One might think that the word “industry” is of modern coinage. Ours is the time of heavy industry, the Industrial Average, and the Military-Industrial complex. We live in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. And yet its Latin cousin, industria, is very old. Cicero refers, for instance, to his own industria in writing, to how someone’s inborn genius was nourished by industria, or the industria that someone showed in undertaking a long voyage.
The etymologists say it comes from a prefix indicating something within a man, joined to a root that variously has the sense of causing, ordering, arranging, equipping, using a method. Curiously this root means both instigating something and a certain resourcefulness in finding the means for its fulfillment. Industry is something within a man, which shows itself in his starting things and then bringing them to completion, deliberately and methodically with foresight.
What’s recent is how we’ve externalized the term and make it stand for the physical effects of someone’s industry, the “Captains of Industry” as we call them. Industry for us is not the entrepreneur’s risk-taking or the engineer’s development of a workable plan, but the sprawling factory and maybe its pollution too.
And let’s not forget the workers in an assembly line or laboring in tandem with machines in regulated processes within the factory. Industry for us is externalized also insofar as we take the industry and productivity of workers to be the effect of structures that make them active.
Certainly few passages in the canon of our literature and science are as magnificent and important as Adam Smith’s attention to the division of labor at the start of Wealth of Nations. Dividing labor is in three ways the origin of our superabundant productivity and wealth, he says there. People who concentrate on single tasks can do them better and more quickly. Also, when labor is segmented, we can see more clearly how it can be aided or even replaced by machines. But thirdly, no time is wasted in someone’s moving from one task to another and then another.
This third reason I think proves to be the most important for him, in the sense that it is the sole reason that bears upon human character and not merely efficiency. Wealth of Nations is not Smith’s ethical treatise (that is rather his Theory of the Moral Sentiments). But when, in passing, he shows concern for character, he attacks theft and fraud – which clearly undermine contracts – but also “indolence.”
“The habit of sauntering and of indolent careless application, which is naturally, or rather necessarily acquired by every country workman who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different ways almost every day of his life; renders him almost always slothful and lazy, and incapable of any vigorous application even on the most pressing occasions,” he comments.
Then, divide the labor, calibrate it to a clock, make it so that someone else is producing items that he must assemble or finish and then pass on to someone else. And the result is that all occasions for everyone become “pressing,” and no person in this chain ever ceases to be “vigorous.” Voilà! — the indolent careless application of each has been transformed into industry.
That a Scotsman might suppose this, in a Calvinist culture which presumed that the mere absence of toil likely indicated vice, and that if we were saved it was by predestination, is not surprising. But it probably wasn’t until Charlie Chaplain’s Depression-era film Modern Times that the moral superiority of this view was debunked in the American public’s mind. For now “industry” is a contradiction in terms and, given that it’s no longer “within” but outside us, should be called “exostry.”
People have tried to trace back the proverb, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” to the Bible. Without success. No verse is quite its source. Its true source seems to be St. Jerome via Chaucer. In his 125th letter, St. Jerome advises Rusticus, a young monk, “Always have some work on hand, that the devil may find you busy.”
But this is in the context of general advice for avoiding impurity. Rusticus should not live with his mother, because “in a house where there are so many girls you will see in the daytime sights that will tempt you at night.”
Therefore, “Never take your hand [!] or your eyes off your book; learn the psalms word for word, pray without ceasing, love the knowledge of scripture, and you will no longer love the sins of the flesh.”
And then, “always have some work on hand,” and, if you think it’s holy to despise work, you are wrong because even the Apostles worked, when they had a right to live off gifts.
“Make creels of reeds or weave baskets out of pliant osiers,” the saint says; set up beehives, cultivate fruit trees, work at fishing. “In Egypt the monasteries make it a rule to receive none who are not willing to work; for they regard labor as necessary not only for the support of the body but also for the salvation of the soul.”
The source of activity for a Christian should be love of Christ. Charity is our industry. Even the activity of a slave (doulos, softened in modern translations as “servant”), apparently compelled from without, may be transformed by a Christian into something performed from within, even, something one might do anyway.
Absent of charity, so-called industry risks being no more than a clanging cymbal (1 Cor 13:1) – today, the industry too of the helicoptered student and the ladder-climber in a profession.
But industria also stands on its own as a distinct virtue in the Catholic tradition, as a part of prudence, typically translated as “diligence,” “zeal,” or “application.” Its proper object, Aquinas says, is not the remedy of bodily needs but rather both initiative and persistent method in seeking first the Kingdom and His righteousness. (Mt 6:33)
*Image: Dom Bernardo Vincelli and monks, c. 1510, creating Bénédictine herbal liqueur at the Abbey of the Holy Trinity in Fécamp [Palais Bénédictine, Normandy, France]. The label on a bottle of Bénédictine includes the letters D.O.M. for Deo Optimo Maximo (“God, most good, most great”). The liqueur was developed by a 19th-century wine merchant named Alexander Le Grand; the story of its creation by medieval monks is . . . questionable.
Prof. Pakaluk’s Redeeming the Time the Christian Way
Stephen P. White’s The Gardening Animal