However powerful our technology and complex our corporations, the most remarkable feature of the modern working world is in the end internal, consisting in an aspect of our mentalities: in the widely-held belief that our work should make us happy. All societies have had work at their centre; ours is the first to suggest that it could be something much more than a punishment. Ours is the first to imply that we should seek to work even in the absence of a financial imperative. Our choice of occupation is held to define our identity to the extent that the most insistent question we ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were but what they do, the assumption being that the route to a meaningful existence must invariably pass through the gates of paid employment.
It was not always this way. In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle defined an attitude that was to last more than two millennia when he referred to a structural incompatibility between satisfaction and a salaried position. For the Greek philosopher, financial need placed one on a par with slaves and animals. The labour of the hands, as much as of the mercantile sides of the mind, would lead to psychological deformation. Only a private income and a life of leisure could afford citizens adequate opportunity to enjoy the higher pleasures gifted by music and philosophy.
Early Christianity added 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. It was not until the Renaissance that new notes began to be heard. In the biographies of great artists, men like Leonardo and Michelangelo, we hear the first references to the glories of practical activity. While this re-evaluation was at first limited to artistic work and even then, only to its most exalted examples, it came in time to encompass almost all occupations.
By the time we reach the bourgeois thinkers of the eighteenth century, Aristotle’s formula has been turned on its head: satisfactions which the Greek philosopher had identified with leisure were now transposed to the sphere of work, while tasks lacking in any financial reward were drained of all significance and relegated to the haphazard attentions of dilettantes. It now seemed as impossible that one could be happy and idle as it had once seemed unlikely that one could work and be human.
Aspects of this evolution in attitudes towards work had intriguing correlatives in ideas about love. In this sphere too, the eighteenth century bourgeoisie yoked together what was pleasurable and what was necessary. They argued that there was no inherent conflict between sexual passion and the practical demands of raising children in a family unit, and that there could hence be romance within a marriage – just as there could be enjoyment in a job.
We are the victims of these two momentous and strangely optimistic ideas. There is immense unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love. It isn’t that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfilment, only that they almost never do so. And when an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, will weigh down on us like particular curses. In denying the natural place reserved for longing and incompleteness in the human lot, the modern world denies us the possibility of consolation for our fractious marriages and our unexploited ambitions, and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame for having stubbornly failed to make more of our lives.