Historical Notes: Work `the grand recipe for felicity'

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The Independent Culture
IN David Copperfield Charles Dickens makes Uriah Heep complain that, when he was at school, he was taught

from nine o'clock to eleven, that labour was a curse; and from eleven o'clock to one that it was a blessing and a cheerfulness and I don't know what all, eh.

The same ambivalence runs through most writing about work. Since the beginning of time, people have had difficulty in deciding whether or not work is something they would prefer to do without.

On the one hand labour has been represented as the painful consequence of the Fall of Man, a punishment for sin and, at best, a means of spiritual mortification. From the building of the Pyramids to the gulags of Solzhenitsyn, the truly terrible conditions in which millions of slaves and labourers have been forced to work add justification to this pessimistic view.

Outside Europe the inhabitants of undeveloped countries supposedly spent much of their time avoiding work. When the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, went to America in the 18th century, he

saw a large number of reasonable creatures called Indians, sitting in a row on the side of the river, looking sometimes at one another, sometimes at the sky and sometimes at the bubbles on the wager. And so they sat . . . for a great part of the year from morning to night.

Nearer home the aristocracy virtually defined themselves as those who did not need to work for a living. Many modern wage-earners speak of their work as something they would give up tomorrow if they could afford it. As one wit put it, "Work is what you do so that some time you won't have to do it any more."

Yet even before the Fall of Man, Adam and Eve were supposed to have worked in the Garden of Eden. They did so, wrote the Elizabethan poet Joshua Sylvester, "more for the delight than for the gain". For, provided it was not too strenuous, work could (and can) offer many compensations. It took the mind off other worries. "Up, and at the office all morning," wrote Samuel Pepys in 1668, "and so to it again after dinner and there busy late, choosing to imploy myself rather than go home to trouble with my wife."

Idleness, by contrast, meant boredom and malaise. Robert Burton, the anatomist of melancholy, thought that, though the Jacobean nobility of his day had everything in abundance, they suffered endless "cares, false tears, discontents and suspicions" because they had nothing to do. Thomas Love Peacock portrayed the life of the young man about town in the early 19th century:

From ten to eleven, ate a breakfast for seven,

From eleven to noon, to begin

'twas too soon,

From twelve to one, asked

"What's to be done?"

From one to two, found nothing

to do;

From two to three began to foresee

That from three to four would be a damned bore.

By the later 18th century, Dr Samuel Johnson's view that "every man is or hopes to be an idler" had been overtaken by David Hume's insight that activity is a vital psychological need. For Thomas Jefferson, writing to his daughter in 1787, "a mind always employed is always happy. This is the true secret, the grand recipe for felicity. The idle only are wretched."

Today work can offer many satisfactions: not just the pleasures at absorption and achievement, but the sociability and petty dramas at the workshop and the office. As people say in their little retirement speeches, "I won't miss the work, but I shall miss the people." They also need the structure which work gives to their lives. As the Oxford don remarked, when asked how he was enjoying retirement: "It's not too bad, but I rather miss the vacations."

Keith Thomas is the editor of `The Oxford Book of Work' (OUP, pounds 20)