“If work is so ennobling, why is it the last thing the nobility ever does?” That’s on my short list for the best line ever in a movie (as I recall it).

The film was “For Richer or Poorer” (1992), with Jack Lemmon, who portrayed “Aram Katourian”, a self-made, sleeve-rolling millionaire, whose spoiled, recently graduated son “Michael” (Jonathan Silverman) just can’t seem to budge from poolside to do anything except get another Margarita or play tennis with another mini-skirted girl.

Michael made and scored a point with that one: Really, how can work be ennobling if nobility avoids it like the other plagues they historically had to dodge?

When they have “the talk”, Jack suggests to his son that he should be thinking about a career, because “work is ennobling”. That’s when the son tossed off that sizzling throwaway line. For me, that was on a par with its Latin equivalent that I once stumbled across (indeed, “stumbled across”, since I have never studied Latin): “otium cum dignitate”—“leisure with dignity”. Nice resonance, that one has. That’s on my short lists for the best Latin lines and life game plans ever.

What, Exactly, is “Noble”?

Michael’s point can be recast as several, the first of which is this: If work and its fruits are not what the nobility contribute, what is it exactly that its members do to justify their existence or the title/epithet “noble”? My favorite guess regarding justification of their existence is this: They have built opulent castles, mansions and other over-sized accommodation so that the rest of us will have something interesting to photograph and (pay to) visit during our travels. Think of that as a form of public service.

A second implied point in the form of a question is exactly how is work “ennobling”, even if the nobility doesn’t think so or exemplify the wisdom of that claim? If that question is purely rhetorical, the implied point is that work isn’t ennobling at all.

To answer it, we have to take a close look at the root idea of nobility, specifically the quality of being “noble”. The latter is defined in each of the following ways:

1. having eminence, renown, fame, etc.; illustrious

2. having or showing high moral qualities or ideals, or greatness of character; lofty

3. having excellent qualities; superior

4. grand; stately; splendid; magnificent [a noble view]

5. of high hereditary rank or title; aristocratic

6. chemically nonreactive

To the extent that Michael is unresponsive and unengaged, it might be argued that he is already noble, like one of the noble metals, e.g., gold, which is precious, in part, precisely because it reacts to and with nothing. Like noble gold, Michael can just stay put and protected as a family investment (the only difference between one’s son and one’s gold being that your neighbors will covet your gold, but not your kids).

A case can also be made for his being “noble” in the same way as each of the “noble gases”, such as helium—namely, by being “inert”, i.e., again, reacting with and to nothing.

High hereditary rank or title as meriting the epithet “noble” seems to disqualify work, since such elevated rank usually precludes both the necessity and appeal of work.  But since Michael is behaving as though he is entitled to his leisured poolside existence in virtue of being his rich father’s son, he is tacitly laying claim to a hereditary title in the making. Hence, he’s, once again, already noble.

“Having excellent qualities” does characterize both many kinds of work and many workers, but not all, since, if it did, “lazy, irresponsible worker” would be a contradiction, which it is not. Besides, how could Michael attract so many babes if he didn’t have some excellent qualities, e.g., being “well-educated”. Therefore, it can be argued that whereas not all work is noble or ennobling, he, despite his unemployed and unengaged state, already is noble and ennobled.

”Having or showing high moral qualities or ideals, or greatness of character; lofty”, surely does characterize many jobs and those who perform them, but again, not all—unless wanting to feed, clothe and house oneself counts as a lofty ambition. So, Jack’s pitch for ennobling work is at best a half-or-less-truth. Besides, given enough time at poolside, anyone could find some alternative, less laborious way to display high moral qualities, ideals or greatness of character, e.g., a profound commitment to always telling the truth, especially about one’s resistance to working.

”Having eminence, renown, fame, etc.; illustrious” doesn’t make the cut either, since the vast majority of jobs and the performance of them hardly offer or achieve any of these, not to mention all of them.

A Father’s Fallacy

This latter observation points out the fallacy in Jack’s thinking: Work being neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for ennoblement, Michael has a lot of logical wiggle room to wriggle out of job hunting. Hence, “work is ennobling”, despite its noble tone, just doesn’t hold up to logical scrutiny and definitely loses its punch when phrased more precisely, e.g., as “work is sometimes ennobling, but is not necessary to become anyone or to accomplish anything noble.

So, if that kind of father-son talk is going to accomplish anything, the approach and central concept are going to have to be different. Fortunately, that is as easily done as said, with only a minor tweaking of the concept of “ennobling” being required.

Change the pitch from “work is ennobling” to “work is enabling”…

…since all work enables us to eat, dress and stay out of the rain.


PHOTO: Stirling Castle, Scotland/by Michael Moffa

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