The venerable prejudice against manual labour

by Emrys Westacott

Whether or not a certain line of work is shameful or honorable is culturally relative, varying greatly between places and over time. Farmers, soldiers, actors, dentists, prostitutes, pirates and priests have all been respected or despised in some society or other. There are numerous reasons why certain kinds of work have been looked down on. Subjecting oneself to the will of another; doing tasks that are considered inappropriate given one’s sex, race, age, or class; doing work that is unpopular (tax collector); or deemed immoral (prostitution), or viewed as worthless (what David Graeber labelled “bullshit jobs”), or which are just very poorly paid–all these could be reasons why a kind of work is despised, even by those who do it. One of the oldest prejudices though, at least among the upper classes in many societies, is against manual labour.

The word “manual” derives from manus, Latin for “hand,” and even in English the linguistic connection between physical labor and “hand” persists: we still speak of “farmhands” or “factory hands.” But the concept of manual labor extends to any kind of work that requires bodily strength, or where the physical aspect of the activity is thought to greatly outweigh the cerebral. This sort of work has been looked down on by social elites in many societies from time immemorial. Some reasons for this are fairly obvious. Manual labor is often dirty, unhealthy, exhausting and unpleasant; much of it is also unskilled, tedious, and poorly paid. These are all seen as good reasons for avoiding it if possible, at least as a way to make a living. So it is generally assumed (at least by the privileged few who don’t have to do it) that those who spend their days engaged in work of this kind probably have little choice: they must be either slaves, or serfs, or people of limited ability who are unable to find a better way to put food on the table. And even if they start out with a capacity for “higher things”­–like delicate feelings, or moral virtue– long hours of menial drudgery will crush it out of them.

Upper-class disparagement of manual labor goes back a long way. In the Republic, Plato describes how people’s souls “are bowed and mutilated by their vulgar occupations, even as their bodies are marred by their arts and crafts.”[1]Aristotle considers the lives of mechanics “ignoble and inimical to virtue”; hence, along with farmers and tradesmen, such people are deemed unfit for citizenship.[2] Cicero echoes this view, deprecating anyone paid for menial service, and insisting that “all mechanics are engaged in vulgar business; for a workshop can have nothing respectable about it.”[3] A distaste for working with one’s hands even extended to skilled artists sch as musicians and sculptors. Plutarch writes:

It was not said amiss by Antisthenes, when people told him that one Ismenias was an excellent piper. “It may be so,” said he, “but he is but a wretched human being, otherwise he would not have been an excellent piper….Nor did any generous and ingenuous young man, at the sight of the statue of Zeus at Pisa, ever desire to be a Phidias [the sculptor]…”[4]

A similar contempt for manual labor persists across millennia, at least among intellectuals. In a work published in 1571, William Alley, Bishop of Exeter, opined that “it is illiberal and servile to get the living with hand and sweat of the body.”[5] A well-known passage in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published roughly two centuries later describes what he takes to be the mental and moral consequences of repetitious manual tasks:

The man who whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations…. generally becomes as stupid an ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The topor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgement concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.[6]

Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, the Massachusetts lawyer and politician Theodore Sedgwick views social rank as corresponding naturally and properly to the kind of work people do:

The more a man labours with his mind, which is mental labour, and the less with his hands, which is bodily labour, the higher he is in the scale of labourers: all must agree to that whether they will or no. This is a real distinction in nature…It is upon this ground, that there ever have been, and ever will be, high and low, rich and poor, masters and servants.[7]

The prejudice against manual labor is not confined to Western civilization. In China, going back to the time of Confucius, educated gentlemen grew their fingernails long, sometimes extraordinarily so, as a sign that they did not work with their hands. This fashion remains popular with many young people today in China, and is still an indicator of social status. In Asia, the Americas, and Europe, the ideal of female beauty for a long time involved fair skin, which contrasted with the darker skin of peasants who worked in the sun, and therefore signified membership of the leisured classes.[8] This was the origin of the fashion among the upper classes for powdering their skin. Some expressions of the aversion to manual labor are so extreme that they are hard to credit. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen describes Polynesian chiefs who, “preferred to starve rather than carry their food to their mouths with their own hands.”[9]

The scientific revolution did something to challenge the traditional privileging of theoretical knowledge over practical knowhow–a prejudice that one can also find in Plato and Aristotle. As observation and experimentation became more central to scientific thinking, scientists decame more engaged in practical tasks, grinding lenses, fashioning instruments, measuring quantities, and so on. But the old prejudice certainly did not disappear. Diderot’s Encylopedia may have sought to raise the status of the “mechanical arts” involved in manufacturing. Yet D’Alembert’s “Preliminary Discourse” to the Encyclopedia (published in 1751) still disparages the people who actually practice these arts:

Most of those who engage in the mechanical arts have embraced them only by necessity and work only by instinct. Hardly a dozen among a thousand can be found who are in a position to express themselves with some clarity upon the instrument they use and the things they manufacture.

As historian of science Mark Young writes: “The idea that for craftspeople, like animals, the process of making is determined by instinct and chance rather than rationality, is one that resonated widely within the intellectual culture of the enlightenment…[10]

Over the past two centuries, the distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge has become less significant. Professions with a practical orientation, such as engineering, dentistry, or farming, typically require a solid understanding of the relevant fundamental scientific principles. True, within academia, universities and liberal arts colleges may still look down their noses at institutions that mainly offer vocational training (as in “If we eliminate this program, we’ll be little more than a trade school!). And philosophers naturally still like to think of their discipline as “queen of the sciences.” But this attitude among humanities scholars should be viewed sympathetically as providing them with a little compensation for their lower salaries and decreasing job security.

The nineteenth and twentieth century saw some countervailing trends opposed to the disparagement of manual labour. Various religious, experimental and utopian communities such as those established by the Shakers and the Amish explicitly affirmed its value as part of an egalitarian outlook. Brook Farm, the transcendentalist utopian community founded near Boston by George Ripley in 1841, was intended “to insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists; to combine the thinker and the worker, as far as possible, in the same individual.”[11]Socialist thinking in general was a powerful force pressing for a more egalitarian view of different kinds of work and for greater honor to be given to hard physical graft. One sees this in the ‘religion of work’ embraced by the Kibbutzim in Israel as well as in the Stakhanovite movement in the Soviet Union (named after coal miner Alexey Stakhanov, who in one shift 1935 reportedly mined 227 tonnes of coal).

An interesting and presumably somewhat representative text that reflects the gradual shift in attitudes is an address titled “Manual Labor” given by Theophilus Abbot, president of Michigan State Agricultural College, to his students some time in the 1870s. On the one hand, Abbot criticizes the longstanding prejudice:

Work then is neither honorable nor base. Put mind into it, and however it may seem to be drudgery, the work becomes intellectual, high, and honored. Manual labor is only in low esteem because of its associations in the public mind. These associations are ignorance and rudeness. [i.e. rusticity][12]

But having offered this critique–the need for which indicates that the prejudice persists–Abbot then proceeds to take part in the old game of ranking different kinds of work, arguing that “labor mixed with brain is more noble than routine, unthinking work.”[13]

The prejudice against manual work (at least by those who don’t have to do it), and the shame associated with certain unskilled, menial tasks (at least in the minds of those who consider themselves above it), has thus certainly diminished somewhat in modern times. For those who don’t have to do it for a living, certain kinds of manual labor can even become an honorable recreation. Winston Churchill famously took up bricklaying. Many professionals who work with words and numbers from Monday to Friday now enjoy turning their compost pile or messing about with a chair saw at the weekend. And it should always be borne in mind that disparaging attitudes towards low-status work are far from universal. Several of the people interviewed by Studs Terkel in Working (published in 1972), including a supermarket cashier, a waitress, a mail carrier, and a gravedigger, recognize that their jobs are unglamorous but express genuine pride in what they do since they see themselves as making a worthwhile social contribution. An elderly immigrant from Sweden who spent her life in domestic service says,

When I first came to this country, being a maid was a low caliber person. I never felt that way. I felt if you could be useful and do an honest job, that was not a disgrace.[14]

Nevertheless, the stigma attached to many kinds of manual labor undeniably persists today in many societies, both rich and poor. In Brazil, for instance, members of the economic elite don’t just hire domestic workers to do household chores like cooking. cleaning, and washing clothes; they positively pride themselves on not being able to do these things themselves. According to anthropologist Donna Goldstein, “this very helplessness has become a positive form of status and prestige for these classes.”[15] Here, as elsewhere, part of the stigma attached to manual labor derives from the time when it was performed by slaves.[16]

In India, although discrimination on the basis of caste has been illegal since 1950, the caste system continues to determine the employment prospects and life chances of millions, with the lowest status jobs–for instance, cleaning human excrement off railway tracks–often being performed exclusively by the lowest caste.[17] More than that, though, it is still common to find among Brahmins, who traditionally have been priests and scholars, a disdain even for skilled manual work. In 2017 a Brahmin woman explained to a journalist why she decided against registering her son at a certain school in these terms:

I took him to vocational school. But when I saw they teach only manual work I brought him back. My son is a Brahmin and will not train and use tools sitting with sons of carpenters and coppersmiths.[18]

In China, the traditional upper-class and urbanite contempt for the peasantry was overturned under Mao, and for a time, the darker skin produced by laboring in the fields became a badge of honor. Since the 1990s, though, there has been a pronounced reversion to older attitudes, particularly among young urbanites who now associate darker skin with migrant labor, rural backwardness, and poverty.[19]

In Europe, North America, and similar modernized societies, academics, politicians, journalists, artists and other intellectuals now generally eschew disparaging remarks about manual labor or those that do it, no matter how menial the job. Anyone today who made public statements about manual workers after the fashion of Cicero or Adam Smith would immediately be condemned as an insufferable elitist. But while those whose work is manual yet highly skilled–for instance, mechanics, surgeons, dentists, artisans, artists, or musicians–enjoy much more respect today than previously, the longstanding habit of looking down on labor regarded as unskilled undeniably persists, especially (but not exclusively) among the upper social tiers. Many good-hearted, open-minded people who are well-educated and comfortably off will of course agree that the people who pick fruit, or sort packages, or clean toilets, or stock shelves, do useful work that deserves to be properly appreciated and rewarded. But as parents they would still find it hard to boast about their own offspring performing such tasks (unless it was understood to be a temporary situation), and hard to avoid feeling some disappointment if a future son or daughter in law had no prospects beyond this sort of work.

And of course, some of those who perform low status jobs may internalize the contempt of others. A janitor interviewed by Terkel has this to say:

Right now I’m doing work that I detest. I’m a janitor. It’s a dirty job…”You’re a bum” – this is the picture I have of myself. I’m a flop because of what I’ve come to……It’s a dead end. Tonight I’m gonna meet a couple of old friends at a bar. I haven’t seen them for a long time. I feel inferior. I’ll bullshit ’em. I’ll say I’m a lawyer or something.[20]

One of the good consequences, perhaps, of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a greater appreciation of the social value of much of the work generally regarded as menial. Of course, this appreciation can easily fade away. In the long run, the best way of ensuring that it persists is to raise the status of such work. And that requires more than merely verbal or symbolic gestures of gratitude. Because today, as in ancient times, one of the main things that both causes and signifies the low status attached to most many jobs is low pay. Raising the status of such work thus requires, ultimately, a commitment to a much more equal society, where the elite aren’t able to cream off obscene amounts for themselves, and where the wealth is more evenly divided to ensure that everyone’s contribution is properly rewarded.


[1] Plato, Republic, Book VI, 495e.

[2] Aristotle, Politics, Book 7, Part IX.

[3] Cicero, Of Duties, 42. One should note, however, that although it has often been assumed that the views of intellectuals like Plato, Aristotle and Cicero are representative of their societies, this assumption is questionable. True, Cicero claims to be reporting “the general opinion” regarding kinds of work that are “mean and vulgar.” But numerous other ancient texts indicate that at least some forms of manual labor–for instance, farming and craftsmanship–were well respected back then. Just not by the philosophical elite.

[4] Plutarch, Pericles.

[5] Wiliam Alley, The Poore Man’s Library (1571), quoted in Keith Thomas (ed.), The Oxford Book of Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 435.

[6] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (New York: Modern Library, 2000), p. 840.

[7] Theodore Sedgwick, Public and Private Economy (1836). Quoted in Keith Thomas (ed.), The Oxford Book of Work, p. 436.

[8] Perry Johansson, “White Skin, Large Breasts: Chinese Beauty Product Advertising as Cultural Discourse,” China Information, Vol. XIII, Nos. 2/3 (Autumn/Winter 1998), p. 60.

[9] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Ch. 3.

[10] Young, “Manual Labor and ‘Mean Mechanicks,” p. 539.

[11] George Ripley, Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nov. 9, 1840.

[12] Theophilus Abbot, “Manual Labor: A familiar address to the students of the Michigan State Agricultural College,” p. 3.

[13] Ibid., p. 4.

[14] Terkel, Working, p. 483.

[15] Donna Goldstein, Laughter Out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown. Berkeley and Los Angeles University of California Press, 200, p. 68.

[16] See Patricia de Santana Pinho. “The Dirty Body that Cleans: Representations of Domestic Workers in Brazilian Common Sense,” Meridians, Vol. 13, Issue 1, 2015, pp. 103-128.

[17] See Arundhati Roy, India’s Shame,” Prospect, Nov. 13, 2014.

[18] Mrinal Pande, “Invisible hands do dirty work,” The Indian Express, Sept. 6, 2017.

[19] See Perry Johansson, “White Skin, Large Breasts: Chinese Beauty Product Advertising as Cultural Discourse,” China Information, Vol. XIII, Nos. 2/3 (Autumn/Winter 1998), p. 60.

[20] Terkel, Working, pp. 254-5.

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