- To Plato, what people today call a "job" is the mastery of one part of reality that repairs a genuine need and contributes to the good.
- The Platonic tradition largely sees work as not changing the external environment but laboring on oneself. Work shapes one's character.
- Plato's "Republic" defines justice as each person doing his own job.
One of the major research themes of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard is work and well-being. We spend a great deal of our lives working, and what happens in the workplace affects the rest of our lives.
Work has tremendous potential to enhance our well-being or inhibit it; to contribute to society or create challenges in people’s lives. When companies and individuals carry out work well, it can be one of the central pathways to flourishing. It can lead to greater engagement, help form character, be a forum for social relationships, and contribute to the good of society. Trying to understand how to best promote well-being in the workplace has been an important part of our empirical work.
However, the role of work in human flourishing has received considerable attention in philosophical and theological writings as well, and reflection on these matters has likewise been an important part of the work of the Human Flourishing Program. In that regard, we are very pleased to announce the recent publication of a book by our Senior Philosopher, Jeffrey Hanson, on Philosophies of Work in the Platonic Tradition: A History of Labor and Human Flourishing.
The remainder of this post provides a brief overview of some of the important ideas and themes that have emerged concerning work and well-being from this historic survey and its relevance for today; we’ll also be providing further coverage of the ideas and material in this book at a book launch webinar event on June 9th at 11:00 AM EST to which all are invited. To register click on this link: book launch.
Plato on Work
As noted above, the history of philosophy and theology offers rich resources for thinking about work and human flourishing, notably in the Platonic tradition. For this tradition, making is always moral. What kind of work we do and the conditions under which we do it are matters of ethical importance.
For Plato, what the Greeks called techne is a kind of knowledge; techne is craft, which is the sort of activity that most people of Plato’s time occupied themselves with. That Plato has an interest in—and respect for—a variety of arts and crafts has long been acknowledged, but the reason for his interest has been much debated.
Knowledge and Engagement
Plato prized philosophical knowledge most of all, and he is rightfully acknowledged as the first major Western thinker to give his readers a comprehensive theory of what comprises philosophical wisdom.
Part of that wisdom though includes techne, which explains why Plato himself thought the highest kind of philosophical wisdom would necessarily include a practical aspect: For him, wisdom is primarily theory but not exclusively. For the Platonic tradition, theory is always higher than practice. Nevertheless, Plato will frame the skills and crafts practiced by the ordinary people of his day as opportunities to glimpse in a limited way the highest realities that the philosopher contemplates in full.
What most people did as what we would call a job is for Plato a kind of knowing. It is not the whole of knowledge and cannot be, but it is a mastery of some part of reality and a constructive response to it that repairs a genuine need and secures a worthwhile good. The carpenter, for example, knows wood, what it can bear, and how it can be shaped and cut and joined in order to produce a worthwhile object that in its small but inimitable way partakes of form and beauty.
Philosophy and Work
A philosopher will also be a maker of sorts. At the very least, the Platonic philosopher uses wisdom to make his or her own life morally excellent and aesthetically beautiful.
In this way, all thinkers should also be doers. This maxim holds for all of Plato’s intellectual successors, from Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy and the hero of Plato’s writings, through the medieval Desert Fathers and Mothers, giants of church history like Augustine and Luther, to modern critics of the industrial age like John Ruskin and Simone Weil. For all these fascinating scholars of work, theory remains supreme, but action is a vital part of the theoretical life, so there is no final and sharp separation between them. We all need a constant interweaving of work and reflection, philosophizing and action, theory and practice.
Work, Morality, and Character
While contemporary social sciences tend to think of work as primarily concerned with making external changes to the world, for the Platonic tradition, work is always also laboring on oneself. Work thus is never merely an external phenomenon but also an inner dynamic. The Platonic tradition sees work as needed for any good at all and therefore not primarily about altering the environment. While work is done in response to a contemplated reality, it is also always done on oneself. The early monks, for example, understood this and did manual labor that was precisely not intended to make a profound change in the world but to change the self. They knew that what we do repeatedly, day in and day out, makes us who we are. Work shapes our character.
In the Platonic tradition, work and morality are linked. All making is moral, and this is true in the first instance because work shapes the worker as above. But it is also true because the goods of work are also set in a social order, the justice of which is partly measured by the work done in it. What we work on, what we produce, what we do matters.
Work and Justice
Plato in fact sees a relationship between the individual soul and the city-state, which itself exists ultimately to allow for a just social order so that each individual can pursue her appointed task.
The celebrated definition of justice in the Republic as each person doing his own job at first seems like a practical postulate, but in the end, rises to the level of a philosophical principle. This is because work is a way of participating in justice. That justice arises in a community in which everyone is not looking merely at their outward tasks but also looking after the quality of their own soul. Many of Plato’s followers thought the same, and we ourselves and our society would do well to likewise follow.
The history of the philosophy of work in the Platonic tradition has a great deal of wisdom to offer us in our contemporary context. What we work on matters. It is a moral decision. Work shapes us, and what we produce in work shapes society. It can either contribute to or detract from justice. When carried out well, it can give rise to a sense of engagement, of knowing the material or craft in which we are involved, and of the interplay between reflection and practice.
For those who are fortunate enough to have some degree of choice over their work, the choice both concerning what to work on and how to go about that work has an ethical dimension that we should take seriously, both as individuals and as a society. We should try to create workplaces and choose types of work that can contribute to the good and positively shape our own souls and those of others in society.
Work is not the ultimate end. We work to provide goods and services to meet the needs of humanity; we work in part to shape our own character and soul; but the good of the soul—full human flourishing—is the end we are ultimately to be striving for.
Hanson, J. (2022). Philosophies of Work in the Platonic Tradition: A History of Labor and Human Flourishing. Bloomsbury.
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