All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind. (Aristotle)

UPDATE: As Michael notes below, a better translation of the above is in Rackham (reproduced from Michael's citation):

This isn't a better translation as Michael is wrong about it being a misquotation. It's a mild paraphrase of a sentence from Aristotle's Politics Book 8, Part 2:

And any occupation, art, or science, which makes the body or soul or mind of the freeman less fit for the practice or exercise of virtue, is vulgar; wherefore we call those arts vulgar which tend to deform the body, and likewise all paid employments, for they absorb and degrade the mind.

But at present we are studying the best constitution, and this is the constitution under which the state would be happiest, and it has been stated before that happiness cannot be forthcoming without virtue;

[I]t is therefore clear from these considerations that in the most nobly constituted state, and the one that possesses men that are absolutely just, not merely just relatively to the principle that is the basis of the constitution, the citizens must not live a mechanic or a mercantile life (for such a life is ignoble and inimical to virtue), nor yet must those who are to be citizens in the best state be tillers of the soil(for leisure is needed both for the development of virtue and for active participation in politics.)

Aristotle, Politics 1328b-1329a

Why? Is it the meaningless repetition of the actions, or something different entirely?

Such a statement seems misleading based on my experience. (I recently got my first job, and it has been nothing but good. I have developed more responsibility and a seriousness towards time management, etc. that does not intuitively seem to line up with "mental absorption and degradation.")

Aristotle's quotes have always interested me. Although they usually make sense, this one did not. It struck me as odd. I would like to understand why he would say something that to me doesn't make that much sense.

Please bear with me as I'm rather new to the entire concept of philosophy. I suppose the question I'm asking here is whether this excerpt should be read literally, figuratively, or disregarded entirely. I suspect the latter will not be the case (but I'm not sure.)


7 Answers 7


Well, to begin with, that's a terrible misquotation of Aristotle.

What he actually wrote was the following:

But at present we are studying the best constitution, and this is the constitution under which the state would be happiest, and it has been stated before that happiness cannot be forthcoming without virtue; it is therefore clear from these considerations that in the most nobly constituted state, and the one that possesses men that are absolutely just, not merely just relatively to the principle that is the basis of the constitution, the citizens must not live a mechanic or a mercantile life (for such a life is ignoble and inimical to virtue), nor yet must those who are to be citizens in the best state be tillers of the soil(for leisure is needed both for the development of virtue and for active participation in politics.) -- Politics 1328b-1329a, Rackham trans.

So, the question then becomes: why is "a mechanic or a mercantile life...ignoble and inimical to virtue"?

Now, let us examine this a little more closely. By "a mechanic or mercantile life", Aristotle is talking about artisans and tradesmen; in fact, this is a common translation of the passage. And elsewhere in the Politics, Aristotle links artisans and tradesmen with "foreigners", describing them as being only slightly above slaves (1278a). They (artisans, tradesmen, and slaves) are collectively "servants to the community", but are not proper citizens-- which is the point of the main quote above. For Aristotle, citizens (properly constituted) should not be artisans, tradesmen, slaves or farmers-- because they lack the leisure time necessary for the cultivation of "virtue" (ἀρετή), sometimes translated as "excellence." As the linked article indicates, this is a key term for Aristotle-- the focus of his entire Ethics, among other things.

So, to close the circle: the point is not that "paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind"; rather, the point is that working too much takes valuable time away from more noble pursuits. Note that Aristotle here is being profoundly (and typically) anti-democratic; in today's terms, he'd be perfectly satisfied that the 99% are working so that the 1% can live a life of leisure, and there's no reason for him that the 99% should be citizens at all-- they are not the people that matter to Aristotle's state.


Since the question has been updated, I thought I would flesh out my answer a bit, to better match the concerns listed.

First, for Aristotle, the nature of the work isn't important-- it doesn't matter to him if you are a farmer, or a tradesman, or a soldier, or a craftsman. All are equally bad, in his opinion, and it has nothing to do with the nature of the work (repetitive or otherwise.) It's purely a function of time. If you are spending your entire day (every day) working, you're not going to have time to cultivate virtue.

This leads us to my second point: that any attempt to apply Aristotle's notion to contemporary society is hopelessly anachronistic. Aristotle was writing about a society that was significantly different than ours. The eight-hour day, and the five-day work-week are less than 150 years old. The notion of a liberal education, available to all, regardless of birth, is somewhat older than that, but not by much. The fact that you are able to read this (or anything) already places you far outside of Aristotle's conception of a worker. Aristotle's workers were largely illiterate, extremely uneducated, and had no time to take part in the pursuits of the mind that Aristotle thought were necessary for citizens. The same cannot be said for the working class of today, and even if it were the case, we are (generally) committed to a democratic ideal of citizenship for all that is inimical to Aristotle's views on society. At the same time, the democracy of Aristotle's time was a much more direct democracy, expecting the participation of all citizens in the process of governing (and not just through election of representatives).

A nice overview of Aristotle's political theory can be found here.

  • 1
    +1, great job. In passing, note that the original poster has provided a bit more context on his use-case. (I just wanted to let you know as I thought you might wish to consider reviewing your answer to determine if you might be able to develop or amplify it to address OPs concerns a bit more closely.)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Dec 13, 2011 at 23:37
  • 1
    @JosephWeissman: Thanks for the heads-up on the changes to the question. I've fleshed out my answer accordingly. Dec 14, 2011 at 20:13
  • 3
    Well said. My impression was, however, that Aristotle wouldn't have said that being a worker is "bad" so much as being a philosopher is better. And you don't really get to chose which role in life you fill. The ancients tended to believe that heredity matters way more than we do. You don't expect a philosopher to be born to farmers anymore than you expect a grape seed to produce an apple tree. (And we are probably not disagreeing. I just wanted to clarify.) Dec 14, 2011 at 22:35
  • @Ericson: Confucious was born in rural poverty, he was said to have worked as a shepherd & as a clerk. I expect heredity mattered (not just on intellectual qualities grounds) but it also marked out which class you were born into, and who you could associate with on intimate terms. Dec 6, 2012 at 9:56

In the social context of Aristotle's time in Greece, there were the few idle rich, the few artisans/trades people (people who worked for a living making and/or selling things), the many slaves (some overlap with the former) and the many farmers (also overlapping with slaves). From the idle rich's point of view (of which Aristotle was a member), those who weren't idle, artisans and trade/business people, were, well, not particularly intellectually minded. They didn't have the time or inclination for education, reflection, reading (or the time to learn how to read).

So, in my view, Aristotle is being a bit elitist, saying in a backwards direction (as if anybody would move from idleness to employment) the poorer people who actually have to work for a living are just not that smart.

  • 4
    +1. It's also likely that all of his readers have been part of the idle rich until very, very recently. (And even now, you have to have some serious free time to be able to be conversant in Aristotle.) Dec 14, 2011 at 22:20
  • My understanding is that Aristotle himself belonged to a sort of lower nobility, below the idle rich, who coordinated and ran plantations, etc. Mark Steel, in his lectures on Aristotle sees much of his worldview as infatuation with his own social class, and work toward pressing to increase the size of this class, at the expense of both the truly idle rich and the mercantile class. You could look at it as a pre-echo of our modern local-food movement. Have a plantation everywhere and don't let the Lord grow cash crops and sell at foreign markets while you buy from foreign traders.
    – user9166
    Mar 2, 2016 at 22:17
  • Actually, according to that lecture, he comes down hard against the idle rich, both on the idleness and the richness. One of the 'means' is ambition, and he mentions that lack of ambition is related to a lack of the ability to ascend due to high birth. He also says "It is difficult for a productively liberal man to become rich, he will neither earn beyond need, nor hold money tightly" His own father was employed, not idle -- a physician -- but was descended from a 'small landholder', that minor nobility mentioned above. And he held lectures open to the public, not just those who could pay.
    – user9166
    Mar 3, 2016 at 4:27

Your first job. Wait a while. You will probably find, like most of us, that working actually means living as you do not want to, going against your morals, instincts. In most cases it's not even ethical or meaningful (exploiting others to make money for a rich corporation). While one can gain good experience from work, it's essentially degrading to ourselves and the human race to spend so much of our time doing what we don't really want to be doing merely in order to be able to live. Ideally our time could be spent on pursuits which are more noble.

  • Really? It's " it's essentially degrading"? You can solve that easily by living off the grid. And then experience all the free time and self-worth you get from that lifestyle.
    – Mayo
    May 20, 2019 at 14:00

I beg to differ that this is an elitist viewpoint by Aristotle, and that he would most certainly be happy with the 99% class not being citizens because they work, and that the previous sentences somehow put him in a class of anti-democratic ideals, as was argued in other post. I would think that he would be more of an expert in the makings of a state, which is the realistic goal of any form of government. Not the rosy colored viewpoint that all governments would like to achieve democracy or a republic as a standard good-will virtue.

In fact, what Aristotle is really pointing out in this argument, is that if a tradesman or a farmer is bogged down by too many hours of work, they will have no leisure time to develop virtue or become absorbed in politics. Which is of course, the role that every good citizen should be at foremost, obliged to participate in. Without participating in the natures of the state, or in the construction of virtue, then they will become no greater then the nature of slaves, who neither have a voice nor a prize to claim in the realms of state.

I deeply believe that one of the instruments of the Industrial Revolution was not the need to fill growing market demands for trade goods or to lockstep with a need for faster and newer technologies that filled these trade good demands on a global consumer scale. But for capitalist to gain a hold of competition and reduce the number of future competitive capitalists, by forging monopolies and getting the modern day consumer and citizen, out of politics. This would, of course become accomplished, by driving markets into trade good sectors which will then require normal citizens to increase their workload hours 2 or 3-fold, and thus render them useless in politics or any future investments.


Matthew 6:24; "No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money".

In Platos republic, the body/appetite will take care of itself once reason establishes itself as king (see tripartite soul and the city/soul analogy; republic); "Appetite is money loving, but reason lusts after truth, justice and the good".

Of course your dilemma is that it is impossible to survive unless you look after the body first and foremost and that means work no matter how mundane, mechanical & time consuming. Unfortunately, in the eyes of plato and aristotle, there can be no reconciliation between the two, reason will suffer.

The emphasis is on desire. There are lots of millionaires with leisure on their hands but have no desire to nurture the mind towards truth and justice. Rather they are slaves to, and seek to accumulate more to satisfy the money loving appetite. Likewise there are lots of others struggling to make ends meet but still find the time to reflect on the nature of things thus nurturing reason and the mind.


It is likely Aristotle's view of working-class life was shaped by exposure mostly to people that in Marxist terms would be considered wage-slaves, without the freedom to control the source of their income in any real way. Erich Fromm makes an analysis of personality types in such societies. He finds various behaviors are promoted by the values forced upon individuals by their place in their culture.

Paid labor, in his analysis, tends to produce one of four different orientations, each of which have their given drawbacks. People may become receptive and expect to be taken care of by the providing institution, exploitative in optimizing their actual advantages, hoarding in shepherding resources the source of which they cannot control, or marketeering in psychologically manipulating others to produce artificial advantages.

A productive approach to labor can be had only when the dependency upon the actual product and income is not so severe that it warps one's values, and the income itself can be seen as a valuation, and not a true necessity the lack of which presents a threat to survival.

Since Aristotle would not have seen a relatively wealthy society based largely upon wages, he probably could not see any mass of wage-earning people who could take a productive and not personality-distorting relationship to money and goods.


Aristotle argues that the definition of a possession "may be defined as an instrument of action, separable from the possessor." And that a slave, is such an instrument. He further goes on to say that even an artisan, even if they are a citizen, would still be considered to be a slave because they are relegated to menial tasks among which is "rendering services to individuals"



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