1. The Third (Catholic numbering)/Fourth (Protestant Numbering) Commandment says to
keep “the sabbath day” holy and to abstain from work then. In Jewish practice,
the Sabbath day is Saturday. In Christian tradition, to commemorate the
resurrection of Jesus which is believed to have been on a Sunday, it is on
Sunday (except for the Seventh Day Adventists)—as well as, according to
specifically Catholic tradition, on other holy days like Christmas. Orthodox
Judaism is very strict about the prohibition of work: for instance, as
currently interpreted, it prohibits throwing a light switch, because the
electricity is seen as analogous to fire, and making fire is seen as work. The
Christian tradition has tended to be more flexible, prohibiting manual labor
and commercial activity, unless it was really quite necessary. In present
times, Catholicism calls for abstinence from the kind of work that distracts
one from focusing on God (unless necessary for survival, etc.), while
Protestant practice varies.
- There seems to be an implicit
assumption behind all of these practices: work is not the primary goal of
human life and so it should not be our ultimate concern. Thus, one needs
to regularly spend time doing something else, something more important,
and resting from the work.
- Of course one who thinks that
work is the main goal of human life will also know that we need to rest
in order to work more effectively. But if we are resting just to
work more effectively, then our rest is a form of work. The spirit and
wording of the Commandment does not seem to be one of resting just
to be a more effective worker.
- But isn’t it the case that if
one is resting for a reason other than that one will work more
effectively, then one is lazy? This is a question we need to look at.
2. In Nicomachean Ethics
I.1-2, Aristotle—Plato’s most famous student—gives an argument for the claim
that some things we desire for their own sake. The distinction comes from
considerations like these. If I make bridles, then I do not make bridles for
the sake of making bridles but for the sake of aiding in horsemanship.
Horsemanship, on the other hand, isn’t done for its own sake, Aristotle
supposes, but for the sake of military victory. All of these things, thus, are
done for the sake of something else. But if we always did each thing for the
sake of something else, then we would either have a vicious
circularity—a case where I do A to achieve B and B to
achieve A (an absurd possibility Aristotle doesn’t even consider
here)—or an infinite regress. 1094a20. But of course there can’t be an
infinite regress. We do not in fact have infinitely many different goals.
- So there must be some things
that we desire for their own sake. Ask a volunteer why he or she is
taking this class.
- In the bridle-making example,
maybe we achieve military victory to keep us from being enslaved by the
enemy. So we desire military victory for the sake of freedom. Why do we
desire freedom? Perhaps for its own sake—the chain of “for the
sake of”s might end right here. Or maybe it goes on a little more. Maybe
we desire freedom that we might express our individuality, and maybe we
desire to express our individuality so as to make the universe richer.
And maybe it ends here—maybe we desire making the universe richer
for its own sake, and not as a means to something else. But maybe it goes
on. Maybe one desires to make the universe richer for the sake of
glorifying God, and that’s where it ends. But wherever it ends, it
doesn’t go on forever.
- Aristotle does not say
here that there is only one thing that people desire for its own
sake. As far as this argument goes, different people might desire
different things for their own sake. And one and the same person might
desire several things, each for its own sake, say virtue and
knowledge and pleasure.
3. The next step is to identify
what it is that is worth getting for its own sake. Suppose someone said: “I am
studying in order to earn money in order to buy so much caviar that I could
everyday make myself sick by eating it. And I want to get sick from caviar for
its own sake.” We would be puzzled. We would first probe: “Is it that you
find getting sick from caviar ‘prestigious’? Does it symbolize something to
you? Is it perhaps a sign of success? Or are you doing this for some
ascetical reason of self-mortification?” But if the person insisted that it
was the getting sick from caviar that she wanted for its own sake,
we would think her irrational. Thus, it seems, some things are not
worth having for their own sake. Throwing up is such a thing.
- What we are looking for are the
ultimate goods, the things worth having for their own sake.
- Aristotle notes that there is a
name that people give to the ultimate goods: “happiness” (eudaimonia,
flourishing). But this doesn’t help much, because we need to figure out
what happiness consists in. Yes, happiness is desired for its own sake.
(Would it not be strange if someone said: “I want to be happy solely in
order that…”? Well, maybe not that strange. What if someone said: “I
want to be happy solely in order that I might be more effective at helping
other people”? But in helping other people, isn’t one helping them to be
happy? And does one expect them to be happy only that they might help
other people? If so, then we get a vast circularity: Our job is to help
people help people.) But people differ on what happiness is. Here are
some options (Chapter 5):
- A common opinion is that
happiness is pleasure. But this is beastly.
- Maybe happiness is being
honored by others. But Aristotle observes that people don’t just seek to
be honored just by anyone. People want to be honored by people
whose opinion they respect, by people who are better judges. But if so,
then they want the honor because they want to be assured of their own
excellence. And this suggests that what they really want is
personal excellence (together with knowledge of this, I guess).
- Money-making is always done
for the sake of something else. (Marx agrees.)
- In Chapter 7, Aristotle
note that the carpenter has certain distinctive activities, and these have
distinctive purposes. Likewise, so do parts of the body. Thus, a
distinctive purpose of the eye is to convey visual information to our
minds. For something to be in a good state is for it to be excellent at
fulfilling its distinctive purpose. The good lyre player is the lyre
player who plays the lyre well.
- What then is the distinctive
activity or function of the human being? It is rational activity, the
activity of the mind—everything else we have in common with the animals or
even plants. Thus, being excellent at acting rationally—both in terms of
outward actions and intellectual activity—is what it is to be good at
being human. Moreover, it’s not just the ability to be good at
this that constitutes human happiness—the person in a coma, no matter how
rational she is, is not in a happy state. The prize is not for the
strongest but for those who compete and win.
- On this view, then, the
ultimate good is not work as such but rational activity. Not all
work is rational activity and not all rational activity is work. This
suggests that on this view, work that is not rational activity would be
seen as a mere means, as something not worthwhile in itself. But if
something is not worthwhile in itself, then resting from it may be a
reasonable way of refocusing on what is truly worthwhile. For as we go
on doing something all the time, we easily start to feel about it as if
it were the only thing that mattered. This gives a philosophical
argument for periodically resting.