On Thomas More’s “Utopia”, John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and contemporary American work culture
In Search of Perfect Work
Utopia, Paradise Lost, and America
I’m someone who thinks a lot about the future. I think a lot about what I’m going to do: what job I’d like, what job I’ll probably have, and what I’m going to do when neither of those work out. I hope my future will involve a series of fulfilling, long-term jobs where I’m doing things I love—that’s the goal. But in today’s work world—one that is so different from yesterday’s—the prospect of one steady job, let alone a series of steady jobs, is looking slimmer and slimmer. In fact, as Anne Petersen argues in her viral Buzzfeed article, the millennial condition is one that emphasizes hard, constant work, but yields jobs that lack economic stability. “The thing about American labor,” she says, “is that we’re trained to erase it”; the idea is to work constantly and invisibly.1 The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson offers a similar view on the nation’s emphasis on constant work: Americans find themselves in a “paradox of work” wherein they are “happier complaining about jobs than they are luxuriating in too much leisure.2 Based on my observations and those of both Petersen and Thompson, I would argue that American labor is intended to be constant yet unseen, Sisyphean but also in the style of an Instagram influencer: We should work as much as it will take to have the appearance of the perfect life.
Looking at the idea of American work as an illusion of perfection brings to mind the work culture in any number of utopian societies. Utopias aim to achieve perfection, but I would argue that the work culture of such settings is proof that perfection could never amount to more than an illusion. Similar to the Instagram-perfect lives millennial Americans aim to achieve, utopian settings attempt to hide the problems of their work culture behind the visage of perfection; in fact, looking at utopias is illuminating to the condition of work in America. Though the work culture in the utopias of Thomas More’s sixteenth-century Utopia and John Milton’s seventeenth-century Paradise Lost are clearly unhealthy due to their emphasis on constant, never-changing labor, the work culture of twenty-first century America is similarly dystopian, as it also encourages burnout.
Upon a first reading, the work culture of Thomas More’s Utopia feels like an improvement on what Americans face. All Utopians are expected to work, so none face unemployment. They are intended to take up a job that will be their job for life. While it doesn’t alleviate what I call the career problem—the idea that we should strive for and be content with careers that prioritize the same continuous work for life—Utopian work is consistent in a way that American work isn’t; these careers, though not perfect, are attainable and dependable.
More specifically, Utopian work has day-to-day structure. Americans work an average of forty hours a week, but this is just an average, not counting overtime hours or things like responding to emails at home.3 Utopians’ structure extends to their work hours: to avoid “exhaust[ing] themselves with endless toil,” they allot six hours for work each day.4 Of their twenty-four-hour days, the remaining eighteen hours are used for “eating, and sleeping” and leisure activities “left to each person’s individual discretion . . . according to their various inclinations.”5 Of course, they are not intended to abuse their leisure time, which is generally “devoted to intellectual activity,” such as their “established custom” of daily lectures every morning “before dawn,” which Utopians are free to attend if they want to.6 Those who do not want to partake in these leisure activities are free to spend some more hours on their work; “they are not hindered” in doing this “but are rather commended as especially useful to the commonwealth.”7
These specifications for Utopian work seem, upon first glance, like benefits. But these so-called benefits are, perhaps, where work in Utopia goes wrong. Leisure time offers Utopians a limited array of activities—reading, lectures, or more work—but, at the very least, they are intended to choose between those things in accordance to what they want to do. Work for them, on the other hand, is seen as a communal effort. Someone who completes their work as intended is not doing so for themselves; they are doing it in the interest of serving their country. More’s Utopia is intended to play to the strengths of human nature to create a perfect society, but in aiming for overarching perfection, he overlooks the individuality that is inherent to human nature. Working as a cog in a machine isn’t something that individual people typically take to; by focusing on the wellbeing of a society as opposed to an individual, More leaves room for Utopians to hate their work.
This lack of individuality is something that Jiri Zuzanek highlights, although he is not just interested in the overarching problem with Utopian work, but in shedding light on the realities of some of the more beneficial aspects of their work. Though he is willing to acknowledge the perceived benefit of a six-hour workday, he says that “less attention is paid to the fact that Utopians had to work 329 days per year and had only 26 days off.”8 (Doing the math on a forty-nine-hour work week for Americans versus a six-hour work day for Utopians does reveal that Utopians end up working about twenty-six hours fewer than Americans per year. Twenty-six hours is substantial, yes, but with totals around two thousand hours per year, I would argue that twenty-six hours is a difference that can be all but disregarded.)
Perhaps more concerning than the amount of time Utopians work is, as I mentioned earlier, their reason for working. Their abbreviated work days were put in place by More not for “personal development or well-being,” but for “social justice and physical sustainability.”9 The emphasis on collective benefit is best displayed in More’s own words when discussing Utopians who choose to work during their leisure time: “commended as especially useful to the commonwealth.”10 Even leisure, Zuzanek says, is not something that is intended for the benefit of Utopians, but rather something that goes to enforce More’s agenda of social equality as “the only venue to well-being and happiness”—allocating an equal amount of leisure time to each person helps ensure equality.11
More’s view of a perfect society is one that focuses not on its citizens, but only on the functioning of society at large. Utopians’ work has more structure than Americans’, but this structure is not in service of the worker. More’s disregard for the individual worker’s ability to work in this way—continuously at the same job with no end in sight—is the flaw in his vision for Utopian work (and one of many flaws in his vision for a perfect society).
More looks from a bird’s eye view in his discussion of a utopia, but in Paradise Lost, John Milton provides the point of view of inhabitants of a utopia and illustrates how their existence differs from our own. Milton is discussing an accepted utopia, one that he does not create but expects the audience to recognize: We find Eve in the Garden of Eden, which is largely regarded as an extension of heaven. Here, she and Adam work, tending to the garden day by day, finding the same tasks to tend to each day when they awake. This type of work is similar to work in Utopia in the sense that the workers are expected to perform the same tasks day by day, although Milton describes their setting as being gorgeous, which may, for a moment, disguise the difficulty of their continuous labor: their garden is full of “goodliest trees loaden with fairest fruit / Blossoms and fruits” with the “golden hue” and “gay enameled colors” from their sun.12 In short, the Garden of Eden is “a heav’n on earth,” representing the “blissful paradise of God.”13
In this beautiful garden, Adam and Eve each day must “toil” over their “sweet gard’ning labor”—a “sweet” labor that is made up of continuously “prun[ing] these growing plants, and tend[ing] these flours.”14 From the outset, Eve is more disillusioned with her monotonous life than Adam is. Adam believes that they should not “think hard / One easie prohibition” when their reward for that work is Eden, a place set out by God where they are left to enjoy freedom “to all things else.”15 Adam’s attitude about their work is one that, in theory, makes sense; having to work is a small price to pay for the freedom of heaven on Earth. But consider their work: Each day, they prune flowers and trees in a garden, and each day, they awake to find the past day’s work undone, waiting to be done in the exact same way again. At large, utopias and heavens are meant to be perfect places; why should there be the difficulty of futile work for Adam and Eve to face? Looking specifically at the work of Eden, for a conscious person, one who thinks as Eve does and as Adam apparently neglects to, doing this tiresome work would lead to some grievances.
Eve finds herself compelled by Satan to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and convinces Adam to do the same. In this action, Eve asserts that even perfection becomes monotonous and tiresome. This marks a success for Satan in terms of controlling humankind and corrupting the Earth as the poem explains the pain of birth, the submission of women to men and even the tilt of the Earth to allow hot and cold seasons as being the result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. While the couple is initially ashamed and sad about the loss of their paradise, the poem doesn’t end on sadness. They wipe their tears and realize that “the world was all before them,” one where they could choose what they are to do, one where they no longer face the Sisyphean work of tending to an ever-growing garden, and one where the world has not been decided for them.16
So what does all that mean for the work that Adam and Eve had to do in Eden? Their happy ending isn’t to say that their work is the reason that their banishment from Eden is a good thing, nor is it to suggest that their changed work will make the real world a new paradise for them. What Paradise Lost suggests is that Eve’s work ethic differs from that which Eden requires, which is a major point that Kevis Goodman discusses in her paper “’Wasted Labor’? Milton’s Eve, the Poet’s Work, and the Challenge of Sympathy.” Goodman suggests that Eve’s difficulty with the work of Eden is the lack of productivity in accordance to the “‘performance principle,’” the idea that she is putting in her sustained labor toward a goal that is never accomplished. When we Americans (and humans at large) think of work, we are thinking of it as work toward something—toward the missions of a corporation, toward the advancement of our own business, as a general stepping stone toward an end goal. Goodman posits that Eve thinks of her work in the same way that the rest of us do, that she is considering work “not for the means of survival . . . but for some external reason” related to productivity.17
What Eve and her work ethic point to is similar to the problem Zuzanek calls out in regard to Utopia: The work she is doing is something that is not meant for her as an individual but for Eden as a society. Eve displays the very human desire for her work to have some meaning to her, the worker. Goodman relates this struggle of the relation between the worker and their work to a Marxist argument. In the process of working for the sake of Eden, Eve is reduced to a means for production as opposed to retaining her autonomy as a person. It is this struggle which illuminates the difference between work and labor: “labor is . . . not defined in terms of any particular kind of pursuit” whereas work is labor done for a larger purpose.18 In Paradise Lost, Eve sees what she is doing not as work but, because it lacks individuality, as labor—hence Goodman’s title Wasted Labor.
Eve’s reaction to utopian work plays into Abraham Korman’s hypothesis of how real people work. Eve, according to Goodman, works in hopes of gaining productivity. This corresponds with Korman’s hypothesis that discusses the reasons that humans engage in the work they engage in. They choose work that aligns with their self-concept and will “maximize their sense of cognitive balance or consistency.”19 The fact that Eve rejected the Sisyphean work that she was doing in the garden suggests that her self-concept is one that is stronger, one that is more centralized in ability to do a good job, not just to do a job. This understanding of Eve as a character is the closest thing to a glimpse at human nature across both Paradise Lost and Utopia, revealing that humans have an innate tendency to think more of themselves than such Sisyphean work suggests.
We find this very human Eve leaving what was supposed to be a utopia and finding herself in the real world. Though her “real world” is far removed from ours, let’s pretend, for a second, that she’s coming into a work landscape that looks like our present one. She has escaped a Sisyphean workscape but, really, she’s just coming into a more elaborate version of one. The two main problems with the work of Utopia and Paradise Lost were: (1) the idea of work being for a larger purpose, far removed from the worker and (2) the idea of work being Sisyphean. Ironically, these are two issues that American work is increasingly facing, we just don’t tend to refer to it with such a pessimistic outlook.
Corporate America is perhaps the most literal manifestation of working as a cog in a machine that there is. Looking at census data from 2017, 36.2 percent of workers work for a “large (2,500 to 9,999 people) or very large (10,000 or more people) company.” These large companies have their employees working for the sake of a company’s success. Each worker’s work contributes to the whole of the company—not to the individual worker. Many thrive in this environment, and many thrive simply because corporate America generally provides financial stability. But, as Forbes’ Lesha Reese discusses, “being solely connected to a company’s . . . vision without also having a deep alignment with your soul . . . isn’t viable long-term”; eventually, a person solely committed to another’s vision will naturally find themselves wondering what their personal connection is to their work—their “why,” as Reese refers to it.20 Much as Zuzanek and Goodman discuss in terms of Utopia and Paradise Lost, the idea of working only toward some larger purpose is not sustainable. On some level, one must work to benefit oneself.
With the gig economy on the rise, the Sisyphean nature of American work has become more and more evident. Much like in Utopia, this type of work has the trappings of being an improvement on typical work in the fact that workers can essentially work for themselves by choosing their own hours and tasks. But this hides the Sisyphean downsides: namely, the fact that workers complete the same tasks over and over again, for other people and for very little money. The role of, for example, an Uber driver is not unlike that of Sisyphus—they pick up a passenger, drive them to their destination, and pick up another passenger to repeat the cycle again. In 2018, Forbes reported that 57 million people were part of the gig economy, comprising more than 36 percent of American workers. There are two types of gig economy workers: “independent,” where workers work freelance for themselves, and “contingent,” where workers “work for another company just like a regular employee might, minus the security and all the other benefits that come with being a full-fledged employee.”21 Either way, however, these workers are working as part of the freelance cycle, one where workers lack the type of sought-after career that Americans are supposed to aim for. Eve, performing similarly Sisyphean tasks in the utopian Garden of Eden, refused to continue to perform those jobs for the rest of her days. What does it say about American work that Sisyphean gig work has become one of the more pervasive options for many workers today?
Corporate and gig work are, of course, not the only options for American work. Entrepreneurs, for example, work for themselves, building companies where they can oversee the larger purpose instead of working for it. Artists specialize in a certain areas and perform this task continuously, but they are typically more likely to do so because of their passion as opposed to necessity. Despite these occupations that provide exceptions, American work finds itself in a sort of continuous cycle: Entrepreneurs build companies they can oversee while workers beneath them find themselves working to the same larger purpose that, in part, makes Utopian work undesirable; artists pursue what they do because of their passion, but the Sisyphean elements of their work can’t be ignored—their careers are still centered on continuously performing the same tasks.
With American work as a seemingly no-win situation, one has to wonder where we go from here to avoid a dystopian fate. One route, proposed by The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, calls upon the government to help via universal basic income. This would mean “taxing the growing share of income going toward owners of capital, and using this money to cut checks to all adults,” an idea which has found support in the past.22 The problem with is having a universal income without also having universal work; the rich who work and are taxed could say, “with some accuracy,” that they are working in order to pay for the lives of idle Americans who aren’t.23
Then there is the Camus route, named for Albert Camus’s discussion of futility in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Camus recognizes the tragedy in Sisyphus’ consciousness of his eternal punishment, but he, much like Paradise Lost’s Adam, says that we must not focus on the hardship he faces; “one must imagine Sisyphus happy,” he says.24 This acceptance points to how Camus believes we can live life even though it is meaningless: We must accept the meaningless nature of life and find our way to be content within it. He has a lovely philosophical, though not overly optimistic, way of concluding that the bad things don’t have to be simply bad—there can be a happiness even in those things that don’t appear to have it.
Personally, I don’t quite land on either Camus’s or Thompson’s conclusions. Government is a mess. The idea of always finding happiness in even the most negative things appears, to me, fundamentally against human nature. But perhaps, for the sake of avoiding dystopia, the challenge of suitable work is a challenge we should take. The government can start to help us a little more and a little more—not just a $15 minimum wage but $55. Maybe we can’t be content heaving a stone up a hill every day, but we can start to find happiness in other things—say, the view on the top of the mountain, or the Buzzfeed quizzes we get to take when contemplating burnout (I got “at risk of burnout,” which seems pretty good, all things considered). Maybe one day, some combination of a few changes will make it possible for Americans to find happiness in their work, each step of the way.
For my part, doing the tireless work of a college student, I found something I had an interest in writing about for this paper. And you know what? I felt for myself that work isn’t all burnout; I found a real enjoyment in it.
- Anne Petersen, “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation,” Buzzfeed, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/millennials-burnout-generation-debt-work.
- Derek Thompson, “A World Without Work.” The Atlantic, July 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/07/world-without-work/395294/
- E. Miller, “The U.S. Is The Most Overworked Nation In The World,” 20-Something Finance, 2010, updated January 2, 2018, https://20somethingfinance.com/american-hours-worked-productivity-vacation/.
- Thomas More, Utopia, 3rd ed., Translated by George M. Logan (New YorK: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011), 45.
- More, Utopia, 45.
- More, Utopia, 45.
- More, Utopia, 46.
- Jiri Zuzanek, “Work and Leisure in Thomas More’s Utopia,” Leisure Studies 36.3 (2017): 305-314, Taylor & Francis Online, https://doi.org/10.1080/02614367.2016.1182200, 22
- Zuzanek, “Work and Leisure in Thomas More’s Utopia,” 22.
- Zuzanek, “Work and Leisure in Thomas More’s Utopia,” 46.
- Zuzanek, “Work and Leisure in Thomas More’s Utopia,” 22.
- John Milton, Paradise Lost (London and New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 2006.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, 2007
- Milton, Paradise Lost, 2012.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, 2012.
- Milton, Paradise Lost, 2175.
- Kevis Goodman, “‘Wasted Labor’? Milton’s Eve, the Poet’s Work, and the Challenge of Sympathy.” ELH, 64.2 (1997) 415–446, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30030143, 427.
- Goodman, “‘Wasted Labor’?,” 421.
- Abraham Korman, “Hypothesis of Work Behavior Revisited and an Extension,” The Academy of Management Review, 1.1 (1976): 50–63, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/257359, 51.
- Lesha Reese, “Can You Really Have A ‘Why’ While Working In Corporate America?” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/07/11/can-you-really-have-a-why-while-working-in-corporate-america/.
- TJ McCue, “57 Million U.S. Workers Are Part Of The Gig Economy,” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/tjmccue/2018/08/31/57-million-u-s-workers-are-part-of-the-gig-economy/.
- Thompson, “A World Without Work
- Thompson, “A World Without Work.”
- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O’Brien, 24.