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

Whether performed by the working class or the owners of property, by men working for wages or independent producers, labor, Locke insisted, was the distinctly creative activity of the race. When men work they do more than improve nature by increasing its value. Through the ac- tivity of work man molds dead matter into something uniquely set apart from the given natural order. In working, men inject the very essence of their personalities into the object worked upon. The fruit of such action is not merely a commodity whose economic value is in- creased by the labor embodied in it. It is an article distinct from all others by virtue of the creative power of the individual personality given in its production.  (p.8)


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


On Locke

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