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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The greek word banausia (βαναυσία) means mechani-
cal skill, more generally manual work, and has a pejo-
rative connotation. The opposing thought was that
man's destiny should be linked to thinking, more spe-
cifically to contemplation. The Gods of Olympus watch
the world from on high in the light of ideas, and bask
in eternity.

Among many examples that may be given of this
attitude, the following two will suffice. Xenophon says
that the mechanical arts bear the mark of social decay
and bring dishonor to Greek cities (Economica, IV,
203). His statement is not a haphazard one, but reflects
actually the more general world view shared by two
major thinkers of antiquity, Plato and Aristotle.

In the Gorgias (512b), Plato, through the words of
Callicles, asserts that no matter how useful the maker
of war machines may be, “you denigrate him and his
art,” so that “you would not wish to give your daughter
in marriage to his son.” Nor should it be thought that
Aristotle is judging casually when he puts forth his
theory that making and knowing how to make things
is the servile activity of slaves under the dominion of
their masters, the virtues peculiar to master and slave
being clearly distinct (Politics, 1277ff.).

It is consequently natural for Aristotle to regard
work as a secondary activity, in the sense that though
work seems to emancipate us from things, it really
imprisons us. It is better for man, and more in accord
with his essence, to retire within his true self by think-
ing, and thus to participate in the work of God. It
follows, for Aristotle, that living is essentially learning
and understanding, for knowledge contains the su-
preme virtue which actualizes and consummates in
man the work of divinity. Man's destiny is to keep
himself immune from the sensory world and to advance
steadily to the world of pure thought, not merely in
work (ἐνέργεια) but in theorizing (θεωπία). In the activ-
ity of thinking man attains his highest felicity or
blessedness; the happiness which man can attain
through practical virtue is secondary and is associated
with the life he is compelled to lead in dealing with
the world's external things (Nicomachean Ethics
1169-70, 1177-78; Metaphysics 982a).

Ancient thought, however, does not lack various
expressions of a certain appreciation of human labor,
apart from any prejudice that others may have had.
In general such assertions are found among authors
belonging to the school of Sophists and other minor
schools. For example, Antiphon proclaims the harsh
necessity of work insofar as life is accepted for what
it is. This life is certainly not easy or sweet, but it
nevertheless acquires meaning when it is crowned with
success (Stobaeus, IV, 22.2.66; a fragment translated
in I sofisti, ed. M. T. Cardini, Bari [1923], p. 126; also
in Minor Attic Orators, Loeb Library, Vol. I). But Prodi-
cus of Chios, in the circle of the Sophists, states the
definitive thesis about work in his apology, Hercules
at the Crossroad.
Referring to Xenophon's Memorabilia
(II, 1, 21-34), Prodicus insists on the virtue of labor
which gives dignity to the life of man.

An interpreter like R. Mondolfo bases his views on
a dualism of ethnic groups by blaming the warlike
aristocracy of the Dorians for imposing on the con-
quered Achaeans the yoke of laboring on the lands
which had become their booty, even though such labor
was contrary to the social rank of the conquered.


Conquering groups prefer a contemplative life to one
burdened by work; the conquered consider that keep-
ing their pledge of labor is a duty though far from
achieving perfect liberty. Work is the ransom paid for
the sake of keeping alive.

Reference to an eternal life in religious intuition
comes out of the Greek world, but becomes deter-
minant and definite in Judaism and finally in Christi-
anity. The book of Genesis (3:17-19) says that hard
work is a result of Adam's sin. Man is condemned to
labor because he must expiate the original sin. Never-
theless it should not be thought that labor suffices to
restore man's lost status or dignity before God. Holy
Scripture says that “All the labor of man is for his
mouth, and yet the appetite is not filled” (Ecclesiastes
6:7), which clearly means that the soul needs much
more than work to redeem itself; it needs prayer and
the contemplation of God. Merely economic activi-
ties or goods are not sufficient for salvation if the
recognition of God is absent. On this recognition is
based the alliance or covenant which links God to
his people.

It is important to note that the Jews continue to
cherish a world without drudgery or with little drudg-
ery, a world independent of labor. God's gift is pre-
cisely a collection of temporal goods, the reward of
faith in the one and only God. The intervention of God
in the economy assures his people of the reestablish-
ment of the more perfect conditions of existence, the
reign on earth of the plenitude of his gifts. The regen-
erated earth will no longer require hard work; opulent
and fruitful, it will satisfy the needs of the chosen

Such motives are taken up again by Christianity, but
in the end, after a complex elaboration, there emerge,
in the supernatural kingdom, values which are ever
more distinctively spiritual and accessible to all people
without discrimination.

At first the rejection of work seems radical and final,
and echoes the most radical denial by the Prophets:
“Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat?
or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be
clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles
seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have
need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom
of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall
be added unto you” (Matthew 6:31-33).

However, little by little in place of such ideas,
emerge other ideas which begin to dignify the idea
of work, and work, though not considered exactly a
blessing, ceases on the other hand to be conceived
negatively. Jesus is a worker, born in a family of
workers. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary
...?” (Mark 6:3). And that is exactly why Paul can
say that “he became poor, that ye through his poverty
might be rich” (II Corinthians 8:9).

There are many reasons behind this revaluation of
work; only some will be sketched here. Above all,
work, while it assures one of being independent of
political power (Philippians 4:11), furnishes one with
the means for giving charitably “to him that needeth”
(Ephesians 4:28). It thus comes about that this work
is purified as a means and instrument of love among
men. These are the reasons that pass from the apostle
into the oldest Christian literature (Didache, Book IV;
I John 3:17).

The antitheses sketched above lasted during the
entire medieval period, which valued work to the
extent that it might further the ends of asceticism, but
the Middle Ages also subordinated work to the con-
templative life, and to the spiritual adoration of God.
It suffices to recall the Rule of Saint Benedict, its
formula of “pray and work” (ora et labora), in order
to understand the idea of enjoying the liberating spirit
of work, obviously on the plane of a discipline of the
mind, exactly what the discipline of genuine asceticism
is said to be. Ecce labora et noli contristari (“There he
works and refuses to be gloomy”).

However, there is a larger picture that must include
the view outlined; it makes reference to a doctrine that
again refutes any definitely pragmatic attitude and
orders man to concern himself with the spirit in a
radical dedication to God.

It is a matter of defining the sphere of human
knowledge, the arts (the “arts” signifying the same as
the “sciences”) which constitute it, being the very
articulations of knowing. These arts proceeded in a
particular way, starting with Martianus Capella and
Boethius, going on to Isidore of Seville and Alcuin,
and finally to Bede and Rabanus Maurus. What
emerged was the classification called the “trivium” and
the “quadrivium,” the first embracing grammar, dia-
lectic, and rhetoric, the second geometry, arithmetic,
astronomy, and music. It was hence possible to con-
ceive a comprehensive doctrinal learning such that, by
its means, man reasons and discusses in the three arts
called discursive (sermocinales), but at the same time
endeavors to learn about things through the other four
arts called real (reales). The totality of the resulting
arts, whether discursive or real, is finally taken over
and made subordinate and instrumental to philosophy,
“the knowledge of human and divine things” (rerum
humanarum divinarumque cognitio
). Philosophy in
turn is linked to religion and becomes its handmaid
in a true and peculiar relation of dependence.

It is appropriate to declare the arts mentioned to
be liberal arts, in the sense that they fulfil the educa-
tional aims which shape the mind of the free man, in


contrast to the lowly arts (artes sordidae) of the slave,
thus crystallizing the traditional antithesis, just as it
appears in Cassiodorus. It was in fact he who came
to make a less drastic but more precise distinction. In
his work on the liberal arts and disciplines, De artibus
et disciplinis liberalibus
(Migne, Patrologiae latinae,
Vol. LXX, col. 1151), he contrasts the liberal arts,
which are learned from books through the exercise of
the mind, with the mechanical arts. If the two motifs,
the mechanical (or more specifically the manual) and
the lowly, are brought together, we have a context
which can be compared to the modern idea of the
antithesis of praxis and theory. The latter is praised,
the other remains inferior.

In order to find the way in which thought did break
through this dualism, which stubbornly and continually
arises, and how it was superseded by the praise of the
free man, it is necessary to look to the Renaissance,
when that dualism was slowly and laboriously attacked.
In investigating the concept of the humanities (hu-
), thinkers define not only what is usually called
“humanism,” which reflects precisely the first phase
of the Renaissance, but on the contrary judge the
Renaissance wholly humanistic in its very essence. Man
is evaluated in every aspect, his reason as well as his
will. The mind is investigated not merely through
literary documents or literature called “humane,” but
much more through man's involvement in the world,
through his mastery of things, and through his definite
and exact intervention in nature. To the idea of a
created nature (natura naturata) the Renaissance adds
the idea of a creative nature (natura naturans), a sec-
ond nature, as it were, made by man.

There follows the exaltation of man by minds like
Giannozzo Manetti, Pico della Mirandola, Marsilio
Ficino, Matteo Palmieri, Leon Battista Alberti, Leo-
nardo da Vinci, Giordano Bruno, and Tommaso Cam-
panella, to mention only the greatest and most impor-
tant ones. Their emphasis is on the dignity and
excellence of man, with praise for his open-eyed views
of the world, and for his efficient and effective diligence
as a worker, one who not only commands things and
events but also enjoys working incessantly. Of course,
work is often hard, painful, and exhausting, but how
can one stop the wheels of progress? Leonardo goes
so far as to say that in work “nature is surpassed: the
raw materials of nature are finite, but the works that
the eye orders the hands to make are infinite” (Treatise
on Painting,
sec. 28). Man is therefore exalted in his
creative activity. It is not merely a matter of labor,
even when accompanied by extreme fatigue, but it
requires the whole complex of human conditions, social
and historical, for a new and original work to emerge.

The end product is created spontaneously by man
who comes close to being like God. Is man himself
not a God? Everything would lead one to think so
insofar as work and the process of working makes man
divine. However, an immediate reservation is neces-
sary: man may be like God without being a deity. Man
makes himself similar to God in his capability and
work, but he is not God. “Therefore, man who gener-
ally takes care of living and inanimate things is a kind
of God” (Marsilio Ficino, Theologia platonica, XIII, 3).
A recurrent theme in the Renaissance is ascertaining
the boundaries of man's nature. Man can come close
to God, can act like a little God in his image, but he
is not God.

What must be added to mark the limits of human
nature is the fatigue which accompanies human work;
hence rest and leisure are necessary to restore man's
energy. The thinker who devoted all of his thought
to the relationship of man to God is surely Giordano
Bruno. He insists, in fact, on the importance of the will,
and for Bruno the will implies activity, as well as the
laborious mastery of things. On the other hand, to the
extent that work brings on fatigue, leisure is required,
for through leisure man's energies are restored, and
he is prepared to cope with subsequent fatigue from
new work.

We have noted how work is praised for its infinite
potentialities, but we also indicate the limitations of
work, and have called on Bruno as a witness. Something
has to be said of the way in which the depressing aspect
of work is regarded. Whence the question: Can manual
activity be eliminated, and above all to what extent?
Campanella, in his City of the Sun (Civitas solis, 1623),
not only advocates the communal sharing of goods and
women, but sketches a whole social plan and educa-
tional system based on learning and work. He is cogni-
zant, moreover, of the new role of science in both its
creative and moral aspects, even while he invokes a
thorough and effective discipline of work to maintain
the aims of civilization and progress. With everyone
working, whether in the intellectual field or in manual
activity, for Campanella, the result attained in the
work is complete human equality and a wholesale
solution of the great problems of social life without
the privileged states that intellectuals might claim at
the expense of those condemned to be tied down to
merely manual labor.

The Protestant Reformation contributed new ele-
ments to the theory of work. Without giving up the
medieval idea of work as a remedy for sin (remedium
), Luther sketched the new concept of work as
a service to God. God accomplishes everything through
us; using us as a means, he attends to the most humble
tasks, such as milking the cow and the kid, and all such
labors are without exception pleasing to the Lord. The


lowliest housemaid's servile work has its religious
value generally enhanced through the inspiration with
which it is imbued. “For God is present in such matters
and his Spirit is in the work” (Opera exegetica latina,
ed. Elsperger, Erlangen [1831], VII, 208f., 213f.).
Finally, there is no occupation in the home or in the
field which is so humble that it fails to reveal our divine
calling, and which thus binds us to the Lord. The
occupation becomes a religious profession, and the
German word Beruf thus acquired the distinctive
meaning of both “a calling” and “service to God.”

However, it is with Calvin that the definitive reli-
gious implications of Protestantism stand out in high
relief. In his Institutio christiana (1534-36), we find
the Augustinian idea of predestination affirmed and
developed. Predestined as man is, he must confront
God alone, and then ask himself to verify whether he
is one of the elect or damned, as Max Weber puts it.
The answer to such a question no other man can give
him, nor can society provide an answer; only his con-
science can. Assuming that he is cognizant of being
one of the elect rather than one of the condemned,
the individual will feel and act like one of the elect,
and show his gratitude by increasing the production
of goods. Conduct for the greater glory of God will
be rewarded by success, since success is the conse-
quence of election and grace. Goods will be multiplied
by the hands of the elect; these goods are not to be
accumulated or to be hoarded but on the contrary they
are to be channeled into the cycle of production, capi-
tal aimed at infinite production in praise of God. Capi-
talism is stimulated by arousing a psychological moti-
vation, which in its turn finds a basis in religious dogma.

We now come to the modern era, and in particular
to the contributions to the theme of work made by
the philosophers concerned with modern civilization.
There are two lines which will be pursued here: the
first concerns the relationship between work and sci-
ence due to technology; the second regards the discus-
sion of whether a society based on work as an expres-
sion of the creative spirit of man truly suffices to satisfy
man's deeper needs, or whether, on the contrary, it
reveals itself to be spiritually deficient. Obviously in
such arguments we are confronting a problematic situ-
ation constituting the most challenging question of
contemporary speculative thought; in short, it comes
to seeking the very reasons for living.

As to the first line of inquiry, there is no doubt that
its source is in the Renaissance investigations of man's
powers. Not only do his powers as they have been
historically manifested form the subject of Renaissance
thought, but there is much more persistent concern
with the issues and limits of the new sciences and “arts”
other than those previously known as the trivium and
quadrivium. Renaissance philosophy is completely at
harmony with science, and becomes the epistemology
and methodology of the arts which occupy a prominent
place in men's minds and demand their attention. It
is not conceptually abstract knowledge but the quite
different concrete kind of knowledge which is applied
to nature and transforms it for the human ends of utility
and enjoyment. The task of philosophy continues in
the sense that it secures a methodological framework
for the progress of science guaranteeing more flexible
principles than were traditional, as well as adequate
verification in experience. In any case, philosophy still
depends on value judgments in aesthetics, ethics, and
religion, that go beyond the scope of the sciences.
Work emerges in science and technology as the means
for the advancement of man committed to a toil that
is ever renewed and yet never sufficient.

Francis Bacon is certainly the thinker to whom we
owe much of the new perspective, for he is precisely
the theorist of science with respect to its pragmatic
ends. He attempted the construction of the kingdom
of man (regnum hominis) by man's dominion over
nature, through precise means and instruments which
the individual arts, opportunely cultivated, could pro-
vide. Men ought to know that in the theater of life
only God and the angels can properly be spectators
(De dignitate et augmentis scientiarum, VIII, 1). A true
son of the Renaissance, Bacon insists on considering
the much proclaimed dignity of man to reside in the
functional role of science. Intelligence and will con-
verge in pragmatic knowledge.

On this point it is fitting to refer again to Leonardo
to testify that for him also philosophy ends in science
understood as technology. The result is the confirmed
role of the machine to which the relief of man's weary
labor is entrusted.

Instrumental or mechanical science is the most noble and
most useful above all the others; it is a conscious thing by
means of which living bodies in motion perform their oper-

(Fumagalli, pp. 57-58).

On this score Galileo says exactly the same thing,
and even insists on such ideas in the wide context of
experimental thought. Experiments not only repeat the
operations of nature but, by duly interrogating her, can
reveal her secrets.

Moreover, to mark the characteristic feature of the
new conception of science there is the manual activity
that accompanies the role of science as a “hunter,”
its “venatorial” function, to use a term dear to the
language of Bacon's day. Things unveil their secrets
through some means or instrument, that is to say,
technologically. But we are reminded that it is the hand
which controls the instrument, the hand which in its


turn is guided by man looking to the mind and will
to direct him. The “mechanical arts” acquire a new
meaning and vigor, a new prestige from the positive
results of the sciences, even directly from the discovery
of a new world through machines or the mechanical
approach to the world. Seen through the work en-
trusted to science and technology, the world looks like
an enormous machine (machina mundi) with God the
chief engineer and man the artisan who makes the
machine and replaces its parts.

Contemplation plays a very small part in such views
of natural science, and is not a vocational substitute
for productive knowledge. With the Baconian and
Leonardian innovations the legacy of the Renaissance
flows into the Enlightenment and later thought.

We now understand the importance which the idea
of work has acquired in political thinking with regard
to the very concept of the State as well as to the
purposes of life geared to the idea of progress. “Every-
one,” says J. G. Fichte, “should make his own living
by work” (Grundlage des Naturrechts, sec. 16). It fol-
lows that anyone who will not work for his own liveli-
hood in an orderly civil society will not be bound to
respect the property of others so that in the end civil
society will not even be a stepmother to him.

Hegel descends from his general idea of spiritual
activity to that of work, and regards work as coming
especially under the system of necessity. It is in order
to meet this necessity that man works and creates
wealth. Were it not for work no need would ever be
satisfied; work is the absolute law of life, and accom-
panies life from its primitive forms to its complex
structure. Hegel describes this process in great detail
(Enzyklop. der philos. Wissenschaften [1817], para.

From Hegel, Karl Marx derives his view of change
as historical becoming, but treats all history as pro-
ceeding on an economic basis dependent on the pro-
ductivity of labor. Moreover, Marx does not treat his-
tory merely as interpretation, or hermeneutics, but
philosophically insists on viewing history as in need
of being redirected through human effort along eco-
nomic lines. The Hegelian “Idea” is inadequate to
perform the tasks of shaping man's life in society,
which has to be understood in economic terms by
class-struggle, according to a law internal to history,
a law which gives the struggle direction and its neces-
sary development.

To the young Marx this view appeared to be decisive,
but the later system which he worked out is no less
important; it reflected all human values and goods
themselves in the economic mode of production. In
Marx's Das Kapital (III) labor determines value, and
gives all goods their value. The individual who works
acquires a dignity which is reflected in the esteem
supported by professional and class spirit and in the
morality belonging to the profession or class. Conse-
quently, though one may talk about the physiology of
labor, it must not be forgotten that there is also a
wholly pathological condition which Marx stressed and
from which he derived the class struggle, the necessity
of an ultimate social revolution and to provide a so-
cialistic order, a classless society immune from the
assumptions of private property and the weight of

We have indicated a whole line of speculative
thought devoted to the prestige of labor as a human
value in civilized society and life itself. Many other
thinkers could be named from Voltaire to David Hume,
from Benjamin Franklin to Adam Smith, from Auguste
Comte to Giuseppe Mazzini. However, we cannot hide
the fact that there is a very different tendency to deny
value to work as pictured above, or at least a tendency
exists to pick on certain internal difficulties. We refer
chiefly to J. J. Rousseau's Discours sur les sciences et
les arts
(1749), according to which the technological
development of civilization in the arts is an absolute
evil because it removes man from the simplicity of life
in the state of nature. However, it is in the very theo-
ries that attribute a human and social value to work
that the most discouraging antinomies occur. To give
a prime example, Hegel maintains that in the process
of work the very division of labor removes the worker
from the complex vision of the organic whole, in short,
from the entire global process, and thus produces
alienation. This conception explains the reason for so
many points of view, the theme of alienation being
taken up and developed insistently by the Hegelian
left, from Marx to L. A. Feuerbach, D. F. Strauss, B.
Bauer, and A. Ruge. Alienated labor, viewed as the
oppression of the worker in the immense mechanism
of industry completely owned and controlled by capi-
tal, revives the theme of social reform, of the vindica-
tion of the worker, of subversion, and of revolution
as the direct remedy.

However, it is from the very center of contemporary
speculative thought that we find arising a limited view
if not the denial of work as a life value. Max Scheler
illustrates this negative view. He deems man in the
modern world to be preoccupied with a frenzied fa-
naticism for work and earning money. Utility rather
than the holy has become the supreme value, as Scheler
likes to put it in his criticisms. And every philosophical
system that exalts the sacred in a hierarchy of values
is obviously in accord with Scheler and esteems his
essay on “Work and Ethics” (“Arbeit und Ethik,”
Schriften zur Soziologie und Weltanschauungslehre,
Leipzig [1924], III, 2).


We must also not forget in this vein some of the
doctrines that come from chairs of sociology and adopt
a critical attitude towards a whole society which for-
gets man and gives itself up entirely to the production
and consumption of goods. One-dimensional man is
an alienated man, H. Marcuse affirms. Man continues
to be just as alienated as he is when he is subjected
to the hard law of work.

But it is in Martin Heidegger's system that we find
the most radical delineation of the denial that work
is the law of life. By questioning himself inwardly man
will find structures of thought that will refer to the
historical world, to the order of time, that is to say,
to man's temporal finitude. So we read in Sein und
(Being and Time, 1927), in the author's best pages,
as he pursues the deepest recesses of the nature of
Being. In his Brief über den Humanismus (Letter on
1949), it is Being which dominates, and
man can only be on the watch against relinquishing
to Being his home and his country.

Thus the rapidly changing diagnosis of work in our
times is measured through the polar views of work as
the law of life and work scanned against Being. The
problem remains whether there is a third way aside
from the two lines traced above, a way that would
save values in our world and in history, apart from
rubbish and beyond the labor that exhausts life.


For the ancient world, see: R. Mondolfo, La comprensione
del soggetto humano nell'antichità classica
(Florence, 1958),
pp. 574ff. For Leonardo da Vinci, see: G. Fumagalli, ed.,
Leonardo (Florence, 1952). For the Renaissance contributions
of Bacon and their later history: B. Farrington, Francis
Bacon: Philosopher of Industrial Science
(New York, 1949).
With respect to the spirit of the Reformation and capitalism,
see: E. Troeltsch, Die sozialen Lehren der christlichen
Kirchen und Gruppen
(Tübingen, 1912); trans. O. Wyon as
The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, 2 vols.
(London and New York, 1931). M. Weber, The Protestant
Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,
trans. Talcott Parsons
(New York, 1930).

General works: H. Arvon, La philosophie du travail (Paris,
1961). Henri Bartoli, Science économique et travail (Paris,
1957). F. Battaglia, Filosofia del lavoro (Bologna, 1951).
M. D. Chenu, Pour une théologie du travail (Paris, 1955); trans.
as Theology of Work (Chicago, 1966). Georges Friedmann,
Où va le travail humain? (Paris, 1951). R. Kwant, Philosophy
of Labor
(Pittsburgh, 1960). Jean Lacroix, Personne et amour
(Paris, 1955). Emmanuel Mounier, La petite peur du XXe
(Paris, 1948). Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civili-
(New York, 1934). P.-M. Schuhl, Machinisme et philos-
(Paris, 1969). J. Todoli, Filosofía del trabajo (Madrid
1954). H. Weinstock, Arbeit und Bildung (Heidelberg, 1954).
S. Wyszinski, Lo spirito del lavoro humano (Brescia, 1964).
Various authors, article “Arbeit,” Sowietssystem und demo-
kratische Gesellschaft
(Friburg, Basel, Vienna, 1964), cols.


[See also Alienation; Baconianism; Culture; Pragmatism;
8 dv4-19 dv4-20 dv4-21">Renaissance; Socialism; Technology.]