The Virtue of Work in Human Flourishing
Reading an essay by syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, during the early days of 2015, introduced me to a small, but unusual book called the Fate of Empires and Search for Survival. The author of the book is the late Sir John Glubb, British diplomat who lived from 1897 to 1986. The Thomas essay was originally titled “America Interrupted” and first appeared in the Cal Thomas column published by the Chicago Tribune, 29 December 2014. I read it from a copy of The Intelligencer (Wheeling, WV) handed to me by a friend. The headline of the article in the Wheeling paper was “Without Duty, Decadence.”
In his essay, Cal Thomas described the “culture bomb” dropped by the Baby Boom generation in the 1960’s. The “fallout” from this, as Thomas puts it, has resulted in “two-plus generations born since the Sixties . . . infused with the notion of entitlement, victimhood, envy and greed.” He says, “History warns us what happens when empires [super nations] refuse to teach known values that strengthen societies and help protect them from enemies intent on their destruction.” As evidence in defense of his thesis, Thomas referenced the work of Sir John Glubb, reported in two essays written by this late British diplomat and first published by Blackwood’s Magazine of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1976, 1977.
Glubb’s essays are brief. However, do not think their brevity minimizes the value and rare insight of this material. It is the result of the study of the history of empires by a former commander of the Jordan Arab Legion and author of seventeen books chiefly on the Middle East. His study focused on empires (super nations) existing since the rise and fall of the Assyrian Empire 859-612 BC. The average age of these empires is 250 years. Only the Mameluke Empire exceeded with a life of 267 years. Cal Thomas, with application to the United States of America, wrote, “America is 238 [now 243] years old and is exhibiting signs of decline.” According to Thomas, “America . . . appears to have reached the age of decadence, which Glubb defines in The Fate of Empires as a period marked by “materialism, frivolity, an influx of foreigners, the welfare state, [and] a weakening of religion” (36).
I recall attending an American studies seminar on the campus of Akron University in the mid 1970’s. The focus in one of the speeches was on 22 civilizations in world history that, in their decline, had in common the following: (1) A loss of religious convictions, (2) An obsession with sex, (3) Materialism and the love of money, (4) A decline in respect for honest and hard work, (5) Law and order breakdown, and (6) A decline in citizens pursuing military service. In his second Blackwood’s essay, Glubb placed emphasis on a diagnosis of such problems as the preceding, which historically have led to the downfall of nations. He then offered a remedy for the respective problems.
One of the common characteristics Sir John Glubb concluded that all empires in decline have in common is the weakening of respect for honest and hard work. He called this a “decline in physical energy” (51). In his book, Coming Apart: The Story of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute identifies what he calls “The Founding Virtues.” These are described as “aspects of American life . . . so completely accepted as essential that, for practical purposes, you would be hard put to find an eighteenth-century founder or a nineteenth century commentator who dissented from any of them” (130). He lists these virtues as (1) industriousness, (2) honesty, (3) marriage, and (4) religiosity. Concerning the first of these four, Murray says, “If just one American virtue may be said to be defining, industriousness is probably it” (132).
In his Search for Survival essay, the Englishman Glubb affirmed the necessity of work (i.e. industriousness) as essential for the ongoing strength of a nation. He wrote: “the motto of the school at which I was educated was Labor Omnia Vincit – Work conquers everything. . . . Trade unions have undoubtedly achieved great things in Britain, but they have also largely contributed to her decline by urging their members to restrict their output. A constructive outlook necessitates hard work, increased production and an energetic policy of expansion. . . . We need constructive leaders who can rouse the nation to new energy and enthusiasm, as did Winston Churchill in his 1940 speech to the British people, when he told them that he had ‘nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’ Politicians who seek votes by promising the electors more money cannot supply positive leadership. Human beings can only be roused to enthusiasm by a clarion call to service and sacrifice for a noble cause” (51-52). Cf. Nehemiah 4:6; Matthew 20:20-28, et al.
The truth is that business economics, government, politics, etc. do not have the power to instill in the human spirit the absolute meaning and purpose needed to develop awareness and respect for work that results in humans flourishing in the ultimate sense. Robert George explains, “Business cannot manufacture honest, hard working people to employ. Nor can government create them by law. Businesses and governments . . . must rely on the family, assisted by religious communities and other institutions of civil society, to produce them” (6).
Ultimately, the biblical worldview with the eternal purpose of God as its center, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ, provides unique meaning and resulting motivation for humans to work. The following summation from an article in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology implies the way in which honorable work can be seen as a virtue and a powerful constituent element in human flourishing. Its ultimate contribution is in the conjunction it has with the work of God in Christ, the Redeemer, which means our labor is not in vain!
. . . Genesis 2:15 has Adam placed in the garden “to work it and take care of it” (NIV), evidently as part of the dominion mandate in Genesis 1:26-28. . . . [M]ost interpreters understand the verse as a directive to cultivate the garden and keep . . . it. Work is intrinsic to created human existence, reflecting the divine pattern of work and rest. A fundamentally positive view of work, including manual labour, is thus presupposed. (In the NT see Acts 20:34; 1 Thess. 4:11; 2 Thess. 3:6-13). . . .
The curse of Genesis 3:17-19 introduces a new phase of human work. The original couple’s task (Gen. 2:15), evidently continuous with the earlier mandate (Gen. 1:28), takes on a new urgency (as they seek to survive in the face of certain death to come), which is coupled with the unprecedented experience of pain, difficulty, fruitlessness and recalcitrance. . . . Manual work itself is not made an evil, nor the positive aspects of work (e.g. the enjoyment it can give) denied. Rather, a realistic view is taken of the experiences of painful toil and futility that have been characteristic of human existence ever since. Even at its best, work is bittersweet; this serves as a constant reminder of Genesis 2-3. . . .
. . .[H]opelessness is the result of the curse of the fall without recourse to God’s redemption. . . . [R]eal focus is on the value of a God-centred life over against the meaninglessness that results if life is centred elsewhere. . . .
There are references to mundane human work in the NT: to the occupations of Jesus and his disciples; in Jesus’ parables; in the Baptist’s preaching; and in Paul’s practice and teaching. Mundane work is to be used in the service of the word (Acts 18:3; 1 Cor. 4:12; 7:29-31; 9:15-18; 2 Cor. 11:7-12; 12:14-15; 1 Thess. 4:11-12; 2 Thess. 3:6-13; 1 Tim. 5:13-16; cf. Eph. 4:28). The work of God and the work of redeemed humanity thus converge and move toward a common goal (John 5:17; Matt. 6:19-34). Such labour will not be in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). (Laansma 727-29)
“Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom by glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20-21, NKJ).
Glubb, Sir John. The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival. Glubb, 2002.
Laansma, J. C. “Rest.” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 2000.
Murray, Charles. Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. New York: Crown Forum, 2012.
Stoner, James R., Jr., and Harold James, eds. The Thriving Society: On the Social Conditions of Human Flourishing. Princeton: Witherspoon, 2015.