The human being today is conceived above all as a working being. The virtue of work is preached across politics, commerce and culture, and enacted by policies on welfare, education, retirement and disability in liberal democratic governments across the world. In a culture whose highest values are productivity and purpose, we are enjoined not simply to earn a living, but to pursue a vocation; not to rest content with merely doing a job, but to find one in which we can invest our deepest passions. Dutiful tolerance of the demands of work is not enough; we must believe in the work we do. We might acknowledge that work is liable at times to induce boredom and frustration, but only in the service of overcoming such delinquent feelings. The equation of work with virtue and sloth with vice is of course a very venerable one. The two Testaments of the Bible abound with prickly reproaches to the non-working, warning repeatedly of the poverty and early grave awaiting those who persist in idle ways. This became the foundation of a Western morality of work that identified sloth as not merely one sin among others, but the gateway to all sin, eroding the inner discipline and vigilance required to resist temptation. In his seminal 1905 essay, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber showed the evolution of this valorization of work into the idea of work as the ultimate horizon of our lives, to be loved and cared for as a divine gift. The various Protestant movements that emerged from the Reformation infused the secular order of work and wealth with a new spirituality. The key word in the Protestant lexicon is “calling” (Beruf), which transforms work from pragmatic means of survival to a sacred end in itself. Weber quotes the Puritan minister Richard Baxter’s injunction to his flock to “Keep up a high esteem of Time; and be every day more careful that you lose none of your Time, than you are that you lose none of your Gold or Silver.” Time must be kept on a tight leash, lest we find ourselves straying, meandering or idling into some detour with no discernible profit or purpose. The Protestant work ethic, writes Weber, asserts that “only action, not idleness and indulgence, serves to increase God’s glory.” When management gurus today proclaim the joys and virtues of work, they’re unlikely to invoke the increase of God’s glory. But the sanctification of work, its equation with the highest human value, has fully survived the secularization of our culture and language. A love of work continues to be promoted as the highest good, the primary source of individual and social responsibility, discipline and temperance. It follows that if work is performed in the absence of belief, it will quickly be swept up in a spirit of indifference and lassitude. Think of the famously enigmatic response of Melville’s scrivener (legal copyist) Bartleby to his boss’s request to copy a document: “I would prefer not to”. To prefer not to is neither to affirm nor to refuse. Expressing neither inclination nor opinion, it intimates Bartleby’s removal to a zone of indifference, where the obligation to judge, choose or decide is suspended indifferently. It is the perfect formula for the anticipation of his inertial collapse. Melville’s story is thus an exemplary illustration of the link between indifference and worklessness. Bartleby “doesn’t work” in more ways than one; his lethargy corrodes the will to work both in the narrow sense of waged labour, and in the broader sense of functionality.
If the Protestant ethic’s equation of work with the highest good is correct, then Bartleby’s sabotage of productivity stands condemned as profoundly unethical. This is surely why medieval scholastics fingered sloth as the beginning of all evil. There is no ethical content in detachment from all values, principles and positions, in scepticism towards all propositions for the good.
The neutral is not some bland median point between political or ethical extremes. It is the refusal of a stance of belief, of ethics understood as a positive set of criteria for determining the good.
But what if that Protestant equation is wrong? Is there a case for an ethics of non-work? The great French writer and cultural theorist Roland Barthes hints at such a possibility in his late seminar on what he calls The Neutral, an orientation to life that, as he puts it “baffles the paradigm”. The neutral is not some bland median point between political or ethical extremes. It is the refusal of a stance of belief, of ethics understood as a positive set of criteria for determining the good. But it also hints at the possibility of what we might call a groundless ethics.
Barthes’ seminar enlists many different literary, philosophical, and devotional systems and practices, ancient and modern, in support of his notion of the neutral. But the most insistent and emblematic figure in the book is Pyrrho, the founding figure of philosophical scepticism, born around the fourth century BCE. We know of Pyrrho’s life and teachings only through the second- and third-hand transmissions of later writers.
On his travels through the East with Alexander the Great, Pyrrho encountered Indian mystics and philosophers, who had a transformative effect on his thinking. They steer his mind towards an ongoing quest for ataraxia or unconcern, a state of indifference towards the world inferred from the essential unknowability of all things.
Pyrrhonism’s basic premise is that there is no reliable measure for natural or moral truth; the air a young person finds mild will make an old person feel cold, the act one individual considers wicked another considers virtuous. Pyrrho extrapolated from this condition of cosmic undecidability that we may as well allow ourselves to be blown willy-nilly by the winds of chance, as no positive action or state of being is preferable to any other, including existence itself.
This is hardly a viable programme for life, a point recognised by the medic and philosopher Sextus Empiricus 500 years later. Sextus sought to codify scepticism as a body of thought, adapting Pyrrho’s thinking to the ordinary demands of daily life. While still oriented towards the ataraxia achieved by suspending all judgements and definitive claims to truth, Sextus recognised the pragmatic requirement to act in accordance with “guidance by nature, necessitation by feelings, handing down of laws and customs, and teaching all kinds of experience.” We may not be able to know which truth to live by, but we can make rules as if we did.
Scepticism’s appeal today, in a culture that encourages the narcissistic drip-feed of preferences and opinions, lies in its stance of reticence, its wariness of mouthing off. In our social media landscape, opinion threatens to become the currency and substance of our selfhood. The positions we publicize have become a way of affirming the reality of our existence.
“The Neutral”, wrote Barthes, “…is good for nothing, and certainly not for advocating a position, an identity.” But how then could the absence of a positive ethical content be the basis for an ethics? A provisional response to this question is to be found in the work of the mid-twentieth century Romanian philosopher (or, perhaps more accurately, anti-philosopher) E. M. Cioran.
Cioran was developing his caustic aphoristic philosophy of despair during the 1930s as a scholarship student at the University of Berlin. His stance of weary disgust at the morality and culture of the West coalesced with admiration for Hitler and Mussolini, as well as a qualified admiration for Romania’s home-grown far-right movement, the Iron Guard. Cioran eventually renounced and repented his support for the Iron Guard, and his writing from the late forties onwards is characterized by a deep antipathy, rooted in these earlier catastrophic political affiliations, towards the febrile extremism of such movements. In 1941 he left Romania for Paris, never to return and publishing thereafter only in French. It’s no coincidence, then, that Cioran’s first published book in French, Précis de décomposition or A Short History of Decay, opens by lamenting the tendency of human beings towards a blind love of their ideas and beliefs. The fanatic cannot contain his beliefs inside the restricted sphere of his private commitments, but “unduly forces other men to love his god, eager to exterminate them if they refuse.” Ideas, suggests Cioran, should be the object of a neutral and indifferent curiosity. They become dangerous when caught in the grip of personal enthusiasm. “Once man loses his faculty of indifference”, he writes, “he becomes a potential murderer; once he transforms his idea into a god the consequences are incalculable.”
In speaking of indifference as a faculty rather than a passing mood, Cioran implies that it is a structural dimension of the human being, a kind of spiritual counterweight to the faculty of belief and action. This faculty manifests itself above all in the so-called vices of “doubt and sloth”, without which we become the prey of fanaticism: Only the sceptics (or idlers or aesthetes) escape, because they propose nothing, because they – humanity’s true benefactors – undermine fanaticism’s purposes, analyse its frenzy. I feel safer with a Pyrrho than with a Saint Paul, for a jesting wisdom is gentler than an unbridled sanctity. The Sceptic stance as Cioran interprets it is a quiet resistance to the conception of the human as a propositional animal, a being defined by his proclaimed beliefs and public actions. To recognise a faculty of indifference is to insist on the human being as irreducible to these twin badges of identity. Doubt and sloth protect us from the terrors of unbridled sanctity. The other great feature of this faculty is an impulse to frivolity. Frivolity is the fruit of the hard-won discovery of the impossibility of knowing or believing with certainty. It is a kind of rigorous superficiality (whose great representative in Anglophone literature would surely be Oscar Wilde), a cultivation of artifice and play as an orientation to life. Frivolity is the universal solvent in which the violent pretensions of absolute conviction dissolve, and as such “the most effective antidote to the disease of being what one is.”
Doubt, sloth and frivolity are the unholy trinity of virtues to be ranged against all philosophies of the Absolute. In a sly allusion to the most famed and uncompromising conception of the Absolute in philosophy, Cioran invokes Hegel’s famous phrase, “Sunday of Life”. In Hegel, the Sunday of Life is how life might appear in the wake of the quiet, humble renunciation of self-interest. Cioran’s aphorism, “The Sundays of Life”, imagines how the world might look under such conditions:
In a world of inaction, the idle would be the only ones not to be murderers. But they do not belong to humanity, and, sweat not being their strong point, they love without suffering the consequences of Life and of Sin. Doing neither good nor evil, they disdain – spectators of the human convulsion – the weeks of time, the efforts which asphyxiate consciousness.
The refusal to do neither good nor evil, however, is animated by a paradox, for Cioran hints that it isn’t precisely neutral ethically. The avoidance of moral action is not so much a suspension or rejection of the good so much as a means of preserving it, he suggests in an aphorism provocatively entitled “Theory of Goodness”.
The aphorism begins with an echo of Ivan Karamazov’s famous warning that if there is no God, everything is permitted. “What keeps you from committing any and every crime” if there is “no ultimate criterion nor irrevocable principle, and no god?” asks an anonymous questioner. The interlocutor’s response is worth quoting in full:
I find in myself as much evil as in anyone, but detesting action – mother of all the vices – I am the cause of no one’s suffering. Harmless, without greed, and without enough energy or indecency to affront others, I leave the world as I found it. To take revenge presupposes a constant vigilance and a systematic mind, a costly continuity, whereas the indifference of forgiveness and contempt renders the hours pleasantly empty. All ethics represent a danger for goodness; only negligence rescues it. Having chosen the phlegm of the imbecile and the apathy of the angel, I have excluded myself from actions and, since goodness is incompatible with life, I have decomposed myself in order to be good.
Cioran here brings into focus a rigorously paradoxical ethics. It is the indifferent, listless sloth who preserves the good by declining to speak or act in its name, to make any claim to represent it in either person or behaviour. There could hardly be a starker contrast with the Protestant equation of the good with work, or indeed of the more venerable insistence on the vita activa as the prime source and vehicle of the good.
In Cioran’s conception, life can never provide a passage to the good, insofar as to live is to act. Suicide, as he repeatedly points out, offers no solution; for all its apparent nihilism, the expenditure of energy and totality of conviction suicide requires shows its not so secret affinity to the realm of action and belief. What the “Theory of the Good” fragment offers instead is “decomposition”, a state in which my sensible presence in the world is so minimal as to be almost imperceptible; is this not the Sceptic goal of ataraxia, a state of unconcern which harms, disturbs or intrudes on no one, myself included?
Doesn’t the renunciation of one’s own energetic resources make less of a demand on the energetic resources of the world?
It’s easy to look askance at Cioran’s encomium to apathy and see in it a profound abrogation of responsibility in the face of all the urgent ethical demands of our time, not least the environmental crisis which threatens the very future of the world. But isn’t Cioran offering the lineaments of a new relationship to the world when he proclaims an imperative to leave it as he found it? Doesn’t the renunciation of one’s own energetic resources make less of a demand on the energetic resources of the world? Then again, the haste to infer the practical consequences of Cioran’s thinking would surely be a symptom of the malaise he’s diagnosing. If something like an ethics of inactivity were to exist, it couldn’t take the form of a programme of action. Its value would rather be in putting in question those ethical norms we take for granted – not least the assumption that the good person believes and does the right things.
Josh Cohen is professor of modern literary theory at Goldsmiths and a practicing psychoanalyst. His latest book Not Working: Why We Have to Stop was published last year by Granta.