What is the Difference Between Play and Work? image

What is the Difference Between Play and Work?

What is the difference between play and work? Consider this comment from George Orwell's marvellous The Road to Wigan Pier—which, as with most of Orwell's writings, is both profound and beautifully written—and then I'll mention three things I find interesting about it.

What is work and what is not work? Is it work to dig, to carpenter, to plant trees, to feel trees, to ride, to fish, to hunt, to feed chickens, to play the piano, to take photographs, to build a house, to cook, to sew, to trim hats, to mend motor-bicycles? All of these things are work to somebody, and all of them are play to somebody.

There are in fact very few activities which cannot be classed either as work or play according as you choose to regard them. The labourer set free from digging may want to spend his leisure, or part of it, in playing the piano, while the professional pianist may be only too glad to get out and dig at the potato patch. Hence the antithesis between work, as something intolerably tedious, and not-work, as something desirable, is false. The truth is that when a human being is not eating, drinking, sleeping, making love, talking, playing games or merely lounging about - and these things will not fill up a lifetime - he needs work and usually looks for it, though he may not call it work. Above the level of a third- or fourth-grade moron, life has got to be lived largely in terms of effort. For man is not, as the vulgarer hedonists seem to suppose, a kind of walking stomach; he has also got a hand, an eye and a brain. Cease to use your hands, and you have lopped off a huge chunk of your consciousness.

Three things strike me as fascinating about this.

The first is how biblical it sounds to me. If I didn’t know who had written it, I would think it was Lewis. It is a vision of work that should resonate with every Christian, unless we have so uncritically swallowed the world’s pursuit of leisure as an absolute good in itself. Work is not a result of the Fall; it is a gift of God in creation (although, like everything else, it is tainted by the Fall). The prophetic pictures of new creation are filled with people doing things—hammering swords into ploughshares, or whatever it is—and it sounds like Orwell would approve.

The second is the overlap between Orwell’s comments here (in 1937) and the satirical dystopia of Huxley’s Brave New World, which was published the previous year. Huxley imagined a world in which nobody lived, in Orwell’s words, “above the level of a third- or fourth-grade moron,” and it wasn’t a pretty sight. One wonders whether the advance of screens in the last eighty years have challenged their analysis—many people do spend many hours a week without using their (our?) hands, after all—or whether, in “lopping off a huge chunk of our consciousness,” they have actually confirmed it.

And the third is the role this observation plays in Orwell’s broader argument about technology, progress and socialism. Orwell’s argument, in nuce, is that 1) we should be drawn to socialism, but 2) most of us are not, because 3) we associate it with a world in which machines have removed the need for human labour, which 4) ultimately makes us soft, squidgy, vapid and degenerate (again, see Brave New World). A world in which humans don’t need to work, he argues, would be a world in which human culture, society and meaning would be unthinkably impoverished; if life is too easy, we disintegrate into fatuity. (It is worth saying that Orwell writes this in a book that, perhaps more than any other, debunks a romantic view of manual labour; his chapters on the backbreaking realities of coal-mining in Wigan in the 1930s are unforgettably grim. Whatever you think of his argument here, he is not naïve.) That, too, is a strikingly Christian observation.

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).

← Prev article
Next article →