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I’m going to play this damn saxophone until they put it on top of me.
—Tenor saxophonist Ben Webster
In the introduction to Working (1972), his book of artfully edited renditions of interviews with 134 men and women, Studs Terkel declared, “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body.” And those he interviewed, nearly all of them blue- or gray-collar workers, matter-of-factly and painfully bear out his words. A mail deliveryman sighs over the increased number of free-ranging dogs he encounters on his route, a waitress speaks of feeling demeaned by the need to fake cheerfulness for tips, a welder on a Ford assembly line laughs as he talks of putting one over on management by once in a while just letting a car slip past untouched, and a bus driver remembers a coworker who suffered from a chronic illness attested to by his personal physician, but “the company doctors said he could work. So he died fighting for his disability.”
Terkel conducted his interviews in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when social tensions ran high in the United States and an aching nostalgia for a pre-modern, pre-urban, pre-industrial way of American life was endemic. He also marshaled his subjects and their words to make points about the forever war between capital and labor, about the powerlessness of wage earners by contrast with bosses, and about the alienation of workers from all those things Marx said they were alienated from—matters dear to an “old lefty,” as Terkel once described himself.
Terkel’s book is a compelling, if saddening, read and became a much-discussed bestseller and a pillar of college courses in labor economics and sociology. But the views expressed within were hardly novel or current or lefty, in fact, but literally antediluvian, the emotional property of the vast majority of human beings who have ever been compelled to earn a living on this planet.
We don’t know what the most ancient human beings thought of the work of killing large beasts at close range with pointed sticks, though we can probably guess. The less ancient Hebrews, for their part, cast work as the epic punishment that fit the epic crime of disobeying God to His face. And other ancients weren’t much for brow-sweating either. Herodotus approvingly reported that “contempt” for wage work seemed common to Persians, Lydians, Egyptians, and Greeks. (It was a punctiliousness made possible, of course, by the use of slaves.) Just a few centuries later, in his De Officiis (On Duties), a book that served turn-of-the-millennium Rome as Emily Post’s Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home more recently served the Upper East Side, Cicero noted that “vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen . . . the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery.” He wasn’t keen on other forms of work either, calling merchants inveterate liars and designating as “least respectable” the purveyors of fish, meat, poultry, cooking, and dancing—”those trades which cater for sensual pleasure.” (Cicero, of course, who enjoyed a good deal of sensual pleasure, worked hard as an orator, philosopher, and statesman and overall brave guy, which was nice work if you could get it, and you could get it if you were born rich, which he was.)
About 500 years onward, St. Benedict did go some way toward redeeming sweat-inducing work, making it a moral feature of monastic life: “For then are they truly monks when they live by the labor of their hands, as did our fathers and the apostles.” But Benedict’s monks, like Herodotus and Cicero, did not work for wages, and the redemption of that lowest order of labor had to await the Reformation and Luther’s preaching that the work you found yourself doing had been ordained for you by God, a thesis that turned all work into vocatio, a term that had previously applied only to labor within the Catholic Church.
Further refinements have since come thanks to a host of strange bedfellows, from Calvin, whose followers viewed work through the belief that earthly prosperity suggested that one was destined for eternal prosperity; to Marx, who argued that vocatio would only blossom when workers themselves controlled production based on their needs; to the current best-selling Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career For You Through the Secrets of Personality Type, which posits that immaculate careers can be plotted based on a study of your position within the “four basic human temperaments.”
As reductionist theories of work go, I favor Benedict’s laborarae est orare or John Ruskin’s “Your art is to be the praise of something that you love,” in which I substitute “work” for “art,” hoping that they do in fact conjoin on occasion.
Our story of James Balog’s creation of an artful work life begins here.
Read more by Ben Birnbaum