The Gospel of Work


When Henry Miller writes that “the gospel of work” is “the doctrine of inertia” he really speaks to me. I often think about what politicians are trying to convince us of when they talk about “work” and “jobs.” It’s spoken as if it’s a piece of common sense – “people need jobs” – but there’s more to this than meets the ear. Miller is right to call it “the gospel of work”: our leaders are delivering their own spiritual message when they praise hard work, telling us how to be good and to avoid the sin of laziness.

And the work is always “hard”: “hard working people”. As if its hardness, in and of itself, is what makes the work good and virtuous. So that when you return home, worn-out from trying to please a boss you hate, you can say to yourself: At least I’m a good person.

In the modern society in which I live it can sometimes seem that work is praised above all else. The good that work does is implied but hardly ever discussed. The good is in the work itself. The effect of the work is irrelevant.

There’s a reason we can’t talk about the good that work does: not all work is good. When we’re told to work for work’s sake we’re being asked not to think about whether we’re actually doing any good in the world. Just keep yourself busy.

“The gospel of work” is “the doctrine of inertia” because: to work and to love work is to accept the conditions of life as you find them in modern society. It means you’ll never change anything about the world because you are content where you are.

Passion is something to be admired. But what about a passion for work? In many cases, this means throwing yourself wholeheartedly into the world as you find it. Is this admirable?

Look around at the world and decide for yourself: is it admirable to accept things as they are? Perhaps you think so.

For someone like Henry Miller, passion is really valuable when combined with courage and imagination, and he saw precious little of that in the America of his day. A transformative kind of passion is what you might see in an artist: someone who rejects the world as it is and must make something new. But the young Miller was far from finding this passion, either in himself or in those around him.

“Work” and “jobs” are sickening words, particularly when they come out of the mouths of politicians, because they are used to refer not to meaningful human activity, but to sweat and toil for the purpose only of earning a crust. “Work” and “jobs”, spoken with such matter-of-factness, are the murmur and rumble of the machine. The machine goes on and on and offers no alternative. Why should it? It is just a machine.

New machines can be built. The conditions can be changed. But that would require human action.

Life is short, and acceptance is wisdom. There’s something philosophical about just getting on with what’s in front of you. Why cry and complain instead of making the best of what you have?

For the answer to that, look around you! When Miller did this, what he saw was “the greatest misery of the greatest number,” a machine so committed to productivity that the human soul is forgotten. And so human compassion is forgotten, and poverty is everywhere, and they drop a bomb where food and shelter was required. How could there be any wisdom in accepting this?

There’s a lot of talk about how happy and wealthy we are, in Europe and the USA. But this is “statistical wealth, statistical happiness.” What is true wealth? True happiness? Those questions are not asked enough.

It’s easy to get on with your work and remind yourself of how lucky you are. You have enough to eat, access to healthcare (perhaps) … Isn’t it sinful to complain when you have so much?

The problem with statistical happiness is that it is partial, and not absolute. Statistical happiness means: well a lot of us are OK, so it’s going well enough. This “a lot of us” is partial: what about the others? This “OK” is partial: I’m happy in a sense, but isn’t there more to life?

It’s not just the suffering of those that we neglect, but what our neglect tells us about ourselves. Is it a lack of compassion that allows me to put my own needs above others? Is it despair at the seeming impossibility of being able to change anything? Whatever the answer, we might learn something of the condition of the modern human soul by examining its ability to tolerate the suffering of others.

Keep yourself busy. I’m a good person.

And so, Miller isn’t talking just about material wealth and happiness, but about something spiritual: the treasures that we might store up in the human heart.

The “happiness” that is talked about today often comes down to something material: I am happy because I have this or that … Henry Miller claims his one “joy” at this time was knowing that he was miserable, while everyone else kidded themselves that they were happy, or that success was just around the corner. This was a spiritual joy, not just because it was a kind of one-upmanship (at least I know I’m not happy and so I know more than them), but because it came from self-knowledge, which ought to be the prized above material comforts.

It may not seem much just to know something, especially if what you know is: I am unhappy. But perhaps it is the first essential step towards changing things, changing the conditions.

Miller’s story is one of transformation. As a young man he is “evil”: aside from his contemptuous feelings for his fellow human beings, he’s also lazy and mean-spirited. There’s nothing he wishes to do, he allows himself to get dragged through life by others, and he has a secret murderous hatred of his own society.

People don’t see this side of him. They think of him as kind and compassionate but they’re wrong: he’s just too lazy to say “no” to people. He does have a sense of compassion, but it amounts to a paralysing pity: his sense of pity at others’ misfortune leads him not to go out of his way to help them (unless they ask, in which case he is powerless to refuse), but to say to himself: what’s the point? In misery he sees the general condition for humankind, a vision of the hopelessness of mortal existence.

Miller’s work is an extreme antidote to the ideology of the American dream. Under certain conditions it is impossible to succeed. Bootstraps won’t do it. All around him, the young Miller sees the evidence for this.

People stuck in jobs that drain them of the energy they would require to do the necessary work to give meaning to their lives. People without jobs, equally drained of energy by the day to day struggle to meet their basic material needs.

And even if you were lucky enough to succeed, what about the others? Leave them to their misery?

The conditions have to change, but how? This is the real dream, but it seems just a dream. How to create a new world? Miller will find the answer to this in art, a decade or so later. Somewhere in the “Rosy Crucifixion” trilogy, he says to someone: I can’t get a job, I have too much work to do. By this time he has found meaningful work, in his writing, even if he is far from making a “success” of it – meaning: getting paid. The pressure to get a “job” still remains, and will remain as long as he must beg and borrow and even steal to survive, but he at least has his own sense of purpose now, a reason to resist the machine.

Even this small victory is a way off for the young Miller whose story is told in Tropic of Capricorn. For now he must continue his lesson, drifting through the world seeing first-hand the condition in which the bulk of humankind exists. And learning what this modern life is that he will one day write about.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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4 Responses to The Gospel of Work

  1. Therese says:

    “Whatever the answer, we might learn something of the condition of the modern human soul by examining its ability to tolerate the suffering of others.” To have this kind of thinking is admirable. But it’s simply impossible to eliminate poverty or the suffering of others. People can keep trying, though and it’s even more admirable. An American friend of mine once told me he knew what poverty meant, and I disagreed. Coming from a third-world country, I see poverty in the streets on a daily basis. Though I want and do try to help some people when I can, I know it is impossible to end their suffering for so many reasons. What I can do then is to help those that I can, and be grateful for what I have that allows me to help them.

    I also think it’s important that one enjoys what he is doing. I will not stay on a job that makes me unhappy.

    Have a nice week, Lee!


    • leewatkins says:

      I don’t see why poverty couldn’t be eliminated if people learned to share their wealth. And a lot of poverty is created by government policy – for example, here in the UK where the social safety net has been eroded so that people find it much more difficult to claim out-of-work benefits, and so often don’t have enough money to meet their needs.

      I do agree that it’s impossible to eliminate poverty in the current set-up. And what can you or I do? Apart from our little bit. So I suppose I half agree with you. This word “impossible” is so tricky when applied to political questions, don’t you think?

      Thanks for reading Therese, and all the best to you!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Therese says:

        I quite agree “impossible” is tricky when applied to political questions. But I am thinking about human nature and how there will always be greedy people who would not want to share, and there will always be lazy people who will always refuse to work and just wait for handouts. The ones who choose not to learn how to fish, and believe me, I’ve met so many of them.


      • leewatkins says:

        I’m with Henry Miller: we could do with more laziness! There’s altogether too much industry in the world today and it’s wrecking our souls and the planet.


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