I Mallikarjuna Sharma.


The idea that all work is noble, that the real joy and pleasure is in attending to one’s work with all devotion, assiduity and ingenuity may not be that modern and has certainly roots in the cultures of all ancient civilizations. But undoubtedly it is in the current capitalistic era that this idea has got very much widespread and become one of the foundation pillars of modern society. It was Max Weber who clearly pointed out the difference between  the spirit of work or the work ethic in ancient societies and religious environments and that in modern society in the capitalistic environment. And he harped on the theory of the Protestant ethic of work and duty, which had immensely promoted the spirit of capitalism. In contrast to the ancient societes it is only in the modern capitalist society that the man as individual finds his great duty and solace in his particular 'calling' and that is the real bridge for his communion with God even. It is this Protestant theme which found its hardcore expression in Calvinism that gave the real 'push' to all early capitalist enterprises all over the world and in course created what we are now in the worldwide capitalist mode of production.

But man does not need work alone; he also needs leisure and entertainment. This apart from his other basic needs such as food, shelter, etc. And he needs ideas; he needs to think and he by habit also thinks innumerable ideas. In this welter of work, ideas, leisure and entertainment, the priorities were not the same in all ages and all times. In fact work, especially work of manual nature, was generally berated in the ancient civilizations which gave a greater importance to ideas and thinking high — high thinking and plain living — in contrast to man’s preoccupation with worldly gains and work to that end. We in India can easily understand that that was why manual labour was generally looked down in our traditional Hindu society. And it was relegated to the preoccupation of the lowest of the four varnas — the Sudras — who were particularly denied all the opportunities and benefits of high thinking and learning on that count. The less a man does work, work in the sense of manual or any fatigue-causing busy work, the higher he was regarded in the social scale and the highest in the varna system were never expected to do any such work at all. They were to be merely the intellectual guides, the scholars or priests of the society. And those among such brahmins who by chance or necessity took to other occupations, such as agriculture, trade, martial arts, etc. were graded certainly lower than other brahmins who lived off others’ labour and only limited themselves to preaching, worshipping and writing. So much so that unccha vritti (the occupation of begging) was considered a most noble profession for an ascetic brahmin. He has to go daily carrying a begging vessel (bowl) and by the alms given by the public has to return home once the bowl is filled up with requistie amount of rice/grain and make do with it for the day. He was not expected to amass more even in that profession than what was sufficient for him and family for the day. Though this practice has a noble ring too, at the same time it also creates an inborn aversion to all manual or other productive work and so basically would be considered reactionary in the present day circumstances. But it was not so in the past. Not only in our country, even in Greece, even with great philosophers like Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle, work- basicaly manual but also any fitigue-causing work — was looked down with disdain. Xenophon considered all mechanical arts but marks of decay that bring dishonour in their wake. For Aristotle leisure was the only fit life for man. He declared that making and knowing how to make things was but the servile activity of slaves and not becoming of free citizens. Man's destiny lay in keeping immune from sensory world and advancing steadily into the world of pure thought. In the activity of thinking only man attains the highest felicity or blessedness — so spake Aristotle. Of course even in ancient times, as already said, there were instances of work being considered noble. Prodicus of Greece spoke highly of the virtue of labour, which gave dignity to the lives of men. In our country, apart from the ever-exalted varnasrama dharma of what in the present idiom is called ‘brahminism’, even the rebel atheistic or at least agnostic religion of Buddhism did not promote any work culture or contribute to the respect for dignity of  labour to any considerable extent. This though it clearly disapproved of the ascetic practices of ‘brahminism’ and condescendingly permitted normal household life for vast majority of the people on the theoretical plane. The Bhikkus who were the real missionaries of Buddhism were to lead their lives by begging and by dependence on royal grants and other charities and devote themselves mainly to spititual i.e. thinking affairs. Then we know that the Jagam mithya Brahma satyam theory of Sankaracharya has greatly promoted the already institu-tionalized aversion to labour. But still there are also instances of some vaishnava sects recongnizing and preaching the dignity of labour. So with some Veera Shaiva sects too. Vedanta Desikar, a disciple of Ramanuja, is said to have dug a well with his own hands thus publicizing to the world the necessity and dignity of labour.


It was during the first efforescence of mercantile capitalism in Europe, especially in the Italian peninsula that the work ethic began to take firm roots and recognition and applause from the upcoming bourgeois classes. That was the Renaissance period of which we all know from history books. Leonardo Da Vinci,

Geordano Bruno, Tammaso Campanella and a host of other great scholoars, artists and thinkers began to emphasize on dignity and excellence of men who enjoy working incessantly. It was particularly held that it was in work that nature is surpassed. ‘The raw materials of nature are finite  but the works that the eye orders the hands to make are infinite’ — remarked Leonardo Da Vinci. So did Bruno and Campanella. They all exalt man in his creative activity. Then in the more systematic nascent capitalist stages we find so many great thinkers and writers, Voltaire, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Rickardo, Benjamin Franklin, William Penn, St. Saimon, Robert Owen, Fourier, August Comte, Mazzini, et al who took the ethic of work to be something very basic and eternal. All of them preached  the virtue of (honest) money making by intensive labour as a must for the progress of mankind. ''True Godliness does not turn men out of the world.... (into)... a lazy rusty, unprofitable self denial'' — declared William Penn. And for him as well as several other thinkers, work itself was prayer. ‘‘In the things of this life, the labourer is most like to God,’’ succinctly stated Zwingli. Weber profusely quotes Benjamin Franklin as his main role model to illustrate the spirit of capitalism. ‘‘Time is money ..... Credit is money..... Money begets money.... Industry and frugality (are the first things)...... then (come virtues of) punctuality and justice in all dealings........’’ such is the crux of Ben Franklin’s Americanized capitalistic spirit. Kant in Germany also does not lag behind. Coming to Hegel, he places work under his system of necessity and remarks that it is to meet this necessity that man works and creates wealth. Were it not for work no need would ever be satisfied ; work is the absolute law of life and accompanies life from its primitive forms to its complex structures so remarks Hegel. Marx we all know has given the greatest value and regard for work — work in all its varieties, especially productive work. He is the real protagonist and propagator of the labour theory of value and has more than anyone else in the world appreciated and advocated the dignity of labour. Needless to say all these great thinkers and writers did believe in the necessity and greatness of work ethic too . Only the parameters and real features of the expected work ethic of what ought to be the basic or optimum culture of a work-person may have varied and did vary in case of these several thinkers.

Now what are the important features of work ethic? The intense faith in activity, the contempt for the idler and the horror of idleness itself are considered central to the work ethic.It means elevation of work over leisure. It involves not just a choice but an ethos that permeates life and manners. Just as Roosevelt said : ‘‘Nothing in this world is worth having or worth doing unless it meant effort, pain, difficulty.’’ Or as we have pointed to another extreme : Laborre est orare — Work is worship. But this cannot be viewed in an abstract set up of a completely amalgamated humanity. Instead it has to be viewed in the context of a sharply divided class society in which it may or may not have beneficial consequences for both the major hostile classes simultanieously for capitalists and workers in general. The work ethic we just spoke of primarily took its roots in the preindustrial but post-feudal mercantile and handicrafts environment and was mostly advanced and espoused by the middle classes. Whereas the industrial workers just emerging from the newly set up factory systems in Europe or America were not so eulogistic or devoted to the said ethic, which in practice meant for them a continuous drudgery. The ever-increasing mechanization and automation, coupled with a Taylorite division of labour, brought the industrial workers face to face with eternal monotony and despair. It has shorn whatever creative and noble pleasure work once brought to a worker working with his own tools and creating his own thought out things. So the first and even the second phases of industrialization and modernization gave rise to a deliberate attitude of work shirking by industrial working classes all over the world. ‘‘Gambling, rioting, generous drinking habits and a good deal of boisterous, elbow shoving, Sabbath defying amusement played an important part in urban working class life.’’ It still does in very many countries where the capitalist development process is still going on in the initial or middle phases. The other side of the coin is the ruthless exploitation of labour by the new and upcoming bourgeoisie so graphically illustrated by Marx in chapter and verse of his magnum opus. Not only Marx the depiction of the Victorian Age working class environment by Charles Dickens and the like others is no less shudder raising. For such cruel and labour extorting bourgeoisie the word ethic came in as a handy tool and naturally heartily detested by the oppressed and suffering working masses. So this found an extreme response in the Scottish ca’ canny — a principle involving performance of as little work as possible by the workmen. And in various degrees this ca’ canny can be found in all the industrialized and industrializing countries of the world. However, it seems the needs of the day require, as also the calls of reason and commonsense demand, that people should be wary of both these extremes. A balance needs be struck.