Saturday, August 09, 2014

Review: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

An apology for the recent lack of content here, I propose to post more soon.  We shall see if that actually happens.

I have recently come across a remarkable book that I must recommend, with caution:

It is generally recognized that approximately one third of our adult years will be spent working.  Given this, it would seem logical that there would have been a vast number of books written on the depth of the meaning and purpose of work. 
Mysteriously, meaningful treatments of the purpose and philosophy of the Western World of work are lacking, which raises the potential significance of Alain De Botton’s, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009).  De Botton is a luxurious writer who has the ability to describe life and its ironies with poignant, gentle and touching language.  This effort is one of the most evocative and thoughtful treatments of the working life I have read, and yet, there is something profound and cosmically important missing from this otherwise beautiful book.
De Botton begins by poetically describing the world of cargo ships, their worldwide destinations, and even those whose hobby is “spotting” these giant ships and they come and go the world’s ports.  From here, the reader explores the beauty and pain, and indeed the pleasures and sorrows of a vast array of occupations, from cookie manufacturing to rocket science, to accounting, landscape painting, and logistics, among many others.  The array of occupations is diverse and fascinating.

If we are honest, most of our working lives are rather mundane and insignificant if taken on a daily basis.  The language used by De Botton to describe the working of his diverse cast of characters is sweeping and often poetic.  Who of us would not want a man of his writing skill to describe with thoughtful clarity the work we dutifully attend to each day? 

However, in the end, the reader is left flat, with a lack of encouragement, substance, meaning and purpose in this touching study of work.  After all the glowing language and intriguing descriptions, the reader is left feeling at a loss for virtually any good news about work.  Alas, from De Botton’s view, there is little purpose in the act of work; the news mostly is that of the “sorrow” side of work.  There is also a rather persistent subtle theme on the vacuous and empty soul of capitalism, which is fascinating, given the author is the son of a very wealthy European family.  

The final sentences of the book reveal a profound emptiness, which is my greatest sorrow and largest problem with this otherwise wonderful book:  “Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes from perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table.  It will have kept us out of greater trouble”.
A bit of research reveals the reason for the sad ending to this book.  De Botton is an atheist, having been raised entirely outside of any religious tradition.  So much so, that in January 2012, De Botton published Religion for Atheists, about the benefits of religions for those who do not believe in them.  Now that is fascinating; go ahead people, steal the ideas of great religions, just don’t believe any of them.

To me, a lack of belief in God is the primary trouble with this otherwise outstanding book.  In the end, our work, all of it, and all of us, are essentially meaningless.  It keeps us out of greater trouble.  How sad, to lead a life, and produce a book, that essentially in the end instructs us that all is meaningless and devoid of purpose. 

As an inspiring response to the hopelessness of De Botton, I would heartily recommend “Every Good Endeavor” by Tim Keller.
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