The Story of Work 2. Work and the Ancient Greeks


What is ‘work’?

This is the first post where I try to answer that by looking at the long and very varied history of the concept starting from the ancient Greeks.

Plato pointing to the divine and Aristotle pointing to the earth, as imagined by Raphael in The School of Athens (1509-11) in the Apostolic Palace, Vatican.

The Athenian philosophers of the fourth century BCE set in motion a train of distinctions that continue until today. Just as we do, they used several words that we can understand as ‘work,’ but in their case each of the terms was defined by their relation to the central concept of freedom. These terms followed a clear hierarchy in Athenian philosophy, if not always and everywhere.[1]  

Slave carrying furniture on Athenian red-figured vase found in Gela, Sicily. 5th century BCE now in Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (AN 1972.268).

The term that signified ‘work’ of the lowest status was ponos: effortful manual labour, domestic, heavy, or agricultural. It was carried out by non-citizens or nearly non-citizens: women, slaves, lower-class men who hired themselves out by the day. In its most basic form, ponos was investment in the provision of food and shelter. It was purely physical work necessary for survival that, crucially, was not dependent on free will because it was compelled by external forces, either natural necessity or by another person. It was considered to belong to the domain of the animal body, rather than of the human spirit, and it was for that reason not appropriate for the free (male, adult) citizen.[2] Crucially, for later developments in thinking, ponos and its results, even when essential for the existence of the state, did not belong to the person who performed it but to that person’s free master.[3] This is what is usually meant by slavery today.

Skilled crafts, business and the arts were more valued than ponos as they did involve the exercise of free will, though there was a wide range in status from poor retailers to rich merchants and skilled potters and painters. Socrates may have liked to chat with artisans, but he had such authority that he could afford to slum.[4] The word used for both the results of craft and business and the activities that went into the achievement of those results was ergon. Ergon required technē or technical knowledge for practical ends.

With the distinction between ponos and ergon historians of the concept of work usually stop, but I want to add several more terms that I find useful.

The first is poiesis, a special form of ergon. For when the ergon was the result of the creativity and technē of poets and artists (i.e. a ‘work of art’), it  was poiesis, ‘making,’ which, while the term was certainly applied to craft, in its purest form was poetry and the result of divine inspiration.[5] Being inspired by the divine presented a philosophical conundrum as it meant that the highest poetic or artistic activity did not ultimately stem from free human will. This would obviously lower the status of poiesis to the level of ponos were it not rescued by being considered not an activity but a mode of being through which Truth might enter into material existence from the divine. Agamben playfully calls poesis ‘pro-duction into presence,’ the ‘leading forward’ of an ideal into the material world.[6] Poesis is not then, at least in its purest form, ‘work’ in either the sense of ergon or ponos but what we might regard as a gateway state, in which technē assists. It is, fundamentally, a spiritual state that produces the highest quality erga, ‘works of art.’  

The second term I want to include lies at the top of the status pyramid of activity, praxis. As Aristotle explained in the Politics, this was ideally the activity of free (male) citizens, engaged in of their own free will, to ensure the success and continuity of the community as a whole.[7] It was not, for the philosophers, ‘work’ at all, though it was a social activity. Crucially for the purposes of my story, however, it feeds into later notions of the work of government and, later again, of the work of management, often under the rubric of ‘duty,’ and that is why I include it here. The prioritising of activity for the community in praxis has two corollaries. First, it means that working to satisfy individual greed or desire was frowned upon by the philosophers: the community not the self must come first. Second, since praxis was political work concerned with social regulation and benefit, a crucial part of it was the education of the citizen. Education, although it took diverse forms and was undertaken for different purposes throughout the classical world, enjoyed high status.[8]  That status in turn meant that educational texts were more likely to survive, and in fact all of the texts discussed in the history that follows have an educational aim of some sort: these works themselves are the visible signs of the educational needs of praxis and its status as well as the erga (the results of work) of writers.  Texts (including periodicals) that seek to create a community of practice, for example, are necessarily involved in praxis, with all that that implies, and the rhetoric of selfless service to the community was (as it still is) fundamental to credibility. Most politicians claim to be acting on behalf of community, not for their own benefit. The same goes for managers too.

The various kinds of work I have listed above were not just a set of activities organised in a simple hierarchy: each had moral qualities which enabled the judgment of the performance of those activities and of their performers themselves. Plato in the Republic (Book 4: 427-435) characterised each level of activity that made up his ideal state, and likewise each social class, with kinds of virtue. There were four as laid out at the beginning of the discussion of them by Socrates and Glaucon: ‘Clearly, then [the ideal state] will be wise, courageous, temperate and just’[9]. In the order of this list, the definitions are as follows.

  1. Prudence / wisdom/ sophia was characteristic (in the Republic) of the Guardians who exercise the highest form of praxis to ensure the safety of the state.  
  2. Courage / andreia (manliness) was characteristic of citizen soldiers. These both engage in the decision making of praxis and its enforcement.
  3. Temperance/ sophrosyne  was restraint of the bodily appetites and desires, and at the same time obedience to the socially and morally superior. While most necessary for the practitioners of ergon and ponos, who partook of no other virtue (children, women, slaves ‘and the base rabble who are freemen in name’[10]) – classes whose supposed immoderate desires needed it most –  Plato admitted that temperance was necessarily spread throughout the whole of a good society since it was, fundamentally, a ‘harmony of the naturally superior and inferior concerning which [of the two] ought to rule both in the state and the individual.’[11] It was the valorisation of temperance that enabled the mainstream philosophers to denigrate working to acquire wealth as immoral: a desire to acquire wealth was, precisely, intemperate.  
  4. Justice / dikaia, like temperance, permeated the good society and, crucially, preserved it. Unexpectedly for us in the twenty-first century, ‘justice’ was the virtue that ensured that no crossing of the classes occurred, and that each person fulfilled the offices of their station. Justice was the force that ensured social stability. Crimes were all defined by the extent to which they upset the established order, and it was the praxis of the Guardians to enact justice and of the citizen soldiers to exact it, and thereby to ensure the maintenance of social order.  

This fourfold moral categorisation – the root of the Christian Cardinal Virtues – is again usually left out by historians of work, but it is nonetheless a key set of principles that regulated what could be thought about work, and crucially its regulation by government. Susanna Barsella points out that these virtues are, in effect, the basic technē of rule and, while the philosophers would not have used the term, the connection is an interesting one.[12] We shall certainly see these virtues invoked (if in transformed meanings) many times across the centuries to justify behaviours, including in the nineteenth century.

There is one final term that I want to introduce: contemplation (theoria) by philosophers. It was this that formulated what the virtues were. Though theoria is connected to the theoroi who oversaw or set up the very physical activities of games and theatrical spectacles, in Aristotle’s most famous exploration of it in the Nicomachean Ethics (Book X, chapter 8) contemplation was even less ‘work’ than praxis. Unlike material appetites, theoria alone generated true happiness as it was closest to what the gods did. Aristotle admits that bodily health, food and other requirements were necessary for contemplation to take place, but these were ancillary (and he never even mentions the ponos required for them). I include theoria here, however, because versions of it will recur again and again both as the precondition for good praxis, and for the good life in general.

These classical Greek notions of ponos, ergon with its associated poiesis and technē, together with praxis, contemplation and the virtues form the cast of characters of my history. They are, in Plato and Aristotle, organised around a set of hierarchies which comprise (from high to low):

  • political – creative – manual
  • freedom and subjection
  • others and self
  • spirit and body
  • stasis and change

This latter binary is perhaps less obvious than the others, though it is fundamental. Work is sometimes defined as the input of energy into a system to transform it in some way. This is the basis of Coriolis’s early nineteenth-century definition of ‘work’ / travail in physics – work is the measurable amount of effort required to move something. It assumes that rest and immobility, stasis, is the fundamental state. But for the Greeks that was not the case. While under the terms of ponos and ergon work can involve transformation over time – tilling the fields, building a wall, making a pot or poem – these were all subject to the greater purpose of the political community. The polis required work to keep things are they were not to change them: effort was required so that the past and present might continue into the future as little changed as possible. This was what praxis was for: as many readers of Plato understand, the work of the Guardians and their enforcers, the citizen soldiers, was to maintain, not transform. The politics – the work – of the Republic is fundamentally conservative, not geared towards growth and expansion. It relies on a different conception of time to ours, and Time, as Arendt appreciated (though in a different way to me), is accordingly also a key player in the cast of conceptual characters whose varied interactions and changing natures still make up our ideas of work.

Such a cast of characters in the hierarchy of the Greeks is clearly founded on the disparagement of the physical labour assigned to lower-class men, slaves and women, a violence that some of today’s philosophers conceal in their preference for gender neutral pronouns in their translations. That violence does not mean we should ignore the hierarchies: we may find them morally reprehensible, but they form the foundation of conceptions of work that were taken on by the Romans and inflected in ways that later thinkers were to develop, including the nineteenth-century texts on this site. Variants persist right up to today.

How will the Romans develop this cast of conceptual characters? The next post will explore just that.

Return to Introduction.

[1] Marloes Deene (‘Ancient Demographics, Partible Inheritance and Distribution of Wealth in Classical Athens and Sparta: a Comparative Perspective,’ Revue belge de Philologie et d’Histoire 94, no. 1 (2016), 27-46), for example,  convincingly demonstrates how Athenian law and custom at the time of the philosophers combined to reduce wealth inequalities very considerably in reality, but this was not always the case.

[2] Arendt cites Aristotle’s Politics 1254b to make the same point. When Plato used the term for the efforts of study required of future Guardians, he was careful to point out that this ponos was not of the body: see Republic, 535b, ). As Michael Okyere Asante shows in ‘Notes on Ergon and Ponos in Plato’ Journal of Advocacy, Research and Education 5, no. 3 (2018), 115-119, ponos is not shameful if it requires free will: if, therefore, it translates as ‘conscious effort.’

[3] Aristotle Politics 1278a ( ). The implications for the conception of Greek thinking about ‘work’ of the whole passage 1276b – 1278b is instructive.

[4] Cf. Applebaum, Concept of Work, 33.

[5] In Plato’s Symposium (205b-c), Socrates’ teacher of the philosophy of love, the priestess Diotima, explains that poiesis refers to ‘any activity which causes something to come into being from non-being, and therefore covers the productions of all the technai.’  (ὥστε καὶ αἱ ὑπὸ πάσαις ταῖς τέχναις ἐργασίαι ποιήσεις εἰσὶ καὶ οἱ τούτων δημιουργοὶ πάντες ποιηταί ; See Penelope Murray, ‘Poetic Inspiration’, in The Blackwell Companion to Ancient Aesthetics, edited by Pierre Destrée and Penelope Murray (Oxford: Blackwell, 2015): 158–174, 167. Although I have not relied on it alone here, I have still found G.M.A Grube, The Greek and Roman Critics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965) a very useful overview of all the major critics and poetic debates of Greco-Roman antiquity.

[6] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 68.

[7] Aristotle, Politics, 7.1328b: οὔτε βάναυσον βίον οὔτ᾽ ἀγοραῖον δεῖ [40] ζῆν τοὺς πολίτας (

[8] Although focussed on the Romans, W. Martin Bloomer, The School of Rome: Latin Studies and the Origins of Liberal Education (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011) nonetheless illuminates the theory and practice of education in both Greece and Rome.

[9] Plato, Republic, 4.427e. δῆλον δὴ ὅτι σοφή τ᾽ ἐστὶ καὶ ἀνδρεία καὶ σώφρων καὶ δικαία  ( ).

[10] καὶ τῶν ἐλευθέρων λεγομένων ἐν τοῖς πολλοῖς τε καὶ φαύλοις  ( )

[11] κατὰ φύσιν συμφωνίαν ὁπότερον δεῖ ἄρχειν καὶ ἐν πόλει καὶ ἐν ἑνὶ ἑκάστῳ πάνυ μοι, ἔφη, συνδοκεῖ.

[12] Susanna Barsella, ‘Ars and Theology: Work, Salvation, and Social Doctrine in the Early Church Fathers,’ Annali d’Italianistica. 32 (2014): 53-72, 58.


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