Friday, June 8, 2012

American Industry -- our central ethic

an essay about how America makes industry a central virtue.


American Industry (part 1)

                Industry is an American virtue, not that it is only her virtue and nobody else's, but that she makes it central. The first settlers to our country were of necessity industrious, as they were civilizing the frontier, and lacked an anciently established and rich world to support their efforts. Most of the early settlers died. Those that survived of the Puritans made sloth a serious if not capital offense.

                Benjamin Franklin, whose autobiography is the earliest important biography of America describes himself as well as the country as he praises his own industriousness in the none to modest assessment of his success. His wife is praised because she also was industrious and frugal, and of the thirteen virtues he made as central to his moral system, Industry and Frugality are central.

                "Industry and Frugality are the means for procuring Wealth and thereby securing virtue, it being more difficult for a Man in want to act always honestly, just as it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright." The man thought in aphorisms and proverbs, and his Poor Richard's almanac abounded in various forms of admonition to work hard and spend little. "I considered Industry as a means of obtaining wealth and distinction," he explained, recalling that his father had instructed since he was a toddler to work hard.

                Franklin made attempts at a One World Religion, a "Party for Virtue," which he called "The Society of the Free and Easy," whose explicit aversion was debt, and whose most prominent virtues of the 13 each member was to practice were of course Industry and Frugality. As Franklin understood the virtues to be habits of which anybody can attain through diligence -- much as William James would explain habits in his Principles of Psychology -- hard work was more than a way of life, it was the way to heaven. Unfortunately for his One World Religion, Franklin said he was too busy with work to actually establish it, and hoped somebody someday would get it going. He himself found Sunday study more sacred than church, and seldom joined any organized religion, but was too preoccupied with business to establish a religion of his own.

                Thoreau, who was haunted his whole life by railroad trains, who found him out in every nook to trouble his sleep, was a great critic of industry, viewing it as no assurance that the work being so attentively accomplishes was worth doing in the first place. "One might as well spend all day pushing rocks back and forth over a fence" he said in regard to the busy business of his fellow Americans, a busy atmosphere he counted the enemy of philosophy and poetry. His essay "Life without principle" is an outright critique of Franklin's Autobiography, though he may not have known it himself, and it certainly provided a commentary on the limits of industry. Thoreau himself preferred to reverse the Sabbath, taking six days of rest to one day of work. He was, nevertheless, respectful of diligence if the work were worthy and if it were done for love instead of for money.

                This critique of American industry reinforces even when it challenges the ethic of his master, Emerson, whose essay on Wealth from The Conduct of Life remains as vital and fecund as when it was first written. Emerson, who is capable of giving a full view of a matter, and sees through any sympathy to one side, manages to balance out his transcendentalism with a keen business sense, identify the laws of commerce as version of the laws of nature, and the laws of nature as images of the spiritual laws.

Some are born to own, and can animate all their possessions. Others cannot: their owning is not graceful; seems to be a compromise of their character: they seem to steal their own dividends. They should own who can administer; not they who hoard and conceal; not they who, the greater proprietors they are, are only the greater beggards, but they whose work carves out work for more, opens a path for all. For he is the rich man in whom the people are rich, and he is the poor man in whom the people are poor: and how to give all access to the masterpieces of art and nature is the problem of civilization.

                Money is moral. It is a barometer of morals, and the making of money is the making of character. Blessed are the rich, when they've earned their keep. They are the true benefactors of the world. It is not those who beg and plead who make a nation great, but they who work and teach and allow others to do the same.

                Mormonism, which along with Pentecostalism, Scientology, and New Ageism is America's original faith identifies itself with the symbol of the honey hive. God is not the creator, but the organizer of matter, for matter is eternal, and what is divine is organizing nature, organizing groups, organizing the church, which Jesus himself came to do: the family is the basic unit of society, and bachelors can't reach the highest heaven. Husbandry is divinity and the greatest virtue in this age and the next is industry. The imprint of the American spirit can clearly be seen in Smith's writings and teachings, and the group has become collectively the second richest organization in the world, after the Catholic Church.

                Beyond the realm of faith and its feelings, William James managed to spiritualize the idea of industry with his concept of pragmatism, which saw truth in terms of their cash value, and find the use of truth to set us to work. As he and Dewy agreed, truth are the ideas by which we practice and work; wisdom is known by her fruit. This reconfiguration of the philosophical idea of Truth itself as something known by use (truth is use) makes the concept of work, activity, industry among the highest of concepts.

                Even our prejudices refer back to this basic American virtue. If we are to negatively stereotype a race -- blacks or Hispanics -- it will be in terms of their laziness and unwillingness to work. In order to portray somebody as "not one of us," we resort not to their faith, and what they believe, but to their works, what they do. It is un-American, after all, to be lazy.

                But as we've seen in the case of Franklin, our spiritual ambitions can be swallowed up with an overallegience to industry, and throughout Europe, the great works of art were often inspired by the leisure class -- this is certainly true with philosophy. Money may be moral, but what if one wants to be like Thoreau, live in simplicity and poverty and commune with nature and nature alone? Is it any wonder that Thoreau took the Native American as an ideal type, and that the ethic of the Natives is also a living tradition in our public discourse? For work is a communal effort, but as Emerson states, one goes into solitude to commune with the divine. A man alone with himself is finally in the presence of God.

                There must be a nature limit, then, to industry and frugality, a check and balance against it, something to stabilize the nation and keep our aspirations to the eye at the top of industry's pyramid, to keep us seeking our final frontier, to making new worlds, cyber worlds, space missions. This virtue is considered the cornerstone virtue to the Native Americans: silence. To go alone, to think alone. Independence, then, is our central virtue, and after that, creativity, till finally industry, pragmatism, and practicality surround that as a final layer, to balance it. Before a man works, he must have something to work for, some deep purpose coming from the eternal center of his being, that Aboriginal Self, that was never created and always existed. Communing with the Innermost, while communing with the All as the outermost, this independence of spirit is the gravity, the agent, the control over our intense industry. At a man's centermost he is an eternal increase: it is at his periphery that he works his soul into the world soul. Work is centered on Self, and that Self of Needs gives order, direction, definition, and limits to all things, balances this against that, let's a man, after all, relax.




\ ~@M@~ /


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