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"A Different Dream of Labour": Deryn Thomas reviews "Henry at Work: Thoreau on Making a Living" by John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle (Keywords: Public Philosophy; Post-Work; Simone Weil; Hannah Arendt)

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 112, no. 1 ("Punishment").

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I am a philosopher who studies work. But these days, it is not an easy topic to spend your time thinking about. Everywhere I look, works seems unequivocally bad. I see friends and family who are miserable in, consumed by, or entirely checked out of their jobs. I see students who are deeply sceptical of an economic system which demands so much and offers so little. And I see colleagues who are no longer willing to buy into a traditional work ethic at the expense of time spent with family, friends, and community. From all walks of life, I see people who have given up on work altogether as a source meaning and fulfilment.


In the face of it all, critiquing work can often feel like the best – and most cathartic – use of my philosophical expertise. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, this critical impetus: the momentum of the pandemic has facilitated an important shift in the way many people think about wage labour, employment, and capitalism. It has brought about critical changes to the conditions of work, making work more flexible and more forgiving, and workers more empowered in the workplace. Many, including myself, have benefited immensely from these changes. So it is, in many senses, good that we have raised this challenge to an institution long overdue for reform.

The momentum of the pandemic has facilitated an important shift in the way many people think about wage labour, employment, and capitalism.


But constant and relentless critique can often obscure from us another side of work. And as much as work is something we would rather not do, it is also something we cannot help but do. As much as it is marked by labour, it is also marked by slow delight; as much as it is marked by drudgery and boredom, it is also marked by careful attention and quiet meditation. It can be beautiful and utterly transformative; it can be grounding and a source of life. As something distinctly and stubbornly human, it is also something that is ours, through which we can find communion with others and belonging. In doing it, we have the opportunity to be transformed ever more deeply into what we are, as persons, even as it inevitably carries us towards death.


Since it is rare to see work written about in this way, especially in times like these, I am grateful for the way that authors John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle do just this in their recently co-authored book, Henry at Work: Thoreau on Making a Living. Light-hearted and filled with good humour, the book is a delightful jaunt through Thoreau’s thinking, writing, and acting on all work-related topics that nevertheless delivers a serious message about the necessity of critically reflecting on how and why we work. In what is surely the spirit of Thoreau, the book has clearly been well-crafted, in every sense of the term: from the jacket design down to its easy, conversational style of prose. It is a beautiful object, an enlightening but accessible read, and overall, an example of public philosophy done well.




The first point I will make about the book’s notable strengths is not an elaborate one; though I do not think its simplicity makes it any less consequential. The book’s first strength is this: its ability to gently nudge the reader into asking themselves critical philosophical questions about their own relationship with work, and to give a largely non-academic audience the basic tools and resources with which to do so.

From the start, the reader is not only offered an introduction to Thoreau’s work, but also a window into his life and the context of his writing and thinking.


From the start, the reader is not only offered an introduction to Thoreau’s work, but also a window into his life and the context of his writing and thinking. We are invited to consider: What do we imagine when we imagine Henry David Thoreau? Most will recognise him as a 19th century American essayist, poet, and philosopher, and as a prominent New England Transcendentalist alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson, his greatest mentor and friend. As a member of the philosophical, literary, religious and political movement that was transcendentalism, much of Thoreau’s philosophy emphasised the cultivation of an individual relationship with nature, while criticising early 19th century society for its “unthinking conformity” and its corruption of the individual spirit. He upheld self-reliance and independence as central virtues of a good life, and he was especially interested in the practical application of philosophy to life.


As the authors point out, in addition to the transcendentalist philosopher, there were many other sides of Thoreau: the abolitionist, the naturalist, the survivalist, the teacher, the friend. But there is one overlooked Thoreau which Kaag and van Belle are particularly interested in revealing to their readers: that of the worker.


This Thoreau, as the authors write in the first chapter, was “no sluggard,” having been raised in a working family and acquiring a variety of practical skills at an early age. He and his father travelled to New York City to sell Thoreau brand pencils in order to pay for his tuition at Harvard. Graduating during the economic recession brought on by the “Panic of 1837”, he shuffled through a variety of different jobs, including writing, tutoring, surveying, and running a school, and always seemed to have a handful of “side hustles” at any given time. Even during his stay at Walden, Thoreau did not rest – perhaps the most famous of his “works”, Henry built by hand the 150-square-foot cabin in which he lived for nearly two years, working, writing, and studying the world around him.


The book is then straightforwardly divided up into chapters that focus on many of the work-related themes present in Thoreau’s philosophical writings. The result is distinctly philosophical, but firmly relatable. From resignation to compensation, covering work that is meaningless and work that is fulfilling, and everything in between, each chapter merges analysis of Thoreau’s writing with the authors’ personal anecdotes and thoughtful reflections on the nature of every type and aspect of modern work, from manual to mechanical, moral to immoral, with the ultimate aim of evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of existing mainstream work cultures.




The book’s second strength concerns its approach to the discipline and practice of philosophy itself. Philosophical inquiry, at least in much of the western tradition, has been commonly treated as a lofty intellectual endeavour, an activity belonging to the higher order of thought and the rational mind. In contrast, the body – and its corporeality, its location as a grounding of action – has a lower status, being reduced to the site of necessity.


I have always found myself drawn to philosophers who in some way subvert this line of thinking. “Man’s greatness is always to recreate his life,” wrote Simone Weil in Gravity and Grace (1947). For Weil, work – especially manual work – held special status. Weil thought that work was an activity through which a person could gain special access to truth. This is because work places us squarely in the face of our own finality and impermanence: it is an activity by which we answer our own needs, and often the needs of others, with the powers of our own labour.

Weil thought that work was an activity through which a person could gain special access to truth.


Ultimately, the powers of our labour are finite. At some point, it is inevitable that we become exhausted; that we must rest if we are to even entertain the idea of continuing. Thus, work mirrors the biological and natural cycles of birth and death. Weil thought that meditating upon the cyclical nature of work – especially from within the experience of labour rather than outside it – allowed a person to gain insight into a truth inaccessible by other means of traditional reasoning.


But even before reading Weil, I had seen this through my own experience of work. After graduating from university, I spent a season on a vegetable farm in Montana, where I learned to drive a tractor, propagate seedlings, and “organically” (i.e. manually) manage pests. I had been, until that point in time, something of a romantic about farming. Coincidentally, I’d also just finished four years of an undergraduate philosophical education, where I had explored – from the comfort of the classroom and the privilege of an elite education – much of the “theory” about what it meant to live a good life.


But, like a good philosophy student, I had become sceptical. I suspected that philosophical theory was not telling me the whole story, that it had in fact given me the wrong answers. Like Thoreau, I imagined I could find better answers by going to my proverbial cabin in the woods and learning to think for myself: free from the restrictions of institutional dogma, but also from the messiness and distractions of a life lived amongst other people.


The answers I found were not always expected. I learned that agricultural work is brutally monotonous and often so physically taxing that, by the end of the day, there is very little time for thinking about lofty, philosophical ideas. That is because most of those days are long, repetitive, and boring – the exact opposite of the kind of creative, interesting, intellectual schoolwork that I’d been used to. Most of those days involved the ongoing cycle of working in the fields, answering one’s basic needs, and sleep. After the novelty of learning a new trade wore off, that cycle felt crushing, inescapably unending.


At the same time, I was also encountering a new sense of meaning: there was something invigorating and life-giving in this ongoing cycle, and I was overcome by a certainty of purpose that I had never experienced. Never before had I come across this sense that doing was a kind of being, that my existence depended on activity to give it orientation. As I had this experience for the first time, I was struck with the realisation that I had, at my disposal, the tools to investigate this experience. That this is what philosophy had truly taught me – not the answers to life’s questions, but the way to answer them on my own.


Reading Henry at Work, I was reminded so much of my own experience. This was, in part, because Kaag and Van Belle are so careful to construct a holistic picture of Thoreau as a worker – as someone for whom the activity of work was as important to his philosophical thinking as the thinking and reflecting itself: “What was the meaning of this so steady and self-respecting, this small Herculean labour, I knew not. I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth…” (40). As the authors explain, manual work was, for Thoreau, an activity which could bring a person “in touch with the wildness of the world” and offer access to a truth which underwrites human existence: that, “rather than being apart form nature, we are always already intimately connected, an integral part of its life and history” (39).


According to this line of thought, it is only through working with our hands that we are able to know and understand this truth, since it is by the work of our hands that we are (sometimes literally) connected to world and to each other. Thoreau did not just believe this to be theoretically true. He also used his own life to hone and develop a philosophical practice of work – an activity so important that he predicated the completion of his philosophical writings on the successful construction of his life in the woods.

We are also shown a Thoreau who believed that one needed to ground one’s philosophy in the work that one does for others. The authors are elegant in their summarisation of Thoreau’s thinking on this topic: “Thoreau recognized that he had every advantage; he also knew that the disadvantaged went, generally speaking, unnoticed by people of privilege…Social justice is in no small part a matter of counteracting this myopia, of recognising the suffering of others hidden in plain sight” (107).


The book offers up a plethora of ways that Thoreau worked for social justice. He was an abolitionist, accompanying and escorting numerous enslaved persons who had escaped from the South on their northward journeys. He wrote publicly against the injustices of slavery and of American occupation: “When a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country [Mexico] is undertaken and conquered by a foreign army…I think it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize” (104). And in choosing Walden for his home in the woods, Thoreau lived in a place which was “beyond the bounds of civilized convention” and home to many that 19th century New England society had rejected: newly freed enslaved persons, especially women, and Irish immigrants, to name a few.


In another essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies” (1951), Weil argues that the purpose of education is to teach students the faculty of attention. By attention, Weil means to refer to a kind of cultivated focus, not unlike the kind of attention held in deep prayer or meditation. When we are children, in school, we learn to use this faculty by, for example, solving a complex geometry problem or studying Latin prose. At first, the solution is obscured by the fact that we haven’t yet learned the skills to do so, or because it requires us to apply the skills we already have in a new way. We often have to sit with this lack of understanding, this confusion, sometimes for hours, sometimes for weeks, before the solution becomes visible to us.


As we move through the years of our education, we are taught to answer more complex and often nebulous questions, not only in mathematics and the study of literature – for which there could be more or less “right” answers – but also in philosophy, morality, and in the often messy, complex realms of our personal lives. And as we continue to mature, however, the capacity for attention that we develop in school becomes useful in a new way. It allows us to attend to the world, to questions of greater and greater philosophical complexity, and to the lives of others.


Ultimately, this final focus of attention is, for Weil, the most important thing we can do with the faculty. In the essay, she characterises this particular kind of attentiveness as the ability to recognise when another person is suffering and to ask them, “What are you going through?” For Weil, this is one of the core purposes of philosophical contemplation.


Much of this echoes the Thoreauvian inclination towards work as one way of honing our attentive abilities, as well as his interest in the relationship between philosophy and living a life with others. In “Right Use of School Studies”, Weil offers an argument for the cultivation of one’s theoretical studies as means of achieving the same end, but it is their shared commitment to attention that leads me to believe that they are more alike than different in their approach to philosophy and their ultimate intentions for philosophical practice. If philosophers like Weil and Thoreau are right, then work and our doings are inseparable from what we are, as human beings, and have the potential to offer us great philosophical insight. A life without work is no life at all.

If philosophers like Weil and Thoreau are right, then work and our doings are inseparable from what we are, as human beings, and have the potential to offer us great philosophical insight. A life without work is no life at all.


A life in forced servitude to work is no life either. But it is clear through the authors’ representation of Thoreau that he did not unthinkingly embrace a life of work as the only way to enlightenment. Far from it. Thoreau was intensely sympathetic to the plight of those who do not choose to inherit a life of labour: “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of…Who made them serfs of the soil?” (101). He knew that these men (and perhaps women) had inherited, along with their farms and cattle, the chains of necessity which inhibit a person from being able to engage in a life of thought at all, and Thoreau deeply lamented that fate.


So which is it then? Do we arrive at a life well-lived, or well-examined, through work or through thought?


The authors, to their credit, offer one possibility at an answer without denying that others could also be true. Perhaps, philosophy (as well as life) is a marriage of thinking and doing, a practice that we cannot do properly if we consign ourselves to either the realm of the mind or the realm of the world. In the world of pure abstraction, it is easy to lose sight of what is real and valuable and important, especially to others. But a life lived exclusively in the labour of one’s hands, in the toil of doing, would also be a life somewhat diminished: necessity is brutal and exacting in its demands, leaving little room for the kind of reflection and intellectual growth required for philosophical inquiry. Perhaps instead, as Thoreau demonstrates, the answers to life’s most interesting questions are to be found somewhere in between: in the moment between an action and a thought, in the space between the ground and our hands, or between our hands and those of another person.




The final strength concerns the book’s finesse in facing and challenging the all-too-frequent nihilism inherent in many visions of a post-work future. At a time when pessimism dominates the public conversation about work and its future, the authors offer an alternative way of thinking, both about the challenges we face now and what the future will bring.


Consider some of the more extreme examples of post-work literature, in which authors denounce work by putting forward radical visions of a utopian state of affairs in which no one ever has to work again. For example, in Automation and Utopia (2019), John Danaher argues that we would in fact be best served by hastening the eradication of work in order to transition to a fully virtual reality, where we will find previously unexplored opportunities for creativity and human flourishing.  Similarly, in one of the most famous pieces of anti-work writing, “The Abolition of Work” (1985), Bob Black argues to abolish work in favour of a life full of play and ‘ludic’ pleasures.


I find such visions bleak: not because I have some stubborn attachment to the romanticism of pastoral good old-fashioned hard labour, but because these visions seem, to me, to have given up on something that is unequivocally essential to our human condition. By this, I mean both that we should not give up on it – as a philosopher who studies work, I conceptualise work as part of who and what we are as persons, as unique to our human experience, and as a core component of full, enriching human lives – and that we actually cannot give up on it.


Here I draw on Hannah Arendt, who argues in The Human Condition (1958) that work is one of three basic human activities (alongside labour and action) which define our experience as human beings. More recently, Jean-Philippe Deranty has posited that the concept of “post-work” is in fact oxymoronic, because human societies are by necessity work societies. As a result, he argues that it is simply not in our power to give it up.


To make this point is not to ignore the reality of bad work: even Kaag and van Belle are not naïve about the unfair distribution of work which is physically dangerous, psychologically harmful, dehumanising, unfulfilling, or just plain “bullshit” (as David Graeber might say).


These are today’s realities of work. Much is underpaid or unfairly compensated. Many toil for most of their lives in jobs they dislike with little or nothing to show for it. In light of this, post-work authors understandably advocate for facing the truth: we would be better off in a world without it. For some authors, facing this truth amounts to constructing new conceptual frameworks by which we have no real need for work anymore, where the human relationship to work has been abandoned in favour of purely fulfilling, meaningful, or enjoyable activities. 


But – if we think Arendt and Deranty are on to something – it might not be in our power to abandon that relationship. And this was perhaps the feature of the book which most won me over to its cause: in contrast to some post-work views, Thoreau’s answers to the problems of work are, in every sense of the word, hopeful. Not because he was naïve about the realities of work, nor ignorant of its shortcomings – no, Thoreau was well aware of the ways bad work could drag a life through the mud. But in spite of that, he was overwhelmingly optimistic about the possibility, and the potential of work, what it can do for us. Through the authors, we are able to see that work, like philosophy, was something Thoreau believed in. And they give us, the readers, a chance to believe it in at as well.

We are able to see that work, like philosophy, was something Thoreau believed in. And they give us, the readers, a chance to believe it in at as well.


I, for my part, am interested in a vision of the future which dreams of how work, rather being gone, might be good, and I found this in Henry at Work. That is, in part, because Kaag and van Belle don’t necessarily tell their readers what a world with better work should look like. Instead, they present us with a series of questions. It is not enough to challenge work: what is that challenge ultimately in service of? It is not enough to reject work: what should we do with our time instead? We cannot simply tear it down. Instead, we must figure out what it would look like to make our concept, culture, and practices of work more human(e). Kaag, Van Belle, and Thoreau may not offer us all, or any, of the answers. But – like any good teachers of philosophy – they have given us a useful set of tools for figuring them out.


Deryn M. Thomas currently teaches philosophy at Montgomery College while also serving as a legislative aide in the Maryland General Assembly. She is interested in applied philosophical questions, especially those related to the ethics of work, the demands of social cooperation, and the future of civics education. A recent graduate of the University of St. Andrews, her PhD thesis explored the concept and necessity of work.



From The Philosopher, vol. 112, no. 1 ("Punishment").

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1 Comment

Lovely review. I have been fortunate enough to work as an osteopath for many years. I am engaged in the application of principles grounded in a broadly holistic, though somewhat folk-medical philosophy. Obviously one can enrich this foundation and continue to generate meaning and complexity through work. I tend to think of work in strongly enactivist terms - bringing forth domains of meaning through sensorimotor engagement.

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