Epicurean Ethics of Labor
In the first part of our assessment of Philodemus’ Peri Oikonomias, we mentioned his advise on how some things cause pain when present, but cause even more pain when absent and, therefore, shouldn’t be avoided. He goes on to make the point that this is also the case with wealth and the toils required to attain it and to be able to sustain oneself.
This must be mentioned from the onset because elsewhere, in Column XI, Philodemus plainly states that “the philosopher does not work“. This is understood as toil, hard work that constitutes exhaustive labor and produces no pleasure. The intuition that this is one of the primal evils that weighs upon mankind is articulated in Biblical legend, where Adam (Man) is cursed with toil from our earliest days, and the brilliant book De l’inhumanité de la religion revolves around this primal course and how a true philosopher must overcome it.
The contemporary labor situation is no less demoralizing than it was in antiquity. Workers in America have seen their wages remain stagnant, with the fruits of the struggles of previous generations of workers being slowly stripped away for over four decades now. Our government favors mainly big corporations at the expense of small businesses and workers. Americans today work, on average, many more hours than Europeans, and for lower wages. A new word has been coined, mcjob, to describe the type of job that currently proliferates under America’s ruling class.
Mc·Job. an unstimulating, low-wage job with few benefits, especially in a service industry.
Mcsourcing is also part of our labor paradigm, which diminishes the pool of available workers and creates an employer’s market of labor, one that favors jobs conditions on terms that are favorable to the corporate powers.
The result of this has been the normalization of wage slavery, generally described as a lifestyle of toiling that only or barely allows us to keep up with our fiscal responsibilities on a month-to-month basis. This is a global problem.
Epicurean ethical discourse provides us here with the ideal of autarchy (self-sufficiency and self-government), but modern Epicurean thinkers must distill this teaching into what it means for the people of our world today. Philodemus spoke to a wealthy Roman crowd that accepted slavery as normal. We today consider human trafficking to be a heinous practice. A new autarchy discourse is needed.
While discussing the good and bad professions, Philodemus cites examples from his recent history of politicians and men who worked in the military who lived ignoble, painful, unwise and useless lives, just as many of our service men and women who return from battle, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Others are missing limbs, but most importantly many return from war with grave moral questions about who profits from war and whose interests are being served by it.
In recent history, many more examples of the dangers inherent to certain professions can be easily found, just as we can easily think of famous and wealthy people–Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson–who died early deaths and who did not live the happiest or most wholesome and tranquil lives. These examples must inform our values and our views about fame, wealth, politics, and warfare.
This does not mean that there aren’t military men or politicians who are noble or whose sacrifices, when measured against their accomplishments, were worthwhile and would pass the test of hedonic calculus. But it does mean that, generally and for almost everyone in almost every case, being this type of man of action is not the right path to a tranquil, pleasant, and productive life, and that these professions do not generally meet the criteria for constituting wise and pleasant labor.
Likewise, Philodemus mentions horsemanship, mining or using slaves to mine, and toiling in agriculture as unwholesome ways of earning a living. He favors, however, using slave labor in farming, but not in mining (presumably because there is an element of exploitation and brute labor involved in mining that is too worthy of objection for an ethical philosopher). And so we can discern a principle in the teaching: it is dehumanizing toil, not productivity, that is evil.
We must today recognize that the rejection of wage-slavery and of crude labor, from the onset, is a given. No one should have to toil for scraps. Productivity is necessary but should not be demoralizing and dehumanizing. This is detrimental to our most basic human dignity and quality of life.
Having established that, in the process of contrasting wholesome jobs versus unwholesome ones, Philodemus praises how a wise choice of profession
... brings the least possible involvement with men from whom many disagreeable things follow, and a pleasant life, and a leisurely retreat with one’s friends, and a most dignified income to those who are moderate. – Philodemus, Art of Property Management, Column XXIII
And so another principle can de discerned: just as it is important to choose whom we eat with and not just what we eat, so association is important also in labor.
We must also take note of this notion of a most dignified income: the crown of autarchy confers dignity upon the human condition. Dignity is woven into notions of revenue, again articulating an Epicurean battle cry against wage slavery. As for dignified income, it is clear that here it is meant that our revenue must more than meet our immediate needs: it must facilitate a life of leisure. We do not live to work, we work to live.
The Sources of Dignified Income
Philodemus also gives a list of means of earning a dignified income:
Nor is it disgraceful to earn an income both from properties rented to tenants and from slaves who have skills and arts that are in no way unseemly. However, these sources of income come second and third. The first and noblest thing is to receive back thankful gifts with all reverence in return for philosophical discourses … that are truthful and free of strife and … serene … since in fact the acquisition of an income through sophistical and contentious speeches is in no way better than … through demagogical and slandering ones. – Philodemus, Art of Property Management, Column XXIII
Before we dissect this list, we must firstly note that there is reference here to the prudence of cultivating multiple streams of income. In other words, the autarch manages skills, properties and possessions: there is a rejection of the notion of a job or profession as the main defining feature of man’s identity. Instead, a variety of skills and assets should be cultivated by the autarch. This is a peculiar approach to economics. Labor and productivity here is liberating and creative, not restrictive.
Prominent among the autarch’s streams of income is rental income. Shelter is a universal human need and there will always be a demand for it. Owning rental property, to this day, constitutes the easiest way to facilitate a life of leisure.
Slaves in the earliest Epicurean community were treated like family members and were even allowed as pupils in the Garden and fully participated in philosophical discourse, which was considered scandalous back then. Epicurus granted freedom to his slaves in his last will:
Of my slaves I manumit Mys, Nicias, Lycon, and I also give Phaedrium her liberty. – Epicurus’ Last Will
Today, living off the labor of others is illegal, and considered both immoral and wrong, except where the worker is paid a fair market price for his or her labor; indeed a living wage in the case of full-time workers. Contemporary models of business ownership that provide work for others would perhaps constitute a modern version of the third stream of income mentioned in Philodemus’ text.
Of the several streams of income, the teaching of true philosophy enjoys supreme priority. Residents of the Garden organized a publishing venture, employing scribes to replicate scrolls and earning fees from their lectures and from tutoring. They did not teach lawyers and politicians so that they could be arrogant in public disputes like the sophists did. They taught wholesome philosophy in order to help heal and moralize the human soul.
“Fruitful Possessions”: On the Importance of Owning Means of Production
Depending on how we interpret “fruitful possessions”, Philodemus’ writings seem to indicate a tendency to favor owning means of production, that is, goods that produce more goods.
Fruitful possessions must be more than unfruitful ones. – Philodemus, On Property Management, Column A
Voula Tsouna’s translation and commentary on On Property Management makes it clear that, for Socrates, this means profitable (producing gain) versus harmful (producing loss), and that fruitful / unfruitful may also be interpreted as useful or useless. If we wish to articulate these teachings in light of the goal for the autarch of having a dignified income, we must consider the prudence of ownership of means of production as part of a multiple-streams-of-income scheme. It makes more sense for a person who is pursuing autarchy to own land that produces farming goods, than to own land that is covered by concrete and is not producing goods that can be exchanged in a market.
Philodemus seems to be saying that it is more prudent for the property manager, if he has money to invest, to spend it in a soymilk-maker (a modern milk-giving cow) or a beer-making-kit, particularly if these produce goods that his associates are likely to consume or purchase from him, than to invest his money in goods (like clothes or art) that do not produce other sellable goods.
Even if he has a choice between two different kinds of house plant, if he were to choose one that produces seasonings that he can use in his kitchen over one that produces nothing, he is exhibiting prudence. We can imagine that the Epicurean Gardens were places where food was produced, not merely places of beauty and serenity.
And so this notion of fruitful possessions should be explored in a contemporary context, particularly now that we live in an age where machines and robots can potentially do so much for us. Insofar as machines can do work and produce goods for us, they also qualify as means of production.
Similarly, if we own an appreciating asset, this is also more prudent than owning a depreciating asset. For instance, if we buy a new car, it will likely start to lose value when we begin to use it. The same happens with clothes, furniture, and many other goods. However, with real estate, the possession is very likely to gain value over the long term. It is likely to appreciate, to gain value, over time. This can be thought of, in a way, as a fruitful good in the sense that, when sold, it will produce greater capital than a vehicle or furniture (particularly when compared versus the initial investment).
You, Inc.: the Seven Principles of Autarchy
One of the goals of our reasonings with Philodemus is to plant the Epicurean conversation on self-sufficiency firmly in the modern world so that the people of our day can relate to the teaching and more easily apply its prudent calculations to their lives. In order to facilitate this, I have distilled these reasonings into seven general principles for now. They are based on what has been discussed in this two-part commentary on On Property Management. They are as follows:
1. There is a natural measure of wealth (as opposed to the corrupt, cultural measure of wealth), which is tied to natural and necessary desires. Understanding this will provide us with serenity and indifference to profit and loss.
2. There is social wealth in addition to the wealth of things and possessions.
3. Philodemus plainly stated it: the philosopher does not toil. However, we must always remember that toil is evil, not productivity.
4. Association is important in labor. We must choose our company prudently.
5. Our revenue must more than meet our immediate needs: it must facilitate a dignified life of leisure.
6. It’s always prudent to cultivate multiple streams of income, among which deriving fees from the Garden’s teaching mission, rental property income and business ownership, which includes gainful employment of others, have special priority.
7. It’s also prudent to have fruitful possessions. The various forms of ownership of means of production is another way to independence that can potentially relieve us of toil.
Some Final Notes on Art of Property Management
Ancient philosophers divided the study of the art of property management into four practical wisdoms: the arts of acquisition, of conservation, of orderly arrangement, and of use of wealth.
Philodemus wrote this work as a commentary of a previous work On Property Management which is generally believed to have been authored by Theofrastus. In it, he comments generously on these four arts and on the rest of the original work.
Therefore this piece is a commentary on Tsouna’s commentary on Philodemus’ commentary on Theophrastus. It’s my opinion that autarchy is a very much neglected subject among Epicureans, that these teachings are important, practical and useful, and that the serious moral problems raised here make this a very relevant teaching. Therefore, I hope this essay inspires a plethora of future commentaries as well.