Energy and the Autonomy of Middle-Class Work

  • Ted Underwood


Until the eighteenth century, energy was a learned term, common only in texts of metaphysics and rhetoric. After 1750, it rapidly became a buzzword. The frequency of energy and energetic in the written record tripled between 1750 and 1800.1 (The frequency of the French cognate, énergie, quadrupled over the same period.2) The word began to appear in novels and in personal letters; in the last quarter of the century, energy-talk was so much in vogue that it became an object of parody on both sides of the English Channel.3 This chapter argues that the new popularity of energy and its cognates was bound up with a change in the expression of the work ethic. Instead of describing work as a conscious product of the moral will, writers began to compare the energy of the worker to the spontaneous energies of nature.


Eighteenth Century Human Mind Symbolic Capital Political Responsibility Daily Labor 
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© Ted Underwood 2005

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  • Ted Underwood

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