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The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

… they seem to have no desire to undertake the kind of work which makes any claim to leave a lasting legacy. They have the inner freedom to exercise their intelligence in the way that taxi drivers will practise their navigational skills: they will go wherever their client directs them to. … They have no ambition to become known to strangers or to record their insights for an unimpressed and ephemeral future. They are well-adjusted enough to have made their peace with oblivion. They have accepted with grace the paucity of opportunities for immortality in audit.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is less about work than it is about the extremes of specialisation in the modern economy. In ten loosely linked essays, de Botton follows the path of a tuna from the Indian Ocean to a plate in Bristol, the invention and manufacture of a snack biscuit, the launch of a Japanese television satellite, and the intricacies of a large accounting firm. Along the way de Botton casts light on facets of our economic lives that, owing to our own participation in the ever-finer subdivision of labor, we rarely have the opportunity to reflect upon. Accompanied by Richard Baker’s stark and often strangely beautiful photographs of warehouses, electric pylons, and office buildings, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is an equally insightful and exasperating tour of how the world functions.

I say exasperating because the book is informed by a philosophy of work which is only briefly enunciated, and largely unexamined. De Botton draws a thread from Aristotle through Christian doctrine and the Enlightenment, and on to current self-help nostrums expounded by career counselors; it represents a distorted view of work and why we do it.

In the fourth century BC, Aristotle clarified the attitude that was to last more than two millennia when he referred to a structural incompatibility between satisfaction and a paid position. For the Greek philosopher, financial need placed one on a par with slaves and animals.
Early Christianity appended to Aristotle’s notion the still darker doctrine that the miseries of work were an appropriate and immovable means of expiating the sins of Adam.

This view of work was challenged in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, particularly by Diderot and d’Alembert in their Encylodédie, “a paean to the nobility of labour” which sought to raise the “mechanical” arts to the level of the “liberal” arts. “[T]he European bourgeoisie took the momentous step of co-opting on behalf of both marriage and work the pleasures hitherto pessimistically–or perhaps realistically–confined, by aristocrats, to the subsidiary realms of the love affai and the hobby.”

De Botton’s approach is informed by this conflict between the Aristotelian and the bourgeois, with his sympathies apparently with the aristocratic position. He expects to find his subjects subscribing to the bourgeois expectations of deriving meaning from their work, which leads him to be disdainful of the tightly proscribed spheres in which they find their purpose. How, he wonders, can ultimate meaning be found in the design of cookie advertisements, the minutia of financial audits, and the clockwork science of logistics? The workaday world of contemporary capitalism demands such narrow specialisation that surely all meaning has been drained out of work; souls that find meaning within these narrow confines must be severely stunted in comparison to the Greek philosophers, medieval craftsmen, and gentleman hobbyists of yore.

This is a well-traveled path: I think in particular of Marx on alienation (especially in the Grundrisse), Weber’s “iron cage” of capitalism and bureaucracy, and Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, as well as the early (pre-Lockean) conservative critique of capitalism. But it is also a very narrow and elite notion of where work fits into the full human life. In tracing that path from Aristotle to self-actualization through work–two sides of the same coin, I would argue–de Botton ignores the experience of the vast majority of men and women who have had to work to survive, and the strategies they have found to balance necessity and purpose. The amount of meaning we can, do, and should derive from our work is an unsettled question.

When I examine my own life, I find that the things from which I get the most pleasure (and sorrow)–parenting, reading, writing–are decidedly non-remunerative; indeed, the paid work that I do is an attempt to fund those other activities. The hours I spend working for pay are not devoid of meaning, though; I’ve been lucky to find work that I often find enjoyable and challenging, even if it is not incredibly fulfilling. I fully expect none of the software projects I’ve been part of to outlive me, much less become monuments for the ages. This perspective does not preclude pride in a job well done, or even passionate opinions about how a project should be implemented. A pleasure that I find in my work, and which I share with de Botton’s accountants, rocket engineers, and biscuit bakers, is to see my efforts change the world, even in a very tiny way: we are, after all, homo faber, the makers of our own environment, and even in the current stage of capitalism we can face down alienation by seizing control of our proscribed spheres.

De Botton seems unwilling, in his focus on the extremes of the division of labor, to grant his subjects the dignity they’ve fashioned for themselves. Ultimate meaning may not be derived from their work, and due to the book’s focus we get few glimpses of the sphere where meaning is actually found in their lives; but surely some value is to be found in the enthusiasm these people show for their work.

This is not to say that The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is entirely condescending, nor that the philosophy underpinning it taints the entire book. This is an insightful book as well, after all, and there is much to learn and ponder in it. The chapter on logistics, and the photo essay following a tuna from its brutal death to consumption by a boy who “hates tuna, but not as much as he hates salmon,” illuminates the processes that alienate us from the sources of all the commodities in ourr lives. The vignettes that bookend the chapter on accountancy could be descriptions of Edward Hopper paintings, with their unbearable longing and loneliness.

De Botton also has some interesting things to say about the sublimation of desire as a necessary function of the modern workplace:

Superficially, the [sexual harassment] code seems wholly and admirably concerned with championing the rights of innocent parties. There may, however, be a more cynical and less altruistic aspect to this unsparing paragraph, for what is really being protected is perhaps not a particular individual afflicted by indecent attention so much as the corporation itself. The feelings elicited by Katie’s shorts are incendiary because they threaten to subvert the firm’s entire rationale. They risk bringing to light an awkward truth: how much more interesting we might find it to have sex than to work.

As an examination of the invisible girders, both physical and ideological, that support the modern economy, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is insightful and intriguing. I’ve become increasingly conscious of the trucks and wires that keep my grocery store stocked and my lights burning, and curious about the barges on the Mississippi since reading The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. But as an exploration of how we make sense of the world we’ve made, and how we negotiate work’s meaning in our lives, de Botton brings a bit too much baggage on the journey.

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