For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Labor and Commerce in Locke and Early Eighteenth-Century English Georgic"

by Irvine, Robert P (2009)


This essay will argue that the revival of Virgilian georgic in English poetry at the start of the eighteenth century by John Philips and Al exander Pope must be understood in the context of the relationship between labor, commerce, and the state articulated by John Locke in chapter 5 of the Second Treatise of Government (1690, revised 1698). The first half of the essay argues that Locke's chapter on property in the Second Treatise, in the process of establishing the priority of property rights over political institutions, gives labor the rhetorical task of legitimating the money economy in the face of traditional (Aristotelian) objections. In this role, manual labor stands for, and naturalizes, a commercial system in which it is fully integrated, and which is historically and morally prior to the state. The second half of the essay will show that the representation of labor in Cyder by Philips (1708) and Windsor Forest by Pope (1713) must be understood in its dialectical relationship with both classical georgic and the assimilation of labor to commerce found in the Second Treatise. These poems use agricultural labor to naturalize the imperial state on the Virgilian model, but in doing so confront an alternative conceptualization of labor in which commerce, not politics, provides its ultimate moral horizon. This explains why commerce is prominent in Philips and Pope as it is not in Virgil: in their post-Lockean moment, the English poets must re-enclose the money economy within politics, necessarily evoking international commerce even as they subject it to various kinds of suppression and mystification

Key Passage

The stated aim of chapter 5 of Locke's Second Treatise is to explain how a world given "to Mankind in common" could come to be divided up as the private property of individuals.4 Locke's initial assumption here is important for his ongoing refutation of Sir Robert Filmer's patriarchalism. If God gave the earth to Adam in particular, as his estate to divide and bequeath among his sons, then God gave the earth specifically to its patriarchs, from whom all kings are descended. Apologists for absolutist monarchy could use this to argue that the holding of private property was thus made possible by, and conditional on, the property-holder's subjection to the king.5 To counter this, Locke shows how private property could emerge before any such political relationship had been instituted. Locke argues that, in the state of nature, labor itself, whether the plucking of fruit or the plowing of ground, turns the earth and its products into the private property of the laborer without its being granted to him by any political superior. If legitimate property ownership exists prior to government, then government cannot make claims on private property without the collective consent of property owners. (p.964)


Locke, Early Modern, Seventeenth Century, History, Poetry, Virgil, Labor, Political Economy


On Locke

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