Last time, we were looking at Suits’s argument in chapter 1 of The Grasshopper. As best I could tell, the Grasshopper was trying to equate work with prudence, and prudence with avoiding waste.
Correcting a Mistake
Last time, however, I thought the conclusion of the Grasshopper’s argument was that the life of work is somehow incoherent or self-contradictory. But the longer I look at the text, the more it seems to me that the Grasshopper means something less dramatic.
Here are some select sentences:
[P]rudential actions (e.g., those actions we ordinarily call work) are self-defeating in principle. . . . The ideal of prudence, . . . like the ideal of preventive medicine, is its own extinction. For if it were the case that no sacrifices of goods needed ever to be made, then prudential actions would be pointless, indeed impossible.Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper, ch. 1, p. 8
So, I think it would be smarter to say: work is trying to fill a gap, make up for a lack. You work because there is something you need, and working for it is the only way to meet that need.
But what happens when your need is met? In normal human life the need returns, or another need arises — so you have to work again. And that makes it seem that work is something permanent, necessary, and unquestionable.
Nevertheless, you only have to work because you have needs — but it is the very nature of work to fill needs . . . so work’s job is to eliminate the reason for working (something it can never do permanently).
Some Guy Named “Yves”
Sixteen years before Bernard Suits published The Grasshopper, a Catholic philosopher named Yves Simon published A General Theory of Authority. There are two types of authority, Simon argues: substitutional and essential.
A substitutional authority has the job of fixing a problem, or making up for a lack. Teachers, for example, have this sort of authority. They are only required if there are students who lack knowledge, and thus need to be informed.
Therapists (both physical and psychological) also have substitutional authority. They are needed because people have problems, it is their job to help people solve those problems, and if you’ve got problems you’d best listen to what they have to say.
But once the learning or recovery is done, the teacher or therapist’s job is done. Their authority over the student or athlete disappears. They only keep working because new students and athletes keep turning up.
Back to Work
To borrow Simon’s terminology, the authority that work has over us is substitional, not essential. The work of the teacher, the therapist, the crossing guard, etc. is paradigmatic of all work: its job is to solve problems, and thus to put itself out of a job.
But that means work only keeps its job so long as new problems, lacks, deficiencies, etc. are being generated by something else. Its purpose derives from something else. Its existence depends on something else.
And Back to the Bible
And it’s worth bringing up authority with regard to work because of the Bible. Consider these two passages:
Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise. Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest. How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep? Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man.Proverbs 6:6-11 (KJV)
You will note the parallels here with Aesop’s fable. And having the Bible tell you this will no doubt add to the apparent authority of work over human life.
That apparent authority is then redoubled by St. Paul.
Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.2 Thessalonians 3:10-12 (NRSV)
But Then Again . . .
It is worth remembering two things, however. In the Hebrew scriptures, there was the required weekly Sabbath, during which work was disallowed — in imitation of God’s own rest on the seventh day of creation (Exodus 20:8-11). And then every seventh year was to be an entire year of sabbath (Leviticus 25:1-7).
And then we have Jesus.
He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.Luke 12:22-23 (NRSV)
Might Jesus be on the side of the Grasshopper? Well, he does have an animal for us to consider:
Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!Luke 12:24 (NRSV)
And then Jesus takes on Solomon — the guy we all associate with the book of Proverbs and going to the ant:
Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!Luke 12:27-28 (NRSV)
And it might be good at this point to recall the subtitle of Suits’s book: “Games, Life and Utopia.” Except Jesus refers to “God’s kingdom” instead of “utopia.”
And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.Luke 12:29-32 (NRSV)
The arrival of God’s kingdom (the kingdom of heaven) is the good news Jesus preached, and was marked not by “saving people’s souls” but by healing the sick and helping the poor (see also the Beatitudes).
And we can see at least the “helping the poor part” in the way Jesus ends his lesson on work and worry.
Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.Luke 12:33-34 (NRSV)
Back to the Grasshopper
I’m sorry about that. I have strong opinions about the Bible. And the topic of the kingdom and utopia will be coming up again eventually.
(In the meantime, if Weber is right about “the Protestant [work] ethic and the spirit of capitalism,” it may take a lot of work to reevaluate assumptions we don’t even realize we’ve been making.)
In any event, let’s end today’s post with a brief return to the reason we’re here: the Grasshopper. The Grashopper has been arguing that work is something contingent and derivative, whose very nature is to make itself unnecessary.
More than that: “The true Grasshopper sees that work is not self-justifying, and that his way of life is the final justification for any work whatever” (pp. 8-9).
But we’ll have to wait till next time to see his defense of that claim.