The Protestant Work Ethic

July 12, 2011

Most Americans were raised with the Protestant Work Ethic. This is the idea, rooted in Calvinist theology and philosophy, that life is about hard work, suffering, and the rejection of leisure and pleasure. The original theology behind it is purely Calvinistic. According to that system, God has predestined certain people to heaven, and the rest to hell, based on nothing that anyone has done. It was a purely arbitrary decision by God. So, to the Calvinist, how a person lives his life, is evidence of that person’s predestination to heaven.  And a sure sign of predestination to heaven, is hard work, frugality, and the shunning of earthly pleasure and leisure. There should be no free time or relaxation — life is about working in misery, saving money, and dying.

Well, I reject the Protestant Work Ethic. It is a phenomenon unique to Northern Europe, and the USA. Many, many cultures consider leisure, spending time with friends and families, and general enjoyment of life, to be just as important as working. Consider the French. In most of French culture, work is not an entity unto itself, a self-obvious virtue. Rather, work provides some pleasure, sure. But it also provides wine, food, and the freedom to spend time with people. While an American might skip lunch and work through it, a Frenchman might take a two-hour lunch, and a siesta.

Yes, I believe that work is a necessary part of life, and that it provides some psychological pleasure and fulfillment. I am not arguing that we simply lie in bed all day. That would be miserable. I understand that work is generally a healthy thing. But I do not believe it is the sole purpose in life. I believe that people are what really make life worthwhile, and leisure and pleasure are just as important as work. What do you think?

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