Harvard Classics Reading Club discussion

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Vol 1: Franklin/Woolman/Penn > Woolman: Does the world work this way?

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message 1: by Matt (new)

Matt | 51 comments "As he is the perfection of power, of wisdom, and of goodness, so I believe he hath provided that so much labor shall be necessary for men’s support in this world as would, being rightly divided, be a suitable employment of their time; and that we cannot go into superfluities, or grasp after wealth in a way contrary to his wisdom, without having connection with some degree of oppression, and with that spirit which leads to self-exaltation and strife, and which frequently brings calamities on countries by parties contending about their claims."

I found myself agreeing with the sentiment of this passage upon first read, but thinking on it further wonder just how true it is. One can imagine a community of farmers and merchants along the lines of the one present in colonial American circa mid-1700s. Most of the jobs were involved manual labor, with some merchant jobs not directly involved in labor but benefiting from it. Woolman's charge is that those merchant jobs, which by nature seek profits over and above the capital and labor employed, are a cause of oppression and thus not worthy of a God-fearing person.

One can imagine a farmer spending part of his labor on traditional farming activities that serve to sustain his family and, finding he has spare time in his day, works to build a saw mill on his property. After a time the mill is complete and by allowing his community access to the mill excess profits are generated over and above what his family needs for sustenance. Where would the oppression be in this scenario?

Later in the text he seems to touch on this when he decides that the dyeing of clothes is objectionable to his conscience, but continues to wear the clothing he already has until such time as it is worn out. He has in effect decided that there is spare capacity in clothes already paid for, and that it would be wasteful to throw out useful clothes. In the same way might it be viewed that a farmer who has the spare labor to build a saw mill would be wasteful if he did not build the saw mill, even if it led to superfluous wealth?


message 2: by Nola (new)

Nola Redd (scottiegazelle) | 6 comments I'll have to come back to this after reading, but...
Couldn't one argue that, concerning the point of spare labor, such labor could be employed more usefully in 'shoring up' the things one needs? ie Enlarging the farm, the garden, the farm animals, etc? Or, for one so spiritually minded, even in study? Or such a sawmill could exist solely to help others, he could allow neighbors to utilize it for free or for the cost of materials, wear and tear, etc.

I'm not saying I agree with his point - in fact, I don't - but I would imagine that could be his response to your argument.


message 3: by Brian (new)

Brian Miller | 4 comments I have to say, Woolman completely escapes me. You can read my scathing review of his journal and tell that his philosophy really got under my skin, and from a religious point of view, I personally don't even find that it is consistent with the teachings of Christ.

If a person is blessed with the ability to improve their circumstances and in doing so can positively effect the lives of others, it would seem to be the gravest sin to throw away that God given talent for the sake of..I don't even know what..Meekness? (I think Jesus was referring to spiritual meekness, not physical or economic meekness) It appears to be more a question of stewardship. Wealth for the sake of wealth or by evil means is one thing, but If someone who is prosperous through their talents can be a good steward of their blessings I believe they can be better positioned to take advantage of opportunities to increase the general welfare of those around them, where as someone who seeks little when they have the potential for more is never in a position to do much good for anybody.


message 4: by Matt (new)

Matt | 51 comments I feel like the disconnect may be how a person or society values "waste". We are considering unused economic or social capacity to be something worth using, though it's unclear that everyone would feel that way. I doubt the stoics in vol 2 would feel much differently than Woolman since their philosophy is inward-facing, i.e. taking care of their own emotions rather than necessarily heeding others.

They're all seeking harmony so far. It may be interesting to note in a single line the way each author would find it as one reads through.


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