ESA Inventory

1.Attitudes Toward Work During the Classical Period

Roger B. Hill, Ph.D.
© 1992, 1996

One of the significant influences on the culture of the western world has been the Judeo-Christian belief system. Growing awareness of the multicultural dimensions of contemporary society has moved educators to consider alternative viewpoints and perspectives, but an understanding of western thought is an important element in the understanding of the history of the United States.

Traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs state that sometime after the dawn of creation, man was placed in the Garden of Eden "to work it and take care of it" (NIV, 1973, Genesis 2:15). What was likely an ideal work situation was disrupted when sin entered the world and humans were ejected from the Garden. Genesis 3:19 described the human plight from that time on. "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return" (NIV, 1973). Rose stated that the Hebrew belief system viewed work as a "curse devised by God explicitly to punish the disobedience and ingratitude of Adam and Eve" (1985, p. 28). Numerous scriptures from the Old Testament in fact supported work, not from the stance that there was any joy in it, but from the premise that it was necessary to prevent poverty and destitution (NIV; 1973; Proverbs 10:14, Proverbs 13:4, Proverbs 14:23, Proverbs 20:13, Ecclesiastes 9:10).

The Greeks, like the Hebrews, also regarded work as a curse (Maywood, 1982). According to Tilgher (1930), the Greek word for work was ponos, taken from the Latin poena, which meant sorrow. Manual labor was for slaves. The cultural norms allowed free men to pursue warfare, large-scale commerce, and the arts, especially architecture or sculpture (Rose, 1985).

Mental labor was also considered to be work and was denounced by the Greeks. The mechanical arts were deplored because they required a person to use practical thinking, "brutalizing the mind till it was unfit for thinking of truth" (Tilgher, 1930, p. 4). Skilled crafts were accepted and recognized as having some social value, but were not regarded as much better than work appropriate for slaves. Hard work, whether due to economic need or under the orders of a master, was disdained.

It was recognized that work was necessary for the satisfaction of material needs, but philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle made it clear that the purpose for which the majority of men labored was "in order that the minority, the élite, might engage in pure exercises of the mind--art, philosophy, and politics" (Tilgher, 1930, p. 5). Plato recognized the notion of a division of labor, separating them first into categories of rich and poor, and then into categories by different kinds of work, and he argued that such an arrangement could only be avoided by abolition of private property (Anthony, 1977). Aristotle supported the ownership of private property and wealth. He viewed work as a corrupt waste of time that would make a citizen's pursuit of virtue more difficult (Anthony, 1977).

Braude (1975) described the Greek belief that a person's prudence, morality, and wisdom was directly proportional to the amount of leisure time that person had. A person who worked, when there was no need to do so, would run the risk of obliterating the distinction between slave and master. Leadership, in the Greek state and culture, was based on the work a person didn't have to do, and any person who broke this cultural norm was acting to subvert the state itself.

The Romans adopted much of their belief system from the culture of the Greeks and they also held manual labor in low regard (Lipset, 1990). The Romans were industrious, however, and demonstrated competence in organization, administration, building, and warfare. Through the empire that they established, the Roman culture was spread through much of the civilized world during the period from c500 BC until c117 AD (Webster Encyclopedia, 1985). The Roman empire spanned most of Europe, the Middle East, Egypt, and North Africa and greatly influenced the Western culture in which the theoretical constructs underlying this study were developed.

Slavery had been an integral part of the ancient world prior to the Roman empire, but the employment of slaves was much more widely utilized by the Romans than by the Greeks before them (Anthony, 1977). Early on in the Roman system, moderate numbers of slaves were held and they were treated relatively well. As the size of landholdings grew, however, thousands of slaves were required for large-scale grain production on some estates, and their treatment grew worse. Slaves came to be viewed as cattle, with no rights as human beings and with little hope of ever being freed. In fact, in some instances cattle received greater care than slaves, since cattle were not as capable of caring for themselves as were slaves (Anthony, 1977).

For the Romans, work was to be done by slaves, and only two occupations were suitable for a free man--agriculture and big business (Maywood, 1982). A goal of these endeavors, as defined by the Roman culture, was to achieve an "honorable retirement into rural peace as a country gentleman" (Tilgher, 1930, p. 8). Any pursuit of handicrafts or the hiring out of a person's arms was considered to be vulgar, dishonoring, and beneath the dignity of a Roman citizen.

Philosophically, both the Greeks and the Romans viewed the work that slaves performed and the wealth that free men possessed as a means to achieve the supreme ideal of life--man's independence of external things, self-sufficiency, and satisfaction with one's self (Tilgher, 1930). Although work was something that would degrade virtue, wealth was not directly related to virtue except in the matter of how it was used. The view of Antisthenes that wealth and virtue were incompatible and the view of the Stoics that wealth should be pursued for the purpose of generosity and social good represented extremes of philosophical thought. The most accepted view was that pursuit of gain to meet normal needs was appropriate.

From the perspective of a contemporary culture, respect for workers upon whom the economic structure of a nation and a society rested would have been logical for the Greeks and the Romans, but no such respect was evident. Even free men, who were not privileged to be wealthy and were obliged to work along side slaves, were not treated with any sense of gratitude, but were held in contempt. The cultural norms of the classical era regarding work were in stark contrast to the work ethic of the latter day.

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