“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.