“Freedom Through Work Is the Goal to Which We Aspire”

Frithjof Bergmann and the New Work Movement

Reading Time: 8 Minutes

(First in a series of articles exploring the ideas of Frithjof Bergmann).

Our Predicament

For almost all human history, humans worked far less than they do at present. Anthropologists have concluded that in hunter-gatherer societies people worked about three hours per day. The advent of agriculture did not significantly change the number of hours our ancestor’s worked: it is estimated that in pre-industrial agricultural societies people worked one hour per day longer than they had as hunter-gatherers. Our problem starts with the fact that our ancestors did much else besides work. The alternative to work was not “semi-conscious drowsing” or binging on a Netflix series, but other worthwhile activity. The other aspect of our predicament resides in the fact that the time that we spend working does little to restore our sense of vitality:

A San hunter with his bow in a crouched stance, stalking game.The San people are members of various Khoe, Tuu, or Kxʼa-speaking indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures whose territories span Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and South Africa.

“Our predicament…has two sides: that so much of our life has been usurped by work, and that what was once complex and colorful and absorbing has been gradually destroyed, is only one half of the picture. The other half concerns the nature and quality of the labor which has occupied this disproportionate territory. The absurdity in which we are caught is that we have given over ever more ground to work, but that we have also allowed work to become progressively duller and more demeaning. The moral is not that we should do less, but that we should do something different, more exhilarating and more worthwhile.” 1

For Bergmann – like Schiller2 – the problem with “work” in the industrial and post-industrial age is that it has become less free: it has become “duller and more demeaning” because it does not reflect the free expression of the worker’s energies.

A Working Definition of Freedom

“The aim of New Work is not to free people from work, but to transform work until work will create free human beings. Freedom through work is the goal to which we aspire.” 3

If we define freedom as the absence of external obstacles, we will inevitably be plunged into conflict and destructiveness. Events such as the Thirty Years War (which caused an estimated 4.5 to 8 million deaths and reduced the population of some areas of Germany by over 50%) and the Reign of Terror (a period of revolutionary fervor during the French Revolution in which a series of massacres and public executions led to the death of approximately 26,000 people) were inevitable because the definition of freedom that motivated the protagonists necessitated destruction of anybody that constrained them.

Bergmann defines freedom as the pursuit of action aligned with an objective with which we identify. An act is free “if the agent identifies with the elements from which it flows”. Freedom is a function of identification: if an individual identifies herself with the action that is willed, the action is free.

Bergmann’s concept of freedom is close to Schiller’s Play-Drive4 and our everyday concept of “self-expression”, insofar as the goal or objective with which one identifies and to which one freely aspires is encompassed within the self. The path towards freedom does not entail elimination of external obstacles but requires cultivation of activity that originates in the individual.

Work as a Source of Energy

Friedrich Nietzsche. Frithjof Bergmann was born in 1930. He moved from Austria to the US as a student, entering the doctoral program in philosophy at Princeton University where he studied under Walter Kaufmann, the German-born American philosopher and interpreter of Friedrich Nietzsche. Bergmann became a Hegel and Nietzsche scholar: he later taught Philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, close to Flint, Michigan, where, in the 1980’s, he engaged with Automakers and Labor Unions in the wake of massive unemployment precipitated by automation-induced layoffs. Bergmann emphasized action: “Despite being a philosopher,” Bergmann would say with a wry smile “I am trying to do something useful!” 9 He withdrew from academia in his later decades and traveled the globe to places, like Detroit, where work and quality of life were most out of whack.

In our culture a “deep tradition inveighs against thinking of work as gorgeous or delicious. In fact, a vast number of people experience their work as a mild disease… The work we do should not drain and exhaust us, it should give us more strength and more energy, it should develop us into fuller human beings.” 5

Work tends to drain our energy: there are job “demands” to which we respond with a finite “supply” of energy. Periods of rest and leisure are required between work periods so that energy expended at work can be replenished. Our energy temporarily “refilled”, we then begin a new work period, only to have our energy drained again. Assuming that our career is not truncated by unemployment, disability, or some other event that renders work impossible or unnecessary, this cycle repeats itself until we retire.

If this never-ending cycle were not bad enough, Bergmann found that most people experience
their work as if it were a mild disease, not “like a cancer or hepatitis, but like a cold.”3

Bergmann’s vision for New Work begins with the realization that there is an alternative to this
scenario: it asks us to imagine what life would be like if our work gave us energy. To find New
Work is

Bergmann describes life and work among the Austrian Alpine villagers with whom he was raised to underscore the losses characteristic of secular modernity. “Among the deprivations we have suffered are the loss of community…(and the) disappearance of the traditional village…We no longer feel at home…(or) sense being sheltered…our sense of purpose, of having a meaning…has receded…Along with much else, nearly all of ritual has vanished from our daily life, and our holidays have been reduced to shopping sprees.” In Bergmann’s Austrian village, a funeral lasted 3 days and whole village participated in the procession to the cemetery and in the feasting that started afterwards. The celebration of Christmas extended over the better part of 2 months, with pageants and trios of trumpets performing in the Winter snow, girls dressed up as angels, and festive meals stretching from the first of Advent to the day of the Three Kings. 8

“to find work that makes use of people’s best talents, that corresponds to their full and deep desires, (work) that they believe in, that they experience as a pursuit or calling, (work that) does not weary people, but (that) does the exact opposite: it gives them more energy it strengthens them, it lifts them up…The fact that work has the rare
capacity to make us more alive than we were before, and hence can raise up upwards from one level to the next (we often call) the ‘pull’ of work. It suggests that work indeed can be like a rope that pulls one upwards, very like rescuing someone, or in mountain climbing.” 6

While we are all too familiar with work’s capacity to harm our health, Bergmann describes work’s potential to bestow strength, vitality, and vigor. When we discover freedom in our work we are surprised to find that we have more energy than we had before, as “we do not know in advance how much more energy we seem to have.”

Context, Purpose and Meaning is Decisive

Work increases one’s energy level under specific circumstances. Bergmann witnessed an example of work’s life-enhancing potential with Spring flooding of the Mississippi river:

Volunteers race to build sand bag levies around historic homes and buildings, hoping to protect them from the rising Mississippi River.

“After all measures had been exhausted an appeal went out to all citizens to come and help build dykes. . . What impressed me enormously were the expressions on the faces of the people that were hefting the sandbags into place…Dostoyevsky, speaking of his time in the camps, wrote that one could drive a person into despair and nihilism by forcing him to move sand, first to one place and then exactly back to the same place it had been before, and then once more again. Here … was the exact opposite of that. Yes, it was moving sand, but these people were defending their own villages! They were in a struggle…Their faces said it unmistakably: that they had done nothing this meaningful, this life-giving in many years. Even the memory of this would be a nourishment to them, as they would talk about it in their old age.”7

The same grueling and repetitive activity that is pursued in a prison camp – e.g., moving sand
from one place to another – can increase one’s vitality if one identifies with the goal and meaning of what one is doing.

The goal of the activity which workers in the above example identified – protecting one’s village
– could, considering the ecological precipice upon which we perilously cling, be scalable and employed to protect our global village from an array of imminent threats.

New Work and Cultural Transformation

Bergmann observed the energizing effect of New Work among all members of society, rich and poor, young and old:

“It raised their spirits, it strengthened them, it made them more courageous, more alive and very much more self-possessed. We proved to ourselves that this ascent, this upwards climb could be undertaken – could be performed ‘under their own steam’ – by great numbers of the low and down.” Those who lived in prosperity and plenty were “also more vigorous and developed as human beings.” This gave us hope in the prospects of “creation of a society and culture in which everyone would have the chance to work significant portions of their time at a task that excited them, in which they believed, that raised them up to being more alive.” 8

The kind of freedom unleashed by work does not culminate in the “cutting off (of) heads” and other forms of violence, but fosters the “the development of impressive, splendid, admirable human beings.” Bergmann saw New Work as part of a grand project to emancipate humanity: its aim is “to create a culture that in a genuine and serious sense . . . creates people who are free.”

Choices in the political or consumer arena “do not add up to freedom”. Work that is aligned with goals and meaning with which one fully identifies is needed. Only when our waking hours are permeated by free activity will we be emancipated, self-possessed, and fully alive.


1. Bergman, Frithjoff. On Being Free. University of Notre Dame Press. 1977.
2. https://workosophy.org/2021/10/16/beauty-alone-makes-all-the-world-happy-schillers-aesthetic-conception-of-work/
3. Bergmann, Frithjoff. New Work New Culture. Work We Want and a Culture that Strengthens Us. Zero Books. 2018.
4. https://workosophy.org/2021/10/16/beauty-alone-makes-all-the-world-happy-schillers-aesthetic-conception-of-work/
5 through 8. Bergmann, Frithjoff. New Work New Culture. Work We Want and a Culture that Strengthens Us. Zero Books. 2018.
9. https://record.umich.edu/articles/obituary-frithjof-bergmann/

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