“No One Can Serve Two Masters”: On the Use and Misuse of Compensation

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(Third in a series of articles inspired by the ideas of Barry Schwartz. This article
locates Schwartz’s ideas in an intellectual tradition that can be traced back to
Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin).

“No One Can Serve Two Masters”

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Matthew 6:24

Findings in the social sciences lend support to the idea that is difficult to serve “two masters”: when financial compensation motivates work, it tends to crowd out “intrinsic” motivation, i.e., the impetus to perform an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence. Sources of motivation potentially eclipsed by money are probably most responsible for the achievement of positive mental states at work as well as excellent work performance.

“At Bottom Does Thy Need any Reward?”

Carlyle emphasized the sacrificial significance of work. In Heerschop’s Sacrifice of Gideon (1653), an angel appears and tells Gideon that the Lord is on his side. Gideon doesn’t believe him and asks for a sign. When Gideon’s sacrificial offering is immediately consumed by fire, he recognizes that he has been speaking with an angel.

“For there is a perennial nobleness, and even sacredness, in Work. Were he never so benighted, forgetful of his high calling, there is always hope in a man that actually and earnestly works: in idleness
alone is there perpetual despair. Work (not driven by concerns about compensation) is in communication with Nature; the real desire to get Work done will itself lead one more and more to truth, to Nature’s appointments and regulations, which are truth.”

Thomas Carlyle, 1843.

While Protestantism extolled the virtues of hard work, it emphasized rewards that were not realizable in this world. Work for the Calvinist was a means to an end: success at work suggested that one was a candidate for salvation.

Thomas Carlyle (1795 –1881), Scottish essayist, historian, and philosopher, carried the protestant emphasis on work one step further: he regarded work as worship and turned work into a religion1. Carlyle was probably the first thinker to insist that human beings have a right to work. The human individual was a spiritual being who achieved her destined state of blessedness by following the moral imperative at the heart of her nature. This moral imperative was expressed through work. To follow this imperative meant disregarding the prospect of material satisfaction. Since human beings were destined to work, to deny people work was not only an injustice, but a crime against nature.

While Carlyle vociferously advocated for a “fair days wages for a fair day’s work”, his thinking anticipated contemporary findings regarding the pitfalls of emphasizing financial compensation. The purpose of wages was not to “compensate” for work: the very notion that one should be “compensated” devalued otherwise ennobling activity. The purpose of wages was to sustain the
worker, and, in so doing, to make it possible for work to continue.

Carlyle anticipated the modern concept of intrinsic reward but simultaneously articulated work’s sacrificial significance:

“At bottom does thy need any reward? Was it thy aim and life purpose to be filled with good things for thy heroism; to have a life of pomp and ease, and be what men call “happy”, in this world, or in any other world? I answer for thee deliberately, No. The whole spiritual secret of the new epoch lies in this …The brave man has to give his life away. Do you want to sell it? Give it, like a royal heart, let the price be Nothing: thou hast then, in a certain sense, got All for it. . . Money only to the extent that it will allow me to keep working, unless you mean that I shall go my ways before the work is all taken out of me.”

Wages and financial incentives were more than harmless distractions: they rather constituted “the chaos through which (the heroic worker is) to swim and sail”. The worker motivated by work’s wages would be neither satisfied nor capable of creating quality. “All men, if they work not as in a Great Taskmaster’s eye will work wrong, work unhappily for themselves and for you.”

“Let the Laborer but Begin to Imagine”

John Ruskin, (1819-1900), English writer, art critic, philosopher, and polymath.  Like Friedrich Schiller 2, Ruskin felt that imagination and creativity were critical to human dignity.  He urged us to dispense with “cheapness of product that can only be got by degradation of the workman.”One should never “encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary in the production of which Invention has no share… (One must) choose whether (one) will pay for the lovely form or the perfect finish and choose at the same moment whether (one) will make the worker a man or a grindstone.”

“We are always endeavoring to separate the thinker and the worker…whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working…as it is, the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. It is only by labor that thought can be made happy…”

John Ruskin

Carlyle influenced and supported John Ruskin (1819-1900), English writer, art critic, philosopher, and polymath. Ruskin focused on the quality of work and saw division of labor as a form of slavery. Like Carlyle, Ruskin emphasized work’s potential to liberate and elevate the worker. But Ruskin realized that all work was not elevating and that all that was produced by work was not praiseworthy.

Industrialization and the division of labor were contrary to the cultivation of humanity because the kind of work that 19th century work entailed transformed human beings into tools. For work to advance us, workers needed to be taught to think, to use the imagination, and to cultivate their own unique creativity. Work only elevated the worker when it cultivated the “thoughtful part” of her.

In Ruskin we are again confronted with an all or nothing choice between “two masters”: where work is concerned, one can either focus on quantity and uniformity or quality and creativity. One cannot serve both ends simultaneously. A focus on the former has one set of effects, while a focus on the latter has an altogether different impact:

“…You are put to stern choice in this matter. You must either make a tool of the creature, or a (human being) of him. You cannot make both”.

Work exerts its humanizing influence by inducing thought and imagination:

“You can teach a man to draw a straight line…. But if you ask him to think if he can find a better form, his execution becomes hesitating…he gives to his work as a thinking being…But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.”

When one encourages the laborer to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing, precision is immediately lost. But this is a price worth paying, for while he might initially create rough and imperfect products, ultimately the “whole majesty of him” emerges.

“It is Only by Labor that Thought Can be Made Happy”

Gothic rose window (north transept), Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral. For John Ruskin, Gothic ornaments reflected “a freedom of thought, and rank in scale of being, such as no laws, no churches, no charities, can secure, but which it must be the first aim of all (humankind) to obtain.”

Ruskin, like Carlyle, looked to work to remedy the tumult that plagued 19th century English society. With the right kind of work, Ruskin thought, people can remain in the best sense free, regardless of other circumstances in which they might find themselves. Ruskin’s famous defense of the Gothic style in art and architecture reflected his view of gothic ornaments as “signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone”. Gothic ornaments reflected “a freedom of thought, and rank in scale of being, such as no laws, no churches, no charities, can secure, but which it must be the first aim of all (humankind) to obtain.”

Ruskin thought the root of the problems in 19th century English society lay in the
way in which work was conceived and organized:

“It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means of pleasure.”

The misguided emphasis on financial incentives described by Barry Schwartz is based on observations that would have been familiar to both Carlyle and Ruskin: when work is felt to be neither meaningful nor gratifying, financial incentives are emphasized to compensate for experience that is otherwise impoverishing.


Schwartz, Barry. Why We Work. TED Books, Simon & Schuster. New York. 2015.
Ruskin, John. Unto This Last and Other Writings. Penguin Books. 1997.

Lieder P, Lovett R, Root R. British Poetry and Prose. Houghton & Mifflin. Boston. 1938.

1. See also: https://workosophy.org/2020/07/07/carlyle-the-religion-of-work/
2. See also: https://workosophy.org/2021/10/16/beauty-alone-makes-all-the-world-happy-schillers-aesthetic-conception-of-work/

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