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Our academic age celebrates the critic more than the creator. One finds this represented in our most discussed theory of the past few decades—critical theory. Contemporary academics tend to look with suspicion upon entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk. This academic tendency is not unusual for this age though. Academic critics during the Industrial Revolution exhibited some of the same suspicion of the burgeoning industrial creativity going on around them. Yet, Christian academics could learn from their grudging celebration of those who work and build.

The critics Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin and the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson were all, in their own way, opposed to the Industrial Revolution out of which Victorianism was born. They found the Victorian focus on empiricism and utilitarianism, with its reductive categories and narrow conception of man, to be distasteful and deficient. While Carlyle called for a mystical overthrow of the tyranny of soulless facts and Ruskin for an aesthetic revolt against the anti-human perfectionism of the assembly line, Tennyson yearned for a return to Romantic feeling, individualism, and communion with nature.

And yet, despite their critiques, they could not help but celebrate and identify with the Victorian spirit of progress that was so strong a force in their age. It was as if man’s innate desire and vocation to build had spread throughout the nation, releasing an energy that can be felt in most of the great Victorian writers. Our age has not brought an end to profound income inequality in business, the exploitation and denigration of workers, or the commodification of all aspects of life. Still, together with Carlyle, Ruskin, and Tennyson, I believe it is vital that we defend work and the mandate to build and shape our world as good and godly things.

Carlyle’s Gospel of Work

In Past and Present, a book about the plight of the working (and unemployed) poor in England, Carlyle, in his inimitable style, champions a religion of work that is not so much about “works religion” as it is about our need to bring order out of chaos:

Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness. He has a work, a life-purpose; he has found it, and will follow it! How, as a free-flowing channel, dug and torn by noble force through the sour mud-swamp of one’s existence, like an ever-deepening river there, it runs and flows;—draining-off the sour festering water, gradually from the root of the remotest grass-blade; making, instead of pestilential swamp, a green fruitful meadow with its clear-flowing stream. How blessed for the meadow itself, let the stream and its value be great or small! Labour is Life: from the inmost heart of the Worker rises his god-given Force, the sacred celestial Life-essence breathed into him by Almighty God; from his inmost heart awakens him to all nobleness,—to all knowledge, “self-knowledge” and much else, so soon as Work fitly begins. Knowledge? The knowledge that will hold good in working, cleave thou to that; for Nature herself accredits that, says Yea to that. Properly thou hast no other knowledge but what thou hast got by working: the rest is yet all a hypothesis of knowledge; a thing to be argued of in schools, a thing floating in the clouds, in endless logic-vortices, till we try it and fix it. “Doubt, of whatever kind, can be ended by Action alone.” (Book III, Chapter 11)

For some people, their job is merely that: something they do to make money for themselves and their families. For others, their job is their career: something they trained for, identify with, and take pleasure in doing apart from the money they make. Carlyle’s vision of work comes closer to the latter, but he then takes it to a higher level.

For Carlyle, our work is our life-purpose:  to be blessed and to be a blessing to others. To accept and enact that purpose is to unleash a mighty river with the power to wash clean the corruption of the world and to bring growth and fecundity where there was once corruption and stagnation. When we work, when we build, we allow ourselves to become a conduit of celestial life and divine force. Work channels knowledge into action, bringing it alive so it may revive and restore.

Playing off James’s assertion that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20), Carlyle turns work itself into the highest form of religion:

“Religion,” I said; for, properly speaking, all true Work is Religion: and whatsoever Religion is not Work may go and dwell among the Brahmins, Antinomians, Spinning Dervishes, or where it will; with me it shall have no harbour. Admirable was that of the old Monks, “Laborare est Orare, Work is Worship.”

Older than all preached Gospels was this unpreached, inarticulate, but ineradicable, forever-enduring Gospel: Work, and therein have wellbeing. Man, Son of Earth and of Heaven, lies there not, in the innermost heart of thee, a Spirit of active Method, a Force for Work;—and burns like a painfully-smouldering fire, giving thee no rest till thou unfold it, till thou write it down in beneficent Facts around thee! What is immethodic, waste, thou shalt make methodic, regulated, arable; obedient and productive to thee. Wheresoever thou findest Disorder, there is thy eternal enemy; attack him swiftly, subdue him; make Order of him, the subject not of Chaos, but of Intelligence, Divinity and Thee! The thistle that grows in thy path, dig it out, that a blade of useful grass, a drop of nourishing milk, may grow there instead. The waste cotton-shrub, gather its waste white down, spin it, weave it; that, in place of idle litter, there may be folded webs, and the naked skin of man be covered. (chapter 12)

Carlyle’s gospel of work, grounded in the stewardship mandate of Genesis 1, forsakes the fatalism of the East and the anti-matter, anti-body ethos of Western Gnosticism to advocate for what the Victorians liked to call muscular Christianity. The best form of worship is that which converts chaos into order, waste into use.

Our inner drive to work and to build stands against all that is muddled, lawless, and unregulated. We are compelled by the spirit and the force within us to impose system and uniformity upon a world that lacks method and symmetry. Man as Builder mimics the creative activity of God (Genesis 1), a creativity that includes both the fashioning of new forms (heavenly bodies, animals, man and woman) and the shaping of raw, intransigent matter (the deep, darkness, the waters). Disorder and anarchy are the enemies that our passion to build must conquer—and not just conquer, but transform, as “waste cotton-shrub” can be transformed into clothing for the body.

While political, economic, racial, and sexual power play a role in the choices of individuals and the destinies of nations, they do not play the major role. We are a restless species, eager to subdue the chaos and bring life to the waste places. Some build with concrete, others with laws and customs, and others with words. Any of us can become a tyrant with a will to dominate and suppress, but we more often work to bring at least the rudiments of order into the microcosms of our homes, our businesses, our communities, our places of worship, and sometimes even ourselves.

That is not to say that we should surrender ourselves to what Joseph Pieper called a regime of total work. God built into us, and his creation, a rhythm of constructive work and Sabbatarian rest. Our Creator did not mean us to be defined solely by work; indeed, God himself rested on the seventh day as both a pattern for we who work and rest and as a prophecy of the final rest that awaits us (see Hebrews 4:1-11 for the promise of a Sabbath-rest to those who put their faith in the gospel). Still, we would do well to be reminded that work is a good thing and that, though it can be abused and even become idolatrous, it is an integral part of who we are as creatures made in the image of God.

Tomorrow, I shall discuss what John Ruskin and Alfred, Lord Tennyson can teach us about the importance of work and the mandate laid upon us to build, shape, and order.

Louis Markos

Houston Baptist University
Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Christian University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his 26 books include From Plato to Christ, The Myth Made Fact, Heaven and Hell, and Pressing Forward: Alfred, Lort Tennyson and the Victorian Age. His Passing the Torch: An Apology for Classical Christian Education and From Aristotle to Christ are due out in 2024 and 2025, respectively.