Nietzschean Work

Recent entries added to the repository include more than 50 citations from Nietzsche’s writings.

Against the Work Society

In the pantheon of modern Western philosophy, Nietzsche seems to provide some of the most acute statements to make the case against work.

Integral to his diagnosis of modern society as a life-form racked by self-destructive nihilism is the critique of industrialism and its productivist mindset.

Nietzsche bemoans the fact that the utilitarian ethos and the compulsion to work have corrupted all areas of modern life, as in this passage from the Gay Science (1887):

Even now one is ashamed of resting, and prolonged reflection almost gives people a bad conscience. One thinks with a watch in one's hand, even as one eats one's midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market; one lives as if one always "might miss out on something." "Rather do anything than nothing": this principle, too, is merely a string to throttle all culture and good taste. Just as all forms are visibly perishing by the haste of the workers, the feeling for form itself, the ear and eye for the melody of movements are also perishing. The proof of this may be found in the universal demand for gross obviousness in all those situations in which human beings wish to be honest with one another for once—in their associations with friends, women, relatives, children, teachers, pupils, leaders, and princes: One no longer has time or energy for ceremonies, for being obliging in an indirect way, for esprit in conversation, and for any otium at all. Living in a constant chase after gain compels people to expend their spirit to the point of exhaustion in continual pretense and overreaching and anticipating others. Virtue has come to consist of doing something in less time than someone else. Hours in which honesty is permitted have become rare, and when they arrive one is tired and does not only want to "let oneself go" but actually wishes to stretch out as long and wide and ungainly as one happens to be.

Passages such as this one directly anticipate 20th and 21st century criticisms of the modern work ethic and its nefarious effects on subjectivities, social relations and collectives. They directly announce later attempts to defend the values of leisure, idleness, praxis (action for its own sake), and all disinterested modes of being with others and in the world.

Art in the Age of Work

“Art in the age of work” (Human, All Too Human, §170) suffers a similar fate. The “end of art” Hegel famously pronounced in the first decades of the 19th century has come to mean something much more mundane and pathetic for Nietzsche. Well before Adorno’s analyses of the transformation of art into a culture industry, he identifies the demands the industrial age places on the production and reception of cultural artefacts, where artistic expression now must aim exclusively for the recreation and distraction of overworked audiences:

We possess the conscience of an industrious age: and this conscience does not permit us to bestow our best hours and mornings on art, however grand and worthy this art may be. To us art counts as a leisure, a recreational activity: we devote to it the remnants of our time and energies. -- This is the most general circumstance through which the relationship of art to life has been altered: when it makes its grand demands on the time and energy of the recipients of art it has the conscience of the industrious and able against it, it is directed to the conscienceless and lazy, who, however, are in accordance with their nature unfavourably inclined precisely towards grand art and feel the claims it makes to be presumptuous. It may therefore be that grand art is facing its end from lack of air and the room to breathe it.

Against Workerist Politics

In politics, the ascent of socialism as an alternative to conservativism and liberalism, far from being a genuine attempt at emancipation, is only a reaction to the baseness of the new capitalist masters, and, being reactive, is characterised just as much by the mentality that defines them:

industrial culture in its present shape is altogether the most vulgar form of existence that has yet existed. Here one is at the mercy of brute need; one wants to live and has to sell oneself, but one despises those who exploit this need and buy the worker. Oddly, submission to powerful, frightening, even terrible persons, like tyrants and generals, is not experienced as nearly so painful as is this submission to unknown and uninteresting persons, which is what all the luminaries of industry are. What the workers see in the employer is usually only a cunning, bloodsucking dog of a man who speculates on all misery; and the employer's name, shape, manner, and reputation are a matter of complete indifference to them. The manufacturers and entrepreneurs of business probably have been too deficient so far in all those forms and signs of a higher race that alone make a person interesting. If the nobility of birth showed in their eyes and gestures, there might not be any socialism of the masses. For at bottom the masses are willing to submit to slavery of any kind, if only the higher-ups constantly legitimize themselves as higher, as born to command by having noble manners. The most common man feels that nobility cannot be improvised and that one has to honor in it the fruit of long periods of time. But the lack of higher manners and the notorious vulgarity of manufacturers with their ruddy, fat hands give him the idea that it is only accident and luck that have elevated one person above another. Well, then, he reasons: let us try accident and luck! let us throw the dice! And thus socialism is born. (The Gay Science, p.107)

The Corruption of Knowledge in the Work Society

Nietzsche includes the modern attitude to knowledge and scholarship to the manifestations of the pathological state of industrial society:

The second ‘Untimely One’ (1874) brings to light what is dangerous and gnaws at and poisons life in our kind of traffic with science and scholarship—how life is made sick by this dehumanized and mechanical grinding of gears, the "impersonality" of the laborer, the false economy of the "division of labor." The aim is lost, genuine culture-and the means, the modem traffic with science, barbarized. In this essay the "historical sense" of which this century is proud was recognized for the first time as a disease, as a typical symptom of decay. (On the Genealogy of Morals, p.276)

The Nietzschean Strand in anti-Work Philosophy

Nietzsche’s critique of the “work society” cast its shadow across the 20th century, in successive generations of thinkers who were directly influenced by him. Particularly significant amongst them are two French authors, Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot. In the decades surrounding the second world war, they took up Nietzsche’s challenge to define modes of living and thinking beyond the nihilistic tendencies of our epoch, a challenge made particularly urgent after the rise of Fascism vindicated his vision in spectacular fashion. For both of them, the work compulsion is a defining aspect of the life-denying tendencies of modernity. The paths explored by Bataille and Blanchot made a strong impression on Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy. If we add to this list the other luminaries of “post-structuralism”, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, both of whom were also significantly indebted to Nietzsche, a distinctive post-Nietzschean strand becomes visible in the contemporary case against work.

Nietzsche’s Visions of Authentic Work

And yet, as is usually the case with work (and certainly with Nietzsche), things are in fact much more complicated. Next to the passages where Nietzsche expresses his disgust for our “modern, noisy, time-consuming, self-satisfied, stupidly proud industriousness” (Beyond Good and Evil, p.51), there are plenty of other places where his accounts of work are far less negative. In those passages, it is not work per se that is criticised, but rather the difficulty to perform good, authentic work in the current conditions. Implicit in those accounts is a wholly positive conception of work.

Section 288 of Human, All Too Human thus rehearses the classical contrast between industrial and pre-industrial, artisan work, emphasising social dimensions that are rarely attached to craft work:

To what extent the machine abases us. -- The machine is impersonal, it deprives the piece of work of its pride, of the individual goodness and faultiness that adheres to all work not done by a machine - that is to say, of its little bit of humanity. In earlier times all purchasing from artisans was a bestowing of a distinction on individuals, and the things with which we surrounded ourselves were the insignia of these distinctions: household furniture and clothing thus became symbols of mutual esteem and personal solidarity, whereas we now seem to live in the midst of nothing but an anonymous and impersonal slavery. - We must not purchase the alleviation of work at too high a price. 

A section from The Gay Science (p.108) explicitly identifies genuine forms of work (“work with pleasure”) in contrast with inauthentic ones (work chosen because “it pays well”). This passage is remarkable for the way in which Nietzsche rehearses classical tropes—the distinction between praxis and poiesis, action for its own sake versus action that is only a means to an other end; and the praise of idleness—, and turns these tropes on their heads, by suggesting a form of work that is an end in itself, making idleness a preparation for genuine work:

Work and boredom.- Looking for work in order to be paid: in civilized countries today almost all men are at one in doing that. For all of them work is a means and not an end in itself. Hence they are not very refined in their choice of work, if only it pays well. But there are, if only rarely, men who would rather perish than work without any pleasure in their work. They are choosy, hard to satisfy, and do not care for ample rewards, if the work itself is not the reward of rewards. Artists and contemplative men of all kinds belong to this rare breed, but so do even those men of leisure who spend their lives hunting, traveling, or in love affairs and adventures. All of these desire work and misery if only it is associated with pleasure, and the hardest, most difficult work if necessary. Otherwise, their idleness is resolute. even if it spells impoverishment, dishonor, and danger to life and limb. They do not fear boredom as much as work without pleasure; they actually require a lot of boredom if their work is to succeed. For thinkers and all sensitive spirits, boredom is that disagreeable "windless calm" of the soul that precedes a happy voyage and cheerful winds. They have to bear it and must wait for its effect on them. Precisely this is what lesser natures cannot achieve by any means. To ward off boredom at any cost is vulgar, no less than work without pleasure.

A similar overcoming of a classical dichotomy can be found in a late section of Human, All Too Human (§ 611).

Boredom and play. -- Need compels us to perform work with the proceeds of which the need is assuaged; need continually recurs and we are thus accustomed to working. In the intervals, however, during which our needs have been assuaged and are as it were sleeping, we are overtaken by boredom. What is this? It is our habituation to work as such, which now asserts itself as a new, additional need; and the more strongly habituated we are to working, perhaps even the more we have suffered need, the stronger this new need will be. To elude boredom man either works harder than is required to satisfy his other needs or he invents play, that is to say work designed to assuage no other need than the need for work as such. He who has become tired of play, and who has no fresh needs that require him to work, is sometimes overtaken by a longing for a third condition which stands in the same relation to play as floating does to dancing and dancing to walking -- for a state of serene agitation: it is the artist's and philosopher's vision of happiness. 

Here Nietzsche looks for a notion beyond the classical opposition of work and play, towards “serene agitation”. It corresponds, he says, to “the artist’s and philosopher’s vision of happiness”. But why is such serenity “agitated”? Nietzsche uses an analogy to make himself understood, comparing this third state to floating as floating is to dancing, and as dancing is to walking. The analogy suggests an increase in detachment, one however that is premised on a continuity in activity. Given this emphasis on continuity, “serene agitation” could well be interpreted as pointing to another genuine form of work: one that is no longer driven by external, utilitarian aims (“work”); one that is no longer, like “play”, an activity that is only performed out of the pure need to work (note the provocation for defenders of idleness and leisure!); but a form of activity that remains productive (“agitated”) but is “serene”, since it has been detached from need, in the former two senses of the term.

Art as Work

Artistic practice and artists are the prime examples of genuine work and authentic workers for Nietzsche. This is unsurprising, both because art is often used in this way in work debates, and because the conditions for modern works of art and the possibility of an artistic way of life were major concerns for Nietzsche throughout his life. In this again, however, his thinking proves remarkably original.

For example, contrary to the hyperbolic declamations of first generation Frankfurt School philosophers a few decades later, and in contrast with some of his more bombastic statements elsewhere, Nietzsche’s judgments display great sensitivity for the ways in which genuine work practices continue to be possible even in the reified conditions of industrial society.

The passage cited above, where “the end of grand art” seemed to be announced, continues like this:

It may therefore be that grand art is facing its end from lack of air and the room to breathe it; unless, that is, grand art tries, through a kind of coarsening and disguising, to become at home in (or at least to endure) that other air which is in reality the natural element only of petty art, of the art of recreation and distraction. And this is now happening everywhere; artists of grand art too now promise recreation and distraction, they too direct their attentions to the tired and weary, they too entreat of them the evening hours of their working day -- just as do the artists of entertainment, who are content to have achieved a victory over the serious brow and the sunken eye. What artifices, then, do their greater comrades employ? They have in their dispensary the mightiest means of excitation capable of terrifying even the half-dead; they have narcotics, intoxicants, convulsives, paroxysms of tears: with these they overpower the tired and weary, arouse them to a fatigued over-liveliness and make them beside themselves with rapture and terror. On account of the perilousness of these means it employs, ought one to denounce grand art in the forms in which it now exists -- opera, tragedy and music -- as the most deceitful of sinners? Not at all: for it would a hundred times prefer to dwell in the pure element of the quietness of morning and address itself to the expectant, wakeful, energetic soul. Let us be grateful to it that it has consented to live as it does rather than flee away: but let us also admit to ourselves that an age which shall one day bring back true festivals of joy and freedom will have no use for our art. (Human, All Too Human, § 170)

Even as they have to play by the rules of the society of the spectacle, Nietzsche argues, great artists continue to demonstrate their skills and artistic vision. We should admire them for their workmanship, and indeed be grateful for how they can awaken us through their works from our productivist compulsion and consumerist torpor.

Artist life is important for Nietzsche because it is the prime example of the kind of “self-overcoming” he sees as the basis of a truly ethical attitude. Self-overcoming, however, inherently entails forms of work: work on the self, and an emphasis on the outcome of working, the Werk.

Our slow periods.- This is how all artists and people of "works” feel, the motherly human type: at every division of their lives, which are always divided by a work, they believe that they have reached their goal; they would always patiently accept death with the feeling, "now we are ripe for it." This is not the expression of weariness—rather of a certain autumnal sunniness and mildness that the work itself, the fact that the work has become ripe. always leaves behind in the author. Then the tempo of life slows down and becomes thick like honey—even to the point of long fermata, of the faith in the long fermata. (The Gay Science, p.337)

Or in On the Genealogy of Morals (p.100):

one does best to separate an artist from his work, not taking him as seriously as his work. He is, after all, only the precondition of his work, the womb, the soil, sometimes the dung and manure on which, out of which, it grows and therefore in most cases something one must forget if one is to enjoy the work itself. Insight into the origin of a work concerns the physiologists and vivisectionists of the spirit; never the aesthetic man, the artist!

The Overman as Worker

No wonder then that the life, words and actions of Zarathustra are depicted through Nietzsche’s idiosyncratic language of work. Zarathustra performs his destiny as a self working on itself, producing a Werk that overcomes the old self and produces a new one. In the process, through his example and his followers, Zarathustra opens the door for changing human history.

And once more Zarathustra became immersed in himself and sat down again on the great stone, and he reflected. Suddenly he jumped to his feet – 

“Pity! Pity for the higher men!” he cried, and his face transformed to bronze. “Well then! That – has its time! 

My suffering and my pity – what do they matter! Do I strive for happiness? I strive for my work! 

Well then! The lion came, my children are near, Zarathustra became ripe, my hour came – 

This is my morning, my day is beginning: up now, up, you great noon! ” – 

Thus spoke Zarathustra and he left his cave, glowing and strong, like a morning sun that emerges from dark mountains. (Thus spoke Zarathustra, p. 266)


Henri Rousseau, The Repast of the Lion (1907), Metropolitan Museum of Art.