“What is life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?”1 What do we mean, and what did previous generations mean, when we speak of seeking a work/life balance? Do we see ourselves as Pilgrims or Customers?
In the years leading up to the eighteenth century, Englishmen indulged themselves by asking profound questions. These were serious-minded, self-sufficient working men and women who knew their bibles well but who remained deeply dismayed, as had been their parents, at the failure of the Puritans in the years after the Civil War to create a more equitable, ‘Christ-like’ society. They seemed caught up in a voyage without a rudder. An average of two hundred people a week, seeking to start all over again, risked the perils of sailing to America in ships with little more space than a London double-decker bus2. John Bunyan caught the mood of this confused people and, with the publication of Pilgrim’s Progress3 in 1678, turned the ordinary Englishman’s life from an uncertain journey into an eternal personal pilgrimage. Within four years more than a hundred thousand copies were sold. Pilgrim’s Progress was to remain the second most widely read book in the English language until the beginning of the twentieth century.
Why was Pilgrim’s Progress so influential? Bunyan literally provided ‘everyman’ with a colloquial story whose values they could live by and on which they could model their own lives. And vast numbers of ordinary Englishmen did just that. Who could fail to empathise with Pilgrim as he attempted to reach the House Beautiful on the Delectable Mountain, bypass Vanity Fair, and make his way through the Valley of the Shadow of Death? Readers readily identified their own rucksacks of worldly goods, and smelt the stench of the Slough of Despond. Millions of people subsequently have reframed their lives as pilgrims, so regaining the dignity of being ‘choice-makers’ in their own lives. So powerful was Bunyan’s characterisation that we would instantly recognise a Mr. Worldly-wise or Mr. Valiant-for-Truth in the street. Many are the generations that have subsequently looked out upon a crowd and said to themselves ‘ah, I know you ─ you are Mr. Enmity or Mr. Hate-Light. Thankfully I know how to deal with you!’
As trade improved, Englishmen in general became slightly better off though the poor became more numerous and obvious. Trade was seen as a win/lose situation ─ if one nation’s economy grew, another was bound to decline. Closed markets (such as colonies) kept prices artificially high, while maximising profit margins4. But closed markets kept the poor always poor. As manufacturing capacity increased there was an absolute limit to those who could afford to buy its products, at least in Britain and its colonies. “Why should we not be free to trade with whoever we wish?”, asked British merchants. The rationale for such a process came from a remarkable Scottish cleric, Francis Hutchinson5, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University between 1729 and 1746, who asked the questions that were to seriously shape the modern world. Hutchinson was pre-eminently interested in happiness. How do humans develop a moral consciousness, Hutchinson frequently asked his students at early morning lectures, in a cold Glasgow lecture theatre, and how is it that they largely treat one another with kindness, regard and cooperation, rather than brutality and savageness? It was not simply by following an artificially created set of “dos and don’ts”, Hutchinson suggested, but by liberating an innate moral sense, a fundamental understanding of right and wrong. We are never happier – and herein lies the essence of Hutchinson’s thinking – than when we’re making other people happy. Improve the general lot of the people, and there will be a general increase in people’s happiness.
Hutchinson was succeeded by one of his own students, Adam Smith6, and he, too, was preoccupied with the notion of what creates happiness. In his much studied “Theory of Moral Sentiments”7 Smith concluded that the more diverse are the opportunities available to people, the happier they will become: “In times of ease and prosperity [happiness] expands itself to everything around us”. The rich man is the man with the most fertile imagination who, like the greedy schoolboy with eyes ever bigger than his stomach, bites off more than he can chew. This, said smith, is an “invisible hand” which means that in becoming rich the prosperous man creates conditions that help the poor. In “The Wealth of Nations” (1776)8 Smith showed how capitalism could offer solutions that a rapidly growing population desperately needed: it could feed everyone, not just the few; it could relieve the worst poverty; it could protect the individual’s rights; it could treat others with deference, and it could replace war with trade.
Yet as Smith looked into a future industrial society he feared deeply for the intellectual degradation of workers if the process of mass-production went too far because, by comparison with the alert intelligence of the husbandman, the man whose life was spent in performing a few simple operations “generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become”9. Assembly-line production could be the death of the craft mentality. Was that the price to be paid for capitalism? Between them John Bunyan and Adam Smith set up the conflict between the industrialists’ need for mechanical creativity, and the needs of the ordinary person to be thoughtful.
Thesis 35: 24th August 2006