the Book of Genesis Adam and Eve did not have to work in the Garden of Eden but when they disobeyed God he imposed work on them as part of their punishment: “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life... In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground....”
The Jews accepted work as “expiation through which man might atone for the sin of his ancestors and co-operate with God in the world’s salvation.” Work in Jewish society therefore had a religious value that it lacked in Greek and Roman culture, but it was still considered unpleasant and had no intrinsic moral value apart from atonement.
Early Christians adopted a similar attitude to the Jews in considering work as God’s punishment for original sin. Jesus came, by all accounts, from a working family, his father a carpenter and his disciples fishermen, one of the lowliest occupations in the Roman world according to Cicero. Whilst he did not judge people by their occupations, Jesus did not seem to put much value on work and labour either:
Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not;
And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
One of Jesus’s more influential followers, Paul, was far more positive about the value of work. A tentmaker by trade he valued work for the independence and self-respect it gave a person and the means it offered to be charitable to others. Working to be able to give charity was also a theme of the early church and the early monasteries incorporated all types of work in order to be self-sufficient.
Work was valued in the monasteries as a way of serving the monastery and as a means of fostering brotherly love. Work had no intrinsic value, nor was it to be done to gain wealth: it was a means to a religious end, “an instrument of purification, of charity, of expiation.”
Over time work took on more value but was always secondary to the more important task of contemplating God. Religious work was better than work to obtain material needs, but higher still was “pure contemplation, passive meditation on divine matters.” Those who didn’t need to work for a living were best off spending their time praying and contemplating God.
In later years it was often the lay people who did the manual work necessary to provide the material needs of the community while the monks did the intellectual and religious work. The church, which had once had an ideal of egalitarianism, embraced the idea of a stratified society as part of God’s plan. This hierarchy had those who devoted themselves to the religious life at the top. St. Thomas Aquinas actually drew up a scale of occupations, according to their value to society with agriculture at the top (but still below religious work) and commerce at the bottom.
The traditional workers in the middle ages also had no great love of work, nor did they imbue it with special qualities or virtue. The traditional worker in the middle ages “commonly lived to a good round age, worked when necessity demanded, ceased his labour when his wants were supplied...” They would takes days off when they felt like it, spend many hours socialising, work short days and “move freely in and out of work and from one task to another according to personal inclination”.
Food was the major expense of an ordinary worker and when food was cheap and plentiful labour was in short supply. As late as 1694 Josiah Child complained “In a cheap year they will not work above two days in a week” Unlike the modern worker, higher wages resulted in less work not more. Weber noted: “The opportunity of earning more was less attractive than that of working less.” Workers did not, “by nature”, want to earn more money but rather earn enough to provide for their needs. Work was not done for self-development or improvement nor was it done as a duty.