1930s >> 1930 >> no-309-may-1930

Tolstoy On Work

I was always astonished at the accepted opinion (current especially in Europe) that work is a kind of virtue. I always felt that it was only excusable in an irrational animal, such as the ant in the fable, to elevate work to the rank of a virtue and to make a boast of it. M. Zola assures us that work makes men kind; the contrary has always been true in my experience. Without considering selfish work, which is always bad, the object of which is the well-being or aggrandisement of the worker, even “work for its own sake,” the pride of the worker, renders both ants and men cruel. Which of us does not know these men, untouched by considerations of truth and kindliness, who are always so busy that they not only never have time to do good, but cannot even ask themselves whether their work is not harmful? You say to these people: “Your work is useless, perhaps even pernicious, for the following reasons; pause and consider them for a moment.”

They will not listen to you, but scornfully reply: “You men have leisure to reason about such matters, but what time have I for discussions? I have worked all my life and work does not wait; I have to edit a daily paper with a circulation of half-a-million ; I have the army to organise, the Eiffel Tower to build, Chicago Exhibition to arrange, to cut through the Isthmus of Panama, to make investigations on the subject of heredity, telepathy, or to find out the number of times such and such a word occurs in the works of such and such a classic author.”

The most cruel of men, the Nero’s and the Peter the Great’s, have been constantly active, never pausing or giving themselves a moment free from occupation or distraction. Even if work is not a vice it can from no point of view be looked upon as a merit. Work can no more be considered a virtue than can nutrition; work is a necessity of which one cannot be deprived without suffering, and to elevate it to the rank of a merit is as monstrous as it would be to do the like for nutrition. The only explanation of this strange value attributed to work in our society is that our ancestors regarded laziness as an attribute of nobility, almost of merit, and that people in our time are still influenced by the reaction from that prejudice.

In my opinion, not only is work not a virtue, but in our defectively organised society it is more often a means of moral anaesthesia, just as are tobacco, wine and other means of drowning thought and hiding from ourselves the disorder and emptiness of our lives.

Leo Tolstoy