Work - Reviews
New Statesman, Reviewed by John Gray, 16th April 2009
A difficult business
There is a story about an aged playboy who, when a conversation with a friend is interrupted by a telephone call, asks incredulously: “You mean, when that thing rings, you answer it?” Few people have ever been able to afford to be so insouciant: for nearly everyone, work is a burden from which there is no escape. Still, the playboy’s reaction is not as flippant as it might seem. If most people’s everyday experience is the test, it is the idea that work is the chief route to personal fulfilment that seems frivolous.
It is only in modern times that work has been seen as the definitively human activity. The ancient Greeks believed fulfilment was to be found in leisure, and for that reason would never be achieved by the mass of humanity. The nearly universal rejection of this view today is a consequence of the triumph of the bourgeois notion – notably endorsed by Marx – that happiness is found in work. As Alain de Botton writes, “The bourgeois thinkers turned Aristotle’s formula 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 left to the haphazard attentions of decadent dilettantes.” Bourgeois life promises to all the fulfilment that has historically been the privilege of a few. What it offers, however, is not idleness, a life of pleasure of the sort cultivated by leisured minorities in the past. Instead, it is the prospect – or illusion – that labour can be made intrinsically satisfying, a type of self-expression that everyone can enjoy.
Bourgeois life has always been de Botton’s subject. One of our most consistently illuminating writers on contemporary culture, he dissects the paradoxes that result when individualism becomes a mass philosophy, with a delicacy and humour that conceal the depth of his seriousness. Perhaps predictably, he is not without detractors, who see him as dispensing morsels of platitudinous philosophy to readers anxious for reassurance. But if there is a message in his writings it is hardly reassuring, for he deflates with unsparing irony the pretensions that sustain the way we live. If bourgeois culture differs from what has gone before, it is in claiming that personal happiness is a universally achievable goal. In earlier writings, de Botton turned a sceptical eye on the quintessentially bourgeois notion that happiness can be found in romantic love. He now examines the other main tenet of the creed: the belief that it is work that gives meaning to life.
Nothing says more about the way we live now than the importance that is given to work. It’s not just that we define ourselves socially by how we make a living, it’s more that work has colonised the inner life. Anxieties and fantasies about work dominate the interior monologue with which we make sense of the passing day, crowding out thoughts of other things. If the claims of work are often given priority over other aspects of life – family and personal relationships, for example – the reason is not only economic necessity. It is that these other engagements finally count for less, in the subjective accountancy of our lives, than success or failure in work.
A complex of rituals and practices through which life is structured and judged, work has acquired many of the attributes of a popular cult. De Botton approaches this cult, as he does the subjects of all of his books, by way of the seemingly random observa