The Story of Work 4. Work, and the Early Christians: the New Testament and Augustine

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What is work?

Having sketched the Roman views of work that were most influential on subsequent philosophers, we continue the Story of Work by moving on to Christianity. We see how Roman thinking was modified to make it acceptable to a once despised class in both the New Testament and in one of the most influential Church Fathers, St Augustine.

Most fundamental of all in this next stage of thinking about work is how the ambiguous Roman notion of labor as both improbus (shameful, bad) and involving virtus (manliness, virtue) that we explored last week was imported into both the Greek Septuagint and then the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible (I focus on the Vulgate here because of its influence on medieval and later conceptions of work).

In the Vulgate version of Genesis, labor was first a heavenly punishment for succumbing to the temptations of knowledge and greed. Expulsion from the Garden of Eden meant that the earth was now accursed and Adam was to eat of it through his labor and the results of his labour (opus).[1] Labor was in this sense decidedly improbus and clearly carrying the shame associated with Greek ponos.[2] It was, however, overlaid with the classical Latin ideas so that there was an antithetical understanding of labor as well.[3]

James Kleist long ago pointed out with regard to the Greek originals of the New Testament that ergon and its plural erga should properly be translated as the mission of the Church, the ‘work of Redemption.’ [4] In the Vulgate the Greek term was unsurprisingly translated as opus, as in John 4.34: meus cibus est ut faciam voluntatem eius qui misit me ut perficiam opus eius; [Christ says] ‘my sustenance consists in doing His will who sent me that I might fulfil His mission/ work’). So far this fits in very well with the established difference between Roman Latin labor and opus, and the Greek ponos and ergon. The lines immediately following John 4.34 describe the (metaphorical) need to harvest the crops in order to gain the reward – the wages – of eternal life (qui metit mercedem accipit et congregat fructum in vitam aeternam – ‘who reaps receives the wages and gathers the fruit [that leads towards] towards eternal life’). Exactly as when Virgil sums up the advantages to civilisation achieved through agricultural labor, the activity of reaping/ saving souls is clinched with the same term from 4.34 (labor) in three different forms (two verbs and a noun) in the space of seven words to ensure the point is made (John 3.38): ego misi vos metere quod vos non laborastis; alii laboraverunt et vos in laborem eorum introistis (‘I sent you to reap what you have not laboured over; others have laboured and you have entered into their labour’).

Agricultural labor has here taken on the dignity of opus – so far so Virgilian – but what is distinctive is that labor is not the kind executed by the heroic and virtuous farmer of pre-imperial Rome, but anchored in the shameful labour of slaves and the wage labour that was so disreputable to the classical philosophers. At the same time, labor is spiritual in a way that the Greeks would have thought of as poiesis, the gateway state that connects the Ideal with the material, and associated with ergon/opus.

The deliberate early Christian confusion of labor and opus, ‘labour’ and ‘mission,’ and the infusion of that confusion with the spiritual (labor+opus+poiesis) was of course tactical in its appeal to slaves and wage labourers, the ‘despised and rejected of men’ (Isaiah 53.3): it told them that what they did was valued while at the same time justifying (or at least not openly attacking) slavery itself (on this controversial point see Glancy and Harrill referred to in footnote 3). But the Bible also offered a version of a creation myth in which God worked to create the world. God was like an artifex (artisan, maker through art/ skill/technē); he was a potter who made Adam from mud (Genesis 2.7: Formavit igitur Dominus Deus hominem de limo terrae[5]). By the time Thomas Aquinas will write in the thirteenth century that God’s knowledge was the cause of the world just as the artisan’s knowledge was the cause of artefacts, he will simply be repeating an established commonplace.[6]

Sandro Botticelli, St Augustine in his Study (1480) fresco in Chiesa degli Ognisanti, Florence

St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was probably the most influential philosopher-theologian of late antiquity, and deeply indebted to Greek and Roman philosophers, especially the Stoics and Platonists.[7] These included Cicero but also and especially the poet Virgil. One of his most extended discussions of work occurs in the last Book of his famous Civitas Dei (‘City of God’) and, since the passage has been misunderstood (and by some much quoted historians too), it is worth pausing here to note in some detail how Augustine redefines labor through it.

First, Augustine uses labor to cover the work of teachers. We shall see this definition return in Baxter a thousand years later, but in Augustine it is less surprising: most teachers were in fact slaves. Augustine then uses labor metaphorically to cover various kinds of praiseworthy physical, mental and spiritual activities before he offers a very clear extension of the passage from Virgil’s Georgics referred to in the previous blog post. However – and this is crucial – in his amplificatio Augustine is careful to use the terms ars (‘art,’ ‘skill’ – the Latin translation of Greek technē), ingenium (‘ingenuity’) and opus (the result of human industry), and NOT labor:   

For besides the arts of living well and of attaining immortal happiness, … what wonderful, what stupendous works [opera] has human industry attained in clothes and buildings, achieved in agriculture and navigation; devised and executed what variety in the making of vases, statues and pictures; what miracles for spectators and incredible things for listeners created and  performed in the theatres! what and how many methods discovered for catching, killing and taming wild animals; conceived how many poisons, how many weapons, how many engines of war against men, and as many medicines and devices  that maintain and restore health; how many condiments and amuse-bouches for the pleasures of the gullet has it found; what a multitude and variety of signs – amongst which letters and words hold prime of place – to interpret and gain new thoughts! what an abundance of diverse songs to delight the minds of those versed in eloquence! what musical instruments, what melodic modes to soothe the ears! what skill in dimensions and numbers, what knowledge in the movement and order of the stars it has devised! Who can tell with how many worldly things [human industry] has filled itself, especially if we wish not to heap them all together in a lump, but detail each of them? Finally, who is able to measure how great is the ingenuity of philosophers and heretics in defending even errors and lies? For we are speaking now of the nature of the human mind by which mortal life is decorated, and not of the faith and the journey towards truth by which immortal life is acquired. [8]  

The much cited Applebaum follows in a long tradition when he calls the above passage (which he quotes selectively) ‘one of the great peaons [sic] to human work,’[9] but in fact it is the opposite: Augustine is denigrating the activities he lists, not praising them. It is, if we read the whole passage, difficult to reconcile the fake ‘miracles of the theatre,’ invented poisons and the fallacious reasoning of heretics and philosophers with the labor that was necessary for salvation. Augustine is, rather, damning these activities since they concern the body and the mind and not the soul.

As to be expected of a religion aiming to appeal to slaves, the activities undertaken by free citizens valued by Greek philosophers here are lower than the labor of slaves. They are, quite simply, not real work, unlike what teachers (often slaves), manual workers (usually slaves) and priests do.

If we have read Glancy and Harrill, we can see Augustine’s redefinition does not undermine the institution of slavery, but just redefines it: slavery (and its attendant labor) becomes a general condition that applies to all of us. The difference is that our true master/ owner is God, not any earthly ones. We need freely to accept our earthly subjection through freely recognising our spiritual subjection. This version of identity combines the essential characteristic of the citizen – freedom – with the essential characteristic of the slave – subjection. It is a paradox – a marriage of freedom and subjection – that will shape thinking about ‘work’ and indeed western ideas of human identity for millennia, including the notion of the ‘free market.’ It is also, if we continue to follow Glancy and Harrill (and I think we should), a fundamentally conservative (and to us very problematic) idea that justified the continuation of the slave system even if in a different way from Plato’s Republic 800 years previously.

Very clearly, Augustine’s was a very thorough redefinition of labor which, though derived from the Roman conception of the dignity of agricultural and civilising labor, mobilises it for a different end. The necessity for work towards future plenty remains – one should shore up the results of labor for times of scarcity – but, granted authority by the Bible, labor is transformed through metaphor to refer to spiritual necessity. Activities that aimed at eternal life and served God were worthy of the term labor; all else was not. It was labor as a holy activity in the New Testament that was the remedy for Adam’s sin as well as its punishment, and not ‘work’ in general, that Augustine was elaborating on at length throughout the last book of the Civitas Dei. Labor in this sense was much more like poiesis in that it could prove a gateway to the divine. Most crucial of all for later thinkers, labor did not involve an animalistic lack of free will but rather its active exercise either in penitence or as an investment in a happy afterlife. Like all Christian medieval theologians, Augustine frames work in a soteriological and not economic context.

Salvation too informs Augustine’s views of the work of government (praxis). As Robert Donato points out, Augustine’s fundamental argument is that, since all earthly states belong to the realm of the devil, they cannot make their people happy. They are therefore doomed to failure, for in the City of God alone can true happiness exist. [10] Indeed, the only way an earthly ruler can do their job as rector or gubernator successfully (see Roman blog post for the importance of these terms) is if they keep their eyes on the heavenly kingdom. They should be guided no longer by just the four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Courage, Temperance and Justice as in Plato and Cicero, but by the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity (caritas). Since it is impossible to create happiness on earth even through the careful exercise of the four cardinal virtues, the aim of government should accordingly be to assist people to live according to the theological virtues so that they might achieve happiness after death; the caritas that links good rulers to their people (as in Cicero) – love by the ruler for their people and the people’s love for their ruler – entails here that rulers must ensure that their people hope, have faith and love God.

Augustine accordingly redefines the four cardinal virtues in ways that, while the nineteenth-century periodicals on this site may never refer to Augustine, are still orthodox and legible in them:

[a political leader] should be prudent by leading his subjects to love God in preference to everything else; he should be courageous in allowing no hardship to deter them from that love; he should be temperate in allowing no temptation to distract them from loving God; and he should be just by preventing pride from keeping them from loving God.[11]

Even more directly than Augustine, his contemporary St Ambrose felt a need to update the Roman classical view of government in Christian terms. Ambrose wrote a widely-read response to Cicero’s De Officiis (which I discussed in the previous blog post) called De Officiis Ministrorum (‘On the Duties of the Clergy’) in which he redefines officium as the social duty of the religious leader along the same lines as Augustine (complete with its necessary virtues). Officium, as the duty of the good citizen of the City of God, for Ambrose comprised the spiritual care of souls, something we shall see echoed down the centuries. Ambrose, though, sidesteps the status of opus versus labor by preferring officium to either: it is the work of the clergy as the governors of their flocks (their ‘duties,’ their praxis) that is his concern. Of course this means their ultimate salvation. [12]

The redefinition of the work of government and civic duty by the Church Fathers implies a view of time very different from ours: true time is eternal and not measurable in hours, days, months or years, for these really are nothing but (anachronistically to quote John Donne) ‘the rags of time.’ These rags (and their attendant slavish physical and mental labours) must all contribute to the vast protective cloak of immortality (as often depicted in medieval and renaissance painting).

That said, as we shall see next week, it was another early Christian Father, St Benedict (another contemporary of St Augustine), who seems to have devised the first regular work schedule – the organisation of earthly days with a view to eternal time – that is recognisable to us. More often referred to than St Ambrose in the history of work, he is credited with formulating a revolutionary insistence upon the time of day and season as a determinant of what activities one needed to do.[13We shall come to the Rule of St Benedict in the next episode of the Story of Work.

Return to Introduction.


[1] maledicta terra, in opere tuo in laboribus comedes eam cunctis diebus vitae tuae (Genesis 3.17).

[2] NB. The term used for the ‘labour’ of childbirth in the Vulgate Genesis 3.16 is dolor, not labor. This has important implications that undermine claims by critics that Christianity (or indeed culture in general) conflates birthing labour and work. ‘Labour’ was only used to name the process of giving birth from the sixteenth century onwards (see ‘Labour’ 176-179 in Raymond Williams, Keywords: a Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Fontana, 1976; revised 1983), p. 176).

[3] Barsella, ‘Ars and Theology,’ (referred to in the post on the Greeks) has been very helpful in my understanding of the subject matter of this blog post, though my choice of texts and readings are different from hers. Just as crucial to my thinking is the important revisionary work of Jennifer Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 20002) and J. Albert Harrill, Slaves in the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).

[4] James A. Kleist, ‘‘Ergon’ in the Gospels.’ The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 6, no. 1 (1944): 61–68, esp. 65. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43719752.

[5] The St James Bible translates limum incorrectly as ‘dust.’ It is actually ‘mud.’

[6] scientia Dei est causa rerum. Sic enim scientia Dei se habet ad omnes res creatas, sicut scientia artificis se habet ad artificiata. Scientia autem artificis est causa artificiatorum, Summa Theologica Quaestio 14, articulus 8 (https://www.corpusthomisticum.org/sth1003.html). See also John Hughes, The End of Work: Theological Critiques of Capitalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 15-16 in his summary and critique of The Theology of Work: An Exploration by Marie-Dominique Chenu (1963).

[7] Gillian Clark, ‘Caritas: Augustine on Love and Fellow Feeling,’ in Hope, Joy, and Affection in the Classical World. Edited by Ruth R. Caston and Robert A. Kaste (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 209-25.

[8] Augustine, Civitas Dei, 22: 24. Praeter enim artes bene uiuendi et ad inmortalem perueniendi felicitatem  … Vestimentorum et aedificiorum ad opera quam mirabilia, quam stupenda industria humana peruenerit; quo in agricultura, quo in nauigatione profecerit; quae in fabricatione quorumque uasorum uel etiam statuarum et picturarum uarietate excogitauerit et impleuerit; quae in theatris mirabilia spectantibus, audientibus incredibilia facienda et exhibenda molita sit; in capiendis occidendis domandis inrationabilibus animantibus quae et quanta reppererit; aduersus ipsos homines tot genera uenenorum, tot armorum, tot machinamentorum, et pro salute mortali tuenda atque reparanda quot medicamenta atque adiumenta conprehenderit; pro uoluptate faucium quot condimenta et gulae inritamenta reppererit; ad indicandas et suadendas cogitationes quam multitudinem uarietatemque signorum, ubi praecipuum locum uerba et litterae tenent; ad delectandos animos quos elocutionis ornatus, quam diuersorum carminum copiam; ad mulcendas aures quot organa musica, quos cantilenae modos excogitauerit; quantam peritiam dimensionum atque numerorum, meatusque et ordines siderum quanta sagacitate conprehenderit; quam multa rerum mundanarum cognitione se impleuerit, quis possit eloqui, maxime si uelimus non aceruatim cuncta congerere, sed in singulis inmorari? In ipsis postremo erroribus et falsitatibus defendendis quam magna claruerint ingenia philosophorum atque haereticorum, quis aestimare sufficiat? Loquimur enim nunc de natura mentis humanae, qua ista uita mortalis ornatur, non de fide atque itinere ueritatis, qua illa inmortalis adquiritur. (https://www.thelatinlibrary.com/augustine/civ22.shtml).

[9] Applebaum, Concept of Work, 190. See also, e.g., George Ovitt, Jr. ‘The Cultural Context of Western Technology: Early Christian Attitudes toward Manual Labor,’ Technology and Culture 27, no. 3 (1986): 477-500, 492.

[10] Robert Donato, ‘Augustine on the Stateman and the Two Cities.’ A Companion to Augustine. Edited by Mark Vassey (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012), 386-97.

[11] Donato, ‘Augustine,’ 391.

[12] That said, opus is much more common throughout De Officiis ministrorum as the accomplished works of God; labor is used only rarely and then in the sense of unpleasant effort. See e.g. Ambrose, De Officiis ministrorum, edited by Ifor J. Davidson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), Book 1 para 52.

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