Those who would never stoop to paint their own houses gladly expend far more energy sweating at the gym. During the decline in physical-labor jobs over the last 50 years, an entire compensating industry has grown up around physical fitness. As modern work becomes less physical, requiring hours at a desk or some sort of immobile standing, the fitness center has replaced the drudgery of the field, the mine, and the forest as a means to exercise the body each day. A forbidding array of exercise bikes and StairMasters not only works the body; it also reinforces the modern, scientifically backed conviction that physical fitness promotes general wellness, mental acuity, and perhaps longevity. A new slang has entered the Western vocabulary, from “abs,” “glutes,” and “cardio” to “ripped” and “toned” to describe the ideal results of daily exercise: a look of chiseled fitness. The ideal is much different from the appearance of the pipe fitter and welder of the past, whose protruding bellies and girth were not necessarily incongruous with physical strength and stamina incurred from daily physical labor.
Yet the modern idea of “working out” by no means denotes that someone is laboring at a physical task, except for wisely keeping fit. Our idea of exercising, then, is not quite the Odyssean notion of being equally adept in craftiness and brawn—the ability to build a raft or lead men into battle—or versatile in outfoxing sexy sirens and ramming poles through the heads of dull-witted huge monsters. We are more like Alcibiades, whose high life and gifts for political craft and oratory were balanced by his studied Olympic training and sponsorship of chariotry.
One reason for our disdain for labor today is that the more physical work recedes in the twenty-first century, the more life superficially appears to get better, even for the vestigial muscular classes. Cheap cell phones, video games, the Internet, social media, and labor-saving appliances all make life easier and suggest that even more and better benefits are on the horizon. Formerly backbreaking industries, from the growing of almonds to the building of cars, are increasingly mechanized, using fewer but more skilled operators; in the future, this work might be all but robotized, without much human agency at all.
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