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Underachievers of the world: Slack off!

By Michael J. Smith on Thursday May 27, 2010 11:37 AM

One of my self-identified Lefty comrades recently wrote, in connection with a topic mentioned earlier here:

So either one is arguing for meritocracy (who did that?) or we accept and advocate for people performing below their full potential. My that binary looks good on you. Can we please not simply argue for the opposite of what the other side does. We are smarter than that.
Note the giant unexamined assumption here that's there something wrong with "people performing below their full potential." When did that commandment get added to the Decalogue?

It's just a lemma, of course, of the whole bourgeois instrumental-rationalist notion that life is all about maximizing some function or other -- utility, hedony, efficiency vel sim(*).

But let's focus specifically on the idea of "performing at full potential". This phrase is of course just modern pseudo-quantitative managerial-pedagogical jargon for what used to be called the virtue of Industry.

As virtues go, this is an awfully new one. Industry would not have been considered a virtue in the ancient world, or the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance. Aristocrats would have found it revoltingly ungentlemanly, and peasants, artisans and slaves would have thought it insane. In fact, they might have fragged you for practicing it and making the rest of 'em look bad.

I doubt that the virtue of Industry is in fact much older than, surprise, the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps a little. Anybody got texts to suggest from before, say, the later 18th Century?

The first person I can think of, offhand, to write in praise of Industry (The Virtue) is Benjamin Franklin, who notoriously compiled a list of thirteen -- count 'em, thirteen -- virtues. (The Middle Ages only had seven, three theological and four natural.)

Ben's list is well worth reading:

  1. TEMPERANCE -- Eat not to fulness; drink not to elevation.
  2. SILENCE -- Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. ORDER -- Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. RESOLUTION -- Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. FRUGALITY -- Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself i.e., waste nothing.
  6. INDUSTRY -- Lose no time, be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary action.
  7. SINCERITY -- Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. JUSTICE -- Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. MODERATION -- Avoid extremes, forbear resenting injuries as much as you think they deserve.
  10. CLEANLINESS -- Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. TRANQUILLITY -- Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. CHASTITY -- Rarely use venery but for health and offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
  13. HUMILITY -- Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
A text worthy to be inscribed on every sweatshop wall, isn't it?

D H Lawrence has never been my favorite writer -- though I knew a girl once who was crazy about him, and she was quite something -- but he's very good on Ben and his virtues:

This is Benjamin's barbed wire fence. He made himself a list of virtues, which he trotted inside like a grey nag in a paddock.

.... A Quaker friend told Franklin that he, Benjamin, was generally considered proud, so Benjamin put in the Humility touch as an afterthought. The amusing part is the sort of humility it displays. 'Imitate Jesus and Socrates,' ... One can just imagine Socrates and Alcibiades roaring in their cups over Philadelphian Benjamin, and Jesus looking at him a little puzzled.

.... He had the virtues in columns, and gave himself good and bad marks according as he thought his behaviour deserved. Pity these conduct charts are lost to us....

He was a little model, was Benjamin. Doctor Franklin. Snuff-coloured little man!

... I admire him. I admire his sturdy courage first of all, then his sagacity, then his glimpsing into the thunders of electricity, then his common-sense humour. All the qualities of a great man, and never more than a great citizen. Middle-sized, sturdy, snuff-coloured Doctor Franklin, one of the soundest citizens that ever trod or 'used venery'.

I do not like him.


(*) And you often find a further utterly unjustified and entirely unexamined idea that these three maxima are mutually implicit -- maximizing one implies maximizing the others. What a hoot, huh?

Comments (18)


Jay Griffith's treats with this subject in "A Sideways Look at Time," and unleashes her ire on Ben with relish and abandon.

She makes good work of relating re-conceptions of time, following the initial era of the Enlightenment, with the development of modern notions of virtue and vice.

If you can enjoy a well-tuned writer who's got her sights trained on Franklin and Bacon, her book might fill in some of the gaps.

Or not.




bacon bentham now ben ???

slacking i must say as a gigantic participant in same
strikes me as not
a negation of the negation

industry subject to exploitation
finds itself a virtue
bent to the will oof vice


Oh. Thank you.

(I like D.H. Lawrence, too. Except for the anti-Semitism and the misogyny, which mostly just leaves those funny letters he used to write to his critics.)

I think it was Rebecca Solnit in her Book of Migrations who said efficiency is an unfriendly virtue. At the time, she was hiking in Ireland, where she fortunately found few afflicted with the disease.


Only a secret achiever would bother with the ✔.


Thanks, Jack. I really, really hate Bacon. Even more than Bentham.

Lower-case bacon, on the other hand, I enjoy very much, bein' an ole Southron boy an' all.


It's bacon which keeps me from signing on to the anti-meat thing. Mmmm, bay-con. Having it tonight, in fact.


The problem with DH Lawrence is that he knew very little about American history and, in the oft mocked passage above, he makes the mistake of taking Franklin's list 1.) at face value and 2.) as though it were unique to Franklin.

All the founding fathers had those little self-improvement lists. George Washington and John Quincy Adams had elaborate "self-improvement" routines that made Franklin's look like a brief knockoff.

There are two real differences between DH Lawrence and Franklin:

1.) Lawrence took himself seriously. Franklin did not.

2.) Franklin was a genuine revolutionary. Lawrence was a guy who wrote books about penises.


Anybody got texts to suggest from before, say, the later 18th Century?

Franklin, like any other Enlightenment figure was writing consciously in the tradition of the Greeks and Romans.

Try Marcus Aurelius's book "Meditations".

You'll quibble about whether or not he's really talking about the same kind of "industry" Franklin is, but you'll see simularities.


as a boy
franklin was my first hero
that wasn't a dinosaur
or a flying saucer guy

nothing i've discovered since has changed that early glow to smoke and ashes
okay he has more then been out shone
but to me he still emits light in the darkness


Yeah, DHL was kind of one-dimensional, and Franklin is a more interesting fella than he appears, from this brutal working-over. But it's exactly the shallow vivid brutal ad-hominem unscrupulousness of it that places it squarely in the grand old Martin Marprelate polemical tradition.


the grand old Martin Marprelate polemical tradition.

there is none better

Save the Oocytes:

DH Lawrence is an amateur.

The only reason he's famous is because he wrote a book about the working class white penis that got banned in the USA. And some of his earlier work (eg Sons and Lovers)has to be some of the dullets writing in the English language

Lawrence actually says "don't pen me in Franklin I contain multitudes."

(the guy tapping away at his laptop at Starbucks probably does better angst)

If you want to see a real literary assassination, read Mark Twain's attack on Fenimore Cooper.

And Monty Python did a better hit job on Lawrence than Lawrence ever did on anybody else with their little skit where the father is an award winning playwright with a brutal north of England accent and his son is a coal miner with a standard BBC accent.

It's fucking brilliant.


thanks for that.. had me in stitches

Children, which irregularly produc'd may be attended with much Inconvenience.
The "regularly produc'd" ones can be quite a handful too.
solar hero:

Ben's Protestant ethic was abandoned in the second half of his life. He was a partyer and the original dirty old man.

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