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Tim Ferriss in a Toga: The Ancient Greeks on Labor and the Good Life

July 28th, 2015 · 24 comments


The Wondrous Water Wheel

Writing in the first century B.C., Anitpater of Thessalonica made one of the first known references to the water wheel:

“Cease from grinding, ye women who toil at the mill; sleep late even if the crowing cocks announce the dawn. For Demeter has ordered the Nymphs to perform the work of your hands, and they, leaping down on the top of the wheel, turn its axle….we taste again the joys of the primitive life, learning to feast on the products of Demeter without labor.”

I recently encountered this quote in Lewis Mumford’s seminal 1934 book, Technics & Civilization As Mumford points out (drawing some on Marx), the striking thing about Anitpater’s reference to the water wheel is how its beneficiaries responded: This tool reduced their labor, so they reinvested that time in non-labor activities (“sleep late even if the crowing cocks announce dawn”).

This is a point that Mumford makes elsewhere in the book: in many times and cultures (and especially in ancient Greece), there was a notion of the right amount of work to support your profession. Once you reached that level, you were expected to turn your remaining attention to other matters like food, play, politics, and the intellectual life.

If new tools helped you reach that level sooner, then you had that much more time to yourself.

Labor and Culture

This idea caught my attention for two reasons.

First, I liked the connections between this ancient norm and the contemporary lifestyle design movement. Antipater’s Greeks are like Tim Ferriss in a toga.

Second, it contrasts strongly with modern Western culture where “labor saving” innovations, especially in the digital domain, tend to create new labor, and ratchet busyness to higher levels.

Imagine, for example, if we had confronted e-mail (my obsession of the moment) like Anitpater’s Greeks; perhaps designing e-mail servers to deliver messages only three times a day, as was the case with memos and letters, but saving people the trouble of stamps or visits to the mail room. In other words, imagine if the technology had strictly reduced labor instead of increasing it vastly.

The above example is problematic (e-mail certainly eliminated other massive inefficiencies), but the broader point is interesting. We approach technology though a cultural lens. The more we recognize this, the more options we encounter for shaping our working lives toward what matters to us.

24 thoughts on “Tim Ferriss in a Toga: The Ancient Greeks on Labor and the Good Life

  1. Dave Small says:

    Thanks for the great post Cal.

    Why do some “labor saving innovations” consume more time than they ever save? And why do some innovations turn into habits? Fortunately there are some trade-offs. We recently bought a new dishwasher, but I’ve never developed the habit of running the dishwasher all day.

  2. Guilherme says:

    I have been thinking about it a lot lately. Well people are having to a certain extent more time for culture… pop-culture….

    There are now huge “system disadvantages” in terms of timing. 4-year-old kids are playing with the IPAD and have a Facebook account before developing reading ability. Unless parents start “selling” culture of different forms to their kids (music, literature, theater etc) they will be sold by Buzzfeed first.

    1. Tim says:

      “There are now…” No, there have always been stuff like the “iPads and Facebook” you are so worried about. Perhaps a decade or two ago, kids would often mindlessly watch TV while their parents would rather them read books. Before that, parents would be continually frustrated by their children, who would stay inside hours reading books, preferring this over playing outside.

      There’s a reason that “the good old days” argument is also called the “golden age fallacy”.

      1. Anon says:

        That is a problem. There are studies showing that children who spend a large amount of time with electronics during their developing years, have higher chances of difficulty concentrating later on.

        Not sure if staying indoors & reading is equal to watching televison or an Ipad all day.

  3. Bob Lucore says:

    Cal–You might find the book Leisure: The Basis of Culture by the Catholic post-WWII philosopher Joseph Pieper, to be useful in this regard. Written in the immediate post war period, the essays in this book foretell the evolution of Western society toward a total devotion to work (output, efficiency, productivity etc.) to the exclusion of leisure, which he sees as necessary. Work should provide for leisure–so the we have time to contemplate things like beauty, truth, and goodness.

    He is hardly alone in this observation–but that is another discussion.

    Bob Lucore

    1. AS says:

      Competition over mates induces us to work harder than we want so we can acquire shiny wealth to attract mates.

      Keeping up with the Joneses for whatever reason also induces us to work harder than we want. Just like this Cadillac commercial

      Fixed costs in hiring someone implies that it is only worthwhile to hire someone who will work a sufficient number of hours to make up for those fixed costs, and then provide profit on top. An employee who tries to work 1/4 time for 1/4 pay is just not worth hiring unless he is extraordinarily productive. Indeed top performers can usually negotiation such terms, but most people can’t.

      1. AS says:

        Cal, a delete comment button or a better UI would be appreciated. I meant to post this comment to the comment below.

        1. Duncan Smith says:

          Switching to Disqus would be ideal.

  4. Ted says:

    50 years ago, futurists predicted that technology would increase to such an extent that people’s work week would decrease to 10 hours a week, with the rest of the time devoted to leisure. And you know what? They were right. However despite all the increases in productivity and tools that can do our work for us, we find ourselves working more than ever. What happened?
    It’s like that theme in many science fiction writings that paints the scenario of instead of machines becoming our slaves, we have become slaves to our machines.

    1. Dan Dickson says:

      I think we probably feel busier than our ancestors – especially during the day. But people watch a lot of tv nowadays at night – I think our ancestors probably worked as much as they could until bed time – especially during non-winter time.

      My point – I think we do have and use a lot more free time for leisure than those in the past, but we feel busier due to information overload and “opportunity overload.”

    2. AS says:

      Competition over mates induces us to work harder than we want so we can acquire shiny wealth to attract mates.

      Keeping up with the Joneses for whatever reason also induces us to work harder than we want. Just like this Cadillac commercial

      Fixed costs in hiring someone implies that it is only worthwhile to hire someone who will work a sufficient number of hours to make up for those fixed costs, and then provide profit on top. An employee who tries to work 1/4 time for 1/4 pay is just not worth hiring unless he is extraordinarily productive. Indeed top performers can usually negotiation such terms, but most people can’t.

  5. Julie says:

    Hi Cal,

    Massive fan!

    I use “Unroll me” to schedule my email subscriptions etc to arrive only once a day, so that I can batch my perusal and concentrate on my real work.

    Thought you might love it!

    Cheers, Jules

  6. Anon says:

    Whats wrong with working hard? True, you need time for leisure, but isn’t that for recharging to be even more productive?

    Rome wasn’t built in a day, took great efforts to build it – as are all worthy endeavors. Perhaps a better question; Is what I’m doing worth it?

    1. Ted says:

      My big issue with “working hard” in the system we currently find ourselves in, is the monotony of it. We overly tax one small portion of our brain while the rest of our brain remains unused. Our entire body, not just our brain, is this wonderfully complex system, much more powerful than any supercomputer. The number of inputs we can receive and process is astonishing. Contrast the work being done by an engineer vs a hunter gatherer. An engineer sitting in front of a computer thinking about how to create a software application that would better track inventory for a company. Its a complex problem that requires “hard work” but the engineer is using a fraction of themselves to solve the problem. The engineer might be overly taxing the part of his brain that is responsible for logic and reason, and making order out of chaos, while the large majority of his brain and body are dormant. Contrast that with a hunter gatherer who is relying on his ENTIRE brain and body to find food in a forest. The hunter gatherer is processing all the inputs that are being received through his entire body. A slight rustle in the leaves 15 feet to the right of him is heard and processed. The type of rustle is processed as well, whereby he can narrow down what kind of potential prey it might be. His body is sensing the barometric pressure in the air. He is processing smells around him. Visually he is processing everything around him. His brain is processing his movement, his balance, when to react, when to run, when to stand still. When the body and brain are used as a holistic system, it doesn’t feel like “hard work”. It just feels like being alive.
      I think that is a major reason why so many people struggle to motivate themselves in this system to “work hard”. It is to work hard in one small specific thing, for hours, days, and years on end. The temporal and parietal lobe are taxed much more than they should be, while the rest of the system is atrophying. The system is meant to operate holistically for optimal functioning and happiness. I think it also contributes to the general feeling of malaise the populations in western civilizations are experiencing.
      I think one of the major reasons why people aspire to own their own company or climb up the corporate ladder is for a chance to use a larger portion of their brains and themselves. A CEO/entrepreneur uses the part of his brain that is responsible for social interactions, speaking, motivating, persuasion, etc. Whereas a financial analyst spends the majority of their day looking at spreadsheets using one small portion of their brain. It is not as satisfying because it is stultifying, which leads to boredom and burnout.

    2. Anon says:

      Feel like this can be amended to – Is what I am doing, or the skills I am learning, worth it?

  7. Rick says:

    “Any guy what knows Lewis Mumford can’t be all half-bad.” Mumford’s politics aside, his insights are provocative. If I correctly recall, he asserted that the ancient Egyptians’ achievement with the pyramids wasn’t so much one of engineering and the use of machines (the ramp, the lever, etc.) as of somehow inculcating in people a belief that they themselves embodied “The Machine” and that their souls partook in its power. I suppose the ancient Hebrews would have regarded all of this as gross idolatry. Such a steadfast identification with machines is a belief with a troubled legacy. Everyday one runs into people who are more machine-identified, by their adherence to clock tyranny, than absorbed by the life-giving recognition of the impermanence, fragility and transience of all living things and their experiences.

  8. Jackline says:

    Good story..this has made my day. Thanks for sharing.

  9. I really appreciated this post because as a business owner, the Western mentality is you should always be growing, doing more, etc. Any slow down or taking time to really, really enjoy the fruit of your labors is considered a waste.

    In light of this, I’m taking some time to re-think my approach to the rest of this year.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  10. Steve O says:

    Great post. If I run a company some day, I just may implement a system that limits email to only come in 3x-4x/day.

  11. weak stream says:

    The reason that ‘busyness’ fills up time slots now vacant from productivity gains is because our culture lacks vision. There are no true visionaries alive today to direct the excess energy. Busyness is the goal of common people. As Einstein put it “People like chopping wood. In this activity one sees results immediately.” Many people laud the electronic information revolution as being a recent development. But the electronics and the internet were ideas from the ’70’s. It took 20 years to build most of it. Thus there have been virtually no visionary advances in many many years. Without REAL vision, society is directionless and merely spins its wheels.

  12. Nikhil says:

    Preface: huge fan of your work, Cal.


    The labor of Antipater’s Greece was one for sustenance. Time and energy beyond what was required to sustain the food and shelter of the population was allocated to other life activities such as politics, sport, etc.

    Some in our society work merely for sustenance, but many (including all I suspect reading this blog) do not. Those of us who are driven beyond mere sustenance and material possessions strive to accomplish something of meaning. To evolve the world. To push the boundaries of possibility.

    So if sending 100x the number of messages via emails (than what was possible via snail mail) helps us accomplish that end, we can and should send those emails. And if refraining from any email (to go for a walk to capture new ideas or exercise to reenergize one’s self) furthers that end, we should refrain.

    The nature of our labor from that referenced of ancient Greece appears fundamentally different. However, the universal thread extending from Antipater to Ferris: use tools in a manner that serves us rather makes us subservient.

  13. I’m not too familiar with Mumford or Antipater of Thessalonica — so I’m not making a claim to any deep analysis here, but one thing that jumps out to me is the line about tasting “again the joys of the primitive life.”

    The Greeks typically saw their age as taking place after as part of an ongoing process of decline — one that started with the so-called Golden Age. During this period, people were able to live without agricultural labor, consuming food that was produced spontaneously from the earth.

    What’s interesting about this case is that the technology is not seen so much as contrasting to nature, but involved in restoring a more natural order. I think, though, modern people view technology differently than this – as something fundamentally alienating from nature.

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