Monday, September 05, 2011


Associated with: Greek and Roman mythology
Also known as: Ponus
Earliest recorded mention: c. 700 BCE
Major texts: Hesiod's Theogony, The Aeneid, Cicero's De Natura Deorum

Ponos, the god of labor, was one of the children of Eris, goddess of discord, and brother to the personfications of almost every other imaginable human evil: forgetfulness, starvation, battles, murders, lies, anarchy and ruin. Virgil shows us Ponos in the Underworld, between Death (Letum) and Sleep (Sopor) and just down from Gaudia, the soul's empty joys. Cicero says that Ponos is one of the children of Erebus (Darkness) and Nox (Night), although Greek mythology tells us that Nyx (Nox) was the mother of Eris, which would make her Ponos' grandmother. Ponos is also identified as the god of hardship, and the name shares an etymology with the word for pain.

It tells us a great deal about Greek and Roman society that they personified physical toil as one of the evils inflicted on humanity. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 BCE - 270 BCE), who said that gods did not concern themselves with human matters, famously said that pleasure was good and pain was bad. The Epicurean ideal, however, is not one of excess, because excess causes pain. Instead, it is a life free from anxiety, in the company of friends, with only as much work as necessary for self-sufficiency.  Of course, this is an easier worldview to maintain when you live in a temperate climate where fruit grows on trees and sheep and goats feed themselves on hillsides.

Here in the United States, where it is Labor Day, we take a different view, rooted in the Calvinism of our pilgrim ancestors. The paradox of the Protestant work ethic, however, is that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination holds that the Elect are saved whether they work hard or not — but because the Elect are role models for the rest of us, they must work so that everyone else recognizes their virtue and their standing as those who are already saved.

This idea depresses me. Work just to make sure everybody knows you're virtuous? (Thus the unshakable American scorn for vacations and the terrible shame of unemployment, which is exacerbating our current economic crisis.) I prefer the Catholic model, which says your work actually earns you something. What it earns me is freedom from anxiety — so I too, in my own way, am pursuing the Epicurean ideal.

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