The Story of Work 5. Work and the Early Christians 2: Time Discipline and St Benedict


This post, episode 4 of the story of work, sets out the basis for that time discipline that will become central to twentieth-century management advice. Even if we aren’t Christian, Benedict’s Rule is still fundamental to the dominant conceptions about work that govern us. It is, though, very, very different from we have come to assume is quite normal and natural.

If you are new to this serial story, you can find the Introduction here. Like any serial, each episode builds on what has gone before, so if you find yourself confusing your labor with your ergon, or praxis with poiesis, it might be an idea to go back to the Introduction and then read on through. The recurring cast of conceptual characters is introduced in the episodes on Greece and on Rome.

It’s a commonplace in histories of work to point to Augustine’s near contemporary St Benedict as forming another crucial ingredient to the Christian redefinition of work: a revolutionary insistence upon the time of day as a determinant of what activities one needed to do. [1]  In 516 (around a century after Augustine’s City of God), Benedict (480-547 CE), by this time an experienced leader of monastic communities, formulated a set of written instructions to help fellow abbots in what was essentially a monastic praxis. It became known as the Regula Sancti Benedicti, or Rule of St Benedict and was very widely adopted throughout Christian monasteries.

Benedict delivers his Rule to St Maurus and other monks.
France, Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes, 1129 from British Library, Additional MS 16979, f. 21v. Wikicommons.

The most innovative thing about Benedict’s Rule was not its purpose – to ensure an abbot governed his community of monks so they would go to heaven – but how it suggested that that could be achieved. It divided the monastic day into various parts so that both material and spiritual sides of monastic life were covered by everyone in a reasonable (temperate, moderate, reasonable) manner. Monks had both to orare et laborare, pray and work. To use later terms from within the European Christian tradition, their lives taken as a whole comprised both the vita contemplativa and the vita activa, contemplative and active lives. This was a division we saw in the Greek philosophers according to kinds of person – fundamentally philosophers who contemplated v. slaves who worked – but under Christianity the division becomes types of activity that all good citizens of the City of God in its monastic form should undertake.

Segments of the day were allotted to a specific activity, from rising and going out early in the morning ‘for the necessities of nature’ (I love how corporeal needs are explicitly timetabled!) to prayer, services, five hours of manual labour, and eating.[2]

The set relation of activity to time is of course important and justly remarked by historians of work, but we have to remember two key differences from what will emerge later, and which we now think of as ‘time discipline.’

The first is that the division of the day was not based on clock time as we understand it today: the Benedictine Rule divided the day into seven periods marked by divine services, periods whose length would vary according to the time of year. Even if some kind of time keeping devise was used, all that the monks would have been able to measure time with were unreliable and inconstant clepsydra (horologia, water clocks). These would vary in their measurements according to the changeable pressure of the air (for a hilarious yet informative short video on clepsydra, see here). It was only in the late thirteenth century – 700 years after the Rule – that mechanical clocks began to be used, and, for many country folk, access to mechanical clocks might have come as late as the nineteenth century.[3] The temporal divisions enjoined by the Rule were therefore variable, flexible, uncertain, and above all temporary: the division of time into daily and seasonal segments was only, after all, an earthly tool to be used by monks to ensure that they would eventually enter the eternal time of salvation. The abbot was their guide to salvation and the Rule was a guide for him. In this, it fits perfectly with Augustine and Ambrose’s redefinition of praxis that we read about last week – ruling a community not to ensure the earthly happiness of members as in the classical Greeks and Romans but so as to be sure of eternal joy after death.

Nonetheless, the idea of time discipline applied to the earthly days and seasons altered the terrain of thinking about work in a profound way, as the Rule and its many variants were gradually applied over the following centuries. In addition to the usual notions of work discipline that E.P. Thompson so famously described (and which I shan’t repeat here as they are so well known), [4] I can’t help but believe that another idea was seeded that only centuries later would take root amongst lay communities for different purposes: the regulation of activities in time according to the rule of an abstract conception – the idea of a monastic community united by a common utopian purpose infinitely postponed – and not according to the will of individuals, either of oneself or of an individual master or mistress (or set of individual masters and mistresses, as in a household) for identifiable and producible material goals. What I am suggesting is that the regulation of time and the subdivision of its enforcement in the Benedictine Rule prepares the ground for the notion of working set hours for the disembodied notion of the firm mediated by a manager for aims that can never be fully achieved in material terms.[5] Just think of the overarching mission statements of large companies or the idea of infinite growth, improvement and profit that many smaller companies and indeed countries aim for.

The second major point I want to make is that unlike today the relation of time to work was not yet orientated to extracting maximum value out of the minimum time (that is, productivity and efficiency were not the issue). The aim of work, according to the Rule, was to provide for each monk according to their collective needs and no more. The monastery as a whole was to confine itself to making and keeping what was ‘useful’ to ensuring the ultimate end of the kingdom of heaven.[6] The Rule was not a set of instructions of how to make a profit. The regulation of time was, rather, an attempt to forward the virtue of temperance (a continuation of Greek and Roman values) and to counter the vice of otiositas (‘laziness’) into which unhindered – intemperate – contemplation could slide. It will be no surprise that the abbot, a development of one of Plato’s Guardians of the Republic or Cicero’s gubernatori (‘helmsmen’) of state was enjoined to cultivate the classical and theological virtues in his work of governance, just as in Ambrose and Augustine, though, suitably for a practical set to rules to govern actions, the virtues do not appear in the Rule as abstract nouns. Rather, they do so as adverbs and verbs – something that drawing one’s conclusions just from a translation might not register. The virtues are actions not abstractions.

Another curiosity of the Rule that a translation would be unlikely to communicate is that the classical Latin distinction between opus and labor which Augustine was still making a century earlier (and which Aquinas will return to) has lost ground: in terms of both status and meaning, the Rule uses the two terms more or less interchangeably. It is even, perhaps, deliberately undermining the difference between the two.[7] For while we might expect opus (‘mission,’ the results of work, craft) to be used for study and the results of study in the aspects of the rule concerned with the vita contemplativa, and labor when the essential physical work of the vita activa is described, this is not the case. In fact, there no longer seems a clear distinction between the two terms in the Rule.

This merging of labor and opus is perfectly logical given the purpose of the Rule to regulate all kinds of activity: if, in classical Latin, labor (in so far as it was a translation of Greek ponos) was void of free will while opus (= Greek ergon) was not, the entire Rule was based on the subjection of one’s individual will to God whose representatives were both the abbot and one’s fellow monks. There was no question that any true monk’s will was free: indeed, a true monk had to love the state of being subject to God and his representatives (his ‘Superiors’) as well as doing his will.

The Lord says, ‘Narrow is the way that leads to life,’ so that, not living according to their own will nor obeying their own desires and pleasures but walking by another’s judgment and command, they dwell in monasteries and desire to have an Abbot over them… the obedience given to Superiors is given to God, since He Himself has said, ‘He who hears you, hears Me.’ And the disciples should offer their obedience with a good will, for ‘God loves a cheerful giver.’ For if the disciple obeys with an ill will and murmurs, not necessarily with his lips but simply in his heart, then even though he fulfil the command yet his work will not be acceptable to God, who sees that his heart is murmuring.[8]

This necessary love for work was never a question for slaves in classical Greece and Rome: who asked slaves to love their work and their subjection? They were compelled to do whatever they were compelled to do irrespective of their feelings. Rather, the idea that one should love one’s work looks forward to the ‘calling’ that Luther will mark out as a key to the Christian life a thousand years later and which, under the term ‘vocation’ has assumed such a large part of our lives today.[9] The human condition, for the Rule as in Augustine, comprises only slavery. All of us are slaves, from abbot through the deans to the monks and the novice, and we all have to accept our condition and love our heavenly Master and our slavery. Failure to love risks ending in hell.

This is a very different conception of identity from the classical Greek one which defined the fully human as a free male citizen able to make rational political choices while not ruled by the need for basics that the less-than-human unfree women and slaves attended to. The Rule‘s is still, however, a conception founded on the binary of freedom v. slavery: it’s just that, as we saw last week, the hierarchy between the two terms is inverted. It’s now good to be a slave, at least to the divine Master.

We must love our work however lowly and subordinate it is: whether it is opus or labor is indifferent. That is the only way we can ensure future happiness. The caritas that we saw last week in St Augustine and in Cicero previously was mainly the ruler’s love for their subordinate people – the ruler had to inspire it in others out of his love for them; in the Rule it is the reverse – it is love by the subordinate that is focussed on. And yet the classical conceptions still percolate through to today.

We may have heard similar claims about the relationship of love for work in how-to-be-successful-at-work manuals or HR statements today, or perhaps in polemics that show us (often rightly) that work today is not free and therefore we do not and cannot love it. In all cases, though, the ideal state is love for work. We are, in other words, still playing both with the classical and Christian combinations of building bricks. Work that we don’t like is a sign of slavery (bad) while the desired state is freedom signified by activity (not classed as ‘work’) that we like (good). So far so classical. And yet that reasoning is joined by the Christian recombination of those classical bricks – we can only be free from work in heaven by freely acknowledging we are slaves on earth. However secular today’s manuals and polemics might be, their thinking is still an echo of these early European Christian thoughts about work, and, as such, their basis is confined to a specific cultural history. It is not universal or ‘natural’ or obvious, and certainly not the only way to think about work.

Awareness of the cultural and historical specificity of the sets of conceptual building blocks we think and indeed feel with implies that really alternative thinking about work is in theory possible: realising that we are confined to playing with just those bricks means that in theory we might be able to find others. That’s one of the major questions of this serial: for can we really escape from thinking about work in terms of freedom and slavery? I’m not sure it’s possible, but it is certainly worth reflecting on.

That said, we stay with European Christian conceptions for the next episode, when we’ll be exploring the ideas about work promoted by the most influential high medieval theologian of all, St Thomas Aquinas.

Return to Introduction.

[1] See, for example, Mumford, Myth of the Machine vol. 1, 263-7. When full bibliographical details are not given in these episodes (as here), please refer to the annotated bibliography at the bottom of the home page for this serial. You can access it it here.

[2] Quotations in Latin are from the ‘Regula REGULA S.P.N. Benedicti’ at . The reference to ‘the necessities of nature’ (ad necessaria naturae) comes from chapter 8.

[3] Eric Bruton, The History of Clocks and Watches (London: Little Brown and Co, 1979), 22-24.

[4] E.P. Thompson’s ‘Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,’ Past & Present,  No. 38 (1967), 56-97, famously notes the diversity of the cultural and geographical penetration of clock time and outlines its implications for work discipline.

[5] Sheila Liming, Office (Bloomsbury Academic: 2020) , 14-15 follows Nikil Saval, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (New York: Doubleday, 2014)  in connecting today’s office spaces with medieval monastic scriptoria, though they do not make the point I am making here, which is more inspired by reflection on Mumford, Myth of the Machine, vol. 1, 263-72.

[6] See Benedict, Regula, chapters 31-4. The original of ‘To each according to need’ is interesting: Dividebatur singulis prout cuique opus erat (chapter 34) in that it literally means ‘it will be divided to each according to [what] the task of each was’ (a quite classical usage of opus as ‘need’). The items considered necessary are very few but do include writing materials: see chapter 55.

[7] Chapter 48 entitled ‘De opera manuum cotidiano’ – ‘Concerning daily manual works [opera]’ ‑  with the famous first sentence: Otiositas inimica est animae, et ideo certis temporibus occupari debent fratres in labore manuum, certis iterum horis in lectione divina (Laziness is an enemy of the soul, and therefore at certain hours the bothers must be busy at manual work [labore]; at certain other hours at holy reading’.

[8] Dominus dicit: Angusta via est quae ducit ad vitam, ut non suo arbitrio viventes vel desideriis suis et voluptatibus oboedientes, sed ambulantes alieno iudicio et imperio, in coenobiis degentes abbatem sibi praeesse desiderant … Et cum bono animo a discipulis praeberi oportet, quia hilarem datorem diligit Deus. Nam, cum malo animo si oboedit discipulus et non solum ore sed etiam in corde si murmuraverit,  etiam si impleat iussionem, tamen acceptum iam non erit Deo qui cor eius respicit murmurantem, et pro tali facto nullam consequitur gratiam; immo poenam murmurantium incurrit, si non cum satisfactione emendaverit. (Rule, Chapter 5, ‘On Obedience’ Chapter 71 explains how monks must obey one another as well as the Abbot in a strict hierarchy of command.

[9] Though her article does not explicitly explore the Regula, Jane Dawson’s ‘A History of Vocation,’ Education Quarterly 55, no 3 (2005), 220-31 is a much-cited history and critique of the violence caused by the idea of ‘vocation’ today.


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