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The First Condition for Dignified Work
by Simone Weil
There is in the work of human hands and, in general, in the skilled performance of a task, which is work properly understood, an irreducible element of servitude that even a perfectly just society cannot remove. This is because it is governed by necessity, not by finality. It is carried out because of a need, not in view of some good, “because one needs to earn one’s living,” as those who pass their days working say. One expends an effort at the end of which, as far as one can see, one will not have anything different from what one has now. Without this effort one would lose what one has.
But in human nature, there is no other source of energy for effort but desire. And it is not human nature to desire what one has. Desire is an orientation, the beginning of a movement towards something. The movement is towards a point where one is not. If the movement that has scarcely begun is fastened on the point of departure, one turns like a squirrel in a cage, like a condemned man in a cell. Turning around always produces discouragement quickly.
Discouragement, lassitude, disgust, is the great temptation of those who work, especially if they do so in inhuman conditions but even if they do not. At times, this temptation bites into the best of them, even more than the others.
To exist is not an end for a human being; it is only the ground on which all goods, true or false, stand. Goods are added to existence. When they disappear, when existence is no longer supplemented with any good, when it is naked, it no longer has any connection with the good. It is even an evil, which it is at the very moment when existence takes the place of all absent goods; then it becomes in itself the unique good, the only object of desire. The desire of the soul finds itself attached to a naked evil without any veil. The soul is then in a state of horror.
This horror is that of the moment when an imminent violence is going to inflict death. In the past, this moment of horror lasted a lifetime for the one who, unarmed under the sword of the winner of the fight, was spared. In exchange for the life that was left him, he had to exhaust his energy in efforts as a slave, all day long, every day, without anything to hope for except not being killed or whipped. He was no longer able to pursue any good but that of existing. The ancients used to say that on the day that one was made a slave one lost half one’s soul.
But every condition in which one finds oneself necessarily in the same situation on the last day of a period of a month, of a year or of twenty years of effort as on the first day, has a resemblance to slavery. The resemblance is constituted by the impossibility of desiring anything other than what one has, of orienting one’s effort towards the acquisition of a good. One makes an effort only to live.
The unit of time is thus the day. In this space, one turns round in circles. One moves back and forth between work and rest like a ball that is bounced from one wall to another. One works only because one needs to eat. But one eats in order to continue working. And again one works in order to eat.
Everything is an intermediary in this existence. Everything is a means. Finality is not grasped anywhere. The article made is a means; it will be sold. Who can put his being into it? The material, the tool, the body of the worker, his soul itself are means for fabrication. Necessity is everywhere, the good is nowhere.
It is not necessary to search far for the causes of the demoralization of the people. The cause is there; it is permanent; it is essential to the condition of work. It is necessary to look for the causes that in former times have prevented this demoralization from being produced.
A great moral inertia, a great physical force that makes effort almost unconscious, allows this emptiness to be supported. Otherwise, compensations are necessary. Ambition for another social condition for oneself or for one’s children is one. Easy and violent pleasure is another that is of the same nature; it is the dream that takes the place of ambition. Sunday is the day on which one wants to forget that it is necessary to work. For that one must pay. One must be dressed as if one did not work. Satisfactions for one’s vanity and illusions of power that license procures very easily are required. Debauchery has exactly the same function as a drug; and the use of drugs is always a temptation for those who suffer. Finally, revolution is another compensation of the same nature. It is ambition translated into the collective, the crazy ambition of the ascent of all workers out of the workers’ condition.
For most people, the revolutionary sentiment is in the first place a revolt against injustice, but it becomes quickly among many, as it has become historically, a worker imperialism entirely analogous to national imperialism. It has for its object entirely unlimited domination of a certain collectivity over all of humanity and over every aspect of human life. The absurd thing is that, in this dream, the domination would be in the hands of those who carry it out, and as a consequence cannot control it.
Insofar as it is a revolt against social injustice, the revolutionary idea is good and healthy. Insofar as it is a revolt against the essential evil of the workers’ condition, it is a lie, because no revolution will wipe out this evil. But this lie has the greatest hold over people because this essential evil is resented more vigorously, more deeply, more sadly than injustice itself. Usually, moreover, they are confused. The name “opium of the people,” which Marx applied to religion, belongs to religion when it betrays itself, but it is essentially applicable to revolution. The hope of revolution is always a drug.
Revolution satisfies at the same time this need for adventure, as being the thing the most opposed to necessity and that is another reaction against the same evil. The taste for novels and for police films and the tendency towards criminality that is seen among adolescents corresponds also to this need.
The bourgeoisie have been very naive in believing that a good recipe consisted in transferring to the people the end that governs their own life, that is to say, the acquisition of money. They have reached the farthest limit possible by piecework and the extension of exchange between the cities and the countryside. But they have done nothing but push dissatisfaction to a dangerous degree of exasperation. The cause of this is simple. Money, once it becomes the goal of desire and efforts, cannot tolerate in its domain internal conditions in which it is impossible to be enriched. A little industrialist, a little business man can become rich and become a big industrialist or a big business man. A teacher, a writer, a minister are rich or poor in any circumstance. But a worker who becomes very rich ceases being a worker, and it is almost always the same for a peasant. A worker cannot be bitten by the desire for money without desiring to leave, alone or with his comrades, the workers’ condition.
The universe where the workers live has no finality. It is impossible for ends to enter there, except for brief periods that correspond to exceptional situations. The rapid fitting out of new countries, such as America or Russia, produces change upon change, at a rhythm that is so swift that it proposes to all, almost from day to day, new things to expect, to desire, to hope for; this feverish construction has been the great instrument of seduction for communist Russia, due to a coincidence, because it depends on the economic state of the country and not on a revolution or on Marxist doctrine. When metaphysical principles are elaborated, according to these exceptional circumstances that are passing and brief, as the Americans and Russians have done, these metaphysical principles are lies.
The family has as its end the raising of children. But unless one hopes for another condition for them—and in the nature of things such social movement is necessarily exceptional—the sight of children condemned to the same existence does not prevent one from feeling sorrow at the emptiness and heaviness of this existence.
This heavy emptiness causes a lot of suffering. It can be felt even by many of those whose culture is nonexistent and whose intelligence is weak. Those who, because of their state in life, do not know what it is, cannot judge fairly the actions of those who put up with it all their lives. It does not cause death, but it is perhaps as painful as hunger. Perhaps more so. Perhaps it would be literally true to say that bread is less necessary than the remedy for this pain.
There is no choice of remedies. There is only one. One thing alone makes the monotony bearable, that is a light from eternity; that is beauty.
There is only one case where human nature allows the desire of the soul to be carried not towards that which might be or which will be, but towards what exists now. This case is beauty. Everything that is beautiful is an object of desire, but one does not desire that it be different, one does not desire to change anything, one desires the very thing that exists. One looks with desire at the starry sky on a clear night and what one desires is exactly the sight that one has.
Since people are forced to place all their desire on what they already possess, beauty is made for them and they are made for beauty. Poetry is a luxury for the other social classes, but the common people need poetry like they need bread. And not only the poetry enclosed in words; by itself that cannot be of any use. They require that the daily substance of their lives be poetry itself.
Such poetry can only have one source. This source is God. This poetry can only be religion. By no trick, by no process, no reform, no upheaval, can finality enter into the universe where workers are placed by their very condition. But this universe can be completely linked to the only end that is true. It can be hooked onto God. The workers’ condition is one where hunger for finality that constitutes the very being of every man cannot be satisfied except by God.
That is where their privilege lies. They are the only ones who can possess it. In every other condition, without exception, some particular ends are related to the activity. When it is a question of the salvation of one soul or many, there is no particular end that cannot make a screen and hide God. By detachment it is necessary to pierce through the screen. For the workers there is no screen. Nothing separates them from God. They only have to lift their heads.
The difficult thing for them is to lift their heads. Unlike other people, they have nothing beyond what is essential, nothing they must get rid of with effort. There is something that they lack. They are in need of intermediaries. When one has advised them to think about God and to make an offering to him of their troubles and their sufferings, one has still done nothing for them.
People go into churches expressly to pray; nevertheless, we know that they are unable to pray unless their attention is grasped by intermediaries that can keep them oriented towards God. The very architecture of the church, the images that it contains, the words of the liturgy and the prayers, the ritual gestures of the priest are these intermediaries. By paying attention to them, people are oriented towards God. How much greater then is the need for such intermediaries in the place of work, where one goes only to make a living. There everything binds one’s thought to the earth.
But religious images cannot be placed there nor can it be suggested that the workers look at them. Neither can one propose that they recite prayers while working. The only objects of sense to which they can give their attention are matter, the instruments, and the gestures of their work. If these objects themselves are not transformed into mirrors of the light, it is impossible that during work their attention will be oriented towards the source of all light. There is no necessity more pressing than this transformation.
It is only possible if a reflecting property is found in matter as it is offered to the work of human beings. For it is not a question of fabricating fictions or arbitrary symbols. Fiction, imagination, dreams have nothing to do with what concerns the truth. But, fortunately for us, there is a reflecting property in matter. It is a mirror tarnished, clouded by our breath. It is only necessary to clean the mirror and to read the symbols that are written in matter from all eternity.
The Gospels contain some of them. In one’s own room, in envisioning a new and truthful birth, one must stop to think of the need for a moral death, and to read or repeat to oneself the words about a seed only bearing fruit by first dying. But he who is busy sowing seed can, if he wants, turn his attention to this truth without the aid of any word through his own gestures and the sight of the grain that is being buried in the ground. If he does not reason about it, if he just looks at it, the attention that he pays to the accomplishment of his task is not impeded but brought to the highest degree of intensity. Religious attention is not called the fullness of attention for nothing. Fullness of attention is nothing else but prayer.
It is the same for the separation of the soul and Christ that dries up the soul, just as the branch dries up when it is cut from the vine. The cutting of the vines takes days and days on large estates. But also there is a truth there that can be examined for days and days without being exhausted.
It would be easy to discover written from all eternity in the nature of things a lot of other symbols capable of transfiguring not only work in general but each task in its uniqueness. Christ is the brass serpent that one only has to gaze upon in order to escape death. But it is necessary to be able to look at it in a manner completely uninterrupted. For that reason it is necessary that the things that the needs and the obligations of life constrain us to watch reflect what they prevent us from watching directly. It would be very surprising if a church constructed by the hands of man should be full of symbols while the universe would not be infinitely full of them. They must be read.
The image of the cross compared to a balance in the Good Friday hymn could be an inexhaustible inspiration for those who carry loads or handle levers and are tired in the evening from the weight of things. In a balance, a considerable weight near the point of application can be lifted by a very light weight placed at a great distance. The body of Christ was a very light weight, but, because of the distance between the earth and the sky, it makes for a counterweight to the universe. In a manner infinitely different, but analogous enough to serve as an image, whoever is working, or lifting loads, or handling levers, should also make of his weak body a counterweight to the universe. It is too heavy, and often the universe makes the body and the soul bend with heaviness. But he who clings to the heavens will easily make a counterweight. Once a person has perceived this truth, he cannot be distracted by fatigue, boredom, or disgust. He can only be brought back to it.
The sun and the sap in the plants speak continually in the fields of what is the greatest thing in the world. We do not live by anything else but solar energy. We eat it, and it keeps us on our feet, it makes our muscles move, it operates bodily in all our acts. It is, perhaps under diverse forms, the only thing in the universe that constitutes a force opposed to gravity; it is what rises into the trees, what lifts loads through our arms, what drives our motors. It comes from an inaccessible source that we cannot approach even by one step. It comes down on us continually. But although it bathes us perpetually, we cannot capture it. Only the vegetable element of chlorophyll can capture it for us and make food out of it. It is only necessary that the earth be suitably managed by our efforts; then, through chlorophyll, solar energy becomes something solid and enters into us as bread, as wine, as oil, as fruits. The entire work of the peasant consists in caring for and serving this biological power that is a perfect image of Christ.
The laws of mechanics that derive from geometry and that apply to our machines contain supernatural truths. The oscillation of alternating motion is the image of our earthly condition. Everything that belongs to creatures is limited, except the desire in us that is the mark of our origin; and our covetousness that makes us seek the unlimited down here is the unique source of error and crime. The goods that things contain are finite, and so are the evils, and in general, a cause produces only a limited effect up to a certain point, beyond which, if it continues to act, the effect is reversed. It is God who imposes a limit on everything, and it is God by whom the sea is fettered. In God there is only one eternal act that, without change, is fastened on itself and has no other object but itself. In creatures there are only movements directed towards the outside, but which are forced to move back and forth by limit; this back-and-forth movement is a degraded reflection of the orientation towards oneself that is exclusively divine. This divine relationship has as an image in our machines, the relationship of circular movement and alternative movement. The circle is also the place of proportional means; in order to find in a perfectly rigorous manner the mean proportional between unity and a number that is not squared, there is no other method but to trace a circle. The numbers for which there exists no mediation that binds them naturally to unity are images of our misery; and the circle that comes from outside in a transcendent manner in relation to the sphere of numbers, to bring mediation, is the image of the unique remedy for this misery. These truths and many others are written in the simple sight of a pulley that establishes a back-and-forth movement. They can be read by someone with very elementary geometrical knowledge; the rhythm of work that corresponds with this oscillation makes them sensible to the body; a human life is a very short period to contemplate them.
Many other symbols could be found, some of them more intimately united to the very behavior of the one who is working. Sometimes it would be enough for the worker to extend to everything without exception his attitude with regard to work in order to possess the fullness of virtue. There are also some symbols to be found for those who have tasks to perform other than physical work. They can be found for the accountant in the elementary operations of arithmetic, for the cashiers in banking institutions, and so on. The reservoir is inexhaustible.
Beginning from there, one could do a great deal. One could transmit to adolescents these great images, allied to the notions of elementary science and general culture, in the circle of studies; or propose them as themes for their festivals, for their theatrical endeavors; or establish around them new festivals. One could see to it by these means that the men and women of the common people live bathed in an atmosphere of supernatural poetry, as in the Middle Ages, or even more than in the Middle Ages, for why should one limit oneself in one’s ambition for the good?
In this way the feeling of intellectual inferiority that is so frequent and at times so sad for workers would be avoided, and also the arrogant self-confidence that replaces it after a superficial contact with the life of the mind. The intellectuals, for their part, would in this way be able to avoid at the same time the unjust disdain and the type of deference no less unjust that the crowd has made fashionable in our farm circles for some years now. Both would meet, without any inequality, at the highest point, that of the fullness of attention that is the fullness of prayer—at least those who would be able. The others would at least know that this point exists and would represent to themselves the diversity of ascending paths, which, while producing a separation at inferior levels, as does the thickness of a mountain, does not prevent equality.
School exercises have no other serious purpose than the formation of attention. Attention is the only faculty of the soul that grants access to God. School exercises use an inferior, discursive form of attention, the one that reasons; but, drawn on by a suitable method, it can prepare for the appearance in the soul of another type of attention, that which is the highest, intuitive attention. Intuitive attention in its purity is the unique source of perfectly beautiful art, of scientific discoveries that are truly luminous and new, of philosophy that truly moves towards wisdom, of love of the neighbor that is truly helpful; and when turned directly towards God, it constitutes true prayer.
In the same way as a symbol would allow one to dig and to mow while thinking about God, so a method that transforms school exercises in preparation for this superior type of attention would by itself permit an adolescent to think about God while he applied himself to a geometry problem or a Latin translation. Failing which, intellectual work, under a mask of liberty, is also for him a servile work.
Those who have some spare time need to exercise to the limit of their capacity the faculties of discursive intelligence in order to achieve intuitive attention; otherwise they become a hindrance. Especially for those who are forced by their social function to bring these faculties into play, there is without doubt no other way. But the hindrance is weak and the exercise can be reduced very much for those among whom the fatigue of a long workday almost entirely paralyses the faculties. For them, the same work that produces this paralysis, provided that it is transformed into poetry, is the way that leads to intuitive attention.
In our society, the difference in instruction more than the difference in wealth produces the illusion of social inequality. Marx, who is almost always at his strongest when he simply describes the evil, has legitimately branded as a degradation the separation of manual and intellectual work. But he did not realize that in every sphere, opposites have their unity in a transcendent plane in relation to each other. The point of unity of intellectual work and manual labor is contemplation, which is not work. In no society can the person who manages a machine exercise the same type of attention as the one who resolves a problem. But both can equally, if they desire it and if they have a method, promote the appearance and the development of another attention situated beyond all social obligation, and which constitutes a direct link with God, if each exercises the type of attention that constitutes his proper lot in society.
If students, young peasants, young workers represented to themselves in an entirely precise manner, as precise as the wheels of a mechanism clearly understood, the different social functions—insofar as they constituted equally efficacious preparation for the appearance in the soul of one identical transcendent faculty, which alone has value—equality would become a concrete thing. It would be then at the same time a principle of justice and of order.
The completely precise representation of the supernatural destiny of each social function alone gives a norm for our will to reform things. It alone permits one to define injustice. Otherwise, it is inevitable that one is deceived either by regarding as injustices some forms of suffering that are written in the nature of things, or by attributing to the human condition some forms of suffering that are the result of our crime, and fall on those who do not deserve them.
A certain subordination and a certain uniformity are forms of suffering included in the very essence of work and inseparable from the supernatural vocation that corresponds to it. They do not degrade a person. Everything that is added to them is unjust and does degrade. Everything that prevents poetry from crystallizing around these sufferings is a crime. For it is not enough to rediscover the lost source of such poetry; it is also necessary that the very circumstances of work permit it to exist. If they are evil, they kill it.
Everything that is indissolubly linked to the desire for, or fear of, change, or to the orientation of thought towards the future, should be excluded from any essentially changeless existence that simply needs to be accepted. In the first place, physical suffering, except for that which is made clearly inevitable by the necessity of work, for it is impossible to suffer without hoping for relief. Privations would be more in place in any other social condition than in this. Food, lodging, rest, and relaxation should be such that a workday taken by itself may normally be free of physical suffering. On the other hand, superabundance has no place in this life; for the desire for what is superfluous is itself unlimited and implies a change in condition. All advertising, all propaganda that is so varied in its forms, that arouses the desire for the superfluous in the countryside and among the workers, ought to be regarded as a crime. An individual can always leave the workers’ or the peasants’ condition, either for basic lack of professional aptitude or because of the possession of different capabilities. But for those who are there, the only change that ought to be possible should be that of one’s well-being as it is strictly related to the general well-being; there should not be any reason to fear falling below or to hope reaching beyond this level. Security should be greater in this social condition than in any other. The chance events brought about by supply and demand should not be masters.
Human arbitrariness drives the soul to fear and hope, unless it can defend itself against it. It must be excluded, therefore, from work as much as possible. Authority should only be present when it cannot be absent. Thus, the small farm property is better than the large. It follows that wherever the small property is possible, the large is evil. In the same way, the production of machine-finished pieces in a small workshop is better than making them under the orders of a foreman. Job praises the death of whatever will allow the slave to no longer hear his master. Every time the voice that commands makes itself heard if a practical arrangement could substitute silence—there is evil.
But the worst outrage, the one that perhaps deserves to be likened to the crime against the Spirit, which cannot be forgiven, if it were not committed by those unconscious of what they were doing, is the crime against the attention of the workers. It kills the faculty in the soul that is the very root of every supernatural vocation. The low quality of attention demanded by Taylorized work is not compatible with any other because it empties the soul of everything unconcerned with speed. This type of work cannot be transformed; it must be suppressed.
All the problems of technology and economy should be formulated functionally by conceiving of the best possible condition for the worker. Such a conception entails in the first place this standard: the entire society should be constituted in such a way that work does not drag down those who perform it.
It is not enough to want to spare them these forms of suffering; it would be necessary to want joy for them, not pleasures that are paid for, but joy that is free and that does not cast a slur on the spirit of poverty. The supernatural poetry, which ought to bathe their entire lives, ought also to be concentrated in a pure state, from time to time, in outstanding festivals. Festivals are as indispensable for this existence as the kilometer markers are to the comfort of the hiker. Free and demanding but difficult trips like the Tour de France in other times should satisfy their hunger to see and to learn when they are young. Everything should be organized so that they lack nothing essential. The best among them should be able to possess in their life itself the fullness that the artisans seek indirectly through their art. If the vocation of the human being is to achieve pure joy through suffering, they are better placed than others to accomplish this in the most real way.
EDITORIAL NOTE: This excerpt is adapted from Simone Weil: Late Philosophical Writings (University of Notre Dame Press, 2016), Chapter 7, “The First Condition for the Work of a Free Person.” Reprinted by permission of, and in collaboration with, the University of Notre Dame Press.