The Art Of Work
( Originally Published 1903 )
The most important of all arts is the art of work; for if one could thoroughly understand this art, all other knowledge - and conduct would be infinitely simplified. Few people, however, really know how to work, and even in an age when oftener perhaps than ever before we hear of" work" and "workers" one can-not observe that the art of work makes much positive progress. On the contrary, the general inclination seems to be to work as little as possible, or to work for a short time in order to pass the remainder of one's life in rest.
Work and rest—are they then aims in life which are positively contradictory ? This must be our first inquiry; for while every one is ready with praise of work, pleasure in work does not always come with the praising. So long as the disinclination to work is so common an evil, indeed almost a disease of modern civilization, so long as every one as soon as possible endeavors to escape from the work which he thus theoretically praises, there is absolutely no hope for any bettering of our social condition. Indeed, if work and rest were contradictories, our social conditions would be wholly beyond redemption.
For every human heart longs for rest. The humblest and least intellectual know the need of it, and in its highest moods, the soul seeks relief from constant strain. Indeed, the imagination has found no better name for a future and happier existence than a state of eternal rest. If work, then, is necessary, and rest is the cessation of work, then the saying —"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread"—is indeed a bitter curse and this earth is a vale of tears." In every generation there are but few who can on such terms be said to lead a worthy or a human life; and even these can do so only by dooming other human beings to the curse of work and by holding these others fast bound in its slavery. lt was from this point of view that the ancient authors pictured the hopeless slavery of the many as the condition under which the few might become free citizens of a civilized State; and even in the nineteenth century, a considerable part of the population of one great nation, with Christian preachers, Bible in hand, directing them, maintained on the field of battle the proposition that one race should be from generation to generation condemned to be the slave of another. Culture, it is said, grows only under conditions of wealth, and wealth only through accumulation of capital, and capital only through accumulation of the work of those who are not justly paid; that is to say, through injustice.
Such are the conceptions of society which at once confront us as we approach our sub
ject. The following pages are not, however, to be devoted to any profound consideration either of the relative or of the absolute truth of these conceptions. I suggest, at this point, only the obvious truth, that if, not some people, but all, would work and work faithfully, the "Social Question," as it is called, would be forthwith solved; and I may add, that by no other means whatever is it likely to be solved. Faithful work, however, is not to be brought about by compulsion. Even if the physical means of universal compulsion were present, no fruitful work would come of it. It is the desire for work which must be kindled in man; and this brings us back again to consider the principles which may be applied to this desire.
The desire for work, we must, first of all, admit, cannot be attained by instruction; or even—as our daily experience sadly testifies—by mere example. It must be reached by reflection and experience; and experience thus reflected on will reveal to any serious inquirer the following fads. Rest, such as is desired, is not to be found in complete inafivity of mind or body, or in as little activity as possible. On the contrary, it is to be found only in well-adapted and well-ordered activity of both body and mind. The whole nature of man is created for activity, and Nature revenges herself bitterly on him who would rashly defy this law. Man is indeed driven out of the paradise of absolute rest, and God gives him the command to work, but with tie work comes the consolation that work is essential to happiness.
True rest, therefore, issues from work. Intellectual rest occurs through the perception of fruitful progress in one's work, and through the solving of one's problems. Physical rest is found in those natural intermissions which are given by daily sleep and daily food, and the essential and restful pause of Sunday. Such a condition of continuous and wholesome activity, interrupted only by these natural pauses, is the happiest condition on earth, and no man should wish for himself any other outward happiness. In-deed, we may go a step farther and add that it does not very much matter what the nature of this activity may be. Genuine activity, which is not mere sport, has the property of becoming interesting as soon as a man becomes seriously absorbed in it. It is not the kind of activity which ensures happiness to us; it is the joy of action and attainment.
The greatest unhappiness which one can experience is to .have a life to live without a work to do, and to come to the end of life without its fruit of accomplished work.
It is, therefore, wholly justifiable to speak of the "right to work." Indeed, it is the most primitive of all human rights. The unemployed are, we must admit, the most unfortunate of people. There are, however, quite as many of these, and perhaps more of them, in what we call the better classes than among what we call the working classes. The latter are driven to work by necessity, while the former, through their mistaken ways of education, their prejudices, and the imperious custom which in certain classes forbids genuine work, find: themselves al-most absolutely and by heredity condemned to this great unhappiness. Each year we see them turning their steps with spiritual weariness and ennui to the Swiss mountains and health-resorts, from which in vain they anticipate refreshment. Once, the summer was enough to give them at least a temporary restoration from their disease of idleness. Now, they have to add the winter also, and soon the fair valleys which they have converted into hospitals will be open all the year to a restless throng, ever seeking rest and never finding it, because it does not seek rest in work. "Six days shalt thou labor," not less and not more,—with this prescription most of the nervous diseases of our time would be healed, except so far as they are an inherited curse from idle ancestors. With this prescription most of the physicians in sanitariums and insane asylums would lose their practice. Life is not given to man to enjoy, but, so far as may be, to use effectively. One who does not recognize this has already lost his spiritual health. Indeed, it is not possible for him to retain even his physical health as he might under conditions of natural activity and reasonable ways of living. The days of our age are threescore years and ten, and some are so strong that they come to fourscore years; yet though there be labor and sorrow in these years of work, still they have been precious: thus we read the ancient saying. Perhaps, indeed, this was its original meaning.
We do well, however, to add at once one limitation. Not all work is of equal value, and there is spurious work which is directed to fictitious ends, and work which is itself fictitious in its form. Much, for instance, of the sewing and embroidering done by cultivated women, much of the parading of soldiers, much of what is called art, like the use-less drumming on the piano by persons with no musical sense, a considerable part of the sportsman's life, and, not least, the time de-voted to keeping one's accounts,—all these are occupations of this fictitious nature. A sagacious and wide-awake person must look for something more satisfying than these. Here also is the reason why factory labor, and, in short, all mechanical occupation in which one does but a part of the work, gives meagre satisfaction, and why an artisan who completes his work, or an agricultural la-borer, is, as a rule, much more contented than factory operatives, among whom the social discontent of the modern world first uttered itself. The factory workman sees little of the outcome of his work. It is the machine that works, and he is a part of it. He contributes to the making of one little wheel, but he never makes a whole clock, which might be to him his work of art and an achievement worthy of a man. Mechanical work like this fails to satisfy because it offends that natural consciousness of human worth which the humblest human being feels. On the other hand, the happiest workmen are those who can absolutely lose themselves in their work: the artist whose soul must be wholly occupied with his subject, if he hopes to grasp and reproduce it; the scholar who has no eye for anything beyond his special task. Indeed, the same thing is to be said of those people whom we call "one-idea-ed" and who have created their own little world within one narrow sphere. All these have at least the feeling—sometimes, no doubt, without adequate reason—that they are accomplishing real work for the world; a true, useful, necessary work, which is not mere play; and many such persons, by this continuous, strenuous, and sometimes even physically unhealthy activity, attain great old age, while idle and luxurious men and women of society, who are, perhaps, the least useful and least productive class of the modern world, must devote much of their time to the restoration of their health.
The first thing, then, for our modern world to acquire is the conviction and experience that well-directed work is the necessary and universal condition of physical and intellectual health, and for this reason is the way to happiness. From this it necessarily follows that the idle class is to be regarded, not as a superior and favored class, but as that which they are,—spiritually defective and diseased persons who have lost the right principle for the guidance of their lives. As soon as this opinion becomes general and established, then, and only then, will the better e -a for the world begin. Until that time, the world will suffer from the excessive work of some, balancing the insufficient work of others, and it still remains a question which of these two types is in reality the more unfortunate.
Why is it then that these principles—to which the experience of thousands of years testifies, which any .one, whether he works or does not work, can test for himself, and which all the religions and philosophies preach—have not made their just impression? Why is it, for instance, that there are still thousands of women who defend with much passion many passages of Bible-teaching, and yet,with astonishing composure and in opposition to an express command of the Bible, take one day at the most, or perhaps none at all, for work, and six for refined idleness? All this proceeds in large degree from an irrational division and arrangement of work, which thus ill-arranged may indeed become a positive burden.
And this brings me back to the title of my Essay. Instruction in the art of work is possible only for him who is already convinced of my first proposition, that some work is necessary, and who would gladly give himself to work if it were not that, to his surprise, some hindrance confronts him. Yet, work, like every other art, has its ways of dexterity, by means of which one may greatly lessen its laboriousness; and not only the willingness to work, but even the capacity to work, is so difficult to acquire that many persons fail of it altogether.
The first step, then, toward the overcoming of a difficulty is in recognizing the difficulty. And what is the difficulty which chiefly hinders work? It is laziness. Every man is naturally lazy. It always costs one an effort to rise above one's customary condition of physical indolence. Moral laziness is, in short, our original sin. No one is naturally fond of work; there are only differences of natural and constitutional excitability. Even the most active-minded, if they yielded to their natural disposition, would amuse them-selves with other things rather than with work.
Love of work must, therefore, proceed from a motive which is stronger than the motive of physical idleness. And this motive is to be found in either of two ways. It may be a low motive, as, for instance, a passion like ambition orself-seeking,or,indeed,the sense of necessity, as in the preservation of life; or it may be a high motive, like the sense of duty or love, either for the work itself, or for the persons for whom the work is done. The nobler motive has this advantage, that it is the more permanent and is not dependent on the mere success of work. It does not lose its force either through the disheartening effect of failure, or the satisfying effect of success. Thus it happens that ambitious and self-seeking persons are often very diligent workers, but are seldom continuous and evenly progressive workers. They are al-most always content with that which looks like work, if it produce favorable conditions for themselves, although it does nothing of this for their neighbors. Much of our mercantile and industrial activity—and, alas! we must add, much of the work of scholars and artists—has this mark of unreality.
If, then, one were to give to a young man entering into life a word of preliminary counsel, it would be this: Do your work from a sense of duty, or for love of what you are doing, or for love of certain definite persons: attach yourself to some great interest of human life— to a national movement for political liberty; to the extension of the Christian religion; to the elevation of the neglected classes; to the abolition of drunkenness; to the restoration of permanent peace among the nations; to social reform; to ballot re-form; to prison reform;—there are plenty of such causes inviting us today;—and you will soon discover an impulse proceeding from these causes to yourself; and in addition you will have—what at first is a great help—companionship in your work. There should be no young person, man or woman, to-day among civilized nations who is not actively enlisted in some such army of progress. The only means of elevating and strengthening youth, and training it in perseverance, is this: that early in life one is freed from himself, and does not live for himself alone. Selfishness is always enfeebling, and from it proceeds no work that is strong.
I go on to remark that the most effective instrument to overcome one's laziness in work is the force of habit. Why should we use this mighty force in the service of our physical nature and not put it to use in our higher life as well? As a matter of fact, one can as well accustom himself to work or to self-control, to virtue, or truthfulness, or generosity, as he can to laziness, or self-indulgence, or extravagance, or exaggeration, or stinginess. And this is to be said further • —that no virtue is securely possessed until it has become a habit. Thus it is that as a man trains himself to the habit of work, the resistance of idleness constantly diminishes until at last work becomes a necessity. When this happens, one has become free from a very great part of the troubles of life.
There remain a few elementary rules with which one can the more easily find his way to this habit of work. And first among such rules is the knowing how to begin. The resolution to set oneself to work and to fix ones whole find on the matter in really the hardest part of working. When one has once taken his pen or his spade in hand, and has made the first stroke, his whole work has already grown easier. There are people who always find something especially hard about beginning their work, and who are always so busy with preparations, behind which lurks their laziness, that they never apply themselves to their work until they are compelled; and then the intellectual and even the physical excitement roused by the sense of insufficient time in which to do one's work injures the work itself. Other people wait for some special, inspiration, which in reality is much more likely to come by means of, or in the midst of, work itself. It is at least my experience that one's work, while one is doing it, takes on a different look from that which one anticipated, and that one does not reach so many fruitful and new ideas in his times of rest as he does during the work itself. From all this follows the rule, not to postpone work, or lightly to accept the pretext of physical or intellectual indisposition, but to dedicate a definite and well-considered amount of time every day to one's work. Then, if the "old man," as St. Paul calls him, is cunning enough to see that he must in any event do some work at a special time and cannot wholly give himself to rest, he may usually be trusted to resolve to do each day that which for each day is most necessary.
Again, there are a great many men, occupied in intellectual work of a productive kind, who waste their time and lose the happiness of work by devoting themselves to the arrangement of their work, or still oftener, to the introduction of their work. As a general rule, no artistic, or profound, or remote introduction to one's work is desirable. On the contrary, it usually anticipates unsuitably that which should come later. Even if this be doubted, the advice is at any rate good that one's introduction and one's title should be written last. Thus composed, they commonly cost no labor. One makes a beginning much more easily when he starts without any preamble, with that chapter of his work with which he is most familiar. For the same reason, when one reads a book, it is well to omit at the first reading the preface and often the first chapter. For my own part, I never read a preface until I have finished a book, and I discover, almost without exception, that when, after reading the book, I turn back for a look at the preface, j have lost nothing by omitting it. Of course, it must be said that there are books of which the preface is the best part. Of these, however, it may also be said that they are not worth reading at all.
And now I may safely take still another step and add, that, with the exception of an introduction to your work or its central treatment, it is best to begin with that part which is easiest to you. The chief thing is to begin. One may indeed advance less directly in his work by doing it unsystematically, but this loss is more than made good by his gain of time. Under this head also should be added two other rules. One is the law: "Take no . thought for the morrow : for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself." Man is endowed with the dangerous gift of imagination, and imagination has a much larger realm than that of one's capacity. Through one's imagination one sees his whole work lying before him as a task to be achieved all at once, while his capacity, on the other hand, can conquer its task only by degrees, and must constantly renew its strength. Do your work, then, as a rule, for each day. The morrow will come in its own time, and with it will come the strength for the morrow. The second rule is this: In intellectual work one should, indeed, deal with his material thoroughly; but he should not expert to exhaust his material, so that there shall be nothing further left to say or to read. No man's strength is in these days sufficient for absolute thoroughness. The best principle is to be completely master of a relatively small region of research; and to deal with the larger inquiries only in their essential features. He who tries to do too much usually accomplishes too little.
A further condition of good work is this,-that one should not persist in working when work has lost its freshness and pleasure. I have already said that one may be-gin without pleasure, for otherwise one, as a rule, would not begin at all. But one should stop as soon as his work itself brings fatigue. This does not mean that one should, for this reason, stop all work, but only that he should stop the special kind of work which is fatiguing him. Change in work is almost as refreshing as complete rest. Indeed, with-out this characteristic of human nature, we should hardly accomplish anything.
Again, in order to be able to do much work, one must economize one's force, and the practical means to this is by wasting no time on useless activities. I' can hardly make plain how much pleasure and power for work is lost by this form of wastefulness. First of all, among such ways of wasting time should be reckoned the excessive reading of news-papers; and to this should be added the excessive devotion to societies and meetings. An immense number of people, for instance, begin their morning, the best time they have for work, with the newspaper, and end their day quite as regularly in some club or meeting. They read each morning the whole of a paper, or perhaps of several papers, but it would be hard, as a rule, to say what intellectual acquisition remained the next day from such reading. This, at least, is certain, that after one has finished his paper, he experiences a certain disinclination for work, and snatches up another paper, if it happen to be within reach. Any one, therefore, who desires to do much work must carefully avoid all useless occupation of his mind, and, one may even add, of his body. He must reserve his powers for that which it is his business to do.
Finally, and for intellectual work,—with which throughout I am specially concerned, —there is one last and important help. It is the habit of reviewing, and revising, one's material. Almost every intellectual work is at first grasped only in its general outlines, and then, as one attacks it a second time, its finer aspects reveal themselves, and the appreciation of them becomes more complete. One's chief endeavor, then, should be, as a famous writer of our day remarks, not to achieve the constant productiveness which permits itself no pause, but rather to lose oneself in that which one would create. Hence issues the desire to reproduce one's ideal in visible forms. External industry, the effort to grasp one's material and promptly master it,—these are, indeed, obvious conditions of authorship, but they are of less value than that higher and spiritual industry which steadily works toward an unattained end."
The conception of work, thus excellently stated, meets a final difficulty which our discussion has already recognized. For work, under this view, maintains continuity, in spite of and even during one's necessary rest. Here is the ideal of the highest work. The mind works continuously, when it has once acquired the genuine industry which comes through devotion to one's task. In fact, it is curious to notice how often, after pauses in one's work not excessively prolonged, one's material has unconsciously advanced. Every-thing has grown spontaneously. Many difficulties seem suddenly disposed of, one's first supply of ideas is multiplied, assumes picturesqueness, and lends itself to expression; so that the renewal of one's work occurs with ease, as though it were merely the gathering of fruit which in the interval had ripened without effort of our own.
This, then, is a second reward of work, in addition to that which one commonly recognizes. Only he who works knows what en-
joyment and refreshment are. Rest which does not follow work is like eating without appetite. The best, the pleasantest, and the most rewarding—and also the cheapest—way of passing the time is to be busy with one's work. And as matters stand in the world to-day, it seems reasonable to anticipate that at the end of our century some social revolution will make those who are then at work the ruling class; just as at the be-ginning of the last century a social revolution gave to industrious citizens their victory over the idle nobility and the idle priests. Wherever any social class sinks into idleness, subsisting like those idlers of the past on in-comes created by the work of others, there such non-productive citizens again must yield. The ruling class of the future must be the working class.