Arbeit und Müßiggang und das Sprechen über Literatur um 1800

Translated title of the contribution: Work and Idleness – and the discourse on literature around 1800

Franz-Josef Deiters

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (Book)Researchpeer-review


'Work and idleness' in the literature? The justification of the theme appears evident, because even a glimpse into the initial texts of the Western tradition proves how much Western thinking has been steered from its beginnings through the binarism of "work and idleness". This applies first of all to the Jewish-Christian creation myth, which condemns the post-Paradise man not only to work ("Cursed be the field for your sake / with sorrow you should be on it throughout your life / thorn and thistles if he / he should carry you To eat thy herb in the field: In thy swelling of your brow eat thy bread "[Gen 3: 17-19]), but also demands that they do the toil of earning a living, knowing that it is a punishment for the transgression of the divine order. For it is the ability to distinguish between "good and evil" that man acquires through the transgression of the divine commandment ("Then the serpent said to the wife / you will die not with death / But God knows / the / the day when ye eat of it, there will always be opened eyes, and ye shall be as God, and know what is good and evil "[Gen 3: 4f.]). Those who go idle will not only starve, but will also violate the order to work, imposed on man, thereby violating, for the second time, the authority of the creator god who sets the order of the world. Those who work, on the other hand, obey the punishment imposed on man and affirm, regretting the original offense, the order of creation. Thus, with the expulsion of man from Paradise, not only the hardships of work are set, but also the binarism of work and idleness as a distinctive knowledge of a godly and a blasphemous life that shapes Western discourse.

The constancy of this dichotomy into the modern age can not only be measured by the fact that work and idleness around the change from the 18th to the 19th century become a topic of literature, but also because speaking about literature itself is controlled by the binarism of work and idleness. In other words, in (German) literature around 1800, it is about locating the systemically fully differentiated literary activity itself in the horizon of the cultural knowledge steered by the dichotomy of work and idleness.

Ulrich Bräker's Praise of the Useful Work of 1789, for example, is clearly located in the horizon of the biblical myth. The fact that Bräker's text speaks of the
"commandment of God", "that man should work, and that the idleness is the devil’s main coast," becomes especially noteworthy in that the author, after affirming the biblical dichotomy, makes a confession that may be read as a way of locating his own literary activity with reference to the distinction between work and idleness. For if Bräker admits that he "can not boast," that his "nature is so inclined to work," then one may hear the rejecting judgment of his pietistic environment, which considered Bräker's own literary activity to be of little use, thus branded as idleness. According to Bräker, literature is negatively related to the divine commandment of useful work that he propagates.
Translated title of the contributionWork and Idleness – and the discourse on literature around 1800
Original languageGerman
Title of host publicationArbeit und Müßiggang in der Romantik
EditorsClaudia Lillge, Thorsten Unger, Björn Weyand
Place of PublicationPaderborn Germany
PublisherWilhelm Fink Verlag
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)9783770559381
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Publication series

Namevita activa
PublisherWilhelm Fink Verlag


  • Work
  • Idleness
  • German Literature
  • Romanticism
  • Weimar Classicism
  • Johann Wolfgang Goethe
  • Friedrich Schiller
  • Novalis
  • Friedrich Schlegel
  • Joseph von Eichendorff
  • Heinrich Heine

Cite this