The Story of Work 6: Aquinas and High Medieval Christianity

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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 opus, or praxis with poiesis and you are starting here, 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.


We saw last week how St Benedict’s Rule proposed a disciplined daily rhythm for work that combined physical with contemplative activities, action with ‘theory,’ and confused (probably deliberately) labor with opus to undermine the status difference in classical Latin between the two terms. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas (1225 –1274) developed this thinking about work and, in so doing, lent it what Adriano Tilgher a century ago called ‘the highest doctrinal formulation.’[1]

Given the continuing stature of Aquinas for Christian doctrine, there have been several recent attempts to integrate his writings into today’s debates about work and economics. It’s for that reason, rather than because Aquinas adds much new to Benedict’s or Augustine’s ideas about work, that it is worth devoting an episode of The Story of Work to him. Some of these recent reflections have been ethically and religiously driven,[2] while others have raided Aquinas for his authority more to promote their own economic and political views than radical enquiry. They have thereby created some misconceptions. It is these latter that worry me and why I wrote this episode.

The business academic Robert McGee has, for example, claimed that Aquinas anticipated in some ways Adam Smith’s division of labour. That sounds innocuous until one realises that it suggests that the division of labour and the free market are somehow God-given and therefore the natural order of things.[3] In order to prove his point, McGee quoted translated passages from Aquinas’s most focussed engagement with the concept of work, the Quaestiones Quodlibet VII [“Various Questions,” Book 7). But reading the entirety of Quaestio VII, especially in Latin rather than in translation, and placing it in the tradition of Christian theology and Aquinian thought in general, one quickly realises that Aquinas actually had a very different argument from anything that capitalism might propose. It is the Quaestio VII and its mental gymnastics that I therefore focus on here. I have to say that I found them a lot of fun to read (yes seriously! Aquinas is so simple to follow and so witty, always wryly observant of contradiction and complexity communicated in a plain style – very different from the ornate and involved sentences and arguments of Augustine!).

First, I want to point out the rather obvious point that the ‘division of labour’ (a term Aquinas does not use either in Latin or in a correct translation) that McGee sees has nothing whatsoever to do with the quasi-atomic analysis of bodily movement needed for efficient production. All Aquinas does is acknowledge the need for different kinds of activity categorised as the spiritual (in the vita contemplativa) and the corporeal (in the vita activa). In the passage that McGee quotes, Aquinas is actually arguing the unsurprising point that manual labor is necessary to sustain the life of the body just as acts of virtue are necessary to sustain the spiritual life.

For one man is not enough to perform everything that human society demands; and thus different people are needed to perform different duties [officia], as it is says in Romans 12:4-6: for just as we have many members in one body, so we many are one in Christ…. This diversification of men into different duties depends first on divine Providence which accordingly distributes the states of men so that nothing necessary to life may be found lacking, and second on natural causes as a result of which there result in various men various inclinations to various offices, or to various ways of living. [4]

This is very different from Adam Smith’s famous description of the division of labour in the manufacture of pins that I shall quote in a later post. Much more important in this passage are:

  1. the stress on duty – officium. We saw in Cicero how important this term was. Usually translated as ‘duty’ or, indeed, as ‘office,’ officium is an action or a set of actions that serves to benefit a community. Thus in Cicero it is the officium of a ruler to act so as to ensure the material happiness of the people; in Augustine it is the officium of a ruler to ensure the people’s spiritual benefit (which means happiness after death).
  2. By the time of Aquinas, it was a standard Christian notion that it was (inalterable) divine Providence, aided by ‘natural causes’ (themselves manifestations of Providence) that was the origin of the different types of work and of people suitable for them: one’s own will could not change this. This was a manifestation of the earthly human condition of slavery: one’s freedom lay in choosing whether or not to accept and love that condition, not in deciding whether you wanted to be a banker, prince or baker.
  3. Any ‘division of labour’ (such as it is) in Aquinas was inherited ultimately from the Greeks, the division lying in the difference between the vita activa and the vita contemplativa, the latter being concerned with the intellectual contemplation of God (theoria) and the former with bodily activity (except see below!).
St Thomas Aquinas at prayer (i.e. contemplating the divine in the vita contemplativa) as imagined by the Siennese painter Sassetta c. 1423-5, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

Then again, work of either kind is not necessary for everyone to eb considered a valid – saveable – human being. A read of the first part of Quaestio VII shows us that Aquinas is 100% clear that manual labor is not always necessary for everyone all the time. It isn’t for the weak, or for anyone when machines can do the job – as centres of learning, monasteries were unsurprisingly also centres of technological innovation, especially in milling, and it’s clear that Aquinas was no Luddite avant la lettre.[5] The community should, instead, look after all those who need care. Exactly as in Benedict’s Rule, Aquinas is promoting a community of care where caritas (love) is primary, not work or productivity: as we have seen before, work is only the earthly manifestation of caritas. Work may be a sign of subjection and sin, but it is also a sign filled with love. God is a worker: a potter who made people out of mud.

Then, taking us back to the Roman hierarchy of labor versus opus that had been ignored or undermined in Benedict’s Rule, the very next section (Quaestio VII.2) painstakingly distinguishes between the superior opera spiritualia [spiritual works] and the more menial labor manuum [manual work] – the essential ingredients of the vita contemplativa and the vita activa respectively. The conclusion is that

‘… those who practice spiritual opera and are able to live rightly other than by manual labor are not bound to work with their hands. Manual work, we are told, impedes study.’[6]

So far this fits in well with the very established position of intellectual activity (theoria and opera generated by poiesis) over bodily, a hierarchy that had been established by Plato 1600 years earlier. That the beatific contemplation of God (theoria) requires otium – the leisure of the philosopher, not work ‑ is how Aquinas’s evaluation of work is usually understood.[7] This places Aquinas in a conservative position, replicating Plato’s point about how freedom means freedom from necessary work (not freedom through work).

However, this point of view is both true and mistaken, for again, we need to read the whole passage. It is true in that very soon after that discussion in Questio VII.2, spiritual opera (i.e. not physical labores) slide into spiritual eleemosina – alms, good works – which refer (in this passage) to preaching and spiritual work amongst a congregation. In making the connection between alms and preaching, the passage refers, though repeated verbal forms of the noun benefacentia (e.g. bene faciunt – literall, ‘they do well’), to Aristotle’s Nichomachaean Ethics in which the virtue of ‘beneficence’ is a key concern. Aquinas’s readers would know well that the Nichomachaean Ethics is a key text for his thinking on love and would recognise the allusions. [8] Again, so far so expected.

Yet towards the end of the passage, in a quasi-deconstructive twist to Aquinas’s whole argument, opus, hitherto associated with spiritual work, suddenly replaces labor in connection with manual work, and the spiritual life as manifested by preaching is defined as part of the vita activa, becoming therefore by implication labor. The meanings and hierarchies of the two terms are effectively reversed, not ignored as in Benedict’s Rule:

To be said in the eighth place is that by action we understand not only things made by hand [opus], but everything which pertains to the active life. The concern which is exhibited by preachers for those to whom they preach belongs to the active life.[9]

To recollect earlier characterisation of this term, opus in classical Latin (ergon in classical Greek) referred fundamentally to craft work and its results: the transformation of inert matter into something that could be sold or which was useful – we saw how buildings and fortifications were opera for example. When accomplished in a spiritual state opus became poiesis – the creation of a work of art inspired by the gods and the work of art itself. Here, preaching is absorbed into opus modified by poiesis. Recollecting the Biblical idea of God as potter I referred to above, the material work of preaching in the vita activa is the divinely-inspired moulding of souls into what is spiritually useful. As in the divinely-inspired artist, the preacher is a conduit from the heavenly to the material perceptions of the audience. But to become an effective conduit, the preacher must also be alert to the needs and capacities of the audience. Preachers must then care for their congregation, get to understand and appreciate them. This emotional engagement (Aquinas calls it sollecitudo – solicitude) also belongs to the vita activa.

To us today, the definition of preachers’ emotional engagement (sollecitudo) with their congregation as part of the vita activa might seem a prefiguration of what Arlie Hochschild will term ‘emotional labour.’[10] While in some senses that is true, in others there is not such a clear line of descent. The air hostesses and other public-facing service workers that Hochschild and others describe as managing our emotions do so for financial recompense. Their smiles may be as fake as Augustine’s stage miracles but on the whole we do not care as long as they do the job and are paid for it: the fundamental reality for us is the relationship which is ‘wage labour.’ We have paid for the emotional labourers to manage our emotions.

Aquinas, while admitting the social importance of business and that religious people can engage in it without sin, is unambiguous that it is not wage labour that is the ultimate reality. As we have seen in the previous two posts on Augustine and Benedict, for Christianity (at least until relatively recently) the ultimate bonum (‘reward’ or ‘good’) of ‘work,’ whether labor or opus, manual, commercial or spiritual, must be heaven; working for all other ends is malum (‘evil’).[11]

This is much more important than any hierarchy of kinds of work, claims about division of labour avant la lettre or indeed differences between work and ‘leisure’ (otium), or the vita activa and vita contemplativa.

In any case, according to Aquinas, to achieve its aim, contemplation of the divine, the vita contemplativa requires metaphorical labor (again a classical usage) in what medieval scholastics came to call the ‘liberal arts’ – the seven arts of grammar, rhetoric, dialectics, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. The name ‘liberal arts’ is important because the knowledge they resulted in what was, despite the effort they demanded, without exchange value in the mundane world and were as a result liberated from the demands of earthly utility or exchange.[12] The vita contemplativa was not empty leisure but required its own kind of hard work, different in material kind from labor in the fields, but united to it in free spiritual purpose. It was, in its pure form, free – liberated from earthly constraints, relationships and necessities. This is exactly what we saw described in the Greek philosophers as theorein. But, as we have seen before in the Christian tradition, whereas for the Greeks, kinds of labour were classed according to kinds of people, activities are classed as themselves: anyone can do them. Even contemplation, for Aquinas, can only be temporary on earth as it requires labor to enable it.

While (as we shall see in later posts) some historians claim that working hard was not valorised before the rise of the Protestant ethic, that is not quite true either. Aquinas is explicit about how a love of labor for its own sake is not in itself evil: as with Benedict and Ambrose, it is the reason why one works that is important. Working hard in order to acquire earthly riches for oneself is always sinful (Quaestiones XVII.3). While Aquinas happily follows the classical and Christian traditions in excoriating greed, his justification for it adds a twist. A desire for acquisition, writes Aquinas, leads to attachment to earthly goods, which in turn leads to a fear of losing them in death, and that fear of loss damages faith that in death will come the ultimate gain of eternal life where loss is irrelevant.

The division of labour as it will be defined by Adam Smith has (as we shall see) productivity and ‘betterment’ as its prime mover: for Aquinas and the other Church Fathers the prime mover is always salvation. To repeat a point made in a previous post, soteriology (how to achieve salvation) and not economics govern the dominant theology of this period, and hence thinking about work.

Bishop Arundel preaching, image from Jean Creton, Histoire rimée de Richard II (1401 with later additions) British Library, MS Harley 1319, folio 12.
For the whole manuscript, see http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1319

If this post fundamentally repeats the same view that I assigned to Augustine and Benedict, it is not only to show how Aquinas has been misconstrued and appropriated for certain politico-economic purposes but also because, by the thirteenth century, Aquinas’s very insistence and the length of his argument to prove what was an already very firmly established point suggests an anxiety that cupiditas – greed, intemperate desire – was really more common than it should be. Aquinas is writing in the position of a ruler, offering and promoting what he sees as good praxis. As as we saw in the episode on the Greeks, teaching and ruling are closely connected. As a wise gubernator, helmsman, pilot, governor, Aquinas is seeking to teach and thereby guide to the greater good.

Like Plato, Cicero and Augustine, Aquinas’s writing about work comprises a utopian ideal very different from actual practice, but nonetheless profoundly influential on our thinking. Monasteries in material reality may have been venal, profit-driven, exploitative, cruel, snobbish, power-hungry, [13] and Aquinas himself was (to my mind) rather unlikely to have been the cause of the miracles his hagiography suggests, even if any of them occurred at all.

Next week, indeed, we shall look at contemporary developments in the textual traces of secular practice that will seem rather more familiar to us than appeals and exhortations to contemplate divine happiness.

Return to Introduction.


[1] ‘La píu alta formulazione dottrinale,’ Tilgher, Storia, 49. Where incomplete bibliographical documentation is given in these notes, that means that the full references can be found in the annotated bibliography here.

[2] Mary L. Hirschfeld, Aquinas and the Market: Towards a Humane Economy (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2018) and John Hughes, The End of Work: Theological Critiques of Capitalism (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007), for example, are profoundly serious attempts to reframe economics and work in theological and ethical contexts.

[3] Robert W. McGee , ‘Thomas Aquinas: A Pioneer in the Field of Law & Economics.’ Western State University Law Review 18, No. 1 (1990), 471-483.

[4] Praeterea, labor manualis, necessarius est ad sustentationem vitae corporalis, sicut actus virtutum sunt necessarii ad sustentationem vitae spiritualis. Sed actus virtutum sunt in praecepto. Ergo et laborare manibus.

Non enim sufficeret unus homo ad exercenda omnia quibus humana societas indiget; et ideo diversis officiis oportet occupari diversos, ut dicitur ad Rom., XII, 4-6: sicut enim in uno corpore multa membra habemus, omnia autem membra non eumdem actum habent: ita multi unum corpus sumus in Christo, singuli autem alter alterius membra; habentes autem donationes secundum gratiam quae data est nobis, differentes. Haec autem diversificatio hominum in diversis officiis contingit primo ex divina providentia, quae ita hominum status distribuit, ut nihil unquam deesse inveniatur de necessariis ad vitam; secundo etiam ex causis naturalibus, ex quibus contingit quod in diversis hominibus sunt diversae inclinationes ad diversa officia, vel ad diversos modos vivendi. (Quaestiones Quodlibet VII, q. 7 a. 1 arg. 6, https://www.corpusthomisticum.org/q07.html)

[5] Mumford, Myth of the Machine, vol. 1, 267-72.

[6] qui spiritualia opera exercent, et possunt alias licite vivere quam de labore manuum, non tenentur manibus laborare (Aquinas, Quaestiones quodlibetales VII, q. 7 a. 2 ad 2. (https://www.corpusthomisticum.org/q07.html)

[7] See e.g. Hughes, End of Work, 165.

[8] For the importance of Aquinas’s relation to the Nicomachaean Ethics, see Tobias Hoffmann, Jörn Müller, and Matthias Perkams (eds.), Aquinas and the Nicomachean Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); specifically on beneficence in Aquinas as it relates to the Nicomachaean Ethics, see Antony T. Flood, The Metaphysical Foundations of Love: Aquinas on Participation, Unity, and Union (Michigan, NE; CUA Press, 2018), 59-62. The reason I stress non-nominal forms of the terms, and indeed make the intertextual connection to the Nicomachaean Ethics at all is because a simple word search in a digital version of the text would not bring them up, and a translator would almost certainly not register or be concerned to translate them so as to bring out such a connection. This attention to the limitations of digitisation is fundamental to the BLT19 project as a whole: see here for further comments on BLT19 and digitisation.

[9] Aquinas, Quaestiones Quodlibet VII, q. 7 a. 1 Ad octavum dicendum, quod per actionem intelligitur ibi non solum opus manuale, sed omnia quae ad activam vitam pertinent. Sollicitudo autem quae exhibetur a praedicatoribus circa eos quibus praedicant, ad activam vitam pertinent. (Aquinas, Quaestiones Quodlibet VII, q. 7 a. 1. https://www.corpusthomisticum.org/q07.html )

[10] Arlie Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley UP, 1983).

[11] Cf. Aquinas, Quaestiones de veritate, 17 articulus 3 (https://www.corpusthomisticum.org/sth3017.html)

[12] Hughes, End of Work, 165.

[13] Castel, From Manual Workers, 20-5 for example is instructive of what the ‘social mandate of the Church’ to administer assistance meant in practice. Adam Smith (as we shall see) read the activities of the monasteries in a similar way. For more on the realities of medieval work, see also Castel, From Manual Workers, chapters 2 and 3; Applebaum, Concept of Work, part 2; Jacques Le Goff, Time Work and Culture in the Middle Ages, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

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