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

[I]f "labor" is defined as that activity that fulfills God's purposes by making natural resources useful to humankind, then the work of the merchant too is "labor"; so is the work of the landowner, for that matter, insofar as he too is engaged in commerce. Thus the effect of understanding Locke's account of labor in terms of its fulfillment of a teleology of natural resources is to strip specifically manual labor of the unique, originating role in the production of value that the early paragraphs of chapter 5 appear to grant it. What differentiates manual labor from other areas of commercial activity is the moral significance ascribed to it by scripture, which provides Locke with his starting point. Locke's rhetorical strategy in his chapter on property, then, is to use "labor" as a synecdoche for commerce, so that the moral meaning of plowing and reaping can be extended to trading and banking as well. (p.971)


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


On Locke

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