Work and Wealth

It is fascinating to consider that for centuries work was regarded as demeaning and beneath all other human activity. This is the reason that even the seemingly enlightened Greeks regarded slavery as a good thing: the slaves’ role in life was to work and to save the citizens from such demeaning and distasteful activity. Even the great Aristotle defended slavery on the same grounds: human beings were never meant to do work. Slavery is required in order that those who are able to use their minds and engage in creative activity are free to do so.

The slaves, in the case of the Greeks, were the unfortunate victims of countless wars, of course, and the thinking may have been something like this: if these people were not able to win this war or this battle then they are not deserving of genuine human status. I don’t know, but I suspect I am not far off — given some of the things Aristotle said and the attitude of the Greeks generally toward slaves.

Slavery continued for centuries, or course, as did the attitude toward work. It was John Calvin in the sixteenth century who first argued that work was in fact a good thing — while slavery, with no attempt whatever to justify it, continued to make men wealthy in both England and America. According to Calvin work actually was directed by God and enabled human beings to demonstrate how much they relished the life they had been given. In a word, work was a good thing. Indeed, as Calvin insisted: work promotes the glory of God.

For Calvin human beings have no free will. Some are saved and others are damned. Only God knows which of us will be saved or damned. But we must act as if we have freedom and we must glory in our work which is not in the least demeaning; it is glorifying. Not for ourselves, of course, since pride is a sin, but for God. The fact that  a man profits from his work demonstrates that he is among “the elect.” It is a sign that God has touched him, as it were, and made it possible for him to do well. Work requires self-control and the acknowledgment of duty, that one is doing what God wants him to do. It must be approached with singleness of purpose and the determination to glorify God. This is true of the wealth that accrues from hard work as well.

As increasingly money became the means of accumulating wealth, the ethical problem changed from determining the nature of work to the question of whether or not the accumulation of wealth was a good thing.  John Locke, for example, argued that in a primitive society a man has a right to only that which he can make use of himself.  He is speaking of pears and apples. In the case of money, the notion of rights became irrelevant — for Locke. Not, however, for John Calvin who worried about both work and wealth.

In no way did Calvin, or what came to be called “the Protestant work ethic,” condone the gaining of untold wealth for the purpose of the greater glorification of those who are wealthy. For the Calvinist, wealth is a sign that God is pleased, but one must always keep in mind how this wealth came about, Who made it possible. Max Weber, in his study of the Protestant Ethic, notes that:

“Wealth is thus bad ethically only insofar as it is a temptation to idleness and sinful enjoyment of life, and its acquisition is bad only when it is with the purpose of later living merrily and without care. But as a performance of duty in a calling it is not only morally permissible, but actually enjoined.”

Note, please. the strings attached to the accumulation of great wealth:

“[A person] must, like the servant in the parable, give an account of every penny entrusted to him, and it is at least hazardous to spend any of it for a purpose which does not serve the glory of God but only one’s own enjoyment.”

That is to say, those who are touched by God and able to achieve great wealth have a responsibility to increase it by “restless effort.” The greater the wealth the greater the obligation to do good with it. Calvin repeatedly warns against the “irrational use of wealth” and the hazards of losing sight of where it came from.

One does wonder, then, how the founder of the Work Ethic that has taken over the Western World — and increasingly the Eastern World as well — would regard the fact that in this country, at any rate, a tiny fraction of the population has gained the bulk of the wealth and for the most part show no signs of a willingness to share it with others or recognize any responsibilities whatever to guard against “the irrational use of wealth.”

Calvin, and those who follow him, thus rescued the notion of work from derision. But they warned against the gaining of wealth for its own sake. There were always strings attached, duties to be acknowledged and others to regard. Those strings have been cut, have they not?  As Weber notes in his study,

“the religious roots [of the Protestant Work Ethic] died out slowly, giving way to utilitarian worldliness.”

Thus, along with so many of the virtues that modern humans have tossed into the bins of irrelevant, ancient history, we can add the Protestant Work Ethic and any sense that wealth carries with it a burden of responsibility to others. This is sad, indeed.


9 thoughts on “Work and Wealth

  1. Thought-provoking post, Hugh. I often wonder how much the wealthy would give to charity if there were no tax advantages. I hear these same wealthy people railing about the use of tax dollars (very little of those belonged to the super-rich) to pay for social programs that help the poor and working poor. Yet, they turn around and demand more tax breaks and loopholes for themselves.

    It is said that capitalism works on the principle of greed. I don’t believe in a state-owned economy, but I do believe in government doing more to level the economic playing field. Having millions of people working two or more jobs at minimum wage in order to have a roof over their head and food on the table is unconscionable.

    Thanks for the historical perspective on the topic of work and the accumulation of wealth.

    • Coming as they do from a historian your thanks are much appreciated!
      It appears that the state run economies are doing well and that the people in those countries are some of the happiest people in the world — according to the United Nations polls.
      Like so many things, capitalism started out in the right direction and gradually took a wrong turn. It now seems to make the few very wealthy and the many not-so-much.

  2. Hugh, it disappoints me the Greek orthodoxy was propped up by slavery. I thought you might be headed down the path of these prosperity churches and televangelists, where piety is equated with wealth accumulation. What followers fail to learn, the minister’s prosperity dwarfs that of others.

    But, back to Calvin and Locke. I think Protestant work ethic goes hand-in-hand with “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” We need to be busy to stay out of trouble.

    As for too much wealth, I agree with the conclusion of the movie “I Am.” In essence, “money does not make you happy, but the absence of such can make you unhappy.” Once you have enough to take care of basic needs, there is a diminishing marginal return on each additional dollar.

    With that said, I applaud Warren Buffett and Bill/ Melinda Gates challenge for wealthy people to give away 1/2 of their wealth. Keith

    • As do I. Then there are people like Phil Mickelson who complain bitterly at the thought they might have to help support more social programs with increased taxes in California. As though he can’t afford to help others. Perhaps he simply doesn’t want to?

      • Hugh, with so many folks pulling for Phil, it is disappointing to see this attitude. To be frank, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan also are in the category of not making waves. Lebron James is unlike them on this issue. Keith

  3. Sad it is, indeed, and beyond sad if we give credence to man-made climate change and global pollution which has much to do with the immoral acquisition of wealth, i.e., power over the “less fortunate.”

  4. I am constantly amazed by the number of excuses humans can come up with to justify their own greed, laziness, arrogance, and in some cases downright evil. I will never forget reading about an interview that … I think it was Oprah … did with televangelist Jim Bakker. She asked him how he justified his million-dollar home, private jet, and the lavish lifestyle he lives, and his reply was, “God wants me to be happy.” That one still makes my jaw drop. Sigh. Good post, my friend.

    • Yeah. Many of the televangelists exhibit selective reading of the New testament and of Calvin as well! But I find Calvin’s interpretation odd to begin with, I must say.

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