How Did We Get Here? Labor & Work
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How Did We Get Here? Labor & Work

June 6,, 2023 @ 6:30 pm - 7:45 pm

Reeder’s Alley Interpretive & Convention Center - Helena, MT
We often take “labor” and “work” as synonyms, describing an often-difficult process that’s required to “get by” in life, or even to “make our living.” Yet there’s also a strong contrast between the demanding-yet-fulfilling “work” of an artist, and the drudgery of someone laboring in a factory.
Then there are other complicated dances — both in theory, and in the day-to-day organizing of our lives — between labor and leisure, work and recreation, action and contemplation, “liberal” and “servile” pursuits. These complications have been viewed very differently across the centuries.
Among other things, the complex history of “labor” and “work” invites us to ask:
–How do the toil of labor and the accomplishments of work relate to one another, and to other parts of human life?
–What roles do work and labor play, in the pursuit of a good, fulfilling, complete individual life?
–What roles do they play in forming our human communities, and shaping our public, collective, and social life together with one another?
–Is labor something to be embraced, as the most fundamental source of value, or is it something that we have to escape from, in order to reach our full human potential?
–How do work and labor situate humans within — or help us to escape from — larger patterns of time and eternity, of life and death?
In this evening’s program, we’ll set out a variety of different answers to these questions, as seen by different communities whose complex legacy we’ve inherited.
We’ll begin with classic literary sources, ranging from the Greek poet Hesiod’s agricultural tips in the Works and Days, to the practical advice given in the voice of Odin in the Old Norse Hávamál. Here, we’ll reflect on the ways that for traditional European societies, the necessity of labor both allows for, and is in tension with, the public life shared by free citizens, and the possibilities those citizens have for extending their memory and influence beyond their individual deaths. And in doing so, we’ll see a sharp contrast between work that endures, and the toil and drudgery of mere labor.
We’ll then consider some intellectual, historical, and religious factors that led to changes in these understandings, notably the “cosmopolitan” ethics of early Stoicism, the rise of the Roman Empire, and the ideal of “renouncing the world” in early Christianity. In each of these movements, we can reflect on the dynamic interplay between abstract theory and “conditions on the ground”, and contrast the different sorts of respect (or contempt!) which are given to labor, leisure, and public life within each of them.
Drawing closer to the present, we’ll look at some ways in which historical and economic factors have become reflected in philosophical concepts, or justified after the fact: the Christian church’s shift from renouncing the world to ruling it; the rise of craft and merchant guilds in the European Middle Ages; and the Industrial Revolution and its critics. In each case, we can ask: from this vantage point, what seems most “natural” about the relations between work, labor, human freedom, and the common good? In each case, we’ll get a very different answer!
And as we get closer to the present, we’ll check in with social and political theorists ranging from John Locke and Adam Smith, to Karl Marx and Hannah Arendt, to take stock of some ways in which each of these transformations upended older ways of thinking about labor, work, and humanity.


June 6, 2023
6:30 pm - 7:45 pm
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Reeder’s Alley Interpretive & Convention Center
101 Reeder's Alley
Helena, MT 59601 United States
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