Peter Jones

Ancient & modern | 07 August 2010

So we are all going to have to work longer, and everyone is thrilled? The ancients would have thought us barking.

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The 7th century bc Greek farmer-poet Hesiod laid down the marker when he lamented that he lived in the age of iron, when men ‘will never cease from toil and misery by day and night’. The reason is that, in the pre-industrial ancient world, there were, effectively, no such things as ‘jobs’. Virtually everyone, bar the rich, lived off the soil. So ‘work’ was not a matter of choice. If you did not work, you died, though an epitaph highlighted the benefits: sweet repose, no fear of starvation, permanent, rent-free accommodation — so never in debt! Popular morality rammed home the point. Aesop contrasted the ant who worked to prepare for the winter with the grasshopper who sang the summer away and paid the price.

Further, if you did work for a wage, you would be working for others. That implied you could not stand on your own two feet. You were dependent on someone else, i.e. no longer free. It was as if you were the lowest of the low — a slave. In other words, you were not regarded as a free man, freely and proudly selling your labour: you were in fact selling your person. Better to see yourself as a noble, hard-working, self-sufficient farmer — an image Romans keenly polished — than that.

A Roman word for ‘work’ makes the point with a terrible precision: negotium (cf. negotiate), from nego ‘I deny’ and otium ‘leisure’. Far from being dignified or positive, work was a denial of everything man longed for — leisure to enjoy himself as he chose. That was a privilege reserved only for the wealthy, the most enviable of all consequences of being rich. The Greek for leisure is scholê, origin of our ‘school’ and ‘scholarship’. Only the well-healed could afford the time off to indulge in such luxuries. By the same token, the man who did not have to work but put himself out on behalf of the community was greatly to be praised. Celebrations of the Great and Good regularly highlighted their industria and diligentia — a pleasing paradox.

‘The dignity of labour’: dancing to someone else’s tune. What slave-driver thought up that con-trick?