For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Images of Labor and Diligence in Sixteenth-Century Netherlandish Prints: The Work Ethic Rooted in Civic Morality or Protestantism?"

by Veldman, Ilja M (1992)


"The people of the Low Countries are very hard-work- ing, diligent, inventive, and have a ready wit," writes Lodovico Guicciardini in his Descrittione dei tutti i Paesi Bassi (Antwerp I 567). "They are a nation of merchants and are skilled in all forms of commerce, such that the prosperity of the country is founded largely on trade and industry." I Hadrianus Junius is also full of praise for this indus- triousness in his Batavia, a historical treatise written in Haarlem in 1565-69. Junius goes on to define thrift, in combination with temperance in diet, as a way of ensur- ing that one is provided for in later life. "The mores of country people are diverse in kind. The inhabitants of northern parts have a somewhat stricter and more aus- tere way of life, inspired rather by thrift, that great source of income, than by any lack.... Aside from this, they were never idle, and were capable of strenuous exertion. They were ardent seekers of work."2 A little further on, where a description is given of a time when "the desire for delicacies had exceeded the bounds of civic morality" (with some families exhausting their entire capital), Junius remarks: "The wealthy, thank Heaven, have profited from this example and have turned their attention to more worthy matters. A new order has emerged and been given governance of the state. It has introduced thrift, and accords the highest priority to comfort in later life, an age at which poverty is held to be the utmost disgrace."

Key Passage

Weber's hypothesis has been immensely influential to this day, sometimes being quoted approvingly and so- metimes attracting criticism ranging from thoughtful analysis to vehement denunciation It has been pointed out, for instance, that "capitalist tendencies" can be found before the Reformation, and that to hold work in high regard is characteristic of Christianity in general. Thomas Aquinas saw work not only as a means of pro- viding the essentials of life, but also as a fulfilment of the commandment to practice Christian charity, a duty to the community (officium) imposed by God. The maxim ora et labora of monastic orders is likewise advanced to counter Weber's claim. Other critics have pointed out that diligence, thrift, expansion of trade and free enter- prise were propagated not only by Protestants, but also by Jansenists and Jesuits.8 The main charge levelled at Weber, however, was that his arguments derived from the Puritanism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centu- ries rather than from the tenets of Calvin himself. (p.228)


Protestantism, Protestant Reformation, Aesthetics, Imagery, Protestant Work Ethic, Work Ethic, Civic Morality, History, Dutch History, Moral Artwork


Work in Art, Protestantism, Labour History

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