Without pretending to be scientific about it, the world may be imagined to be a vast collection of existences—things and substances of various compositions and kinds—each of which is what it is, and moves, changes, grows, or decays as it does by reason of its relation to other things: things existing in various ways by, and in some cases, at the expense of, or on, other things. This image is sometimes called the Economy of Nature, and it is sometimes said to have a “balance” or equilibrium of needs and satisfactions.
Human beings are recognizably part of this economy of nature. They are also what they are, and they move, change, grow, flourish, or decay as they do by reason of their relation to other things. Like the lion, the rosebush, or the iceberg, a human being has needs such that, if they are not supplied by his environment, he perishes.
Nevertheless, it has also been recognized that human beings have some characteristics that, at least partly, distinguish them from the other components of this natural world. The chief of these characteristics is commonly denoted by the Latin word sapiens, “intelligence.” Homo sapiens: human beings distinguished by something called intelligence.
What “intelligence” means here is the ability and the propensity not merely to accept what the world happens to offer in satisfaction of needs but to seek for what it does not immediately offer, to adapt, to use, to appropriate, and to invent: the propensity to choose and to determine for ourselves what our relationship to the world shall be. And in this process, needs are replaced by wants. Indeed, to be “intelligent” means to be a creature not merely of needs that must be satisfied, but of wants that are imagined, chosen, and pursued. Needs are limited and are related to some notion of bare existence. Wants are inexhaustible because they are related to no fixed condition of things.
Human beings, then, are distinguished as creatures of wants. It is as a creature of wants that a human being has acquired, not only other characteristics that have been said to distinguish him (his disposition to make things, to fabricate, and his invention and use of tools), but also his peculiar attitude toward the world around him: both positive and intelligent.
This world—the whole of it, all its components without exception—he is disposed to think of as material for satisfying his wants. It is something to be used; it is something upon which he may impose his own purposes. It is something to be subjected to himself. It is almost an enemy to be conquered, and having been conquered, to be exploited.
Now, it is not to be supposed that this attitude to the world was acquired all at once. In bygone times there were sacrosanct trees that might not be used for firewood and holy animals that might not be slaughtered. And there are peoples (in India, for example) who have been more hesitant than we have been to acquire this view of the world, or (at any rate) hesitant about letting it become a dominant attitude. The ancient Romans, oddly enough, had a much more reverent attitude toward at least the earth than did the ancient Greeks (who regarded it much more as an enemy to be subdued). But by and large, the human race has come more and more to take the attitude that understands the world as material for satisfying wants.
Of course, human history has not been confined to this enterprise of doing and making, of using the resources of the world in order to achieve that sort of human happiness which comes from satisfying its inexhaustible wants. Other activities have been discovered that we shall come to later.
Moreover, there have always been some recognized limits to this enterprise. What we call morality is, in part, a refusal to take this attitude to other human beings, a refusal to regard them (like the other components of the natural world) simply as materials to be used.
But it can hardly be denied that the major part of human energies have been devoted, from earliest times, to this enterprise of using the resources of the world to satisfy our inexhaustible wants, or of making out of the world something that corresponds to our desires.
Some people have tended to think of this enterprise as mainly or fundamentally a matter of physical exertion. But this is an obvious mistake. It has been an enterprise of immense thought and intelligence.
In order to master the world and to use it for the satisfaction of human wants, we have had to learn from nature. And the knowledge that has made possible our current mastery of the world, knowledge of the qualities of the different components of the world and of their eligibility to be used in satisfying our wants, has been accumulated over thousands of years.
The inventiveness of human beings has devised new means for exploiting the natural resources of the world—tools and machines of all kinds; and materials have been contrived by human beings out of combinations of natural materials in order to satisfy new wants.
And all this knowledge and these skills have been handed down from generation to generation in an appropriate sort of education—an education in “useful knowledge,” as we call it—knowledge that enables us to use nature to satisfy our wants.
Having moved from the realm of needs to the realm of wants, from desiring to live to desiring to live well (that is, better and better), and having acquired the uniquely human propensity to attempt things that we did not know quite how to achieve, we should not be surprised that the best energies have been spent on this enterprise.
Every success, every want satisfied in this enterprise, must be only a prelude to a new adventure. For how could this process be halted? Only by ceasing to have wants or by having wants that we choose not to satisfy. But many wants demand recurrent satisfaction, and it would be almost a contradiction to imagine refusing to give thought to how they might be satisfied better or more easily. And while men have often exercised choice, it has usually been a choice between which of their wants they will seek a satisfaction for now and which satisfactions shall for the moment be postponed. It is only the odd and rare individual who has made a choice to have done with wants—to turn back to needs.
It is not, then, surprising that this effort to achieve the sort of happiness that is to be had from satisfying human wants should have come to be regarded as “the great business and occupation of life” (as an eighteenth-century writer put it), and that it should have been given a name: “work.”
“Work” is a continuous and toilsome activity, unavoidable in creatures moved by wants, in which the natural world is made to supply satisfaction for those wants. It is something from which animals are exempt, except those who have the misfortune to be harnessed to human enterprise, and it is something unknown to a creature of mere needs. Indeed, “work” is so far typical of the human species that it is reasonable to add it to the epithets by which we distinguish it: Homo sapiens is Homo laborans—a “worker.”
The mastery of the human race over its natural environment has not, of course, been a uniform process. There have been periods of rapid advance, periods of relative stagnation, and even periods when useful knowledge about the world has been forgotten and skills have been lost. Wood, stone, and iron each were used and experimented with for long periods before even their simple uses were discerned.
We happen to live at a time when this process has been quite remarkably accelerated. And we know enough to be able to see the beginning of this acceleration about four centuries ago. There began to emerge at that time two beliefs that have gradually gained a firm hold upon us.
First, it came to be believed that “work” (this activity of exploiting the natural resources of the world for the satisfaction of human wants and the attitude towards the world that went with it) was not only typical of mankind but was our proper attitude and occupation. Indeed, it came to be believed that this ought to be the exclusive attitude and engagement to which all else should be subordinated.
This belief, that human activity ought to be directed towards promoting what John Locke called “the advantages and conveniences of life,” and that the human mind ought to concern itself exclusively with gathering together and putting in order the sort of knowledge this enterprise demanded—useful knowledge—is a moral belief, that is, it is a belief about how we ought to spend our lives. And, as the normal way of thinking about moral obligations was to understand them as the commands of God, the first defense or justification of this belief was an attempt to show that this is what God commanded.
One of the earliest arguments was biblical. God, it was said, as recorded in the Book of Genesis, had given to mankind the natural world and everything in it; he had imposed no restriction whatever upon its exploitation for the satisfaction of human wants; and he had commanded mankind to use this gift. The natural world existed to serve human purposes.
The sin of Adam modified this situation only to the extent that, instead of all our wants being automatically answered by nature, we were condemned to “work,” to toil and pain, in order to satisfy them. Thus the proper pattern of human life was understood to spring from a divine gift, a divine command, and a divine penalty.
Now, this moral belief began to be partnered, about four centuries ago, by a second belief of a different sort—namely, an immense optimism about the success of this enterprise of compelling the natural world to satisfy human wants.
It was believed that if we only set about it in a really determined manner, if we bent all our energies and intelligence to it, if our efforts were unrelaxed, the human race in a relatively short time would actually achieve, perhaps finally achieve, the sort of happiness that is to be had from the satisfaction of wants.
Wants might proliferate; indeed, they surely would. But if we worked hard enough and intelligently enough, they would all be certainly satisfied. An all-out, organized assault upon nature would be followed by success. Idleness and inefficiency in exploiting the resources of the natural world were not only sinful, they were also foolish.
This, perhaps, was the dream of a generation that was not only full of energy and fascinated by an enterprise in which it thought of itself as a pioneer, but whose imagination more readily embraced satisfactions than the new wants those satisfactions would generate. But it is the dream we have inherited; this is the tide that carries us along. It informs all our politics; it binds us to the necessity of a 4 percent per annum increase in productivity; and it is a dream we have spread about the world so that it has become the dream common to all mankind.
Since the sixteenth century, when the dream first began to take hold of European peoples, there have been some ups and downs of confidence. The nineteenth century was, in some respects, a notable period of depression and anxiety. What was called the Law of Diminishing Returns indicated that the work devoted to satisfying wants must become progressively less effective; and Malthus announced the depressing but undeniable truth that, if left to themselves, the number of those seeking satisfactions for their wants must increase faster than the supply of those satisfactions.
But these thoughts, which greatly depressed the Victorians, have inspired us with fresh energy, and I suppose that at no time in the history of the world has mankind been more determined to devote itself to exploitation of nature for the satisfaction of its wants, less dismayed at the proliferation of wants to be satisfied, or more confident of success.
This enterprise, I have suggested, is as old as the human race, as old as our emergence as creatures of wants rather than of needs. What is comparatively new is the faith and fervor with which it is pursued and the manner in which all else tends to be regarded as subordinate to the happiness that comes from the satisfaction of wants.
And yet there is something lacking in this happiness and something unsatisfying to human beings in this satisfaction. A creature composed entirely of wants, who understands the world merely as the means of satisfying those wants and whose satisfactions generate new wants endlessly, is a creature of unavoidable anxieties. If he is temporarily successful he may forget these anxieties; but he is in the position of a man who has mortgaged his future in a huge hire-purchase debt. And this has often been recognized, and not only during the last four centuries of our history when it has become particularly noticeable.
I do not mean merely the observation that this sort of happiness entails work and that work, because it is painful, is something less than wholly desirable. This has always been recognized. In the biblical story “work” itself is recognized as a defect, a punishment, a curse.
I mean something much more than this. I mean the recognition that to be a creature of wants—of desires that cannot have more than a temporary satisfaction because each satisfaction, however easily achieved, leads only to new wants—is itself a curse, a condemnation to a life in which every achievement is also a frustration.
It is not only that everything that is produced in satisfaction of a want rapidly perishes, or that many wants demand recurrent satisfactions, but that the satisfaction of every want generates a new want that in turn calls for satisfaction. Doing, and the attitude to the world it entails, is (as the hymn says) “a deadly thing.” It is an activity of getting and spending, of making and consuming, endlessly.
Now, it has always been recognized that the life of a creature of wants is frustrating and unsatisfactory. And wherever this sort of life has tended to become predominant—as in the modern world—this recognition has become more acute.
Rousseau, for example, went back behind the biblical story and imagined a condition in which mankind had not yet discovered wants; it had only needs that the world satisfied easily and for the asking, and that consequently did not generate the attitude towards nature in which it is regarded as something to be conquered and used. Rousseau knew well enough that mankind could never return to this imaginary condition, but, because the frustration of wants was absent from it, he imagined it as a kind of Golden Age.
Further, many of the great religions (including Christianity) have, among other things, offered believers relief from the treadmill existence of the creature of wants in a very different view of the world and of the proper human activities. They have taught the happiness that comes from not having wants.
But apart from all this, and in spite of the fact that “work” and the satisfaction of wants has usually engaged the greater part of the attention of mankind, there is another form of activity, peculiar to human beings, that does not suffer from the defects inherent in “work” and the satisfaction of wants: “play.”
The complete character of a human being does not come into view unless we add Homo ludens, man the player, to Homo sapiens , intelligent man, Homo faber, man the maker of things, and Homo laborans, man the worker.
I have used the word “work” in a wide sense, to stand for the activity of satisfying wants in a world like ours that can be made to satisfy wants but does not do so automatically. I shall also use the word “play” in a wide sense, to stand for an activity that, because it is not directed to the satisfaction of wants, entails an attitude to the world that is not concerned to use it, to get something out of it, or to make something of it, and offers satisfactions that are not at the same time frustrations.
This, indeed, is what we usually mean by “play.” A game may, of course, be a contest for a prize, but this is always regarded as incidental. In its proper character a game is an experience of enjoyment that has no ulterior purpose, no further result aimed at, and begins and ends in itself. It is not a striving after what one has not got and it is not an assault upon nature to yield the satisfaction of a want.
Moreover, it is on account of these characteristics (which we emphasize when we say: “the game’s the thing”) that a game appears as a “free” activity. It may have rules of its own, and it may be played with energy and require effort, but it is emancipated from the seriousness, the purposefulness, and the alleged “importance” of “work” and the satisfaction of wants.
“Play,” in short, stands for something that is neither “work” nor “rest.” It is an activity, but not an activity that seeks the satisfaction of wants. For this reason, Aristotle called it “non-laborious activity”—activity that nevertheless is not “work.” It is a “leisure” activity, not only because it belongs to the occasions when we are set free (or set ourselves free) from “work,” but because it is performed in a “leisurely” manner. A “leisurely” manner does not mean merely “slowly”; it means, “without the anxieties and absence of cessation that belong to the satisfaction of wants.”
To try to understand and to explain the world, or any part or aspect of it, obviously entails an attitude towards the world that is not one in which it is regarded as material that can be used to satisfy wants.
The aim of work is to change the world, to use it, to make something out of it; the aim of explanation is to illuminate the world, to see it as it is. The aim of work is to exert power over the hostile world, to subdue it, and to extract from it what may be useful for satisfying wants; the aim of understanding is to discern the intelligibility of the world. The aim of work is to impress some temporary human purpose upon some component of the world; the aim of explanation is to reveal the world as it is and not merely in respect of its potential to satisfy human wants.
It is, then, in the thoughts of philosophers, of scientists, and of historians that the great explanatory adventures of mankind are to be found. Philosophy, science, and history are different adventures into this realm of understanding and explanation. In pursuing any of them we are emancipated from the whole attitude towards the world that looks upon it as material for satisfying wants and from the anxieties that belong to this attitude.
I have not forgotten that I said that using the world for the satisfaction of wants is a mental activity and that it requires thought and knowledge—knowledge of the different qualities and characteristics of the components of the world. What I want to suggest is that this knowledge should not be confused with scientific knowledge, and that winning this sort of knowledge is not to be confused with the scientific enterprise of understanding and explaining.
Of course, the thoughts about the world that scientists have had and the discoveries that they have made are often eligible to be used for the exploitation of the resources of the world for the satisfaction of human wants. But science itself is a great intellectual adventure of understanding and explaining that is free from the necessity of providing useful knowledge. What we have here are two entirely different attitudes towards the world: the one concerned with truth and error, the other with what is useful or useless; the one concerned to understand the world and the other concerned to discover how the world works in order to make use of it.
Philosophy, science, and history are, then, activities that belong not to “work” but to “play.” In pursuing them or in reading the thoughts of those who pursue them we are not, strictly speaking, “working” but “playing.”
The activity of the poetic imagination is perhaps even more securely insulated from any liability of being confused with the satisfaction of wants than these explanatory activities. It is also less likely to be corrupted by it.
The practical imagination of the statesman or of people in business that sees what use the world can be put to, and that foresees the condition of things that will appear when they have imposed what they imagined upon the world, cannot be confused with the poetic imagination.
The practical is a dream to be followed by an effort to make it come true; the poetic is a dream enjoyed for its own sake. The world for the poet is not material to be used for satisfying wants, it is something to be contemplated. Poets allow the world to form itself around them without any urge to make it different from what it is. Poetic imagination is not a preliminary to doing something, it is an end in itself. It is not “work.” It is “play.”
To the ancient Greeks, who thought about these things, this seemed to be much more clearly the case with what they called the “musical arts,” the arts of poetry, dancing, music, and acting. They therefore distinguished these (which belonged to the Muses) from other arts—the arts like sculpture and painting that seemed to them to have so great an element of using the materials of the world that they qualified to be understood as crafts rather than arts and that were given not to the Muses but to a god of “work.” But I think we have risen above this distinction and can recognize in the activity of the painter and the sculptor, no less than in that of the poet and the dancer, the emancipation from the “deadliness of doing” that distinguishes art from “work.”
My main point has been to suggest that, apart from “work,” the activity of using the world to satisfy human wants, mankind has devised or stumbled upon other activities and attitudes towards the world, the activities I have grouped together as “play.” It is in these activities that human beings have believed themselves to enjoy a freedom and an illumination that the satisfaction of wants can never supply. It is not Homo sapiens and Homo laborans, the clever users of the resources of the world, but Homo ludens, the one engaged in the activities of “play,” who is the civilized one.
The gifts these activities offer us are easily recognizable. But the activities themselves are vulnerable and easily corrupted. Our way of living has generated an enormous pressure not merely to make the satisfaction of wants the center of our attention but to subordinate all other activities to it. This way lies corruption of “play.”
Instead of regarding “work” and “play” as two great and diverse experiences of the world, each offering us what the other lacks, we are often encouraged to regard all that I have called “play” either as a holiday designed to make us “work” better when it is over or merely as “work” of another sort.
In the first of these attitudes the real gifts of art and poetry and of all the great explanatory adventures are lost. They become mere “recreation”—”relaxation” from the proper business of life. In the second attitude, these gifts are corrupted: Philosophy, science, history, poetry are merely recognized for the useful knowledge they may happen to supply and are thus assimilated into the so-called great business of human life-satisfying human wants.
The point at which this corruption is most likely to appear, and where it is most dangerous when it does appear, is in education. In these days when the satisfaction of human wants is taken to be the only important activity, those who devise our systems of education are apt to find a place for all that I have called “play” only if they can regard it as “work” of another sort. In this situation, generations may be deprived of that acquaintance with the activities of Homo ludens that was once thought to be the better part of education.
But, as it happens, we have a defense against this barbarity, an old way of thinking about these things that has not quite gone out of fashion. The word “school” we are apt to associate with “work,” and often with acquiring the sort of useful knowledge and skill without which the “work” of satisfying wants is ineffective. But the word itself means exactly the opposite. It comes from a Greek word skole, which means “leisure” or “free time.” A school was understood to be a place where one was introduced to those activities and attitudes towards the world that were not concerned with satisfying wants, where one was introduced to those activities of explanation and imagination that were “free” because they were pursued for their own sake and were emancipated from the limitations and anxieties of “work.”
This way of thinking about education reappeared among the Romans in the expression liberalia studia, “liberal studies” or studies liberated from the concerns of practical doing, studies concerned with all the activities that belong to “play.” There must, to be sure, be a place for learning how to use the resources of the world for the satisfaction of human wants. But we are fortunate if we are not encouraged to confuse the two quite different experiences of the world. And if we are allowed to pursue our “liberal” studies undistracted by what does not belong to them, we may thank the survival of an ancient tradition of education for our good fortune.
Michael Oakeshott, the distinguished political philosopher who died in 1990, taught at the London School of Economics from 1951 to 1968. His most famous book is Rationalism in Politics (1962). This previously unpublished article is printed with permission of William Letwin and the estate of Michael Oakeshott.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?