Non-Fiction Reads: Useful Work versus Useless Toil by William Morris

An essay written in 1884 by William Morris can still be revisited for its wisdom, reflection and persistent relevance. A brief look at the life of Morris: William Morris was of all things, a textile designer, apart from a writer and artist. He was English and played a prominent part in the arts and crafts movement.

The essay takes us right into the heart of the thing, as it begins: The above title may strike some of my readers as strange. It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful, and by most well-to-do people that all work is desirable. Most people, well-to-do or not, believe that, even when a man is doing work which appears to be useless, he is earning his livelihood by it – he is “employed,” as the phrase goes; and most of those who are well-to-do cheer on the happy worker with congratulations and praises, if he is only “industrious” enough and deprives himself of all pleasure and holidays in the sacred cause of labour.

Morris then cuts through the issue, delving deeper, on how every human being has to work in order to survive. He then speaks on the ‘nature of hope’, the things that you expect when you work – “hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself.” He goes on to elaborate on these three points. Without ever wasting time on words, using them economically, he arrives at the statement that – All other work but this is worthless; it is slaves’ work – mere toiling to live, that we may live to toil.

There is much more to the essay, practices followed through history and civilization is quoted, but always with an objective, unbiased eye. An essay worth revisiting – you will always find something to think about in each reading. 

(Article by Snehith Kumbla)

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