NIETZSCHE: The Dignity of Work

“Such phantoms as the dignity of man and the dignity of work are the feeble products of a slavery that hides from itself.” 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote these words in a short preface titled, The Greek State. In the preface, Nietzsche denounces the belief that work is honorable. On the contrary, he argues that work is a shameful necessity of culture. In this video, we will explain Nietzsche’s argument and we will also discuss whether his argument holds true today.

First, Nietzsche considers the purpose of work. He defines work as “a painful means to existence.” In other words, work must be performed in order to perpetuate one’s own existence and the existence of others. Because mere existence is not inherently valuable, Nietzsche concludes that work cannot be honored.

The first objection that can be made against Nietzsche’s argument is that mere existence is actually valuable; and therefore, work, as a means to existence, is valuable too. Nietzsche, however, counters that “even when this very existence glitters with the seductive jewels of artistic illusions and then really does seem to have an inherent value, the pronouncement that work is a disgrace is still valid – simply because we do not feel it is possible for man, fighting for sheer survival, to be an artist.” In other words, work is disgraceful because it detracts from man’s ability to produce the only thing that bestows value on life – beauty.

Here, a second objection can be made, namely, that one can work during the 40-hour work week of the modern West and can pursue art on the weekend. This counterargument, however, does not successfully refute Nietzsche’s argument. Nietzsche does not claim that one cannot both work and produce art. Nietzsche claims that work detracts from our ability to produce art. Those 40 hours spent at work could have been spent producing art. Thus, his argument still holds.

Nietzsche’s argument seems convincing, so how did the notion of ‘the dignity of work’ arise? Nietzsche explains that the slaves of the working class had to create consolations to help them cope with their desperate situation. Otherwise, the slaves would succumb to pessimism. “The slave must console himself from one day to the next with transparent lies like the dignity of man and the dignity of work. He must be prevented at any cost from realizing what stage or level must be attained before ‘dignity’ can even be mentioned, which is actually the point where the individual completely transcends himself and no longer has to produce and work in the service of the continuation of his individual life.”

Despite the disgracefulness of work, Nietzsche acknowledges that work is necessary for the production and development of culture. “Culture, which is first and foremost a real hunger for art, rests on one terrible premise: In order for there to be a broad, deep, fertile soil for the development of art, the overwhelming majority has to be slavishly subjected to life’s necessity in the service of the minority, beyond the measure that is necessary for the individual. At their expense, through their extra work, that privileged class is to be removed from the struggle for existence, in order to produce and satisfy a new world of necessities. This truth is the vulture which gnaws at the liver of the Promethean promoter of culture. The misery of men living a life of toil has to be increased to make the production of the world of art possible for a small number of Olympian men.”

While I agree that work is disgraceful and that work is necessary to furnish artists with the means to create art, I disagree that the majority of men must be workers in order to cultivate an environment for artists. Already, machines have filled some job roles previously filled by men. The continual advancement of technology will most likely produce artificial intelligence capable of performing all work necessary to perpetuate the existence of men. Thus, the majority of men will not need to work. This, however, is a trivial disagreement. Work, whether it is performed by humans or machines, is a shameful necessity of culture.


15 thoughts on “NIETZSCHE: The Dignity of Work

    • I agree – the uncreative and unimaginative people will certainly die of boredom.

      Also, many have remarked that work is a necessary distraction from the absurdity of life and from the awareness of death. If work were removed, then many would confront these two things for the first time. Many do not have the qualities required to deal with these issues, so many would die.

  1. Nietzsche is an evasive and a dualistic writer. He never defined “work.” By work, is he speaking of paid labour or subsistence gardening.

    Not all men have the artistic spirit so definitely some will be slaves. Whatever man does, being work or art or play is a precise reflection of his inner needs which further gives rise to his struggles.

    I think through work man challenges himself. Through art man obtains recreation. Both are necessary conditions of life.

      • If that was what he meant, then he was speaking of indentured servantship. That, every knows is a synonym for slavery.

        But then every free man does work that suits his nature and it is only in contrast to work that we find the true meaning of play or leisure or recreation.

  2. I think a strong argument could be made that there is honor in the majority working to finance the few, the artists and scholars alike. I think it speaks to the beneficial progression of our society that so many paid positions have an artistry aspect, allowing some fulfillment of our artistic desires.
    Further concern I have is that he seems to give no honor to the means by which the art is produced, as if great books might be published without a publisher, or a painter create his masterpiece without the man making the paintbrushes or mixing his paint.
    All can appreciate art on some level even if they cannot create it. I would argue there is a greater nobility for the man who gives his life to the appreciation of art financially and by his toil, and finds join in it, than of the artist itself, though he receives the greater public honor.
    (I apologize for the length of this response, but…)
    My greatest concern is his basic assumption that art is the sole good of life, as if art was somehow intrinsically valuable. All things appreciated, be they toil or poetry, are beneficial to the appreciator, because he/she values them, and there is no definitive basis for claiming first importance for things that the philosopher happens to appreciate most deeply.
    Finally, I would suggest that I, the freedman able to work hard, and enjoy good fitting joinery and carpentry, be listening 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 or the bible, am more archetypal of the ideal liberated open man than Nietzsche ever was. His principals betray his slavish devotion to the Greek cultural principles and reveal his never being liberated, despite his high mindedness.
    I apologize once again, for this lengthy response, and the imposition on your humoring me.
    -Dearest Theophilus

    • It could also be pointed out that the retelling of the story of a life of nothing but toil, is often considered art. Without the man working and overcoming difficulty the artist would have nothing to reflect on. Art is nothing without toil. They are inseparable. I think that is worth considering.

  3. I think that the subject of work is intrinsically wrapped up in who an individual is and who they become. Although millions have no choice in what they do — they do have a choice in how they do. It is that choice that gives us the basis of our art – whatever form it may take. Survival in itself has a very bad rap. Although we like to pontificate on the idea of “living” rather than simply “surviving,” survival has a beauty all its own. Learning how to do so successfully, gracefully, and with an empathy for your fellow travelers is no mean accomplishment.

  4. Pingback: Is Labour Dishonourable? – My Response to Nietzche – Dear Lewis

  5. Several errors on Nietzsche’s part – quite understandable given the very simplistic state of science generally and biology in particular in his day.

    He did not understand that beauty is a set of biases in our neural networks instilled by evolution over very long periods, and is thus a product of survival.

    He did not appreciate that all values rely upon existence (whatever existence actually is), and thus the maintenance of existence must of necessity be the highest value. How we then each choose to balance that against whatever other values we accumulate, is a matter with some significant degrees of choice and variability.

    Work can be painful, or joyful, depending largely on the attitude we bring to it.

    The historical reality of some degree of slavery/servitude was largely true in Nietzsche’s day, but with the advent of advanced automation, is no longer true today. Today, all people can have the option to devote the majority of their lives to the pursuit of their highest choices, and there will eternally remain some degree to which the explorations of the necessities of responsibility will consume some degree of our time.

    Too much freedom (freedom without responsibility) is necessarily destructive of the sets of constraints necessary in reality for the emergence and survival of that level of complexity/freedom. Too many rules create rigid boundaries that necessarily break in the face of the unknown unknowns. There is an eternal need for balance between freedom and responsibility at all levels of complexity and it will vary from context to context – involving eternal novelty and uncertainty.

    “Nietzsche claims that work detracts from our ability to produce art. Those 40 hours spent at work could have been spent producing art.” If there is no water to drink, no food to eat, no shelter from the elements, then before very many 40 hours have past there will be no art produced. The necessities of life, of existence, must be catered for, for there to be any significant amount of art, or anything else. In modern complex society that gets deeply complex very quickly.
    So again, Nietzsche is in error, through over simplification, and ignoring the complexities of reality.

    One can now make a strong argument that 40 hours is not required, and it seems likely to me that something of the order of 20 hours or more doing something to educate ourselves or create something for the betterment of all, is required of each of us, each to the best of our limited and fallible abilities; and will likely eternally remain so. And some of us do much more than that – by choice, and by long term necessity.

    I disagree entirely with the use of “Shameful” in “Work, whether it is performed by humans or machines, is a shameful necessity of culture.” It is a necessity of existence, demanded by thermo-dynamics. There is an old adage – “reality to be commanded must first be obeyed” – if we wish to survive, as individuals or a species, then we must accept the responsibilities demanded by reality for survival. Anything less than that is delusional, self indulgent, hubris. Evolution instilled a useful approximation to that in our neural networks a long time ago – hence the “dignity of work”.

    So while I very much enjoyed some of Nietzsche’s thinking, on this particular subject he was fundamentally in error – so deeply in error as to pose existential level threat to our species if not clearly seen as such.

  6. Pingback: NIETZSCHE: The Dignity of Work | Ted Howard NZ's Blog

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