The Laboured Self: Work and Vocation

Aristotle argued that the purpose of the State is to secure the moral and intellectual life of its citizens. He believed that it is only in the State that we can live the good life. If we have no need for the State we are either gods or beasts. Aristotle argued that the State exists for the well-being of its citizens. Of course, we need to define what well-being means and whose well-being is being served. In defending slavery, Aristotle argues, “from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” He believes that “ some men are by nature free and others slaves.” Aristotle viewed slavery as bother “expedient and right.” Many moderns get clearly upset by Aristotle’s formulations, yet if we think about it, slavery is still with us. What differs in our time is that slavery is masked as and presented as something good for us. Some defend Aristotle by saying that the essence of his political thought can be understood as saying that human beings differ in their capacities and are therefore fitted for different positions. Isn’t this what our societies and communities are like? We have different capabilities and perform different tasks. It is not as if we all sell stocks, open internet companies and place tiny ads in the all the major newspapers.

            Aristotle’s political economy can be easily recognized in our time. The clerk working at the grocery store does not look fulfilled stocking shelves in the family planning isle. If Aristotle is right, some can find their vocation in displaying goods that others have placed for sale.

            Can a different type of economy be envisioned, such that the law of the house (the nosmos of the oikos) and its economy can be guided by a different work ethic? This reading would agree that we are enslaved by many things, people and objects. We are enslaved or allow ourselves to be enslaved to our passions, our appetites, our addictions and desires. To be free of these things is to live a life of reason with compassion at its base. Here compassion means doing what needs to be done, rather than simply being nice. To live in such a way would mean to come to a new understanding of wealth, worth and value.

             Aristotle recognized that money had no natural worth. He saw money in terms of exchange. It had no natural value like cows, sheep, horses, fruit, trees or honey. As such, money is excremental. It is, to put it bluntly, the shit we have been reduced to work for. The Stoics argued that to be lead by reason is to live in the four forms of the honorable. These are justice, courage, order and knowledge. Again, popular culture seems to emphasis the four forms of the shameful, namely, the unjust, the cowardly, the disorderly and the senseless. It is clear from this vantage point that globalization has taken on the form of the shameful, with pathetic police patrolling the outer perimeter of the corporate nation. The Stoics taught that we could cultivate our passionate desires into judgments that can become active and affirmative virtues.

            We can associate work with fatigue and drudgery. The best image that comes to mind is mudding a drywall panel and then sanding it. Moving a king size bed up two flights of steps into a room that is too small for the bed is a waste of time. Work can waste one’s best time. Work can tax the body. It strains muscles and scrapes nerves. Work is a stress. Work has often been opposed to leisure. Here etymology provides important insights. The Greek words schole from which the word school is derived means leisure. Ascholia, the negative of schole means work. Work is therefore the negation of leisure. The ancient Greeks regarded leisure as a thing to be pursued for its own sake.

            To enter into an economy is to spin within its circle of exchange, debt and profit. The trick is to learn how not to spin our wheels. Economy is the work of many hands. We work because things are not simply handed to us. We work to become prosperous and to keep poverty at bay. In pursuit of this goal, we are often stretched thin balancing on the span that joins desire, cunning, skill and industry together. It is no wonder that the spider is the figure that contains these traits. The  spider is also the figure of death. We can work ourselves to death in pursuit of a completion that never arrives.

            The industry of thread and textile has spun the economy into a rapid revolution. It allowed for the cocooning of profit that made many wealthy and many more into generations of replaceable cogs stretched to the limit on the machines they served.

            The snare of economy is that we must spend to consume. This is the servitude imposed on us. We are yoked to the economic machine and resemble animals that are driven from one project to another. Hunting analogies make their way into the world of business. The CEO went for the jugular in the boardroom. His stock manipulations show killer instinct. The market is either a bear or a bull. Of course, it is possible to rise above the servitude imposed on us by banks and financial institutions. We must first picture ourselves as other than a tamed and domesticated animal. Our language has far to go before we can begin to think differently.

            For example, the word team first meant a set of draft animals yoked together. Throughout our school and working life, we are taught the “value” of teamwork. We should not let our “team down.” Teamwork was first recorder in 1828 when the industrial factory was beginning to expand. Teams need to be managed. The Old French word manege means to control a horse. The meaning of manage retains its original force. To be managed means to be led by another into a direction one does not wish to go. Economy controls our behavior. Ironically, to be shifty means to be able to manage oneself. This is a trait that the economy and those who manage its inner workings cannot tolerate.

            Can there be a retreat or drawing back from the present state of affairs. What kind of tract will be allowed to flourish or will there be a multiplication of contracts; things that constrict what may and may not be done? If culture and economy arose out of agricultural roots, its legacy is still with us. Agros is Greek for field. Economy concerns itself with fields and forces that compete for tracts or stretches of land, air and water. In our society of surveillance, we are under constant supervision by forces who wear visors to shade their eyes.  This visor effect affects the way we deal with others. Economy wants to make a deal, forgetting that persons cannot be dealt. Can we envisage or look into the face those fallen into the morass, the wet swampy tract of ground. The market wants to ignore the poor and destitute. Only the few can rise to the penthouse plateau. We should not be fooled by the Maple Leaf commercial that declares they are our butcher shop. Like Vince the sham wow telemarketer, the corporation speaks only for the commodity.

            The work that I am describing here is the vocation, the one thing you were meant to do. This work would be your passion. The vocation or what you are called to do is your unique here. Here is where you stand. Here is where you make a stand against all those things that prevent you from your calling. The insights of Joan Chittisten are worthwhile here. She argues, “work is not to enable me to get ahead; the purpose of work is to enable me to get more human and to make my world more just” 503 (The Rule: A Book of Wisdom). With the work that is our vocation we participate in the “co-creation of the world” 503. The work that is our vocation would replace the current capitalist version that is based on brutal competition and unequal distribution of wealth. To find our vocation is to be called by another economy not based on dollars, but on a new sense of meaning. Chittisten makes an important distinction between purpose and meaning. She writes, “ It is easy to have a purpose. To write seven letters today, to wax the floor…to complete this degree…Meaning…depends on my asking myself who will care and who will profit and who will be touched and who will be forgotten and hurt or affected by my doing those things” 507. It is clear that everything we either do advances or obstructs the unfolding of what we are called to do. For popular culture, the greatest thing you can do for yourself is to buy the right mascara, the perfect tool and to protect yourself from wetness. To find one’s vocation is to be finally refreshed and invigorated by what we do.


About Mark Zlomislic

Philosopher. Writer. Artist. My Studio/Gallery Inscape Fine Art is located in Cambridge, Ontario. Viewing by Appointment Only. Please email:
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