The Productivity of Labor and the Theory of Wages

Religion Dignifies Work: Aquinas and Calvin


Thomas Aquinas, writing much later, with a vast store of Christian doctrine behind him, nevertheless agreed with Aristotle in the principle that by guaranteeing to a man the fruits of his labor, he would be more industrious and conscientious in his work. Work indeed was a Christian duty. In his veneration of labor, Aquinas departed radically from the Greek philosophers, to whom menial work and the affairs of the market place were undignified. Even the work of buying and selling was acceptable to Aquinas, provided the merchant recognized the fact that, in his occupation, opportunities for the unrighteous accumulation of wealth were numerous and to be guarded against.

It was in the theological writings of John Calvin (1509-1564) that the religious incentive to labor reached its most com­pelling form. Recognized as a necessity by almost everyone, and dignified in the Christian tradition because almost all of the re­ligious leaders had themselves worked, it remained for Calvin to give work its moral force. Labor became a Christian obliga­tion. Calvin was a Swiss religious reformer who became the in­tellectual leader of the Reformation. To labor industriously in a calling was God's command to man. Men should not choose a calling because of the riches to be obtained; but once in a call­ing, they should not be unmindful of the wealth to be obtained by a close application to duty, since an increase in wealth could be used for Christian purposes. Men were admonished to shun luxury and be thrifty. Finally, while salvation came only to those who were predestined, success was accepted as a mark of God's favor. It therefore followed that, since no one knew beforehand who was predestined, such success was a confirmation that one had already been called by God. What stronger incentive could be exerted in a religious way than this combination of Christian teachings? One can readily understand why several authors, especially Max Weber, have described Calvinism as a powerful stimulus to the evolution of modern capitalism, if not its cause. The writings of R. H. Tawney in England and Werner Sombart in Germany have turned this thesis around however; making the rise of modern capitalism, in the countries of northern Europe, the cause of the Reformation and the reason for its ready ac­ceptance.

The strong individualistic doctrine of the Reformation was taken over by the less religious philosophers and economists of the following centuries. Accepting individualism as a fact of the world in which they lived, they needed some other justification for it than the favor of God or the salvation of the soul. They founded their doctrine on the premise that it was instinctive for man to seek his own self-interest. This had been affirmed by philosophers as far back as Plato and Aristotle. Where they fell short, however, was in failing to understarid that the powerful drive of self-interest had to have a sense of direction other than the individual's own happiness. Plato and Aristotle subordinated the individual to the state; Aquinas deferred to custom; Cal­vinism implied control in its moral admonitions and its doctrine of salvation; but the utilitarians found no such control save the sensitivity of man himself.