In a post by Orwell1627 (found here) entitled “NIETZCHE: The Dignity of Work” is summarized Nietzche’s view of work as a dishonourable necessity for the purpose of enabling true artists and purveyors of beauty to practice their craft. He claims that the idea that there is honour in work is simply a slavish defense mechanism in which the labouring man is able to fight pessimism with the idea that there is some ultimate purpose for his being made to work continually.

This is a very brief summary and I would recommend going and reading the explanation in its entirety, but I will begin my response.

My first challenge to this view of work as a dishonourable necessity is twofold. Firstly, the production of materials to be used in the arts. What shall we say of the man who collects materials to mix paints for the painter? Or of the builder of excellent violins? Or of the quarry men who unearth great blocks of granite for the sculptor? Am I to understand that these men take no part in the joy and beauty of the process and the outcome of such artistic pursuits? They are allowed no enjoyment of it at all? Is there not a deep honour in men who give their entire lives not only to pay bills, but with their work to finance those most artistically gifted? In this way do we not all take part in the artistic process? The suggestion is seems foolish. The second half is that if one were to choose any great novel or film or work of theatre, he would come to realize that the only stories worth telling are the stories of a character starting at some disadvantaged point, overcoming obstacles, and being victorious in the end. These are the stories of humanity, the ones that make us feel the beauty not only of what is seen, but to imagine depths of not yet existing beauty.

Nietzche also would (according to Orwell1627) claim that for a man to labour in our western 40-hour work week and attempt art on weekends would still be futile and wasted time because those 40 hours could have been spent creating art (I am not aware of any specific definition of “art” that this is based around). This assumes that all people are in some way artistic, and that “If only they had the time” they might be composing tremendous earth-shattering ballads, or etching the ceiling of some more beautiful Sistine Chapel. Where does he draw proof from? He has the philosopher’s benefit of never being required to touch the mediums he claims intimate knowledge of, and so with humanity, with work, and workmen he knows only by what he has heard.

He does not hear the pride hidden underneath the voice of the complaining worker at the end of a long day, reciting the difficulty he had in his exquisite execution of his task in spite of overwhelming odds. He knows beauty only as what the Greeks have claimed, and sees not the beauty of beads of sweat, toil, the pursuit of the valuable, the rest after a summers work, the excellence of a deep breath in the shade. He sees not the art in the internal conversation of a man who, on seeing difficulty ahead, girds his loins and prepares for battle, to face the deathly cold or scorching heat, for his clan, for his wife and child, and for the pride of his name.

A book could be written on the objection that he is only claiming beauty as the sole useful pursuit of man because that is what the Greeks have taught him. His vision of Art is too small, and his vision of value. But I will leave that for now in favour of illustrating through the words of one of my own favourite artists.

Perhaps chiefly, Leo Tolstoy not only saw the beauty in, but came close to calling toil the only beauty, or at least the basic core of the life well lived. In his well-known quote from Family Happiness:

“I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet, secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbour – such is my idea of happiness.”

This quotation possibly better than any other encapsulates Tolstoy’s love for, appreciation and romanticism of the workman’s life. Indeed, hard work and morality were nearly the only things he ever wrote about.

G.K. Chesterton says about Tolstoy in his book Orthodoxy that Tolstoy romanticized peasantry because he was not a peasant. Chesterton also says that Nietzche romanticized war for the same reason. The true beauty, to him is Joan of Arc, who saw the beauty of valour and toil, and romanticized them, but was actually able to live successfully as a warrior and peasant.

Art is nothing without toil. All of men’s greatest true stories (and therefore inspiration for invented ones) come from a commonality among the greatest majority of people. These stories strike tones in common with all mankind on some level, that draw us together for or against some common object, and enable beautiful things to be seen in all that is done.

Finally, I would suggest that I, the free man who is able to work hard, and enjoy well-executed joinery and carpentry, to listen to the finest music I can set my ears to, take a breath of thankfulness for a cup of hot coffee on a cold day, who can joyfully run and joyfully rest, can read Shakespeare and the Bible, am more archetypal of the ideal liberated open man than Nietzsche ever hoped to be. His principals betray his slavish devotion to the Greek cultural principles and reveal his never being liberated, and as we know now,  by his own principals, he was enslaved.

The true beauty is in anything examined carefully, held up to the light, and declared beautiful. Human art will only ever have the value that is placed on it by us, the power to create art lies precisely in our judgment of the thing to be beautiful. The attribute of beauty wherein its value is completely extrinsic is the same reason why it makes men fools who make it a god, and makes men crazy when it is claimed to be the chief end of man.

This is worth considering. Though if one were to find the source of true beauty, he would be not far from finding God himself.

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4 thoughts on “Is Labour Dishonourable? – My Response to Nietzche

  1. what would you make of the statement that art is merely the refuge which the ingenious have invented, when they were supplied with food and women, to escape the tediousness of life?

    1. Thank you for your comment Makagatu:

      If that were completely true I would expect to see a different world. Forgive my ethnocentricity, but in Canada, where I live, where arguably the majority of people live so far above the poverty line as to make anyone a potential artist, we still see the average person, perhaps taking part in some appreciation of art, but not being “artistic” to escape the tediousness of life. If the statement above were a universal, I would expect to see more widespread application.

      The principal though could be suggested of any non-essential pursuit could it not? I personally know men to whom work itself is an escape from boredom. They work absurd amounts to fill their time. This too is escapist, though not very creative. Scholarly pursuits, the pursuits of science, if considered, are all under the category of non-essential pursuits and also could be accused of the same escapism.

      All artists do not have women, and there are many (due to lack of funding) who may go without food for the sake of their craft. If art were invented as escapism, it certainly does not fill that role at least exclusively any longer.

      In short, your statement has a ring of truth to it, but I don’t see widespread application of it in the real world. Art, like many non-essential pursuits, is simply one arena for human beings to spread their roots further out, to expand and grow. It is the very sort of thing we can apply ourselves to when battle or storm do not require us to dig a fox hole or bar the windows. In fact, it may be said that art is simply one of many proofs of life.

      1. thanks for your response.
        I have no problem with your ethnocentricity, especially because you are aware of it. I think you misunderstood my question somewhat. I didn’t mean people being artistic or anything but enjoying art for example reading, going to the opera is only possible for those whose other needs have been addressed.

        And yes, it is possible there are people who may go without food for their craft but this I think is plain madness. Why expend so much energy when you can’t even supply for your basic needs?

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