Very often it is difficult to see in any concrete way how our work really means anything at all. The drudgery of the daily routine can be numbing, sometimes literally depending on your working conditions. What is the purpose, the end of our work?
Leading up to next week’s Labor Day holiday we’ve been reflecting on the nature of work the last few days. Today I’d like to conclude this little series with a note on the relationship between work and civilization, with specific reference to work in the context of Western civilization.
Yesterday I passed along the perspective on work as a formative influence on the soul of the worker: “…the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity.”
But as DeKoster and Berghoef also note, “God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.” What they mean is that God has providentially arranged that the work of each individual in a society, when properly oriented toward the service of others, to create a civilization, in which the needs of others are met by the work of their neighbors, whether proximate or at a greater remove.
In his little book Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, DeKoster puts these pieces together. The two definitions fit well. Work is “the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” And civilization is “sharing in the work of others” and “good and services to hand when we need them.”
As he writes, “It is a circle we will finally see close: our working puts us in the service of others; and the civilization which work creates puts us in the service of ourselves. Thus work restores the broken family of mankind.”
You can pre-order Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective in hardcopy today from the Acton BookShoppe or download it to your Kindle reader and read it right away. There’s a special Labor Day discount for the pre-order (add the book to your cart to see the discounted price).
And for the broad account of the relationship between the Christian faith, including the theological perspective on work, and the development of Western civilization, see the Acton Media production The Birth of Freedom. You can view the trailer below:
You can also visit The Birth of Freedom website to get more information on the related small-group curriculum, as well as complementary video shorts, which address questions related to work and civilization, like “Why didn’t China have an industrial revolution before the West?” and “If medieval Europe was so great, why were so many medievals poor?”
The hugely influential reformer Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) writes in his commentary on Romans 13:
Meanwhile, the Gospel teaches the godly properly about spiritual and eternal life in order that eternal life may be begun in their hearts. In public it wants our bodies to be engaged in this civil society and to make sure of the common bonds of this society with decisions about properties, contracts, laws, judgments, magistrates, and other things. These external matters do not hinder the knowledge of God from being present in hearts or fear, faith, calling on God, and other virtues. In fact, God put forth these external matters as opportunities in which faith, calling on God, fear of God, patience, and love might be exercised.
There is a certain wisdom worthy for a Christian to know. God cast the church into the midst of these occupations because he wants to become known among men in a common society. He wanted all offices of society to be exercises in confession, and at the same time exercises of our faith and love.
Wise words on justice and the social and political implications of the Gospel from the reformer whose impact is still felt today, 450 years after his death.
One of Pope Benedict XVI’s great emphases in his new social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, is the idea of gift. A gift is something that we have received without earning. As the Pope wisely notes, “The human being is made for gift,” even though man is often “wrongly convinced that he is the sole author of himself, his life and society.”
The truth is that we are not the authors of our own lives. We did not earn or create the conditions that make our lives what they are. We did not merit our genetic code, and we are not worthy of the parents that we had growing up. Neither do we have ourselves to thank for our societies and the opportunities that they hold. To some degree, hard work, creativity, and self-cultivation can enable us to better ourselves and our lives. That this is even the case is not because of our own efforts, though. We are not the reason that merit can lead to success.
We live lives gifted to us in a world gifted to us by God. God is not random, and He has reasons for giving each of us the gifts that He has. We do not by any means know what those reasons are much of the time, but we can use our reason to search for them. Reason shows us that we as humans are social beings, meant to live in coexistence with one another and to seek the common good and the wellbeing of everyone. The gift of our lives and our own particular gifts are meant to benefit the whole of humanity and not just ourselves. As Caritas in Veritate puts it, gift “takes first place in our souls as a sign of God’s presence in us, a sign of what he expects from us.” Gift, then, is the basis for duty. We have not earned what we have and are or the world in which we live; therefore, we do not have license or entitlement over our gifts. We have duties to use them for the common good.
What, then, is the best way to organize society such that the gifts given to each are used for the benefit of all? One possibility is to empower a central authority to identify the gifts of each person, then to have that authority determine how we are to use our gifts. This is the totalitarian tendency, the desire for an authority to have total control over the resources gifted to persons and to all people. (more…)
I cannot tell you how many times Catholics have used “the common good” as an excuse for more government involvement in peoples’ lives and the installing of socialistic, “spread the wealth” programs. This version of the common good is the foundation for some people’s idea of distributive justice, but actually it is based on the “Robin Hood fallacy” of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.
How did I come to this conclusion? I did so merely by reading Aristotle and St. Thomas. Both of those great thinkers say that government must rule for the common good, but both of them oppose “common good” to the “particular” or “private” good. This means, as Aristotle writes, that any law must be good for not a ruler alone, or his cronies, or even the majority, but for the state as a whole. To use the analogy Plato makes in the Statesman, a physician gives a medicine to a sick person even if the sick person finds it distasteful. When he leaves the scene, he leaves behind a prescription containing his instructions. The instructions are not for his good, or the family’s benefit, but for the health of the sick person. BUT . . . nowhere in Aristotle or St. Thomas does it say that the common good is the exclusive or even main province of the government. They merely give a negative prohibition that the state cannot make laws which are good for only one segment of society.
The Church, as opposed to some Catholic writers, recognizes this. The Church holds to the principle of subsidiarity, originally enunciated by Leo XIII and actually named as such by Pius XI. Firstly, this principle states that nothing should be done by a higher level of society that can be done by a lower level. This means that, say, in my profession, the professor in the classroom is presumed to be doing his job unless some serious problem arises. His department chairman is not to be breathing down his neck and nitpicking his work. Certainly, the chairman’s boss, the dean, has no business butting into the professor’s work. If a problem arises, and the dean hears about it, he should ask the chairman to investigate it and take care of it, assuming the chairman has not done so already, which is an unlikely assumption. Secondly, the principle of subsidiarity says that nothing should be done by a government agency that can be done by a private agency. This means that government is a last resort, when all private possibilities are exhausted and the problem is a serious violation of justice or something that only a government can resolve, like an invasion.
Take a look at how Vatican II defines the common good: “The common good of society consists in the sum total of those conditions of social life which enable men to achieve a fuller measure of perfection with greater ease. It consists especially in safeguarding the rights and duties of the human person.” The fact that the Church does not have a list of specific positive programs here is that it is clearly stressing the notion that the common good is a “habitat” in which the human person can flourish. The onus is on the person to do the flourishing, with the assistance of the spontaneous institutions arising in a free society which are there for that purpose. On the other side of the coin, the onus is also on the individual to make sure that his fellows have that environment to flourish, with the government as a last resort remedy for that which individuals and social groups cannot do to provide that habitat.
Therefore, we can conclude with Bertrand de Jouvenel that a healthy society has many social organizations, and that the role of these groups should not be usurped by government. If government participates in this usurpation, it is rejecting the human person’s duty and ability to help himself and his brothers and sisters. Remember what we wrote about John Paul II and personal responsibility? (Maybe you should review it). Personal responsibility is founded on self-governance and self-governance leads to self-determination. Surely, self-governance of a social being like man leads him to take responsibility for the success of ourselves and of our fellows who cannot succeed by themselves, but it should never substitute for the action of the persons themselves. Neither should government. Nor should the citizens demand that government take over the responsibility for themselves or their fellows, except when they CANNOT succeed in doing so. Not only does this have dire consequences, which are not part of this essay, but—and this is the most important reason—it violates the person’s dignity.
Read more from Dr. Luckey at “Catholic Truths on Economics.”
Here’s more from David Schmidtz’s Elements of Justice, in which he is engaging Rawls’ thought experiment on original position that presumes a closed society as the basis for his social thought. In a closed society we only enter by birth and leave by dying. Schmidtz observes that
as a matter of historical record the least advantaged have always been better off in open societies, societies where people are free to move in search of better opportunities. if we are theorizing about what kind of society is best for the least advantaged – if that is the desired conclusion – then is anything more fundamental than the freedom of movement? Indeed, why not deem freedom of movement the core of the first principle: Everyone has a right to live in a maximally open society, a society where they have no obligation to stay if they would rather be elsewhere? (222)
My guess is that Rawls is concerned with describing a grand (perhaps utopian) global vision for human society, which ultimately is closed and in which migration wouldn’t be of consequence. But Schmidtz is right to point out that practically that vision is not within our grasp, and is of little use when comparing the various actual different human societies.
Make trade, not war? In an excerpt from his new book “The Commercial Society,” Sam Gregg examines the long held view that nations engaged in trade are less likely to wage war. He notes that nations which are busy with commercial pursuits, instead of war making, may also be more vigilant about “protecting the fabric of freedoms upon which commercial societies depend.”
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “The Minimum Wage: A Denial of Freedom and Duty,” I look at the concept of minimum wage legislation from the perspective of the employer/employee relationship.
In his second epistle to the Thessalonians, the apostle Paul sets down a moral principle: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” But Paul’s words seem also to imply the opposite positive principle, something like, “If you will work, you should eat.”
Even so, I argue, it does not follow that the government should be the guarantor of this reality. Drawing in part on the thought of Abraham Kuyper, I find that “the civil government has a role in justly and fairly enforcing the contractual relationship between employer and employee. It does not, however, have the absolute right to determine the specific nature of this relationship in any and all circumstances.”
Throughout the commentary, I address some of the concerns raised in an interview conducted by Faithful America, a weblog associated with the National Council of Churches. Faithful America talked with man named Dan, who gave his experiences of working for and living on the minimum wage. A transcript copy of the interview is pasted in below the jump (the audio is available here). (more…)
For a quick overview of the current state of appreciation for economics and capitalism among various ‘academics,’ see the newly inaugurated e-journal Fast Capitalism. It might as well be subtitled: Marxism, Alive and Well. Most of the contributors to the first issue are in sociology, communications, or political science. Here’s a sampling:
In “Beyond Beltway and Bible Belt: Re-imagining the Democratic Party and the American Left,” Ben Agger, who teaches sociology and humanities at the University of Texas at Arlington, writes, “Electoral politics now matter. George W. Bush, Jr. and his evangelical-Christian supporters have seen to that. Bush threatens to undo the welfare state, roll back civil liberties (and block new ones), and isolate the United States from the rest of the world. His foreign policy is an admixture of isolationism and unilateral adventurism. Homeland Security, his contribution to our political lexicon, has a Nazi-era resonance. Gays, lesbians, foreigners, liberals, the left have been demonized by a supposedly literal interpretation of the Bible, which drives the Christian right, Bush’s base of support. This has the makings of fascism.” One other tidbit: “FDR’s welfare state, while not perfect, significantly buffered the ravages of capitalism for those without jobs and without hope.” Also check out the planks in his “agenda for American social democracy,” which include “economic restructuring,” in which “the Democratic Party must take the lead in reconceptualizing the United Nations not only as an international police force but as an agent of the redistribution of capital.”
See also Charles Lemert, Andrus Professor of Sociology at Wesleyan University, who is self-described as “once a minister, still a student of theology, seldom a church-goer.” He writes an encomium to Reinhold Neibuhr, praising him for, among other things, opposing the Ford auto company in the early 20th century. “Though called to serve a traditional, declining urban congregation, Niebuhr, still in his twenties, quickly engaged himself on the side of industrial workers in a city where automobile manufacturing ruled by the hand of Henry Ford who presented himself as the patron saint of economic justice in the offer of then higher wages. Thus began Fordism, born not of fairness, but of greed for efficient production. The higher wages famously broke Marx’s rule on the suppression of labor costs as the key to the extraction of surplus value. But the break was only apparent. The wages were taken back in the purchase of the automobiles labor produced—thereby doubly exploiting the laborer,” he writes.
And don’t miss “Politics and Self in the Age of Digital Re(pro)ducibility,” by Robert W. Williams, who teaches Political Science at Bennett College in North Carolina. His claim, explicitly made within “the Marxist tradition,” is that “there is a dialectic of in/dividuality present in the conjuncture of globalizing capitalism and liberal-democratic policies. The relationships that reduce us as separate selves to digitally mediated signifiers and that “reproduce” those signifiers as dividuals also provide the potential for resistance against the oppressions resulting from digital re(pro)ducibility.”
HT: The Blogora
Amy Welborn’s blog has a post on the January 21 conference Acton held in Rome and links to Jennifer Roback Morse’s recent Acton Commentary article.
Much of the debate is about whether there is one “European Social Model”. After all, European nations are still distinct enough to be affected by varying religious, cultural, and socio-economic factors. Yes, there may indeed be “Anglo-Saxon”, “Nordic”, “Continental” and “Latin” versions of the social model, but what they tend to have in common is this: high taxes, high regulations especially concerning labor markets, and radically secular populations.
This is certainly the model pushed by the European Union and its most influential member states upon new member states, many of which are post-Communist and therefore quite suspicious of state power and control. And no matter what you call the model, it tends to result in lower economic growth and shrinking populations – which will eventually spell the end of the welfare state because such as system depends on increasing tax receipts from a growing work force.
Of course there are and will always be exceptions. The British Ambassador to the Holy See attended the Acton conference and noted the UK and Ireland as such; Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, President of the Ponitifical Council for the Family, agreed but added that the trend still exists and needs to be addressed directly.
The problem is a lack of economic and religious freedom. High taxes and regulations are signs of increasing state control over the economcy, and less economic freedom means less economic opportunity. (See Richard Rahn’s recent Washington Times column for the evidence.) On the religious front, Christians are marginalized in European public life, church attendance is declining, and the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” is ignored. In the end, radical secularization and statism go hand-in-hand, as Mark Steyn argued in the Italian daily Il Foglio.
So how much more debate is needed? Isn’t reform the next necessary step? What Europe needs most right now are courageous leaders who are willing to risk unpopularity and even political defeat in order to promote a free and virtuous continent. They will have to remember the old saying that no good deed goes unpunished, but it’s a punishment that will eventually prove to be beneficial for Europe.