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

In the economic writings, Locke, like the majority of his contemporaries, was concerned with the role of the worker and only tangentially interested in the nature of work itself. The Second Treatise of Government, however, was the first modern piece of major significance which, whatever its other purposes, considered the relationship between man, his property, environment, and society in terms of the nature and value of human labor; and in his discussion of property relations Locke established the foundations for the modern conception of labor.  (p.7)


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


On Locke

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