A Dialogue about Work
by The Inmate
Characters in alphabetical order
Aristotle(384-322 B.C.), a Greek philosopher
Francis Bacon(1561-1626), a philosopher, legalist and political figure
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel(1770-1831), a German philosopher
The Inmate,(1958-???), a web developer
Karl Marx(1818-1883), a German philosopher and economist
J.S. Mill(1806-1873), an English philosopher
Paul(10?-67?), Roman citizen and follower of Jesus Christ
Plutarch(45-125), a Greek philosopher and man of letters
Adam Smith(1723-1790), a Scottish economist and moral philosopher
Socrates(470-400 B.C.), an Athenian philosopher
Simone Weil(1909-1943), French social philosopher and activist
There is one podium and to the right of it a long table with ten chairs behind it. Socrates walks to the podium and the rest sit in alphabetical order from left to right at the table. One chair is empty–someone is missing. There are several pitchers of water on the table and a glass in front of each participant.
SOCRATES. Welcome reader! I am Socrates, but you already know that because you can read my name which precedes these sentences. It’s great to have you here with us–this morning or this afternoon or this evening–whenever it is that you have chosen to read this section of the website. We are all very comfortable coming to you this way as every one us has communicated to more people through the written word than the spoken. Congratulations on sticking with The Corporate Asylum or finding it, as the case may be. It seems a rather simplistic website up to this point and no doubt The Inmate has brought us together, no small task let me assure you, to give this site some real legitimacy–to give it some weight. I was chosen to be the moderator because I am the wisest man who has ever lived. I didn’t used to think I was the wisest man who ever lived until the Oracle at Delphi stated that I was and you don’t argue with Oracles, particularly if what they say is in your favor. But this did present a problem–yes, Mr. Inmate?
THE INMATE: Mr. Socrates, sir, um, we really need to get this thing rolling and I don’t think this aspect of your life is really that pertinent to the topic I have chosen for discussion.
SOCRATES: And how would you define pertinence?
THE INMATE: Something that is relevant.
SOCRATES: Is it important for those reading this to have confidence in the moderator?
THE INMATE: Yes, but . . .
SOCRATES: To be confident in me they must be convinced that I am the wisest man in the world and therefore I must, because of necessity, explain why such an outrageous claim is true beyond doubt.
THE INMATE:(Looks as if he wants to answer, but no sound comes from his mouth.)
SOCRATES: Good. I shall continue. As I was saying, the problem was I knew many men I thought were wiser than I, so I decided to question them and as I questioned them I realized that all of them, without exception, thought themselves to be much wiser than they actually were. Therefore, I concluded that I was the only one in all the world who realized the extent of my ignorance–thus proving the extent of my wisdom. It is because of my knowledge and acceptance of my supreme ignorance that I am the wisest man in the world. Now(nodding to The Inmate) , the topic is work, meaning and the corporation. So let us begin. As we are coming before you from all different time periods and cultures I think it would be wise for us to define some terms. Many of us wrote about the state or the government as it has come to be commonly known in modern times, but I do not think it would be an illogical leap to relate the state to your modern corporations. The state, like the corporation in an ideal sense, arises from the needs of mankind. People come together to accomplish what they could not accomplish on their own.
HEGEL. This is quite correct, Socrates. We find satisfaction by the means of others. Our livelihoods are all interwoven and so in a corporation all the employees are an important and vital part of it.
SOCRATES. Would you say that the corporation, like the state, has obligations to its members?
HEGEL. By its very nature it provides an atmosphere so that an individual can be somebody. There are objective standards that one measures oneself against and it protects its members by providing them with consistent work and the education to perform their duties and fit into its unique culture. But this does not come without a price. Members also have obligations to the corporation because of what it provides for them.
SOCRATES. And what are those obligations?
HEGEL. If the State claims a life the individual must surrender it. In the same way, so must the employee if the future of the corporation demands it. When you become a part of a corporation you must give up some of your individuality. The corporation must continue and in this way it protects its members, but this does not mean that at times individuals will not have to be sacrificed for that purpose.
MILL. And that is why the working class, though in debt to the corporation, must watch out for itself. Ultimately the corporation is concerned about its own existence. It is in a sense selfish.
HEGEL. But that selfishness will take care of its members just as the selfishness of individuals will take care of the corporation.
MILL. In a general sense, yes, but not a particular one. People cannot rely upon the corporation to watch out for them or improve their lot. That is the responsibility of the individual. They may choose to accomplish that within the corporation or they may go out on their own.
PLUTARCH. I would like to digress a bit here. There is a major difference between the state and the corporation. The state does not exist to make money. Ultimately, the corporation, particularly in the 20th century, is concerned with making money and pursues it, quite often, intensely. Love of gold and silver can destroy a society. In that sense the corporation may very likely be destroying society by its constant stress upon profit.
SOCRATES. Isn’t it true that in order for the corporation to continue it must make money as must its employees?
PLUTARCH. But the wisest men have never been consumed by such things. Lycurgus’s(the lawgiver of Sparta), greatest contribution to his people was the procurement of leisure. The people did not have to be busy bodies running to and fro engaging in business. They considered such actions frivolous. Wealth had no honor or respect in their society. Those under thirty were not allowed to go to the marketplace and even old men, if seen there too often, were frowned upon. They spent their time in conversations on topics of worth and real importance: lessons of advice and improvement. Money-making was not their concern.
SOCRATES. Are you advocating poverty?
PLUTARCH. No, not poverty, but discipline and frugality, something that seems to be a rarity in this decadent culture we are visiting today. Our natural tendencies of curiosity and observation should be used on objects worthy of our attention not in the pursuit of money.
SOCRATES: Many people will differ on what is an object worthy of our attention. What are those objects?
ARISTOTLE. The greatest crimes are caused by excess. Avarice is insatiable. Desire always desires more, its nature is not to be satisfied. We must recognize these tendencies in ourselves and train nobler sorts of nature which must be done with the greatest of efforts.
SOCRATES: But again, what are nobler sorts of nature?
PAUL: Love. It is the noblest nature to cultivate, the greatest virtue. Without it corporations, nations, societies, families and individuals lose both purpose and guidance.
SOCRATES. How does this virtue fit into the corporation?
MARX. The corporation should recognize the moral, familial and social needs of its members, but this has no chance of occurring because profit is king. Hence, when the corporation can it will overwork its members.
SOCRATES. Does this always occur?
MARX. Not always, but it is the nature of profit and capital to move in that direction and without regulation and laws . . .
SOCRATES: Can’t love regulate the corporation?
MARX: It could if love was the object of the corporation, but it is not. Money is.
PAUL: That’s why the law is necessary.
MARX: The law, or what I would call regulation. Without regulation the corporation will most surely take advantage of its members and it often does so even with regulation and laws as I documented over and over again in Capital: Volume One.
SOCRATES. What kind of laws are necessary?
MARX. The most obvious one is to regulate the length of the working day. This was done in England during the 1800’s with the Factory Acts and many other countries did the same thing.
SOCRATES. Such is the case in the society we are visiting today.
THE INMATE: Not exactly. Workers are compensated for working more than eight hours a day with overtime pay, but many still must work mandatory overtime.
MARX. And overtime pay is little compensation when one has not the time or the energy to be a proper husband or wife, father or mother, brother or sister. The profit motive knows not morality, nor is it concerned with the lives of workers. It has no conscience.
SOCRATES. But certainly there are good men who manage corporations?
MARX. They may have been good when they started but the desire for money has corrupted them. It is inevitable. As you said Socrates, when money and virtue are placed on the scales one always rises and the other falls.
SOCRATES. True enough. Men who are solely interested in money forget virtue.
MARX. And men and women who must work constantly also forget virtue. Men need rest and leisure in order that virtue may thrive.
ARISTOTLE. Often, however, those who have rest and leisure do not know how to use it. They waste it. Men must be virtuous so that they will use leisure wisely.
MARX. But men must have leisure in order to learn to be virtuous.
SOCRATES. What is required is a spirit of moderation. Nothing is more injurious to the state than distraction.
MARX. You act as if it is each man’s choice and it is not. Many men are ruled by the the corporation, they’re completely and unwillingly absorbed, or to use your term, distracted by it. They do not have the time, given the length of their day, to consider adequately the virtue of moderation or the horrific consequences of their devotion to an uncaring entity.
MILL. This is the price of civilization. Uncivilized man could not survive the continuous pace, particularly of the kind found in factories or in any number of mundane jobs that civilization requires to exist. The first lesson that one must learn in a civilized society is obedience.
ARISTOTLE.(leaning over to Bacon, whispering ) What’s a factory?
BACON. Shhhhhh. I’m trying to listen.
MARX. I do not doubt the necessity of these kinds of jobs, but I deplore the hours that employees are asked to give up to have them.
MILL. Maybe civilization could not exist without that kind of labor. Those of us who are here could not have written and done what we did without a civilized society.
MARX. Without the blood of labor?
MILL. You who deplore it, have benefited from it in the same ways we have. But generally, I think the upper classes watch out for the lower ones. Often they do not see things from the worker’s perspective something that is clearly wrong. Everyone is degraded when their destiny is controlled without being consulted, but I think that generally rulers and employers are sincere in their concern for those under them.
ARISTOTLE. And some must rule and some must obey. People are marked that way from birth. Surely you have noticed that lawyers begat lawyers, politicians politicians, shoemakers shoemakers and warriors warriors. This is for the good of society. It keeps it stable.
MARX. But rulers must be virtuous and in the corporation the large amounts of money available to the top managers corrupts them to the degree that they no longer care about the working classes.
ARISTOTLE. I agree that authority must not be abused.
SOCRATES. Let us pause for a moment and attempt to discover the reason for the present state of corporations. How have we gotten to where we are today?
SMITH. Much of it has to do with the division of labor without which civilization could not exist. When the labor is divided it improves the dexterity of the workman and he is able to produce more of whatever he has devoted himself to, whether it be making nails or shoes. He does not waste time going from one task to another, time usually spent sauntering which causes him to be lazy and slothful. Those who devote themselves to one thing will naturally figure out better and better ways to accomplish it. It takes thousands and thousands of other workers, devoted to their trades to provide all the necessities for a very simple life.
SOCRATES. Is there any such thing as self-sufficiency?
HEGEL. No. Self-sufficiency is an illusion. People, because of this division of labor, become more and more dependent on one another. Can you imagine what would happen if farmers in this society stopped farming? Most people could not provide for themselves.
SOCRATES: In relation to the corporation, do workers need managers?
PLUTARCH. Yes. Sometimes laborers and common citizens think those above them are lazy, but I am reminded of a story about the Roman Plebs who went on, what this modern culture would call, a strike because they believed those above them were not being productive. Mennius Agrippa convinced them otherwise. He said that rulers were like the stomach. At first glance the stomach does not do much, but without it everyone else would die.
MARX. I would have argued that it is the other way around.
HEGEL. The point is that ultimately we all need each other. But as Mill has pointed out there are things that must be given up to have civilization. Certain classes become tied to their work and are unable to enjoy broader freedoms, particularly the intellectual benefits of civil society. But those who work also gain, though it might not be in intellectual activities. Work gives people a feeling of independence and self-respect, the knowledge that they have satisfied themselves with the sweat of their brow and the toil of their hands.
SMITH. But the problem with the division of labor is such workers only have to perform very simple tasks that require no great understanding or creativity. Thus they lose those abilities and become stupid and ignorant. In their private lives they then have no desire to consider anything deeply, to think about noble thoughts or ideas and often are incapable of forming any just judgments about the affairs of daily life. They have little time for education, no leisure and sadly, no inclination to think about anything else.
MARX. Said very well, Mr. Smith. Workers simply become an appendage to the machine. It is used so extensively that work no longer has any of the charm it used to. Tasks required of workers are too monotonous and too simple.
SMITH. And here is what happens: the people who must perform a myriad of actions constantly exercise their judgment and perfect it. The best example of this is the farmer who must consider all kinds of information and be adept at many different tasks. His mind is constantly active unlike many of those who dwell in cities who perform a few very simple operations that take little conscious thought or creativity. The farmer, therefore, who is often looked down upon as stupid and backwards, possesses more understanding and common sense then those who work in occupations that only require repetitive, mindless tasks.
SOCRATES. Given either the length of time that workers must work or the simplistic tasks they perform over and over is it possible for the modern worker in the modern corporation to have a fulfilling career and life? Must we sacrifice one segment of society for the others?
MILL. A modern community that is not divided by race, language or nationality will always be divided into employers and laborers. In the corporation you could say into management and workers.
MARX. And there will always be conflict between the two.
SOCRATES. Is it proper to compare modern management in the corporation with employers as we knew them?
MILL. Yes, I think so. Managers constitute a new class. They have taken control of corporations from stockholders and the gap between the wages that upper management makes as compared to workers makes the distinction between them significant. They possess many of the same powers that owners do and it could be argued that they have less reason to truly care about the corporation or its employees because in reality they have no vested interest.
MARX. The only vested interest they have is the amount of money they can make.
HEGEL: But ultimately that does make them care about the corporation, because if the corporation does not make money then eventually they won’t either.
THE INMATE: Though in our society we have a little different situation. Many corporations are sold, then split up which often results in the loss of many jobs. With venture capitalists we have many corporations that have never made a profit, though their stocks might be worth billions of dollars. Heads of these companies may leave them before they ever make a profit with enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. If the company goes under, they still often leave with huge amounts of money–the workers, on the other hand, lose their jobs.
SOCRATES. Corporations and states would be better off if their leaders were only paid enough to cover the necessities of life and if they were also carefully chosen. But let us return to my original question. Is meaning possible in an environment of this sort? Or maybe better said, is significant meaning possible?
SOCRATES. What if the system remained as it is but workers were not ever required to work more than eight hours a day? What if we limited it to six?
ARISTOTLE. This would be better. But ideally, citizens should not have to provide for their daily wants so they could have an adequate amount of leisure, but it is difficult to see how this can be accomplished.
MARX. You’re living in the past, Aristotle. We no longer have slaves so everyone, for the most part, has to work to provide for themselves. What you are proposing is usually accomplished in our time in such a way that one class gains a large amount of leisure by taking it away from others. The goal should be to acquire leisure for everybody not just the privileged few.
ARISTOTLE. Admittedly, those who make their living by their own labor have little time for leisure. However, sometimes the common people have more leisure time than the rich who are constantly engaged in taking care of their property and other possessions.
MARX. Whose fault is that? They could easily organize their lives in such a way so as to have plenty of leisure.
ARISTOTLE. There are three classes of people: the poor, the middle and the rich. It is best not to be poor or rich. The middle is the best. In this state people do not have to worry about their basic necessities and therefore can devote their minds to more important matters: lives of virtue. People need three things to be happy: external goods, goods of the body and the goods of the soul.
SOCRATES. But most people are not satisfied with a simple way of life. They would rather buy all kinds things, going way beyond what is necessary for existence.
HEGEL. How can you expect individuals to find meaning in life when their work has none? Serious occupation is labor based upon a real need. But most of what is produced today is a luxury and when luxury reaches its pinnacle, distress and depravity are also extreme. I have not seen a more distressed society than this one.
BACON. Few people love business for its intrinsic value. Most are interested in it solely for the money it will provide, others value it because it gives them a certain amount of prestige, it lifts them up before the world or it gives them pleasure and displeasure, something to talk about, or it makes them feel good. It is only learned men who engage in business and love it because of the action itself and see it as important for the health of their mind and body.
SOCRATES. Please, is anyone willing to attempt a real answer to my question? Is happiness and leisure possible in this environment?
BACON. For the upper classes it is clearly possible, but few of them will take the opportunity that has been given to them. Unfortunately, most of them are lightly or unworthily ambitious and are constantly getting involved in things that could be left to others and this takes away the leisure they could have had to spend in studies or the pleasures of family and friends. Ironically, time spent in this way would make them better business people.
SOCRATES. What about the middle and lower classes?
BACON. It will be easier for the middle classes than the lower. But again, many of the middle classes hope to be upper classes someday. Hence they devote time and energy to that end which they could have devoted to the more important endeavors. Even during my day the colleges of Europe were more devoted to professions than the arts and sciences. I do not say here that people should only read and study, that they should give up business all together. It must be a combination of the two. As Seneca said, “Life without pursuit is a vague and languid thing.”
SOCRATES. And the lower the classes?
MARX. Yes, what about them?
BACON. More difficult for them, but in their case the first thing to be done to is raise themselves to the middle. As has been stated before, it is difficult to consider ideas of consequence if one has not eaten or does not have adequate shelter.
MARX. But do the lower classes have that opportunity?
BACON. It depends. There must be some regulation by the government or they may not. But I agree with Mill that people have to watch out for themselves. It is everyone’s responsibility to procure their own serenity without destroying their magnanimous spirit.
MARX. Not everyone can do that.
BACON. Not everyone will do that. People are fearful and afraid to take risks. The following truth has served me well: “To use not, that you may not wish; to wish not, that you may not fear: these are the precautions of weak and diffident minds.” Most people are like this. Too much safety is a dangerous thing.
MARX. Theoretically, everyone may have the chance or could possibly take a risk, but in a practical sense the opportunity is not there for everyone. I think here you have two things working against it. First, the employer, who benefits monetarily by the extension of the working day regardless of the adverse effects on workers and secondly, the state, which also benefits by the extended labor day in taxes collected. The state wants as many people working as possible so that revenues will continue to increase. In 1770 in “An Essay on Trade and Commerce Containing Observations on Taxation, etc.,” it was written, “An hour’s labor lost in a day is a prodigious injury to a commercial state. . . . There is a very great consumption of luxuries among the manufacturing populace, by which they also consume their time, the most fatal of consumptions.” The capitalist only thinks of what he can do to increase his income. The ideal leaders and state that Socrates and Aristotle have suggested in their writings—
SOCRATES. I never wrote a thing.
MARX. Sorry, yes, you just talked so much that Plato wrote it all down. Anyway, the ideal leaders and state that Socrates and Aristotle have suggested hardly resemble today’s democracies and republics.
SOCRATES. Leaders of today can hardly be in their positions for noble reasons. The same goes for those in positions of upper-management. There is too much money, too much luxury, too much to distract them from being virtuous. This does not mean that there are not some noble individuals in these positions, but it is an extremely difficult combination to maintain–close to impossible.
HEGEL. But the success of the corporation is important to upper-management. If it succeeds, the workers succeed and so does management. So even if management is selfish and lacks nobility, the desire for their own success will help them make decisions that benefit those under them.
SOCRATES. So you are saying that morality does not matter?
HEGEL. No, only that the corporation will often succeed in spite of the immorality of some of its members. All of us should reflect upon our actions, pursue happiness and our individual desires and this will often result in the knowledge of an obvious moral obligation.
MILL. I think you are all missing the point to some degree. Many workers do not think of their jobs as degrading, even though many around them might. What is most often degrading to them are the ways in which they are treated by their managers and employers. They ought to be listened to–truly listened to.
ARISTOTLE. It has always been a problem that theorists have been viewed as the ones who really know because they can tell us the “why” of whatever it is they are theorizing about, but the people of experience, the people doing the job, often cannot give the “why” even though they can perform the action well and know better than the theorists how to do it. Experience is always more important than theory. Much of the life of work is destroyed when the worker is not allowed to contribute his knowledge which he gained by experience.
SOCRATES. But must not some rule and some obey?
ARISTOTLE. Certainly. But ideally the ones who rule should also be men of experience and where they are not, they should defer to those who possess the experience who may not be able to explain in theoretical terms what it is they are doing. The truly great individual knows how to rule and obey. Every person should be responsible to others.
BACON. The speculations of theorists on active matters are often viewed by men of experience as wishful thinking or the onset of early senility.
ARISTOTLE. I believe they call the business theorist or manager of today, the technocrat.
BACON. What is a “technocrat”?
ARISTOTLE. They adhere to technocracy, i.e. the management of society or in this case, business, by technical experts. They are usually specialized, sometimes lack practical experience, sometimes do not. Many who now manage companies have only been managers. Practical experience should be a prerequisite to rule.
MILL. Hence, much of the reason workers are unfulfilled in their work has to do with a lack of control, the giving up of decisions that are rightfully theirs to individuals who have neither the experience or the knowledge to make good decisions. The real test of vigorous thinking is the successful application to practice and the only way that theorists, technocrats and managers can know about the success or failures of their policies is to listen to those who actually have to apply them.
SMITH. But let us not forget the skill necessary to observe the whole and connect things that may appear to be dissimilar. In an ideal sense that is the job of the manager on up to the CEO. A corporation is often a huge association of many different individuals who need the leadership of someone who can combine the different talents of the individuals who make up the corporation into a successful organism just as the brain orchestrates the activities of the body.
MILL. True, but the brain should not attempt to be a foot or a hand or digest food. It is an injustice when people are not allowed to be heard concerning affairs that affect them. The brain must take in the information sent to it from the hands, feet, eyes, etc., if it is to be effective.
PLUTARCH. Neither should the feet, hands or eyes, attempt to be the brain. Let us not forget the tail of the snake who always complained of following, until the head frustrated by the constant nagging allowed him to. What happened? The snake was nearly destroyed.
At this point a woman walks on to the stage.
ARISTOTLE. What is the meaning of this?
PLUTARCH. Time for refreshments so soon?
SOCRATES. I’m sorry, Madam, but we are involved in a dialogue here about work–I don’t know how you got here.
THE INMATE. Actually, Mr. Socrates, I invited her to this dialogue she’s just a little late. Her name is Simone Weil. She wrote a lot about work and worked to improve . . .
WEIL. I’m only late because those damn Greek guards wouldn’t let me in.
ARISTOTLE. A woman?!
WEIL. And a feisty one, Mr. Aristotle(She walks in front the table addressing all the men and ignoring Socrates). So, here we have a bunch of theorists talking about something they know nothing about.
BACON. Listen here, Madam . . .
WEIL. Have any of you worked in factory?
ARISTOTLE(leaning over to Bacon, whispering ). What’s a factory?
WEIL. Well, I have–in an auto factory. What I learned from that experience is that large factories should be abolished. There is no dignity in work in such places and hence no joy. And there is nothing, gentlemen, that can make up for the loss of joy in one’s work. Nothing. I have stood by women in these places and listened to them lament that their job is so difficult because it leaves them little time to enjoy the beauty of nature.
SOCRATES. Shouldn’t you be answering my questions instead of delivering a monologue?
WEIL. No. Now, please shut-up and listen. I’m going to address this problem of meaning head-on–something that most of you seemed unable to do. First, in order for workers to have a meaningful life they must feel at home in their job. Hence, many kinds of work need to abolished or changed. But it goes deeper than this. Workers need to participate in intellectual culture, they need to feel at home in the world of thought. This cannot be accomplished if they work so hard that they are too physically exhausted to participate in intellectual endeavors or if they work so much that they only have one or two hours a day of free time.
SOCRATES. And what do you propose?
WEIL. First, we must stop delivering matters of the mind in little, insignificant, watered down doses. If workers seem uninterested in intellectual things it is only because the things that culture calls “intellectual” are poor substitutes for the real thing.
ARISTOTLE. The common people are unable to digest deep intellectual truths.
WEIL. The problem is one of translation, not inability to comprehend. If I spoke to you in French and you did not understand me would that make you a fool?
ARISTOTLE. Of course not!
WEIL. Agreed. To understand me you would need a good translator. The problem with the popularization of intellectual matters is that it destroys and mutilates the truth. A good translator of the truth would present it in its complete fullness in the language that workers have become accustomed to because of their length of time in the work environment. The problem is not the workers, the problem is a kind of monopoly–intellectuals who perpetuate other intellectuals who all speak an exclusive language and who, for all their intellect, are incapable of transposing the truth to others. Why? Because they themselves only possess a superficial understanding of it.
SOCRATES. And do you have any practical suggestions that would help workers pursue a life of the mind and spirit?
WEIL. I certainly do. As I said . . .
THE INMATE. Our time is almost up . . .
WEIL. I’ll be quick. As I said earlier, the elimination of large factories would be a start. Workers should own or at least partly own the machines and places where they work. Every worker should be able to afford a house and bit of land. Managers should be chosen not only because of their ability, but also because of their moral character. Businesses should remain small. Think of it! Workers and their families could have a house, some land to grow the better part of their food, time to be with their spouses and children and work that had dignity, work they loved, work they could be proud of–certainly anyone could find earthly happiness under these conditions.
SOCRATES. Do you think this is possible?
WEIL. Probably not. Such a thing could only become a reality if a number of men and women had an unquenchable desire to see it happen.
SOCRATES. Well, certainly something to think about. I wish to thank all of you for participating and a special thanks to The Inmate for bringing us all together. Let’s do it again sometime, okay?
ARISTOTLE. What the hell is a factory?
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