The Story of Work 2. Work and the Ancient Greeks


What is ‘work’?

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

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

ἐξ ἔργων δ᾽ἄνδρες πολύμηλοί τ᾽ἀφνειοί τε:
καὶ ἐργαζόμενοι πολὺ φίλτεροι ἀθανάτοισιν.
ἔργον δ᾽οὐδὲν ὄνειδος, ἀεργίη δέ τ᾽ὄνειδος.
εἰ δέ κε ἐργάζῃ, τάχα σε ζηλώσει ἀεργὸς
πλουτεῦντα: πλούτῳ δ᾽ἀρετὴ καὶ κῦδος ὀπηδεῖ.
δαίμονι δ᾽οἷος ἔησθα, τὸ ἐργάζεσθαι ἄμεινον …

Through works men grow rich in flocks and wealth, and working they are much better loved by the deathless ones. Work is not a disgrace: it is not-working which is a disgrace. But if you work, not-working people will quickly envy you for being rich, for excellence and glory follow wealth. And whatever be the power controlling your destiny, working is best for you…

Hesiod, Works and Days (c. 700 BCE), lines 308-313

So working was regarded as good for us by the ancient Greeks even 2700 years ago? This hardly challenges what we know already. The question is though: what kind of “work”? What does “work” mean in this and other Greek contexts? Does “work” really translate the original Greek? Right away we see how important it is to return to the original sources and languages.

Just as we do, Greek, especially as systematised by the Athenian philosophers of the fourth century BCE that I’ll focus on here, 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, 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 or the Athenian philosophers 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 unfree labour towards products or for ends not owned or decided by labourers themselves is what is usually meant by slavery today even when the term “slavery” is not used (see the 1956 UN Slavery Convention article 1.1 emendation or the 2014 Protocol to the 1930 Forced Labour Convention).

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 (sometimes it’s claimed that status difference was minimal in ancient Athens because Socrates 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 was based in free will but also required something else that we shall see recur in this story: technē or technical knowledge and skill for practical ends, such as potter’s skill in moulding clay on a wheel, or a painter’s knowledge of what colours will look like after an image on a pot has been fired.

The hierarchical relationship of ponos and ergon is very visible centuries before the Athenian philosophers. In Hesiod’s didactic poem called in English “Works and Days” composed c. 700 BCE, it is ergon and not ponos that is praised: the term for “works” in the title is Erga in Greek and the term appears in several forms in the quotation praising “work” with which I headed this post.  It appears many times throughout the text, while forms of the term ponos appear very rarely, and then only with negative connotations – as here from the famous account of the ills that Pandora brought to mortals.

For before this, the races of men living on earth were remote [from one another] and free from evils and free from difficult ponos and serious illnesses which bring the Death gods to men.

(Works And Days, ll. 90-92) [5]

Hesiod may praise agricultural work but it is free work – work that allows you to get rich and be envied or emulated by others, work whose products you own. It is not the difficult drudgery, the ponos, that Pandora let out. Ponos is hardly mentionable. Interesting too is that the shameful opposite of “work” is not a positive concept like “leisure” but “not-work” – “a-ergon.” Ergon is the pole around which the days revolve.

It’s no accident that I referred to potters when discussing one of the essential ingredients of ergon above since potters appear the first specific category of worker in Hesiod. Early on, Hesiod distinguishes two forms of the Goddess Strife (“Eris”), one who leads to war and death is bad; the other, which leads to competition and emulation, offers benefits: “This [latter] Strife is good. And potter is angry with potter and craftsman with craftsman, and beggar of beggar is envious and singer of singer.”[6] 

With the distinction between ponos and ergon historians of the concept of work usually stop – unlike Hesiod. I want to add several more terms from the ancient world that I find useful in understanding later conceptions of work

The first is poiesis, a special form of ergon which Hesiod is not concerned with at all (except indirectly). 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 – this is important – the result of divine inspiration.[6] Works and Days for example begins, as so many classical Greek and Roman long poems do, with an invocation to the gods, in this case the “Muses of Pieria” (supposedly their home). 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 as 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.[7] 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 assists. It is, fundamentally, a spiritual state that produces the highest quality erga, ‘works of art.’  

The second term I want to include Hesiod is most certainly concerned with, for even if he does not use the term, he has a long passage of advice to rulers (‘kings’ –  βασιλεῦσιν) starting at line 202, and it is precisely what we today would regard as the ‘work of government that I want to address. Hesiod is telling rulers how to do their jobs. Their ‘work’ 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.[8] It was not, for the philosophers, ‘work’ at all – very far from unfree ponos or the technical production of ergon – 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.[9]  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 element of praxis and its status as well as the technē and erga (the results of work) of writers.  Texts (including nineteenth-century 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: Hesiod’s advice to kings directs them to moral qualities and indeed each kind of work was associated with certain 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’[10]. 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’[11]) – 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.’[13] 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.  The virtues of Prudence and Temperance enabled Just decisions that Courage enforced.

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 that term, the connection is an interesting one.[14] We shall certainly see these virtues invoked (if in transformed meanings) many times across the centuries to justify behaviours, including in the nineteenth century and beyond.

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 close to ‘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, which eventually will come to include “leisure”.

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

If the first four have already been discussed, this latter binary is perhaps less obvious, 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 to which work “adds value/ energy” through movement. 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 not to move or progress but 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 write out such hierarchies (see the Introduction to this serial story): 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] Πρὶν μὲν γὰρ ζώεσκον ἐπὶ χθονὶ φῦλ᾽ ἀνθρώπων
νόσφιν ἄτερ τε κακῶν καὶ ἄτερ χαλεποῖο πόνοιο
νούσων τ᾽ ἀργαλέωναἵ τ᾽ ἀνδράσι Κῆρας ἔδωκαν.

[5]ἀγαθὴ δ᾽ Ἔρις ἥδε βροτοῖσιν.
25καὶ κεραμεὺς κεραμεῖ κοτέει καὶ τέκτονι τέκτων,
καὶ πτωχὸς πτωχῷ φθονέει καὶ ἀοιδὸς ἀοιδῷ. ( )

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

[7] 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.

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

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

[10] 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.

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

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

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

[14] 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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