Comment: The Saturday Essay: If only the devil did make work for idle hands...

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"WORK" IS harder to define than one might think. The Concise Oxford Dictionary informs us that work is "expenditure of energy, striving, application of effort or exertion to a purpose". However, there are many ways of purposively expending energy that do not count as "work". In the late 17th century the scientist Robert Boyle remarked that "tennis, which our gallants make a recreation, is much more toilsome than what many others make their work". Two hundred years later the philosopher John Stuart Mill observed that "many a day spent in killing game includes more muscular fatigue than a day's ploughing".

In the end, however, we have to recognise that the definition of work is not an objective matter. The term's different meanings embody different phases of historical development and different political viewpoints. Just as the male economists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were reluctant to accept that unpaid housework was really work, preferring to classify it as an "unproductive" activity, so modern radicals are disinclined to accept that the Queen is working when she gives a garden party. In the era of the Reformation, Protestants denounced monks as idle parasites; for them, the contemplative life could not count as work. In North America the early English colonists lamented the idleness of the native Americans, who were warriors and hunters; as the English settlers saw it, it was only the women who were engaged in real work - that is, agriculture.

Business people and manual workers have always been sceptical about the existence of such a thing as intellectual work. When I was a schoolboy studying for examinations, my father, a farmer, understandably refused to concede that, when I was sitting on a deckchair in the garden reading a book rather than helping him in the cornfields with the harvest, I might be working as hard as he was.

The raised feminist consciousness of recent times has rightly made us more ready to classify unpaid housework and childcare as work - real work - than we used to be; and the Society of Authors would no doubt maintain that writing poetry is real work too. However, is a businessman working when he takes a client to an expensive restaurant? Or when he plays golf in order to clinch a deal at the 19th hole? In today's world, work and leisure are much more sharply segregated than they used to be, but the line is still not easy to draw.

On the one hand, work has, since time immemorial, been seen as a curse, a result of the Fall and a punishment for sin. It was something that, it was assumed, everyone would naturally try to avoid, whether they were "savages" lounging in the tropical sun or European aristocrats pursuing an existence of conspicuous leisure. The ideal society was a land of Cockaigne, where all things came by nature and the need to work had vanished.

On the other hand, work was widely admired as a divine activity, practised by God during the creation of the world and by Adam and Eve in Eden. It was a sacred duty and the source of all human comforts, creating wealth and making civilisation possible. It was a cure for boredom and melancholy and a remedy for vice. It was the only sure route to human happiness, bringing health, contentment and personal fulfilment. It structured the day, gave opportunities for sociability and companionship, fostered pride in individual creativity and created a sense of personal identity. Idleness could never make people happy; and the ideal society was one in which there was satisfying work available for everybody.

The classical economists took the first of these two views. Adam Smith agreed with Dr Johnson that every man was naturally an idler. It was axiomatic that human beings preferred leisure to work. Labour meant "toil and trouble". It was undertaken only for the sake of remuneration, what in North America is still revealingly referred to as "compensation". The object of working was to acquire wealth, and the object of wealth was to avoid having to work.

The labouring classes, it was said, worked only out of necessity: to avoid starvation or to acquire additional goods that they coveted for their practical utility or as a means of keeping ahead of their neighbours. Without either stick or carrot, the inertial force of human indolence would be sure to reassert itself.

The native peoples in the overseas colonies were cited as further proof of this natural inclination to idleness. John Stuart Mill thought that the only way to "civilise" such people, that is to say, to make them take up a life of unrelenting toil, was to inculcate them "with new wants and desires". Otherwise, human nature being what it was, they would be idle. Mill's own upbringing (his father allowed him no holidays, "lest the habit of work should be broken and a taste for idleness acquired") had reflected this same belief that laziness was an innate and deep-seated urge, to which, without the most strenuous application, the human animal would invariably succumb.

This view of work as inherently repugnant went back to antiquity, The warrior societies of the past had, like the native Americans, thought fighting preferable to working, just as the classical moralists preferred otium (leisure) to negotium (business). Physical labour was the business of slaves, women and the subordinate classes. When the Benedictine monks of the early Middle Ages engaged in manual labour, they did so in a penitential spirit: work was an ascetic mortification of the flesh; the ideal life was one of piety and contemplation. The French word travail supposedly derived from trepalium, an instrument of torture; and the travails of childbirth recalled the curse that associated all forms of labour with pain.

In the 12th and 13th centuries European theologians gave work a more positive status, stressing its social and moral benefits and repeating St Benedict's observation that idleness was the enemy of the soul. But they did not represent work as innately satisfying. Neither did the many proponents of the work ethic who emerged in the late medieval and early modern periods.

In the modern industrial world most people have continued to regard work as a tedious necessity. "Why does the worker work?" asked Friedrich Engels in 1844. "For love of work? From a natural impulse? Not at all! He works for money, for a thing which has nothing to do with the work itself." This proposition is wholly consistent with the more recent findings of the sociologist John Goldthorpe. In a study of the car workers of Luton, Bedfordshire, in the Sixties, he found that their attitude to work was instrumental: it was a means to an end, a temporary surrender of liberty for the sake of material reward.

Among the managerial classes today there are many who find work stressful and view the workplace as a combative arena in which human beings strive aggressively for money and status. "Oh, to get out of the rat race," they say. Nowadays millions of people speak about their work in this way. They do it, they say, only for the money; and they would give it up tomorrow if they could afford to do so. Meanwhile they look to their private life and their recreations for their pleasures, their fulfilment and their sense of identity.

Yet it is well known that not all of those who come into an unexpected fortune immediately give up their jobs. On the contrary, they are usually advised not to do so, on the grounds that they would miss their work too much, just as persons who have to retire because of their age are known to do. In December 1996 the British tabloid newspapers reported the case of Linda Hill, who had won nearly pounds 2m in the National Lottery but elected to continue with her pounds 80-a-week job as a chambermaid at a Butlin's holiday centre. ("I love my job," she explained, "and life just wouldn't be the same without it.")

This recognition that work can be a physical and emotional necessity for human beings, no less than an economic one, is not very conspicuous before the later 17th century, although it is implicit in much earlier moralistic writing about the miseries of idleness. Robert Burton, the Jacobean anatomist of melancholy, believed that, though the English nobility of his day had everything in abundance, they were disproportionately subject to melancholic gloom because they lived lives of idleness; counting it a disgrace to work, they suffered endless "cares, griefs, false fears, discontents and suspicions". In the 19th century Florence Nightingale would write off the sufferings and frustrations of middle-class women who were kept compulsorily idle: "the accumulation of nervous energy, which has had nothing to do during the day, makes them feel every night, when they go to bed, as if they were going mad; and they are obliged to lie long in bed in the morning to let it evaporate and keep it down."

Medical writers had always urged the importance of physical exercise. Hence the philosopher John Locke's recommendation at the end of the 17th century that every scholar should spend three hours a day on manual labour as well as, of course, nine hours on thinking and reading. However, Locke also believed that psychologically, "men cannot be perfectly idle; they must be doing something".

It was his 18th-century successor, David Hume, who did most to develop this insight. "Every enjoyment," he wrote, "soon becomes insipid and distasteful, when not acquired by fatigue and industry. There was no craving of the human mind more constant and insatiable than the desire for exercise and employment."

When Adam Smith declared that labour involved the worker only in "toil and trouble", he was thinking primarily of manual work. Indeed he explicitly said that it was only what he called "the inferior employments" that were performed solely for the sake of the money, thus conceding the possibility that other occupations could be rewarding in themselves. Nevertheless, Karl Marx had a point when he declared that Smith's view of labour as a curse was psychologically misconceived.

For the young Marx work was not just a way of securing a livelihood: it was potentially a liberating activity, leading to self-realisation and freedom. Alfred Marshall also conceded that "man rapidly degenerates unless he has some hard work to do, some difficulties to overcome". Those who pursued success in business or science or the arts could hope to experience intense pleasure, alternating with periods of lassitude, whereas for "ordinary people" who had no strong ambitions, "moderate and fairly steady work offered the best opportunity for the growth of those habits of body, mind and spirit in which alone there is true happiness".

It seems that almost any form of work can be satisfying if it requires absolute concentration, to the extent of at least momentarily shutting out all distracting and painful thoughts. Those who praise work have always emphasised that it takes one's mind off other things and offers the best antidote for sorrow. One can only speculate about the psychological roots of this long-persisting fear of being alone with oneself. No account of the pleasures of work is adequate if it focuses only on the satisfactions afforded by the task itself. As often as not, the attraction lies not in the job but in the human relations involved. Samuel Pepys, who stayed late in the office so as to avoid going home to quarrel with his wife, is one of an infinity of people who have found in the workplace solace for a frustrating life at home.

Today things may be about to change. The task of producing food has long ceased to occupy most of the population, while mechanisation and automation have vastly reduced the demand for manual and clerical labour. It is a commonplace to say that work is much less central to people's existence than it used to be and that vast spaces of leisure and domesticity have opened up. We are told that work is only one of many possible forms of fulfilment and that full-time employment and the life-time career will become increasingly uncommon. In their place will emerge an economy of short-term contracts, part-time work and frequent retraining.

If the trend to ever greater leisure continues, the basic human impulses towards activity and social involvement will have to be satisfied in other ways. The great economist JM Keynes wrote in 1930: "There is no country and no people... who can look forward to the age of leisure and abundance without a dread." His prescription was that we should try to share out what little work remained; three hours a day might be sufficient, he thought. In practice, however, it seems more likely that some of us will continue to be overworked, while others have no work at all.

Extracted from `The Oxford Book of Work', edited by the author (OUP, pounds 20)