For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Aristotle on work"

by Angier, Tom (2016)


I begin by detailing the semantic range of the English terms ‘work’ and ‘labour’, in comparison with that of their closest Greek equivalents. Narrowing matters down to work in the sense of ‘occupation’, what is striking about Aristotle, I maintain, is his willingness to sort occupations into a hierarchy. This hierarchy is fourfold. At the bottom we have servile work, which is directed at life’s ‘necessities’, and is founded on mere habit. Then we have technē or skilled work, which typically produces material objects, and requires expertise. Further up the hierarchy we have praxis or morally-informed activity, which reaches its apogee in the life of the politikos or ruler. At the summit of Aristotle’s hierarchy is theōria or intellectual contemplation, which supposedly approximates divine activity. After documenting the resilience of this hierarchy in the Western tradition, I outline three grounds for it – social, metaphysical and psychological – which are manifestly weak. I then elaborate other grounds for it – found both within and outside Aristotle’s texts – which, I argue, are manifestly strong, and thus deserve our endorsement even today.


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On Aristotle

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