A Burnt-Out Case

Aquinas & the Way We Work Now
Saint Thomas Aquinas in Prayer, by Sassetta / Alamy
Saint Thomas Aquinas in Prayer, by Sassetta / Alamy

When St. Thomas Aquinas was working at his highest pitch, he produced an average of four thousand words every day—a third more than there are in this essay. He kept this up for years. Granted, he had help: a team of scribes would take dictation as Aquinas talked his way through several parallel theological arguments. In modern terms, we might say that this arrangement ensured that everyone who held a stake in Aquinas’s productivity—the Dominican order, the University of Paris, and the church at large—got the most value possible out of their unique asset.

It hardly needs to be said that the work Aquinas did was exceptionally good. According to contemporary accounts, its quality even drew divine attention. Sometime in the last year of his life, after he had written about the Blessed Sacrament, Aquinas began to levitate while celebrating the Mass. Christ spoke to him from a crucifix, saying that the theologian had “written well” of him. Then he asked, “What reward would you have for this labor?” Aquinas replied, “Nothing but you, Lord.”

This story is supposed to demonstrate that Aquinas’s output—enough to earn him tenure at a top American university every month or so—was matched by his humility, a quality not typically required for tenure. When his assistant Reginald observed that Aquinas might be made a cardinal, Aquinas replied that his first responsibility must be to his religious order, which he could best serve as a scholar and teacher. He had no need for titles or offices.

Aquinas’s ultimate act of apparent humility occurred on December 6, 1273, St. Nicholas’s Day, when he was forty-eight or forty-nine years old. Aquinas was celebrating Mass in the chapel of St. Nicholas, and he again had a vision. What exactly he saw is unknown. But afterward, he did not resume his dictation as he usually would. Reginald prodded him to get back to work, but Aquinas responded, “I can do no more; such things have been revealed to me that all that I have written seems to me as so much straw.” He stopped writing altogether, leaving his Summa Theologiae—the summary of theology, and his masterwork—incomplete.

A few weeks later, Aquinas went to visit his sister. He was wordless and exhausted, and she complained to Reginald that Aquinas “seems stupefied and does not answer at all.” Reginald pestered him again about his inability or unwillingness to keep working. But then in the new year, Aquinas fell ill on a journey to the Council of Lyons, where he was expected to deliver arguments against the “errors” of the Orthodox churches. He died at a monastery in Fossanova, Italy, on March 7, 1274, just three months after the St. Nicholas Day vision.

 

This brief, final period of silence has puzzled and awed scholars of Thomas’s work. Their interpretations typically come back around to Aquinas humbly recognizing his lowly place in the grand order of creation or the church. Writing in the 1950s, the German philosopher Josef Pieper claimed that Aquinas’s “tongue is stilled by the superabundance of life in the mystery of God. He is silent, not because he has nothing further to say; he is silent because he has been allowed a glimpse into the inexpressible depths of that mystery which is not reached by any human thought or speech.”

More recently, the Yale theologian Denys Turner has presented Aquinas as a “great but quiet, friendly mass of a man, for whom the life of poverty was that of the Dominican teacher who to the end preferred to stand out of the light so that others might see.” Himself a prolific scholar, Turner sounds like a latter-day Reginald as he tries “to imagine the courage it took to resist the temptation to complete” the Summa, which, given Aquinas’s pace of writing, he could have completed “in a matter of months.” Thus Turner concludes that “something theologically important to Thomas, some sense of fidelity to his vocation, held him back.”

Aquinas had a vision. What he saw is unknown, but afterward, he did not resume his dictation as he usually would

Explanations like these make an obvious, if suspiciously pious, kind of sense. Whatever caused a great thinker and saint to stop writing must relate to a calling even higher than theology. The Angelic Doctor, almost by definition, must have had a good and holy reason for giving up his work.

I do not doubt Aquinas’s virtue. But I wonder if the story that gets told about his last days might be incomplete. Aquinas was not only a saint; he was also a worker. And although he died centuries before capitalism became an economic and moral force, the ideal of sanctity that he embodied—the union of productivity and humility—aligns neatly with an image of the ideal worker in today’s capitalism. That ideal comes with a cost, one that Aquinas’s final silence and death testify to.

In light of the productivity and humility that employers demand—indeed, that workers demand of themselves—and the moral consequences of that demand, we might see Thomas Aquinas somewhat differently. We don’t need to jettison his saintliness to recover his humanity, his acquaintance with the limits of body and spirit. He is not just a shining, inimitable exemplar, but a man whose sorrow is surprisingly familiar.

 

When I tell academics that I quit a tenured faculty position at age forty, they offer enthusiastic congratulations. Some say they wish they could do the same. Based on this reaction, you would think that tenure was widely seen as a misfortune, and not a universally desired goal of academic life. Their congratulations suggest both that I must have quit to pursue something even higher and that there is something wrong with the way the contemporary university works. Only one of these explanations is true.

Over my eleven years teaching theology, I strove to be a model professor, and even if I did not work at a prestigious institution, I built a respectable CV. My book and articles received a handful of citations. I taught a heavy load of required undergraduate courses reasonably well. Colleagues looked to me as someone who could get things done. I won national grants and earned tenure without a fight.

But over time, the daily stresses of all of that teaching, plus the research, plus chairing committees and directing a center for teaching excellence—all of this in a context where resources were perennially tight—added up. Every year there were more assessment reports to file. Every year the college fretted more about the size of the incoming class. Would it be big enough for its tuition payments to cover a salary increase for faculty and staff? Every year faculty had to fight harder to defend departmental budgets. Every year good work went unrecognized.

Over time, the daily stresses of all of that teaching, plus the research, plus the chairing committees, added up

These conditions are now common in the academy outside of the wealthiest schools. Knowing that thousands of people shared my plight was no comfort, though, as I began to hate my job. Small problems became too much to bear. I began returning students’ papers later and later. I even had trouble getting to class on time. It seemed like my students were learning nothing from me. Peers, including my department chair, continued to compliment my teaching. I didn’t believe it; I saw my daily failure in the classroom firsthand, in every blank face of a student who wanted to be anywhere but at a desk listening to me.

On some level, I still wanted to be a professor. It had been my dream job, after all. But my body and mind had had enough. I had been living apart from my wife, also an academic, who was teaching in another state. No doubt, the distance between us contributed to my stress. We are hardly an unusual couple, though. Relationships are always implicated in people’s working lives. And the “two-body problem” we faced is endemic to the academy, where like-minded people inevitably meet and marry and then seek careers in a terrible job market.

I took a semester of unpaid leave to rest—and to live under the same roof as my wife. When I came back, nothing had changed. I couldn’t concentrate long enough to write a lesson plan. After years of going above and beyond, I could only do the very minimum, but even that took more out of me than I could bear. Though I had no alternative career plan, the only thing to do was quit.

 

What I experienced—and what I see, admittedly somewhat anachronistically, in the final days of Thomas Aquinas—is burnout. We toss around that term imprecisely, applying it to languorous teens, drug addicts, and Graham Greene characters. But psychologists who study the phenomenon have a definition for it. Burnout is a response to the chronic stress of work, manifested in exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of inefficacy. Anyone who works in an institution or responds to clients’ human needs is at risk. Thus burnout is a malady typical of post-industrial capitalism, where the simultaneous imperatives of productivity and cost-cutting breed conflicting norms that workers cannot fulfill without risking damage to their inner lives.

The psychologists Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter have found that employers foster burnout in a range of familiar ways, such as demanding excessive workloads, limiting workers’ autonomy, and offering inadequate rewards. In other words, everything that seems like it will make a company more profitable—pushing people harder, getting them to focus on their tasks and not idle chatter with coworkers, assessing everything all the time—comes at an incalculable human cost. We can think of burnout as a negative social externality: a cost of doing business that, like pollution, is borne not by companies but by workers, their families, and their communities.

Burnout in academia is on par with what we find in other industries. Universities adopted the norms of productivity, outcomes assessment, and continuous improvement from the private sector just when state legislatures began cutting appropriations and the applicant pool for private colleges in the Northeast and Midwest began to shrink. Like many small colleges, the one where I worked had gone through a painful period of budget cuts and layoffs. In any workplace, this kind of fiscal pressure raises workers’ stress levels.

In medicine, a field rapidly becoming more corporate in outlook and management, burnout has become a crisis. When the Mayo Clinic and American Medical Association surveyed U.S. physicians in 2011, 45 percent of respondents showed signs of burnout; that is, their survey responses indicated that they were emotionally exhausted or cynical toward patients, or both. When the survey was repeated three years later, the rate was 54 percent, twice that found in the general workforce. In some medical subspecialties, the burnout rate raises alarms about the quality of care. In emergency medicine, it exceeds 70 percent.

Of course it does. Every day of their careers, medical professionals meet people who are in pain, confused, perhaps dying. Every worker a sick person encounters as they undergo treatment must project good cheer to soothe the patient’s fears even as they implement protocols designed to maximize the hospital’s profits and limit its exposure to litigation.

To do this work well, you need to exhibit supreme rationality and supreme empathy at once. You need to be something like the hagiographic image of Aquinas. It’s impossible. The Mayo Clinic is now attempting to deal with burnout in its ranks by improving its doctors’ autonomy, collegiality, and commitment to the ideals of medicine. It’s a positive step, though one wonders how effective it can be without an actual reduction in physicians’ workload. Even the best workers have limits.

 

Aquinas did not work in a modern institution, let alone a capitalist corporation. But the people around him wanted—as he did himself—to get the most out of his talent. Consequently, they may have ignored his limits, increasing the physical toll of such brilliant intellectual work. While the monks of Fossanova ministered to the dying theologian, they also asked him for a commentary on the “Song of Songs.” Aquinas complied. Given the scope of his scholarly output, it seems that Aquinas was one of those workers who struggled to say no. Yes, he could write that handbook. Yes, he could instruct the novices. Yes, he could travel to the Council. These things needed to be done, and he could do them better than anyone else before or since. Besides, he had taken a vow of obedience. How could he refuse?

Contrary to what bosses might wish were true, it’s not usually the worst employees who succumb to burnout. It’s often the best. The advice, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it,” only contributes to the overwork of the most talented and dedicated. It likely shortens that person’s career—perhaps even his or her life.

Christina Maslach’s 1982 book was titled, starkly, Burnout: The Cost of Caring. In it, she measures the toll taken by the emotional labor of constantly responding to others without a corresponding emotional reward. For that book, she focused on “high-touch” workers like teachers, counselors, nurses, police, and correctional officers. As the service sector grew in the following decades, Maslach began to see burnout everywhere—if the industrial economy imperiled our bodies, the way we work now seems to wreck our inner lives. Today, most Americans seem to do some form of customer service, responding to people’s varied needs. That means that more of our inner lives are brought under the imperative to produce more with less support, and thus we are more susceptible to burning out.

Response is at the center of Aquinas’s work. The disputed question, which was his mode of classroom teaching and the format of the Summa Theologiae, is built on responding to others’ ideas. There are thousands of “articles,” or points of controversy, in the Summa. In each of them, Aquinas poses a question, entertains several proposed (wrong) answers, gives his (correct) answer, and then responds critically to each of the wrong answers.

It is sound pedagogy, but I cannot think of a more exhausting way to teach. There is a good reason why our image of the burned-out professor is someone lecturing from yellowed notes. That pedagogy demands the least response, the least investment of oneself in another’s performance, and the greatest sense of control and efficacy: I made my points, so it must have been a good class.

Limiting your responsiveness—in Maslach’s terms, cynically “depersonalizing” others—is a means to cope with the limitlessness of human need. Even if your job is not a Sisyphean battle against ignorance or illness, then you may have a manager who wants to see “continuous improvement” in performance metrics. If you internalize the norms of the productivity regime but do not have people, rules, or systems that keep your work within reasonable bounds, then in comparison with the ideal, it will always seem like straw.

The burned-out worker’s sense of inefficacy bears no relation to actual incompetence. When you’re burned out, there is simply no convincing you of your competence. Burnout drains your self-confidence, and not even a compliment from God himself will refill it. Even if he makes you levitate.

 

The most down-to-earth account of Aquinas’s final winter that I have come across is by someone you might expect to play up Aquinas’s sanctity: Joseph Weisheipl, a Dominican writing to commemorate the seven-hundredth anniversary of his confrere’s death. But Weisheipl is interested less in hagiography than in empathy. Sensitive to the rigors of Aquinas’s schedule as a professor and member of a religious order, he argues not for a theological or mystical explanation for Aquinas’s silence, but a physiological one. In his view, “the physical basis for the experience of December 6 was a breakdown of his constitution after so many years of driving himself ceaselessly in the work he loved.”

From this perspective, Aquinas was a casualty of his adherence to a norm that, while perhaps rare in his day, is decidedly prominent in our era’s professional culture. Supposedly, those who do what they love will never “work” a day in their lives. Or they will come into money without even seeking it. This ethos is really a mythos, a noble lie. Workers do their employers a great favor when they view work as a field for exercising the virtues of love, hope, or humility. The bosses get endless productivity with little complaint, just as they would from a machine. It is no wonder that this work ethic exacts such a human cost. Fallible, whiny, self-preserving humans are not its ideal practitioners—they have to wrench themselves to fit into the new economic regime.

So our bodies and minds rebel against this work ethic. According to some third-hand report, Aquinas said in his final months, “The only thing I want now is that as God has put an end to my writing, He may quickly end my life also.” To my modern and burned-out ears, this sounds like more than just saintly humility. It seems like over-identification with work, to use contemporary terms; without the ability to do the work he devoted himself to, Aquinas feels that he has nothing to live for. There’s nothing impious about also understanding him as the victim of a tragic depression, created when unreasonable expectations met an unrelenting work ethic.

In the capitalist ethos today, we look at the people we exploit, and we see humility, or love, or a simple desire to have a job done. This illusion salves our conscience; their ceaseless labor is a consequence of their virtue, not our vice. It allows us to applaud the self-sacrifice of teachers and nurses but resent their union membership. It allows us to praise the work ethic of migrant laborers instead of paying them a living wage. Their burnout is a kind of martyrdom, its own reward.

 

Burnout has, so far, no official patron saint. Aquinas, who shared symptoms with its sufferers, seems like a good candidate. Still, I hesitate to suggest that we who have burned out ask for his intercession. Responding to the needs of the church throughout his lifetime, he worked himself to the point of collapse. Asking him now to work on our behalf would risk repeating the errors of Reginald and the monks of Fossanova.

But Aquinas can be a companion to those of us in the throes of burnout. Even if his brilliance seems to set him on a plane far above us, he was imperfect and put-upon, fragile but also irreducibly dignified, as we all are. We can feel understood by a great exemplar of Christian intellect and spirituality. We can likewise feel sorrow for him and understand the end of his life in a way his (equally fallible) contemporaries could not.

One wants to assure Aquinas that his work was much more than straw. But perhaps that desire misses the point, too. Perhaps Aquinas was not trying to say that his work was worthless. Perhaps he meant that it was tinder for the fire that had consumed him.

Published in the January 5, 2018 issue: 

Jonathan Malesic is a writer living in Dallas. He is writing a book about the spiritual costs of the American work ethic.

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