Those who would never stoop to paint their own houses gladly expend far more energy sweating at the gym. During the decline in physical-labor jobs over the last 50 years, an entire compensating industry has grown up around physical fitness. As modern work becomes less physical, requiring hours at a desk or some sort of immobile standing, the fitness center has replaced the drudgery of the field, the mine, and the forest as a means to exercise the body each day. A forbidding array of exercise bikes and StairMasters not only works the body; it also reinforces the modern, scientifically backed conviction that physical fitness promotes general wellness, mental acuity, and perhaps longevity. A new slang has entered the Western vocabulary, from “abs,” “glutes,” and “cardio” to “ripped” and “toned” to describe the ideal results of daily exercise: a look of chiseled fitness. The ideal is much different from the appearance of the pipe fitter and welder of the past, whose protruding bellies and girth were not necessarily incongruous with physical strength and stamina incurred from daily physical labor.

Yet the modern idea of “working out” by no means denotes that someone is laboring at a physical task, except for wisely keeping fit. Our idea of exercising, then, is not quite the Odyssean notion of being equally adept in craftiness and brawn—the ability to build a raft or lead men into battle—or versatile in outfoxing sexy sirens and ramming poles through the heads of dull-witted huge monsters. We are more like Alcibiades, whose high life and gifts for political craft and oratory were balanced by his studied Olympic training and sponsorship of chariotry.

One reason for our disdain for labor today is that the more physical work recedes in the twenty-first century, the more life superficially appears to get better, even for the vestigial muscular classes. Cheap cell phones, video games, the Internet, social media, and labor-saving appliances all make life easier and suggest that even more and better benefits are on the horizon. Formerly backbreaking industries, from the growing of almonds to the building of cars, are increasingly mechanized, using fewer but more skilled operators; in the future, this work might be all but robotized, without much human agency at all.

Anyone who has spot-welded or harvested almonds with a mallet and canvas has no regrets in seeing the disappearance of such rote drudgery, from the view of both the laborer and the consumer, who benefits from the cheaper prices brought on by labor-saving devices. But as we continue on this trajectory, initiated in the Industrial Revolution, from less demanding physical work to rare physical work, is something lost? Something only poorly approximated by greater leisure time, non-muscular jobs, and contrived physical exercise?

Until the early nineteenth century, hard work—agricultural work, for most of the population—was bifurcated: working as a slave, serf, or hired hand for someone else was the unfortunate lot of the accursed. In popular lore, hired or coerced labor led nowhere but to premature old age, illness, accident, poverty, and an early death. So the once-popular Edwin Markham, in his iconic “The Man with the Hoe,” laments the exploited toiler: “Through this dread shape the suffering ages look; Time’s tragedy is in the aching stoop; Through this dread shape humanity betrayed.” Physical work was not just hard and dirty; it was also done for someone else. In contrast with physical work for wages (what the aristocratic Greeks deprecated as banausia), voices of the agrarian tradition—from the seventh-century BC Greek poet Hesiod to the romantic paeans of the farmer voiced by aristocratic landowners such as Thomas Jefferson and later by the Southern agrarians—praised the yeoman and the homesteader. Ostensibly, the owner-operator calibrated his own drudgery by his own self-interest and profits; and in theory, at least, he controlled the conditions of his own physical exploitation.

Politicians still give lip service to the “entrepreneur” who gets up at 5 AM to open his bakery and goes home long after his employees have quit at 6 PM (akin to what Hesiod praised as “work with work upon work”). But Donald Trump was the first politician in recent memory to refer to working people with the first-person plural possessive pronoun of endearment—“our miners” and “our farmers,” as if physical work was still critical and honored. Otherwise, most of popular culture promotes the idea of a bachelor’s degree as the first stepping-stone of the cognitive elite on the path toward professional and graduate schools, certification and degree branding, interning, and ending up largely physically inactive but inordinately well compensated and intellectually and psychologically fulfilled. So inured are we to the ideal of a cursus honorum that we don’t even need to mention that it is an obvious means to escape a supposedly limited life of laying tile or overhauling transmissions.

Yet talk long enough to the most accomplished academics, lawyers, and CEOs—who also tend to be the most conscientious about biking, jogging, and weightlifting (obesity is mostly an epidemic of the poor and lower middle classes)—and more often than not, they will brag about a long-ago college summer job waiting tables or an internship repairing hiking trails. They might praise the granite-counter installer who redid their kitchen, or offer an anecdote about the time they helped the tree-trimmer haul limbs from the backyard out to the trailer at the curb. There seems a human instinct to want to do physical work. We moderns want to be able to say that we have some residual firsthand familiarity with drudgery—or at least share our admiration for muscular labor when one sees the positive results of physical craftsmanship, or even the smallest physical alteration of the natural environment.

“Anyone who has spot-welded has no regrets in seeing the disappearance of such rote drudgery.”

The proliferation of hard-work reality-television programming reflects this apparent need, if only vicariously. Indeed, the more we have become immobile, urbanized, and distanced from hard work, the more we tune in to watch reality television’s assorted truckers, loggers, farmers, fishermen, drillers, and rail engineers. Usually, these supposed “losers” are filmed in rough physical landscapes of Alaska, Wyoming, Colorado, or out at sea, where they sweat, grunt, smoke, and swear as they toil to bring us our seafood, wood floors, arugula, and high-performance gasoline. The subtext of these shows is that the human dinosaurs who do such work are as tough and wild as the environment in which they labor.

In a society that supposedly despises menial jobs, the television ratings for such programs suggest that lots of Americans enjoy watching people of action who work with their hands, even if (or perhaps because) they are sometimes overweight, unkempt, and coarse. Mike Rowe became a media celebrity for his Discovery Channel reality series Dirty Jobs, in which he not only tried but also enjoyed said jobs—to the delight of viewers.

The Public Broadcasting Service’s signature series This Old House and its later spin-off shows on cable television made physical work seem especially hip. Yuppies and upwardly mobile young urban couples during off-hours put on old clothes, strapped on leather tool belts, and took up sledgehammers to knock down walls and break up concrete to remodel older homes into their own dream-gentrified Victorians. Apparently, they had a blast getting dirty and using their muscles while slowly turning decaying structures into renovated palaces. Again, the subtext of This Old House was that doing a lot of physical labor in remodeling something decrepit into something beautiful was rewarding—and preferable to contracting the hard labor out to experts.

What is it about physical work, in its supposed eleventh hour within a rapidly changing Western culture, that still intrigues us?

Physical work remains the foundation for twenty-first-century sophistication and complexity. Investors may know the oil trade better than oil drillers, but buying and selling based on intimate knowledge of Indonesian politics or the nature of the American automobile market are still predicated on someone’s knowing how to feed down steel casing to follow the drill bit. If there is no one to pump oil, there is nothing to sell. Selling plums to Japan is not the same as pruning a plum tree. Both aspects of the oil and plum industries are critical to their success, but the commercial tasks are cerebral and secondary, the physical ones elemental and primary.

Before any of us can teach, write, or speculate, we must first have food, shelter, and safety. And for a bit longer, at least, that will require some people to prune trees or cut grapes, nail two-by-sixes, and go through basic training in the muck. No apps or 3-D printers exist to produce brown rice and organic celery for the tables of Palo Alto and the Upper West Side.

It is often said that all jobs might yet be automated to the point of making muscular labor irrelevant. Can they? True, a slab of marble can be cut on a computerized saw, fed by forklift to a pallet, and delivered to its destination by a GPS-guided truck. But ultimately, human hands will lift the precut granite and carefully guide and attach it to the top of a counter. And that is not such an easy task. The almond farmer outside my window uses a computerized machine for seemingly every task—irrigating, cultivating, and harvesting. But this morning, two men are cutting out diseased limbs in the orchard, selecting their cuts with the help of an Echo chainsaw, whose basic tenets of portability, gasoline power source, and chain running on a guided frame have a 100-year pedigree. Another crew is taking honey by hand from beehives before attaching the hive boxes to a boom to be trucked away.

Giovanni Battista, "Loading Coal in Genoa Port," 1892 (SCALA / ART RESOURCE, NY)
Giovanni Battista, "Loading Coal in Genoa Port," 1892 (SCALA / ART RESOURCE, NY)

It is astonishing, the degree to which a high-tech, postmodern society still depends on low-tech, premodern labor, whether that is a teen in constant motion for eight hours as a barista at Starbucks or a mechanic on his back underneath a Lexus, searching to find a short that popped up in a computerized code on his tablet. In some sense, the end of hard physical work is a delusion. Even Bill Gates’s high-tech automated estate will need a plumber to clear his sewer connections or a glass fitter to replace a broken window or an electrician to rewire a shorted-out ceiling fan.

Physical work has an intrinsic satisfaction in that it is real, in the primordial sense that nonphysical work is not. The head of the Federal Reserve Board may be more important to our general welfare than the city road crew patching asphalt roads, but there remains something wondrous in transforming material conditions through the hands, an act that can be seen and felt rather than just spoken or written about. Changing the physical landscape, either by building or destroying something previously constructed or altering it, lends a sense of confidence that the human body can still manifest one’s ideas by concrete action.

Almost 20 years ago, in The Land Was Everything, I noted the effect of physical work upon the psyche, especially the creation of clarity, as the abstract becomes concrete and reminds one of the difference between talk and action:

Man fights nature and there arise clear, easily observable choices. Critical to this fight is the use of muscle. The abstract becomes flesh only through the right arm or left leg. Bolts are tightened, tree limbs sawed, concrete patched, all through the hands and back. Every idea is matched with the flesh. For the farm, then, there is no conception that is not realized in the physical world, no idea that is not carried to its ultimate and often tragic conclusion. Such an easily identifiable struggle! Such a wondrous thing, when you, alone, with your muscle and mind in tandem, with or without sufficient courage and endurance, can at least once still, just once yourself succeed or fail!

Until recently, this idea of hard work as a natural human need was relatively banal and went unquestioned. At one point in The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck paused to reflect on what made his Okie migrants noble:

The last clear definite function of man—muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need—this is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself, and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house, the dam; to take hard muscles from the lifting, to take the clear lines and form from conceiving.

We can assess the worth of particular generations by what they have built or let lapse. In February 2017, the Oroville Dam, the nation’s tallest, nearly lost both its concrete and earthen emergency spillways after near-record rain and snow runoff filled Lake Oroville, sending water lapping over the dam’s crest. The near-tragedy reminded postmodern Californians that a past generation—now nameless, forgotten, and mostly dead—at great expense, and with some danger, had built the vast dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts of the federal Central Valley Project and the state California Water Project. (See “California’s Promethean Past,” Summer 2013.) The two efforts enabled vast water transfers from the state’s wet northern third to its southern and dry two-thirds. Yet the present generation not only failed to complete the water projects—so essential to irrigate farmland, foster urban development, provide flood control, offer recreation, and facilitate hydroelectric production in a state that had doubled its population; it also neglected simple periodic maintenance on the infrastructure, such as the crown jewel Oroville Dam, that it had inherited.

Physical labor also promotes human versatility: those who do not do it, or who do not know how to do it, become divorced from—and, at the same time, dependent upon—laborers, in psychological as well as concrete ways. Lawyers, accountants, and journalists living in houses with yards and driving cars to work thus count on a supporting infrastructure of electricians, landscapers, and mechanics. Without them, life grinds to a halt, unless one has rudimentary knowledge of such tasks—or the time and willingness to learn them.

In that context, physical labor can provide independence and autonomy, at least in a limited sense of not being entirely reliant on a host of hired workers. By the same token, working with one’s hands, however temporarily, gives some approximation of what physical labor is and what those who do it might be like. It may be economically sound to oppose arbitrary raises in the minimum wage, but that position becomes ethically more complicated when one has tried to drive a spray rig for 50 hours a week for $10 an hour while paying a $1,000-a-month rent. A dislike or disavowal of physical labor can lead to ignorance about how those who earn their living with muscles live, think, and act.

Especially valuable in muscular work is some appreciation of the tragic view of the world, best expressed sometimes by those who realize that their 40 years of active working life have been defined by physical deterioration and often chronically low wages. What makes a woman get up each morning, knowing that her waitress job will not lead to the sort of good life and leisure that the Internet and television constantly show her? It’s not just lack of alternatives but also a determination to find meaning in doing a demanding job well.

For the past four decades, I have split my time between teaching classics and writing, and working on a farm. I cannot say that either world is nobler than the other. But I did learn that small farmers and farm laborers complained much less about their own often-unenviable lots than did academics about their comparatively enviable compensation and generous time off. Working outdoors, often alone, with one’s hands encourages a tragic acceptance of nature and its limitations. Talking and writing indoors with like kind promote a more therapeutic sense that life can be changed through discourse and argument.

Jean François Millet, "The Hay Trussers," 1850 (© RMN-GRAND PALAIS / ART RESOURCE, NY)
Jean François Millet, "The Hay Trussers," 1850 (© RMN-GRAND PALAIS / ART RESOURCE, NY)

The diminished cultural awareness about those who work physically is a touchstone to a number of our present pathologies. Anyone who has watched videos of privileged Yale students shouting down professor of medicine and sociology Nicholas Christakis—because his wife, Erika, had suggested that politically correct censorship of campus Halloween costumes was excessive—should recognize that something has gone terribly wrong at our universities. The malady has metastasized well beyond the contempt for free speech and the prolonged adolescence of young adults squabbling about their preteen-like Halloween celebrations. The vast majority of students who encircled Christakis were affluent and privileged, regardless of the efforts of some to cite their minority status as proof of victimization. Had any of the professor’s accusers ever worked hard physically, thereby learning the difference between being a Yale student and picking grapes or painting houses? Yale compounds its cocooning problem by lavishing coffee bars, rec rooms, and elegant living quarters on twentysomethings, while investing them with the power to scream at and disrupt speakers not to their liking.

The physical workplace is a corrective for such a leisured Oz. The physical world of hard work imposes a hierarchy of far more important considerations than being happy or coddled—safety from injury, physical proof that one is industrious (or incompetent), and wariness about screaming and swearing at coworkers and supervisors, given that such speech is not rhetorical, as on campuses, but has immediate consequences.

I learned more from teaching students at California State University, Fresno, than from my students at Stanford—not because they knew Greek and Latin better (most did not) or because they were more ethical (again, not necessarily true) but because they often worked 20 hours or more per week at minimum-wage jobs and thus had a far wider range of experience with (and empathy for) characters and events found in Aristophanes, Euripides, and Hesiod in the premodern world of the Greeks. They were also more circumspect in addressing their complaints, angst, or unhappiness, as if they had already learned from unenviable off-campus jobs, in a way that their Stanford counterparts had not, that the world is not necessarily kind and compliant.

“Working outdoors, often alone, with one’s hands encourages a tragic acceptance of nature and its limitations.”

If incoming Yale students’ orientation or first-year community service required them to cut the quad’s grass, chainsaw tree limbs, fix clogged sewers, and work side by side with those who did, there might be less obsession over Halloween costumes and a greater reluctance to curse at faculty with the secure knowledge that they would only politely nod and smile back. Unfortunately for Yale students and for our elites in general, the world outside privileged bubbles operates on quite different premises. Perhaps this studied isolation accounts in part for why our governing classes have done such a poor job of understanding the global community in recent years.

The notion of physical work, or lack of same, also underpins the United States’ massive illegal immigration problem. Yes, Mexico seeks to export its dependent poor, to create a powerful expatriate community in the United States, and to garner over $25 billion in remittances; and yes, corporations demand cheap labor in hospitality industries, construction, and agriculture. On the political front, La Raza activists want a steady stream of unassimilated immigrants in need of parity with U.S. citizens—and thus requiring self-appointed ethnic activists and a careerist industry of identity politics; and the Democratic Party hopes to turn the American Southwest from red to blue, given new demographics.

But physical work is central to all these considerations. Sometime in the 1970s and 1980s, millions of Americans—far more than just those constituting an economic elite—decided that a key to the good life was to be free from, say, the need to cook, watch children, mow the lawn, or rake leaves. Illegal immigration promised cheap help for the upper middle classes that had once been the exclusive domain of the aristocracy. In theory, skipping the gym for four hours a week would provide more than enough time to mow the lawn, prune the bushes, or vacuum the floor. Yet sweaty and studied exercise is often deemed preferable to rote labor, given that it is more scientifically calibrated to making one look and feel better. Repetitive muscular work is not seen as commensurately valuable, whether for the exercise it provides or for its psychic benefits. Yet for all one’s degrees and income, a person can still retain some sense of autonomy and an ability to master the surrounding material landscape, if only for a few hours each week, and to appreciate how the other half lives that does such physical labor for wages. It is a choice.

In his final play, Bacchae, the Athenian playwright Euripides explored the nature of wisdom and who possesses it. After a frenzy of killing and destruction, he seems to conclude that neither the rational and conventional King Pentheus (“You’ve got a quick tongue and seem intelligent, but your words don’t make any sense at all”) nor the ecstatic emotion of the divine Dionysus and his bacchants (“Angry gods should not act just like humans”) were models for emulation. Best, instead, is the day-by-day life without pretense: “Various men outdo each other in wealth, in power, in all sorts of ways. The hopes of countless men are infinite in number. Some make men rich; some come to nothing. So I consider that man blessed who lives a happy existence day by day.”

Top Photo: Fernand Cormon, A Forge, 1893 (© RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY)


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