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"Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?"

What do we gain from our labors? Is it just personal fulfillment and survival? What are the religious and non-religious views on this?

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  • "Meaningless labor" is as loaded as it gets.
    – armand
    Mar 4 at 11:18
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    Since you've quoted Ecclesiastes, you might as well see Genesis-3 for the answer — In the sweat of thy brow thou shalt toil, in sorrow thou shalt eat and thence return to the earth... The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.
    – Rushi
    Mar 4 at 11:36
  • I'd suggest dust in the wind as a sometimes-superior modern translation. See: hebel. Plus there's the great Kansas song.
    – g s
    Mar 4 at 15:38
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    From Tennessee Ernie Ford: You load sixteen tons, what do you get Another day older and deeper in debt Mar 4 at 17:51
  • Sad to see this good question closed. I was going to write an answer referencing the end of Ecclesiastes: ch. 12:13-14 says that man will be rewarded by God for his labor. Colossians 3:23-24 brings out the same idea: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving." When you are working for God, this gives meaning to labor.
    – LarsH
    Mar 5 at 14:23

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Here is the Marxist take on this:

Labor was not meaningless as long as it was necessary for our survival. A few centuries ago 90% of people had to work in agriculture to put our food onto the table.

Then came the division of labor and also capitalism which brought us what Marx calls alienation (German: "Entfremdung") . The worker in order to survive needs to sell his labor power but when working for the capitalist he/she is alienated from his work. His products do not belong to him even as he made them. Even worth by working there he furthers the circumstances that make up this systems.

All these consequences are implied in the statement that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence, the greater this activity, the more the worker lacks objects. Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.

Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Karl Marx

I noticed that the Wikipedia artikel on Alienation has become quite comprehensive.

One thing that Marx does not focus on much as it is a more recent phenomena is the rise of "Bullshit-Jobs" (David Graebner). In Marx view on capitalism, capitalism is still "efficient": The capitalist is forced to produce with as little as work as possible in order to be competitive. And this idea is what still lingers in the mind of a lot of Marxists today. But with the enormous growth of productivity in the last 150 years (Due to scientific and technological progress) there is a big problem for capitalism: Overproduction. So in order to sell their product they need to create artificial demand. Advertising, planned obsolescence, war, etc. So we live in a world where we could have a good and happy life with much less labor.

But even in the time of Marx overproduction was an issue (but then only in "time of crises" where now this is a permanent issue:

In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity – the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property.

From: Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

On the topic of religion: As labor was necessary for survival it should not come as a surprise that religions often place some emphasis on labor:

"He who does not work, neither shall he eat"

But it is also interesting to see that throughout history there are christian voices that reject the labor.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

(Mat 6:26)

Think of Franz of Assisi and some other mendicant orders.

Particularly interesting to me here is the split between Catholics and Protestants: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Max Weber)

Also the new developments where Pope Francis speaks out in favor of a universal basic income...

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    +1 for a thoughtful answer. Mar 4 at 11:20
  • To be more direct, the Marxist analysis is that labor is the sole creator of (economic) value. Without labor, civilizations would not exist.
    – Corbin
    Mar 4 at 18:00
  • A thoughtful answer, but the Matt. 6:26 verse that you quoted as rejecting labor is not doing so. The context makes it very clear that Jesus is exhorting his followers not to be anxious, but to trust God for provision.
    – LarsH
    Mar 4 at 18:59
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For millennia work was a principle ingredient in survival- we strove to find food and shelter, to evade predators and so on. The alternative was to sit around and die. Today work is still a matter of survival for many. For the rest of us, work can be a source of surplus income we can expend on whatever gratifies us, a source of satisfaction in itself, exercise, a means of gaining influence, a way of fulfilling the expectations of others, a mindless habit, a preferable alternative to idleness, and so on. Whether you consider those things to be meaningless is a matter of opinion.

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"I only worry about sending the fruits of the garden which I cultivate off to be sold there.’ Having said these words, he invited the strangers into his house; his two sons and two daughters presented them with several sorts of sherbet, which they had made themselves, with kaimak enriched with the candied-peel of citrons, with oranges, lemons, pine-apples, pistachio-nuts, and Mocha coffee… – after which the two daughters of the honest Muslim perfumed the strangers’ beards. ‘You must have a vast and magnificent estate,’ said Candide to the turk. ‘I have only twenty acres,’ replied the old man; ‘I and my children cultivate them; and our labour preserves us from three great evils: weariness, vice, and want.’ Candide, on his way home, reflected deeply on what the old man had said. ‘This honest Turk,’ he said to Pangloss and Martin, ‘seems to be in a far better place than kings…. I also know,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden." "

-Voltaire, in 'Candide'

Discussed here: Should happiness be attained by reforming the world around us for the better or by accepting it as it is?

A list of related discussions on here: References regarding pragmatic views of philosophy of worklife

One way to go is deflationary, meaning is within our human lives, so asking the meaning of our lives is a category error:

"And if the Wine you drink, the Lip you press,

End in the Nothing all Things end in –Yes-

Then fancy while Thou art, Thou art but what Thou shalt be–Nothing–Thou shalt not be less."

-Khayyam/Fitzgerald

See discussion here: If everything ends one day why don't we end it today?

There's what might be called a defeatist approach, or accepting our purposes are illusory:

“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly; Man got to sit and wonder 'why, why, why?' Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land; Man got to tell himself he understand.”

―Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle

“We are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you any different.”

-also Kurt Vonnegut

But I'd say there is a non-dualist answer:

"The meaning and purpose of dancing, is the dance."

-Alan Watts

Humans are the kind of animals who ask 'Why?' and we array our answers like birds do their plumage. We cannot create final answers, because who we are as beings of mind, is always in flux. But the answers we make, and choose in the meantime, can be among the most important things to us.

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What I have gained is food and shelter, entertainment, a sense of purpose and accomplishment, topics of conversation, friendships, ... I can come up with more. I'm sure.

If you aren't gaining anything (or enough), tangible or intangible, you shouldn't be doing that work and should be trying to find something better to do with your time.

Apologies if you were looking for something deeper, but I honestly think the practical answer is both necessary and sufficient. If you want to ask why those things are desired, maybe that starts to become something philosophical.

Not everything is, or needs to be, profound.

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