Introductory Note:

Dallas Willard helps us see the heart of work in his article, The Business of Business. It’s an important piece for those of us working in the marketplace and seeking to be faithful apprentices. At the core of working well is diligence: careful and persistent work. In the thesaurus, “diligence” is associated with words like concentration, effort, industriousness, rigor, thoroughness, perseverance, and doggedness. That’s good company. Yet something is missing in all those strong and sturdy words, something subterranean, a rich sunken meaning that our contemporary business culture needs to recover. Underneath the veneer of the English word “diligence” is the Latin word diligere, which means to love. Careful and persistent work is a form of loving—and that’s what I think Dallas wants us to recover. When we provide well, work hard, and serve others, we love. When we create a quality product, we’re loving our customers. This is why we shouldn’t separate love from diligence, and diligence from work. If we do, we’ll have very few places to practice, share, and grow into love.

Jonathan Bailey

What is busi­ness (man­u­fac­tur­ing, com­merce) for? Today the spon­ta­neous response to this ques­tion is: The busi­ness of busi­ness is to make mon­ey for those who are engaged in it. In fact, this answer is now regard­ed as so obvi­ous that you might be thought stu­pid or unin­formed if you even ask the ques­tion. But that is only one of the effects of the per­va­sive miss-edu­ca­tion that goes on in con­tem­po­rary soci­ety, which fos­ters an under­stand­ing of suc­cess essen­tial­ly in terms of fame, posi­tion and mate­r­i­al goods. How­ev­er, that only reflects a quite recent view of the pro­fes­sions — of which we will here assume busi­ness to be one — and, even today, is def­i­nite­ly not the view of suc­cess in pro­fes­sion­al life shared by the pub­lic in gen­er­al. No busi­ness or oth­er pro­fes­sion that adver­tis­es its ser­vices” announces to the pub­lic that it is there for the pur­pose of enrich­ing itself or those involved in it. With one accord they all say their pur­pose is ser­vice, not serve-us. I have nev­er met pro­fes­sion­als” who would tell their clients that they were there just for their own self-inter­est. Still, many pro­fes­sion­als today are dom­i­nat­ed by self-inter­est, and that is the source of the con­stant stream of moral fail­ures that occu­pies our courts and what we now call news.” And many who would nev­er say it pub­licly real­ly do think of their suc­cess in terms of self-advance­ment, and will say so after hours.” The role of the pro­fes­sion­al” is real­ly a moral role in soci­ety, and not just one of tech­ni­cal exper­tise in the mar­ket­place of untram­meled competition.

The old­er tra­di­tion of the pro­fes­sion as, at bot­tom, a moral role in soci­ety was more obvi­ous and defen­si­ble before the days of mass soci­ety and urban anonymi­ty in which the indi­vid­ual doc­tor, lawyer, etc. more or less dis­ap­pears as a per­son liv­ing togeth­er with oth­er per­sons. The spe­cial train­ing, posi­tion and respect giv­en them was, in oth­er days, an appro­pri­ate response to the spe­cial and poten­tial­ly self-sac­ri­fic­ing good that they made avail­able to ordi­nary peo­ple in the social set­ting: to the pub­lic or com­mon’ good, as used to be said. With respect to the mer­chant or man­u­fac­tur­er there has always been less clar­i­ty about this than with the old­er pro­fes­sions of cler­gy, med­i­cine and law, but his or her spe­cial posi­tion and pow­er in the com­mu­ni­ty was nonethe­less under­stood to bring with them unique and unavoid­able moral responsibilities. 

Writ­ing of this in 1860, John Ruskin remarks: The fact is that peo­ple nev­er have had clear­ly explained to them the true func­tions of a mer­chant with respect to oth­er peo­ple.” He then puts what we today would call busi­ness” in the con­text of the Five great intel­lec­tu­al pro­fes­sions” nec­es­sary to the life of every civ­i­lized nation.” With respect to that nation: 

The Soldier’s pro­fes­sion is to defend it. 

The Pastor’s to teach it. 

The Physician’s, to keep it in health. 

The Lawyer’s to enforce jus­tice in it 

The Merchant’s to pro­vide for it.” 

He appends to this list: And the duty of all these men is, on due occa­sion, to die for it.” The sol­dier to die rather than leave his post in bat­tle,” the physi­cian rather than leave his post in plague,” the pas­tor rather than teach false­hood,” the lawyer rather than coun­te­nance injus­tice,” and the mer­chant… rather than… what? It is here, Ruskin acknowl­edges, that peo­ple are apt to be unable to fin­ish the thought. What is it that the mer­chant” would die rather than do?

The answer to this ques­tion is sup­plied by the merchant’s or manufacturer’s func­tion and the good that it sup­plies to the peo­ple in his com­mu­ni­ty. His task is to pro­vide for the com­mu­ni­ty. His func­tion is not to pluck from the com­mu­ni­ty the means of his own self-aggran­dize­ment. It is no more his func­tion,” Ruskin con­tin­ues, to get prof­it for him­self out of that pro­vi­sion than it is a clergyman’s func­tion to get his stipend. The stipend is a due and nec­es­sary adjunct, but not the object of his life, if he be a true cler­gy­man, any more than his fee (or hon­o­rar­i­um) is the object of life to a true physi­cian. Nei­ther is his fee the object of life to a true mer­chant. All three, if true men, have a work to be done irre­spec­tive of fee… That is to say, he has to under­stand to their very root the qual­i­ties of the thing he deals in, and the means of obtain­ing or pro­duc­ing it; and he has to apply all his sagac­i­ty and ener­gy to the pro­duc­ing or obtain­ing it in per­fect state, and dis­trib­ut­ing it at the cheap­est pos­si­ble price where it is most needed.” 

Ruskin pro­ceeds to empha­size the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the mer­chant” for the well­be­ing of those in his employ. The mer­chant has a direct gov­er­nance over those who work for him. So “… it becomes his duty, not only to be always con­sid­er­ing how to pro­duce what he sells in the purest and cheap­est forms, but how to make the var­i­ous employ­ments involved in the pro­duc­tion or trans­fer­ence of it most ben­e­fi­cial to the men employed.” Hence the func­tion of busi­ness requires “… the high­est intel­li­gence, as well as patience, kind­ness, and tact… all his ener­gy… and to give up, if need be, his life in such way as it may be demand­ed of him.” As the cap­tain of a ship is duty-bound to be the last to leave the ship in dis­as­ter, “… so the man­u­fac­tur­er, in any com­mer­cial cri­sis or dis­tress, is bound to take the suf­fer­ing of it with his men, and even to take more of it for him­self than he allows his men to feel; as a father would in a famine, ship­wreck, or bat­tle, sac­ri­fice him­self for his son.” 

Well, need­less to say, this change of mean­ing has not yet hap­pened. Texts by Ruskin and by Bran­deis, along with sim­i­lar ones, are not pop­u­lar ref­er­ences in our schools of busi­ness today. These schools, for all their good, are, instead, far too much giv­en to The excus­es which self­ish­ness makes for itself in the mouths of cul­ti­vat­ed men,” to quote anoth­er per­son from the times of Ruskin and Bran­deis. Cer­tain­ly in busi­ness one must make a prof­it, and one’s busi­ness must sur­vive if it is to serve. But not at the expense of the pub­lic good and the well-being of indi­vid­u­als who depend on you — not, for exam­ple, if you must sell taint­ed food or shod­dy fur­ni­ture or elec­tron­ic devices to stay afloat or thrive. And cer­tain­ly not as the aim or goal of those involved in busi­ness. It is not enough to say that the mar­ket” will dri­ve you out if you don’t do what is right. 

That slo­gan, with its grain of truth, is brain surgery with a meat cleaver, at best; and in fact it rarely turns out to be true. It serves at all only because, at this par­tic­u­lar time in our his­to­ry, the weight of moral call­ing and moral char­ac­ter is unable to serve as estab­lished points of ref­er­ence for indi­vid­ual prac­tice and pub­lic pol­i­cy. They are not treat­ed as aspects of real­i­ty which must be appealed to in judg­ment and with which any decent per­son must come to terms. There is no legit­i­mat­ing sup­port, there­fore, for the ide­al­ism of young peo­ple who go into the pro­fes­sions or the jus­ti­fi­able demands of the pub­lic to be served. It is a con­vinc­ing frame­work of call­ing and char­ac­ter that must be restored if pro­fes­sion­al life is to be direct­ed in a man­ner which — sure­ly every­one deep-down knows — is suit­ed to its func­tion as provider and pro­tec­tor of the pub­lic good and of indi­vid­u­als through­out our neigh­bor­hoods and beyond. The great­est chal­lenge to an offi­cial­ly Post-Chris­t­ian world is to pro­vide that frame­work. To this point it is not doing very well with the task. Sure­ly the best course — find a bet­ter who may — is to take up one’s pro­fes­sion as an appoint­ment from God, through intel­li­gent dis­ci­ple­ship to Jesus Christ. This pro­vides a time test­ed and expe­ri­en­tial foun­da­tion and frame­work for pro­fes­sion­al life that yields the nobil­i­ty seen by Ruskin and Bran­deis — and much more.

Pub­lished at Dal­las Willard’s web­site (The Busi­ness of Busi­ness) and used here grate­ful­ly with their permission.

Pho­to by Alexan­dre Godreau on Unsplash

Text First Published September 2006

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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