DOI: 10.30443/POI2019-0018

The Virtue of Industry and the Instrumentalization of Work

Elliot Rossiter


This paper explores the development of changing conceptions of the virtue of industry between the medieval and early modern periods of Western Europe. The distinctive contribution of this paper is to show how a teleological concept of industry, where work is seen as perfective of both the individual and the community, was eventually supplanted by an externalized concept of industry that consists essentially in engaging in economically measurable and productive activities. The virtue of industry appears in both medieval and early modern discussions of work and character. One finds the virtue of industry mentioned as an antidote to the vice of sloth in monastic writings, sermons, and ethical treatises in medieval Western Europe. In the medieval understanding, the vice of sloth consists in the avoidance of purposive activities such as works of charity or prayerful contemplation. The virtue of industry is also found in the writings of a more modern figure such as Benjamin Franklin; but for Franklin, this virtue is primarily oriented toward outwardly visible activities that yield economically valuable goods. In this paper, I show how developments in the understanding of the virtue of industry contribute to a transition in seeing work as an intrinsically valuable activity that is perfective of the individual and the community to seeing work primarily as a practical and instrumentally valuable activity that consists in the production of commodifiable goods. This view cul-minates in the labour theory of value held by Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

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