Do you live to work or work to live?

Filed in Arts by on March 12, 2016 0 Comments


Do you live to work or work to live? Two major Catholic thinkers of the twentieth century, Eric Gill and Josef Pieper, gave contrasting answers to this question. Gill, an artist and stonecutter, famous for the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral, wrote as follows: ‘Recreation is for the sake of work. Leisure time is for the sake of recreation’ (A Holy Tradition of Working, (Golgonooza Press 1983) p. 45).

Pieper, a philosopher in post-war Germany, wrote in his great book Leisure the Basis of Culture, ‘Leisure is not there for the sake of work’ (St Augustine’s Press 1998, p. 34). They seem to be contradicting one another. But when you look more deeply, they are saying something surprisingly similar.

Both Pieper and Gill were responding to systems which had destroyed the freedom, creativity and intrinsic purpose of work, Gill to industrialised capitalism and Pieper to Nazi totalitarianism. In the former, workers were treated as a cog in their employer’s money-making machine – as was memorably parodied by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. Their job was not to make things, but to make profits – for somebody else. In the latter, workers were merely a tool to serve the machinery of national power. Once again, they had no purposes of their own in their work.

Gill’s response was to try to recover a non-industrial way of working, which preserved the responsibility, and hence the creativity, of the individual craftsperson. He or she should be answerable not to the external control of money or status or political power, but to the intrinsic goodness of the work.

“Sculpture and the making of furniture are both jobs in which due regard should be paid to the way the thing, image or table ought to be made. And who will say that, whereas an image ought to be beautiful, a table need not be?” (A Holy Tradition of Working, p. 134)

The craftsman’s attitude contrasts with that of the factory-owning capitalist: “For him, boots are not made for use, but for sale.” (Work and Leisure (Faber and Faber 1935), p.77).

Pieper tried instead to rescue something that had been lost in both industrialism and totalitarianism. Work, as his society knew it, consisted purely of activity and effort, both directed solely to a social function. Such work, paradoxically, shares something with what is often called ‘leisure’, a kind restless busy-ness, which nowadays we all know all too well. But true leisure is contemplative: stillness and receptiveness in place of activity; celebration and gratitude in place of effort. It is not there to serve society, but for itself, as the the experience that makes us fully alive in our humanity.

The craftsman and the philosopher were, on the surface, saying the opposite of each other. But the arts and crafts to which Gill dedicated his life, were what made him fully alive. As he put it himself, ‘The Artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist’ (Gill, quoting Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, A Holy Tradition of Working, p.58). This type of work, like Pieper’s leisure, is receptive and celebratory, even a kind of worship: ‘Leisure is secular, work is sacred. Holidays are the active life, the working life is the contemplative life’ (A Holy Tradition of Working, p. 45).

When Gill said ‘leisure’, he meant free time corrupted into the distraction of mass-produced entertainment. When he said ‘work’, he meant a skilled, purposive, valuable, task done to help others and for the glory of God. What Pieper meant by ‘work’ was the same collectivised labour that Gill too was rejecting. Pieper sought to redeem the workers’ lives through true leisure, as he saw it, that is through communal worship and festivity.

What can these two thinkers say about work in the 21st century? Surely a Christianised society would needs to draw on both approaches. Eric Gill encourages us to choose work that is intrinsically good and worthwhile, both for ourselves and for the people it serves. For work that is receptive and creative, and therefore vocational, is itself a kind of prayer.

Many people, however, are forced to take jobs that are dreary or draining. In this case, Pieper reminds us that there is a greater purpose to life than work. And when our lives as a whole become rooted in prayer and celebration, that will infect even the grimmest of daily grinds. For we will know in the depth of our hearts, that we, and those we work with, and those we help with our work, are not mere numbers in a collective system, but each one a child of God.

For most of us today, the experience of work comes somewhere between that of Gill’s artist and that of a factory-slave. There may be times when we deeply value the friendship of our colleagues, when we savour the satisfaction of a worthwhile job well done, when we know we have made the world a better place through our work. There will be other times when we feel that we go out of the house each morning only for the wage slip, when we feel trapped in an impersonal system of control, when the tasks seem utterly pointless. We dream of winning the lottery and escaping from it all; but deep down we know that we would not be happy with a life of equally aimless entertainment.

We spend about half our waking lives at work. The more we can integrate both our working lives and our free time with our values, our creativity, our gifts and talents, our capacity for friendship and love, the more we will flourish as whole humans beings. In other words, the closer our work is to true leisure and the closer our leisure to true work, the happier we will be.

Would you like to reflect on how to integrate your own work more closely with your faith? If so, you might be interested in a Faith in Work residential weekend at Boarbank Hall in Cumbria. This will include eminent speakers and participants from all areas of working life. See link here.

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Sr Margaret Atkins

About the Author ()

Sr Margaret is an Augustinian canoness from the community at Boarbank Hall in Cumbria. She is also a Research Fellow at Blackfriars, Oxford.

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