Quotations about   labor

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Divide the work and thus you’ll shorten it.

[Divisum sic breve fiet opus.]

Martial (AD c.39-c.103) Spanish Roman poet, satirist, epigrammatist [Marcus Valerius Martialis]
Epigrams [Epigrammata], Book 4, Epigram 82
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As quoted in Thomas Benfield Harbottle, Dictionary of Quotations (Classical) (1906); mislabeled as Epigram 83. Alt. trans.:
  • "If it be too much to read two volumes, let them roll up one of them; and the task, thus divided, will seem shorter." [tr. Bohn (1871)]
  • "If two be too much, double one parcel down; / So half, perhaps, better the pleasure will crown." [tr. Elphinston]
  • "If it is too much to read two, let one book be rolled up: divided the work will thus become brief. [Si nimis est legisse duos, tibi charta plicetur / Altera: divisum sic breve fiet opus.]"  [tr. Ker (1919), Ep. 210]
Added on 10-Jan-18 | Last updated 10-Jan-18
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You can buy a man’s time; you can buy a man’s physical presence at a given place; you can even buy a measured number of skilled muscular motions per hour or day. But you cannot buy enthusiasm; you cannot buy initiative; you cannot buy loyalty; you cannot buy the devotion of hearts, minds and souls. You have to earn those things.

Clarence Francis (1888-1985) American business executive, food industry consultant
“The Causes of Industrial Peace,” speech, National Association of Manufacturers (4 Dec 1947)
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Sometimes titled "Philosophy of Management".
Added on 17-Nov-17 | Last updated 20-Nov-17
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When I go into my garden with a spade and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health, that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
“Man the Reformer,” lecture, Boston (25 Jan 1841)
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Added on 14-Nov-17 | Last updated 14-Nov-17
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Less than a century ago, the laborer had no rights, little or no respect, and led a life which was socially submerged and barren. He was hired and fired by economic despots whose power over him decreed his life or death. […] American industry organized misery into sweatshops and proclaimed the right of capital to act without restraints and without conscience. […] The inspiring answer to this intolerable and dehumanizing existence was economic organization through trade unions. The worker became determined not to wait for charitable impulses to grow in his employer. He constructed the means by which fairer sharing of the fruits of his toil had to be given to him or the wheels of industry, which he alone turned, would halt and wealth for no one would be available.

This revolution within industry was fought bitterly by those who blindly believed their right to uncontrolled profits was a law of the universe, and that without the maintenance of the old order, catastrophe faced the nation. But history is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it by raising the living standards of millions. Labor miraculously created a market for industry, and lifted the whole nation to undreamed-of levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
Speech, AFL-CIO Convention, Miami (11 Dec 1961)
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Disgraceful ’tis to treat small things as difficult;
‘Tis silly to waste time on foolish trifles.

[Turpe est difficiles habere nugas,
Et stultus labor est ineptiarum.]

Martial (AD c.39-c.103) Spanish Roman poet, satirist, epigrammatist [Marcus Valerius Martialis]
Epigrams [Epigrammata], Book 2, #86
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As quoted in the Thomas Benfield Harbottle, Dictionary of Quotations (Classical) (1906). Alt. trans.: "It is absurd to make one's amusements difficult; and labor expended on follies is childish." [tr. Bohn (1871)]
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Good government is known from bad government by this infallible test: that under the former the labouring people are well fed and well clothed, and under the latter, they are badly fed and badly clothed.

William Cobbett (1763-1835) English politician, agriculturist, journalist, pamphleteer
Cobbett’s Political Register, Vol. 46 (31 May 1823)
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Added on 17-Oct-17 | Last updated 17-Oct-17
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No labor, however humble, is dishonoring.

The Talmud (AD 200-500) Collection of Jewish rabbinical writings
Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 49b

Alt. trans.: "Great is labor, for it honors the worker." [tr. Freedman] Alt. trans.: "Labor is great, as it brings honor to the laborer who performs it."
Added on 6-Jul-17 | Last updated 13-Jul-17
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It’s amazing how much work you can get done in three days if you hold a blowtorch to each end of the candle.

Charles "Charlie" Stross (b. 1964) British writer
The Annihilation Score, ch. 7 (2015)
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Added on 13-Jun-17 | Last updated 13-Jun-17
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What has destroyed every previous civilization has been the tendency to the unequal distribution of wealth and power. This same tendency, operating with increasing force, is observable in our civilization to-day, showing itself in every progressive community, and with greater intensity the more progressive the community. Wages and interest tend constantly to fall, rent to rise, the rich to become very much richer, the poor to become more helpless and hopeless, and the middle class to be swept away.

Henry George (1839-1897) American economist
Progress and Poverty, “How Modern Civilization May Decline” (1879)
Added on 22-Mar-17 | Last updated 22-Mar-17
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O let us love our occupations,
Bless the squire and his relations,
Live upon our daily rations,
And always know our proper stations.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) English writer and social critic
The Chimes, “The Second Quarter” (1844)
Added on 21-Mar-17 | Last updated 21-Mar-17
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You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
You cannot help small men by tearing down big men.
You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich.
You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income.
You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred.
You cannot establish security on borrowed money.
You cannot build character and courage by taking away men’s initiative and independence.
You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.

William J. H. Boetcker (1873-1962) German-American religious leader, author, public speaker [William John Henry Boetcker]
“The Industrial Decalogue” (1916)

Often referred to as "The Ten Cannots," and also often misattributed to Abraham Lincoln.
Added on 14-Mar-17 | Last updated 14-Mar-17
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Revolutions, as a long and bitter experience reveals, are apt to take their colour from the régime which they overthrow. Is it any wonder that the creed which affirms the absolute rights of property should sometimes be met with a counter-affirmation of the absolute rights of labour, less anti-social, indeed, and inhuman, but almost as dogmatic, almost as intolerant and thoughtless as itself.

R. H. Tawney (1880-1962) English writer, economist, historian, social critic [Richard Henry Tawney]
The Acquisitive Century, ch. 3 “The Acquisitive Society” (1920)
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Added on 19-Jan-17 | Last updated 19-Jan-17
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It is not yours to finish the task, but neither are you free to set it aside.

tarfon-finish-the-task-wist_info-quote

Tarfon (fl. 1st-2nd C AD) Jewish rabbi, sage
Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 2:15-16

Alt. trans.:
  • It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.
  • It is not up to you to finish the task, but you are not free to avoid it.
  • We need not finish the task but neither can we desist from it.
  • Although I am not free to avoid doing the work, it is not always necessary that I finish the task.
  • You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
Added on 21-Nov-16 | Last updated 21-Nov-16
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Posterity! You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good Use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Abigail Adams (26 Apr 1777)
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Added on 31-Aug-16 | Last updated 31-Aug-16
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Life is a grindstone, and whether it grinds a man down or polishes him up, depends on the stuff he’s made of.

Billings - life is a grindstone - wist_info quote

Josh Billings (1818-1885) American humorist [pseud. of Henry Wheeler Shaw]
(Attributed)

Attributed in Forbes (14 Oct 1922).
Added on 23-Aug-16 | Last updated 23-Aug-16
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The virtues, like the body, become strong more by labor than by nourishment.

Jean-Paul Richter (1763-1825) German novelist, art historian, aesthetician [pseud. Jean-Paul]
(Attributed)

Quoted in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895).
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The only route to success is hard work. If you didn’t work hard I don’t think it counts as success.

Ricky Gervais (b. 1961) English comedian, actor, director, writer
Twitter (27 Nov 2012)
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Added on 14-Jul-16 | Last updated 14-Jul-16
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The truest American president we have ever had, the companion of Washington in our love and honor, recognized that the poorest man, however outraged, however ignorant, however despised, however black, was, as a man, his equal. The child of the American people was their most prophetic man, because, whether as small shop-keeper, as flat-boatman, as volunteer captain, as honest lawyer, as defender of the Declaration, as President of the United States, he knew by the profoundest instinct and the widest experience and reflection, that in the most vital faith of this country it is just as honorable for an honest man to curry a horse and black a boot as it is to raise cotton or corn, to sell molasses or cloth, to practice medicine or law, to gamble in stocks or speculate in petroleum. He knew the European doctrine that the king makes the gentleman; but he believed with his whole soul the doctrine, the American doctrine, that worth makes the man.

George William Curtis (1824-1892) American essayist, editor, reformer, orator
“The Good Fight” (1865)
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In our industrial and social system the interests of all men are so closely intertwined that in the immense majority of cases a straight-dealing man who by his efficiency, by his ingenuity and industry, benefits himself must also benefit others. Normally the man of great productive capacity who becomes rich by guiding the labor of other men does so by enabling them to produce more than they could produce without his guidance; and both he and they share in the benefit, which comes also to the public at large. The superficial fact that the sharing may be unequal must never blind us to the underlying fact that there is this sharing, and that the benefit comes in some degree to each man involved.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) US President (1901-1909)
Fifth Message to Congress (5 Dec 1905)
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Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the laborer, unless under compulsion from society.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist
Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production (1873)
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Life is too short to do mediocre work and it is definitely too short to build shitty things.

Stewart Butterfield (b. 1973) Canadian tech entrepreneur and businessman
(Attributed)
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On the whole, with scandalous exceptions, Democracy has given the ordinary worker more dignity than he ever had.

Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) American novelist, playwright
It Can’t Happen Here (1935)
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The art consists in making others work rather than in wearing oneself out.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) French emperor, military leader
Letter to Eugène Beauharnais (27 Feb 1806)
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The way’s not easy where the prize is great:
I hope no virtues, where I smell no sweat.

Quarles - smell no sweat - wist_info quote

Francis Quarles (1592-1644) English poet
Emblems, Emblem 11, Epigram (1634)
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Often given, "I see no virtue where I smell no sweat."
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Men might not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) American abolitionist, orator, writer
Speech on West India Emancipation (4 Aug 1857)
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Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.

Newt Gingrich (b. 1943) American politician [Newton Leroy Gingrich]
Renewing American Civilization, Lecture 2 “Personal Strength” (1993)
Added on 23-Sep-15 | Last updated 23-Sep-15
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Government can do a great deal to aid the settlement of labor disputes without allowing itself to be employed as an ally of either side. Its proper role in industrial strife is to encourage the process of mediation and conciliation.

Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) American general, US President (1953-61)
State of the Union Message (2 Feb 1953)
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Today in America unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of unreconstructed reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions. Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.

Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) American general, US President (1953-61)
Speech, American Federation of Labor, New York City (17 Sep 1952)
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I have no use for those — regardless of their political party — who hold some foolish dream of spinning the clock back to days when unorganized labor was a huddled, almost helpless mass.

Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) American general, US President (1953-61)
Speech, American Federation of Labor, New York City (17 Sep 1952)
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Why do men delight in work? Fundamentally, I suppose, because there is a sense of relief and pleasure in getting something done — a kind of satisfaction not unlike that which a hen enjoys on laying an egg.

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) American writer and journalist [Henry Lewis Mencken]
Minority Report: H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks, #34 (1956)
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We are challenged on every hand to work untiringly to achieve excellence in our lifework. Not all men are called to specialized or professional jobs; even fewer rise to the heights of genius in the arts and sciences; many are called to be laborers in factories, fields and streets. But no work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts should be undertaken with painstaking excellence. If a man is called to be a street sweeper he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say “Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
Sermon, New Covenant Baptist Church, Chicago (9 Apr 1967)
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The only way in which our people can increase their power over the big corporation that does wrong, the only way in which they can protect the working man in his conditions of work and life, the only way in which the people can prevent children working in industry or secure women an eight-hour day in industry, or secure compensation for men killed or crippled in industry, is by extending, instead of limiting, the powers of government.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) US President (1901-1909)
Speech, San Francisco (14 Sep 1912)
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There are but two ways of rising in the world: either by your own industry or by the folly of others.

Jean de La Bruyère (1645-1696) French essayist, moralist
“Of the Gifts of Fortune” (52). The Characters [Les Caractères] (1688) [tr van Laun (1929)]
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Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided. The parties to the labor contract must be nearly equal in strength if justice is to be worked out, and this means that the workers must be organized and that their organizations must be recognized by employers as a condition precedent to industrial peace.

Louis Brandeis (1856-1941) American lawyer, activist, Supreme Court Justice (1916-39)
In The Curse of Bigness: Miscellaneous Papers of Louis D. Brandeis [ed. Fraenkel and Lewis] (1965)
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Undoubtedly “a full dinner pail” is a great achievement as compared with an empty one, but no people ever did or can attain a worthy civilization by the satisfaction merely of material needs, however high these needs are raised. The American standard of living demands not only a high minimum wage, but a high minimum of leisure, because we must meet also needs other than material ones.

Louis Brandeis (1856-1941) American lawyer, activist, Supreme Court Justice (1916-39)
“Hours of Labor,” speech, Civic Federation of New England (11 Jan 1906)
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Reprinted in his Business -- A Profession (1914).
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All rising to a great place is by a winding stair.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) English philosopher, scientist, author, statesman
“Of Great Place,” Essays, No. 11 (1625)
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Life grants nothing to us mortals without hard work.

[Nil sine magno vita labore dedit mortalibus.]

Horace (65-8 BC) Roman poet and satirist [Quintus Horacius Flaccus]
Satires, Book 1, Satire 9, l. 59 (c. 35 BC)
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He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, ch. 2 (1876)
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The longing for certainty and repose is in every human mind. But certainty generally is an illusion, and repose is not the destiny of man.

Holmes - certainty and repose - wist_info quote

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935) American jurist, Supreme Court Justice
“The Path of Law,” 10 Harvard Law Review 457 (1897)
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It is better to wear out than to rust out.

Richard Cumberland (1632-1718) English philosopher and cleric (Bishop of Peterborough)
(Attributed)
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Quoted in G. Horne, "Sermon on the Duty of Contending for the Truth" (1786).
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The Lord respects me when I work,
But He loves me when I sing.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) Indian Bengali poet, philosopher [a.k.a. Rabi Thakur, Kabiguru]
“Fireflies” (1926)
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Alt. trans.:
"God honours me when I work,
He loves me when I sing."
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To business that we love we rise betime
And go to it with delight.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) English dramatist and poet
Antony and Cleopatra, Act 4, sc. 4, l. 20 (1606)
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Treat your employees as if they were writing a book about you.

Judith Martin (b. 1938) American author, journalist [a.k.a. Miss Manners]
“Miss Manners,” syndicated column (17 Aug 2003)
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