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The toil of work is first and foremost a physical reality, but it is also a mental reality: in addition to the physical fatigue inherent to each profession, there is also the nervous pressure and psychological wear and tear associated with the social nature of all work. Any activity that requires objectives and collaboration imposes schedules we must respect, methodologies and hierarchies we must accept, and people we must get along with.
Is this toil unavoidable, or on the contrary, could we one day have erased so many constraints, so improved our working conditions, that it ends up being a leisure activity?
Behind this question regarding the difficult aspects of work, we can obviously see a central element of the current debates dividing the political world and public opinion, reactivating discourses of class struggle in the process.
An effort to go beyond
If the human species labors, it is because it’s forced to transform nature to provide for its vital needs: the spontaneous fruits of the earth are insufficient to feed us all, and so we must cultivate it. Moreover, the natural tools and defenses of the human race seem laughable compared to the immensity of our needs: born without claws or sharp teeth, without feathers or fur, human beings are very weak and constitute easy prey for the animal world.
This immense effort to overcome our original indigence, an individual and collective effort, is called work. By nature, work is an effort to which our human condition forces us. To dream of a form of work devoid of any effort is to dream of being an angel. To dream of a life devoid of effort, is to aspire to the divine condition such as the pagan Greek religions imagined it: the gods do not work, and do not produce their own means of sustenance; they have fun or fight. This is why the Greek citizens delegated manual labor to slaves: since the gods themselves do not deign to work, manual labor is an unworthy activity, and vice versa.
A liberating effort
We must therefore distinguish between effort and toil. Through our efforts we gain new strength, we develop our practical spirit, our technical skills, and our inventiveness; we strengthen our will, our capacity to go through with our projects. Work means effort. And paradoxically, this effort, although it constrains us, also frees us. As long as we are guaranteed the right to benefit from the fruits of our labor, we have the security that allows us to project ourselves into the future, to build a life. In short, we gain our freedom and savor it as a victory.
On the other hand, when the arduousness of work destroys the very purpose of work, which is to bring human faculties to their fulfillment – when it ruins our mental faculties instead of elevating them, and destroys the physical strength necessary for work and for life itself – it no longer deserves the name of work; it is senseless enslavement.
Sacrificing one’s life to work is absurd. For it is work that is made for people, not people for work. This is why we have a challenge to face: to accept and not to run away from the effort inherent to work, but also to identify what is unhealthily toilsome and not to submit to it..