For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"The Making of Homo Faber: John Locke between Ideology and History"

by Hundert, E J (1972)


The modern inquiry into the idea and value of work has its roots in the seventeenth-century English debate over "the employment of the poor"; a debate punctuated by a long series of state papers and Acts of Parliament proclaiming that labor problems were plaguing the nation.1 Workers appeared to be slothful, unreliable, and attached to irregular and dangerous habits.2 Their undisciplined behavior was found most alarming by those men interested in commercial expansion, since they discovered that "we cannot make our English cloth so cheap as they do in other countries because of the sharpe idleness and stubborness of our poor."3 Economists, merchants, and ministers encountered a population steadily being driven from its landed, feudal status into the untried conditions of increasing commercial competition. High unemployment and rising relief rolls were almost constant problems, and it was assumed that at least a significant minority of the population lived in conditions of chronic poverty and were a permanent threat to public.

Key Passage

 Locke's understanding of poverty varied slightly from that of his contemporaries, and then only in its harshness. He felt that the proper relief of the poor, and thus the improvement of the health of the nation, "consists in finding work for them." The task of "restraining their debauchery" involved a concerted attempt to reform their habits. Aside from the then common nostrums for more efficient law enforcement and the closing of ale-houses, Locke's main proposal consisted of the establishment of more and better houses of correction, since he found present institutions inadequate, "too lax," and their training shipshod. Through hard labor, whipping, and torture, Locke insisted, the state-should attempt to make the poor industrious. Holding that sloth is "infectious," he recommended the establishment  of "working schools in each parish" which would remove children above the age of three from the source of the disorder and instill the habit of industry into them. For Locke industriousness was indissolubly tied to personal morality; it was a virtue which had to be taught to the poor in order to promote their moral health and thus economic well being. (p.5)


Locke, Property, History Of Ideas, Theory Of Labor, Seventeenth Century


On Locke

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