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The Decay of Words, Part 2:
Work & Leisure

Seneca [1]2,201 words

Part 2 of 3

Trans. G. A. Malvicini from L’Arco e la Clava [The Bow and the Club] (Milan: Scheiwiller, 1968)

10. Labor. Regarding changes in the value attached to words, changes that clearly indicate a radical change in world view, the most typical case is perhaps that of the term labor. In Latin, this word had a mainly negative meaning. Although in some cases, it could refer to activity in general — such as in the expression labor rei militaris, activity in the army — its predominant meaning expressed the idea of fatigue, exhaustion, unpleasant effort, sometimes even disgrace, torment, a burden, a punishment. The Greek term ponos had an analogous meaning. Thus, laborare could also mean suffer, be anxious, tormented. Quid ego laboravi? means: “why did I torment myself?” Laborare ex renis, ex capite means: to suffer from a backache or a headache. Labor itineris means the fatigue and inconvenience of travel. And so on.

So that the Roman never would have thought of making labor a sort of virtue and social ideal. And Roman civilization was no civilization of slackers, loafers, and “idlers.” The truth is that at that time, one had a sense of distance. To “work,” one opposed agere, action in its higher meaning. “Work” corresponded to the dark, servile, material, indifferent forms of human activity, with reference to those for whom activity was determined only by need, necessity or an unfortunate fate (the ancient world knew a metaphysics of slavery). Opposed to such people were those who act in the proper sense of the term, those who devote themselves to free, non-physical, conscious, deliberate and to some extent disinterested forms of action. Even to those who exercised material activities, but with a certain qualitative character, and on the basis of an authentic and free vocation, the term “work” was not applied; such a person was an artifex (there was also the term opifex), and this view was also retained in later times, in the climate and style of the traditional craft guilds.

The change in the meaning and value of the word in question is therefore a very clear sign of the plebeian character that has increasingly come to predominate in the Western world, a civilization that increasingly is shaped by the lowest strata of any complete social hierarchy. The modern “cult of work” is all the more aberrant because today, more than ever, under the regime of industrialization, mechanization and anonymous mass production, work has necessarily lost any higher value it might have had. Despite this, one has reached the point of speaking of a “religion of work,” of a “humanism of work,” and even of a “labor state,” making work a kind of insolent ethical and social imperative for everyone, to which one almost wants to answer defiantly with the Spanish saying El hombre que trabaja pierde un tiempo precioso (“the man who works loses precious time”).

On another occasion, we had already identified the following contrast between the traditional world and the modern world: in the first, even “work” could take the form of an “action,” of a “work,” and of an art; in the second, action and art sometimes take on the character of “work”, that is, of coerced, opaque and interested activity, not according to a vocation, but to need and, above all, for profit, lucre.

11. Otium. This term has undergone a change exactly inverse to that of the preceding one. Today, the Italian word ozio [idleness] has, almost without exception, a pejorative sense. To be idle, according to modern usage, is to be useless to oneself and to others. To be idle and to be indolent, distracted, inactive, listless, prone to the “dolce far niente” of the mandolin-playing Italy for tourists, are all more or less equivalent. However, otium in Latin meant a period of free time, corresponding more or less to meditative state of calm, transparent contemplation. Idleness in the negative sense — also known in antiquity — was only what it can lead to when misused: only in such cases could one say, for example, hebescere otio or otio diffluere, that is to say, to become stupid or dissipated through idleness. But this is not the usual sense. Cicero, Seneca, and other classical authors understood otium was understood primarily as the healthy and normal counterpart to everything that is action, and even as a necessary condition for action to truly be action, and not agitation, not business (negotium), not ”work.”

We could also refer to the Greeks, as Cicero wrote: “Graeci non solum ingenio atque doctrina, sed etiam otio studioque abundantes” — “The Greeks are rich not only in innate gifts and doctrine but also in otium and application.” Of Scipio the Elder it was said: “Nunquam is minus esse quam cum otiosum otiosus esset aut minus solum esse quam cum solus esset” — “He was never less idle than when he was idle, and never less alone than when he enjoyed solitude,” which refers to an active (in a higher sense) type of “idleness” and solitude. And Sallust: “Maius commodum ex otio meo quam ex aliorum negotiis reipublicae venturum” — “My leisure will be more useful to the state than the busyness of others.” To Seneca we owe a treatise entitled De otio, in which “idleness” gradually takes on the character of pure contemplation.

Some of the characteristic ideas in this treaty are worth mentioning here. According to Seneca, there are two States: one greater State, without exterior and contingent limits, encompassing both men and gods; the other is the particular, earthly State, to which one belongs by birth.

Now, Seneca says, there are men who serve the two States at once, others who serve only the greater State, and others that serve only the earthly State. The greater State can also be served through “idleness,” if not better through idleness — through investigating what constitutes virtus, strength and virile dignity: “huius maiori rei publicae et in otio deservire possumus, imno vero nescio an in otium melius, ut quaeremus quid sit virtus.” Otium is closely linked to the tranquillity of mind of the sage, to the inner calm that allows one to reach the summits of contemplation; contemplation which, if understood in its right, traditional sense, is not an escape from the world or a distraction, but a deepening and elevation to the perception of the metaphysical order that every true man must never cease to keep in sight when living and struggling in an earthly State.

Moreover, even in Catholicism (before Christ the worker, to be honored on May 1, had been thought up, and before the church had “opened itself to the left”), there was the phrase sacrum otium, “sacred idleness,” referring, specifically, to contemplative activity. But in a civilization where all action has taken on the dull, physical, mechanical and mercenary traits of work, even when the work is done in one’s head (“intellectual workers,” who naturally have their “unions,” too, and fight for the “demands” of their “trade associations”), the positive and traditional signification of contemplation inevitably had to disappear. This is why modern civilization should not be considered an “active” civilization, but a restless and neurotic civilization. As compensation for “work” and a reaction against a life that has been worn down and demeaned to the level of vain activity and production, modern man, in fact, does not know classical otium, contemplation, silence, the state of calm and  pause during which one can return to oneself and find oneself again. No: he knows only “distraction” (the literal meaning of distraction is “dispersion”); he looks for sensations, for new tensions, new stimulants, almost a kind of psychic narcotics. Anything, as long as he can escape himself, as long as he does not find himself alone with himself, isolated from the noise of the outside world and fraternization with his “neighbor.” Whence radio, television, cinema, cruises, the frenzy of sports or political rallies in a regime of the masses, the need to find out the latest, the hunting for news and the sensational, “fans” and “supporters” of all kinds, etc. Every expedient seems to have been diabolically put into play in order to destroy any kind of inner life, any internal defense of the personality, so that, almost like an artificially galvanized being, the individual lets himself be swept away by the collective current, which, naturally, according to the famous “meaning of history,” moves forward in unlimited progress.

12. Through the association of ideas, this brings to mind the decay the meaning of the Greek term theoria has undergone. When one speaks today of “theories,” one is more or less referring to “abstractions,” things far removed from of reality, “intellectual” matters; a great poet [Goethe] even wrote: “All theory is gray, my friend. But forever green is the tree of life.” Again, we find an alteration and a weakening of meaning. For the Greeks,  theoria did not mean abstract intellectuality but realizing vision, something particularly active, the act of the highest principle in man, the nous, or Olympian intellect (which will be discussed in another chapter).

13. Servitium. The verb servio, servire in Latin also has the positive sense of “to be faithful.” However, the negative sense — “to be a servant” — prevails; it is this latter sense, in any case, that is found in servitium, which specifically meant slavery, serfdom, as derived from servus = slave. In modern times, the word “serve” has become increasingly widespread, while losing this negative and demeaning connotation, so that service as “social service,” especially among the Anglo-Saxon peoples, has almost become the a kind of ethic, the only truly modern ethic. And just as one has not sensed the absurdity of speaking of “intellectual workers,” the sovereign has been called “the first servant of the nation.”

Just as the Romans clearly were not a race of “idlers,” one can also say that they present us with the highest examples of political loyalty, of loyalty to the state and its leaders. However, the tone is very different. The change in the soul of words is not a matter of chance. That words like labor, servitium, otium have taken on their modern sense, is a subtle, but eloquent sign of a change in perspective, which has certainly not occurred in the direction of virile, aristocratic, qualitative vocations.

14. Stipendium. We hardly need to mention what the word “stipend” means today. One thinks immediately of an employee, of bureaucracy, of pay-day for civil servants. In ancient Rome, this term referred almost exclusively to the army. Stipendium merere meant to be in the military, being under the orders of a particular leader or condottiere. Emeritis stipendis meant: after having completed military service; homo nullius stipendii meant one who had not known the discipline of arms. Stipendis multa habere meant to boast many campaigns, many military enterprises. Again, the shift in meaning is of no small significance.

The complete meaning of other Latin words, such as studium and studiosus, is now preserved only in certain special turns of phrase, such as the Italian expression “fare con studio,” meaning to do something on purpose or with a certain application. In the Latin term, there was the idea of ​intensity, warmth, deep interest, which has been obscured in the modern word, which brings to mind more or less arid intellectual or scholastic disciplines. The Latin studium could even mean love, desire, sharp inclination. In re studium ponere meant taking something to heart, deeply and actively take an interest in it. Studium bellandi meant the pleasure, the love of combat. Homo agendi studiosus was one who loves action — so that recalling what was said earlier about labor, he was the opposite of the man for whom action can only signify “work.” What should we think, today, of the expression studiosi Caesaris? It did not mean those who study Caesar, but those who follow him, who admire him, which take his side, who are dedicated and loyal to him.

Other words whose ancient meaning has been forgotten are, for example, docilitas, which did not mean docility, but good disposition or ability to learn, to assimilate a teaching or principle; then ingenuus, which did not at all the mean naive, but referred to free-born man, to a non-servile condition. It is more or less widely known that the Latin word humanitas did not mean “humanity” in the democratic and decayed sense of today, but cultivation of the self, fullness of life and of experience — not, however, in the “humanist” sense à la Humboldt. Another quite important example: certus. In classical Latin, the notion of certainty, of something certain, was often connected with the idea of ​​a conscious decision. Certum est mihi means: it is my firm intention and will. Certus gladio is he who can rely on his sword, who knows how to use it. A well-known phrase is diebus certis, which does not mean “on certain days” but on the fixed, established days. This could lead us to considerations of a certain conception of certainty: an active conception, which makes it dependent on that which is within our power to decide. This is what Gian Battista Vico, in the same spirit, articulated with the formula verum et factum convertuntur – but everything was to end later in the ravings of neo-Hegelian “absolute idealism.”