The the Protestant Work Ethic

28 Aug 2018

"Now as he was sleeping, there came one to him, and awakened him, saying, 'Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.'"

This is a line from Pilgrim's Progress. Remember that line; we'll return to it later.

I was brought up by Lancastrian Puritans. To put this into context, a Lancashire Puritan is what a Scottish Puritan aspires to be when he grows up.

The virtues of early rising, hard work, thrift, and the shunning of all frivolous pleasure were exemplified in our household: as ruled by my Grandfather, with a rod of iron. There was television, but we children could watch only the children's hour; if we had been good. It was otherwise switched on for the nine o'clock news and the cowboy film on a Sunday afternoon; when we all sat in the front room in a dutiful row on the sofa and watched in silence.

Food was wholesome and plain, clothes were hand-me-downs, and we were expected to do chores and to study hard at school.

To this day, I feel guilty if I rise later than seven, if I spend even an hour during the day doing nothing, if I read for pleasure rather than improvement. I cannot even watch TV without the excuse of doing the ironing at the same time. When I was in paid employment I was the first to arrive and the last to leave: I needed to be sure of giving good value for my pay.

It's sometimes called the Protestant Work Ethic.

But where did it come from? Well, here's my idea.

Discussing books with a friend recently, we discovered that neither of us had read Pilgrim's Progress and decided to do it together.

We have not got very far; not least because we are both reading it at bedtime and I can recommend it as a cure for insomnia!

What we have read however, has given me to think.

The work is, of course, a religious allegory – but it is not the theology of it that strikes me most, it is the world view presented by Bunyan.

I do not know if Pilgrim's Progress was the first work to put these Puritan values into writing, but it has undoubtedly been the most influential. I can trace much of our cultural attitudes towards work and play, both in the UK and in the States, to this book.

The problem is not hard work. The problem is not early rising. The problem is not being careful with money. The problem is the guilt which comes with lie-ins, with occasional extravagance, with – heaven forbid – time spent in frivolity, or worse, idleness.

The theology of the book is for another blog elsewhere, but the cultural significance of it is what I want us to consider.

As my friend said to me, "You can sleep in: it's alright. You can spend money on nothing: it's okay. And, come join me; let's sit in the sun – and do nothing."


A Moodscope member.

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