The Virtue of Toil

Titian - myth of Sisyphus


“Business or toil is merely utilitarian. It is necessary, but does not enrich or ennoble a human life.”


A friend recently sent me this quote and it sparked an interesting email exchange as we each set ideological camps on varying sides of the discussion.

My good friend Greg espouses the quote as motivation to seek balance and purpose outside of work.  In that way, he treats the quote as a liberating statement.  Work is work, as noble a pursuit as it may be, and nothing more.  Work is not your purpose so be free to seek your life’s fulfillment elsewhere.

I consider this a fair interpretation, especially if you approach the quote with a positive state of mind.  Frankly, Greg’s interpretation has grown on me as I’ve considered it, but my initial interpretation focused on a potential dark side of Aistotle’s maxim.

I see the quote as more of a limiting factor.  Granted work is not our sole purpose in life, but as we dedicate so much of our daily selves to it, we should expect to enrich ourselves by it…. “find a job you love and never work a day for the rest of your life” is kind of the vision to which I aspire.  Taking the quote at face value seems to remove even the potential for finding that perfect job…. it stifles the search even before it can begin.

And so with these competing and compelling mindsets, we decided to write a sort of point, counterpoint article.  Explore with us our interpretations and then feel free to share yours on the comment section below.

I’ll allow Greg the honor of leading off.


I think the way one approaches this piece of wisdom depends on where you personally are in the great big bell curve I would apply to the population of workers as a whole.  Are you somewhere in the crowded middle, trying to achieve a balance between work and other pursuits?  Or are you closer to one of the fringes?  Are you criminally unmotivated and without ambition or obsessively chained to your workplace leaving time for little else?

Personally, I believe my love of work, both for its material rewards and for its own sake to be somewhere in the vast middle.  I’m dependable, like to exceed expectations and never want to make a mistake without learning from it and never letting it repeat.  Yet, when I believe my obligations for the day are done, that I’ve reasonably fulfilled my side of the contract I have with my employer, there are many things I’d prefer to be doing other than being chained to a desk.  I work a 40 hour work week and don’t pursue overtime unless the company needs me for a time-sensitive deadline push.  However, my consistency, ability to perform and willingness to take on a challenge or promotion have taken me far.  I have no complaints and neither does my employer.

 So, given that, in the continuum of possible devotion to work, most people will fall somewhere in the middle, what do we say about those on the fringe, those outliers who defy expectations of the norm?

 Little time needs to be spent on the chronic loafers and hangers on in our society.  They are legion and are generally, and I think properly, derided by those who carry the load and support them.  I am of the opinion that too many look at our social safety net and see a free lunch, choosing to put all the effort they may have put into a productive pursuit instead into hijacking the system for their own gain.  I think we can all agree that this is deplorable behavior.

 More interesting to me and, I think, to Aristotle in the case of this quote, are those on the other side of the curve whose devotion to work goes far beyond the point of diminishing returns.  What drives someone to put in a sixty, seventy or even eighty hour work week… consistently?  To my way of thinking, there are too many out there who might say in response, “Well, why wouldn’t I?”

 Again, I think the way you see such a desire depends on the prism through which you look.  But, I can’t imagine what amount of personal gain could entice me to give this amount of toil to an employer.  I suppose, once one’s basic financial needs are met, each individual must determine their own comfort level with trading the additional times of their life to their employer.  Once more, this is highly personalized, but past a certain point, I believe one goes beyond the point of providing ever more income for themselves and their family and moves into the realm of missing out on the richness and meaning that life has to offer.

 This is the caution that Aristotle provides us here.  Understand that the company that employs you is a heartless entity.  It does not “love” you.  It will not take care of you when you are sick.  If it ever deems that it isn’t getting the full measure of what it expects from you, it will toss you aside like so much refuse.  If it determines that the shareholders will react well to your job being eliminated, you won’t be asked your opinion. 

 That is the way things work and also the way they should work.  Commerce is not about “fair.”  It is about the bottom line and survival of the fittest.  Through this system, wealth is produced that benefits us both as individuals and as a collective.  But, the rising and falling of financial empires seldom impact the far more important matters of the soul.

 So, once we understand this particular “law of the jungle,” it seems a good idea to sometimes step back and realize that commerce and pure and simple toil just for its own sake must be balanced with many far more enriching pursuits.  Whether it be listening to a child in their first recital, helping a friend in need, doing something creative that speaks to other people’s hearts or even the simple act of being present for your family, I think we all could use a dose of what I see as a philosopher’s timeless wisdom.

 Where you decide to set the balance is up to you.


My Take:

In general, I view life as a mosaic and balance a myth.  Our lives are made up of snapshots, sometimes random moments in time compiled as a reflection of our time and effort.  The more individual pictures of beauty, the more prolific the entire body of work.  By allowing any segment of our lives a pass, we jeopardize the true potential of our being.

Now that is a general construct, but it is my platform.  When I first read the quote at hand, this was my first emailed response:

Hmm, that is a vaguely familiar quote but I find it pretty sad… almost an “opiate for the masses” kind of quote… some Communisitic overtones there… you can have your bass boats and religion and silly games but your ass is mine during the work week and since life amounts to little more than work you have no choice but to be ok with this arrangement.  I think life and work have more to offer than that.  I’m not saying that I have it figured out yet, but I believe there’s more to it…

Unlike Greg finding a source of freedom, I found a tone of captivity.  An interesting contrast derived only from 18 words.  I think of employment in three ways. There are J-O-B’s, Careers, and Our Life’s Work.  As we grow and evolve we should aspire to move up in this pecking order, understanding all the while that each next step is increasingly elusive.  Some folks never believe they achieve their “Life’s Work”, and others not until they engage a post-retirement 2nd career, while still others live and breathe it every day.

Not by a long shot do I believe I have it figured out, but I aspire to progress along this continuum and (most days) refuse to allow complete comfort with the status quo.  Consider this site as an example, surely my daily routine would be easier if I didn’t feed this twice weekly deadline, but if this endeavor taps a creativity or passion that one day provides for my household then I will have taken a mighty step up the line.  Clearly, there is no guarantee, but there is aspiration backed by action and in that there is virtue.

…And perhaps a few pretty pictures along the way for my collection.

Thanks to my dear friend Greg.  We (mostly) enjoy sparring via email and it was fun to do so in a more public and lasting forum.  I hope you’ll indulge us with your comments and contributions.

Photo By: petrus.agricola