The workplace is a hot topic these days. From the recent popularization of remote work to the present issue of “quiet quitting,” things often taken for granted about the office are now a post-COVID no man's land. One thing that has stayed the same, however, is human nature.
In his new book Virtue and Vice at Work: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern Age, theologian Ryan Tafilowski illustrates that this nature has not changed from the time of the early monastic communities to the open-plan offices of the 21st century. While taking ethics lessons from ancient monks and applying them to the office may seem like a bizarre crossover, something more akin to Alien vs. Predator than How to Win Friends & Influence People, Tafilowski demonstrates how we still fall victim to the same temptations and failings of the classical vices. Thankfully, the remedy remains the same as well – an enduring commitment to the cultivation of virtue.
The reason this discussion is so important, he argues, is that the acts we repeatedly engage in are those which form our character. Tafilowski, therefore, defines virtue as “those dispositions, habits, and attitudes that conform us to the image of Jesus Christ…and which enable us to become agents of flourishing of our work.”1 Vices, conversely, are those which form us in the opposite way, indeed, they “deform” us. Identifying these vices in our work along with their corresponding virtues helps us to grow in a character that brings about peace, contentment, and stability in our lives, as well as training us to avoid engaging in self-destructive practices so we can be more fully formed into the image of Christ. Therefore, the work of examining how these vices and virtues play themselves out in our work is necessary self-reflection for every Christian.
The five leading vices Tafilowski finds to be pervasive in our work are gluttony, lust, greed, acedia, and vainglory. He goes beyond the popular understanding of these terms, drawing on ancient thinkers like Evagrius of Pontus, John Cassian, and Augustine of Hippo, while also gleaning insights from Thomas Aquinas, Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Luther, Dallas Willard, and Rowan Williams. In drawing from these thoughtful Christian voices, Tafilowski demonstrates how these vices poison the individual, the workplace, and co-workers.
He begins his examination of the modern workplace with the vice of gluttony. This is an “unregulated desire” that comes from an attempt to self-medicate or anesthetize ourselves to things such as stress, fear, and boredom, which eventually “deludes us into thinking that we are gods on which everything depends.”2 In the workplace, this often looks like workaholism, or, paradoxically, an obsession with not being compulsive regarding work. The vice of lust is a similar demon, which takes this unregulated desire and adds the nuance of possession. Engaging in this vice leads us to see other people as objects “to be manipulated, controlled, and possessed” with no regard for them or their personhood. In work settings, this can look like manipulation, gaslighting, and abuse of power.
While neither gluttony nor lust have redeeming qualities, greed is a deceptive vice because it often parades under the guise of prudence and fiscal responsibility.3 Instead of trusting in the provision of God, we operate from a mindset of scarcity, doing whatever it takes to retain what we have and gain more, which reduces the worth of our work to our salary. Vainglory is also a deceptive vice, usually striking those who have lived virtuously or feel they have a reason for self-confidence. Yet this vice goes beyond self-confidence to selfish pride. While it may begin innocently enough, when this vice is indulged it “fosters a compulsive obsession with keeping up appearances,” which leads us to delusions of grandeur and contempt towards others.4
Finally, though it is an unfamiliar word to our modern ears, acedia is perhaps the most relevant of vices to our current cultural moment. It is a kind of apathy that resists work due to a “metaphysical boredom.”5 Similar to gluttony, this vice can inspire one to fall into laziness or overdrive, where one is always convinced that things would be better if they were elsewhere.
It probably does not take the experienced reader long to identify these vices within their workplace and life. The answer to the corrosive nature of these vices, Tafilowski proposes, is to train a virtuous character by engaging the virtues of temperance, chastity, generosity, gratitude, steadfastness, and selfless humility. The image of training here is intentional, as he draws on Paul’s image of spiritual training as boxing, a brutal contest in the Roman world. This is a process one must continually engage over the course of their life so that their character may conform more and more into the image of Christ.
Fundamentally, this discussion confronts our deepest beliefs about the world we live in. Do we see this world in terms of a brutal hierarchy, where scarcity is everywhere and manipulation and power rule? Or do we see this world as enchanted with the good blessings of a loving God? Most importantly, do we think we can diminish those around us to disposable pawns whose worth lies in how they can benefit us, or do we recognize that each of our coworkers and customers is a complex individual made in the very image of God, indeed, “the holiest object presented to [our] senses”?6 The chorus of Christian saints calls us to the latter.
Editor's Note: "Virtue and Vice at Work: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern Age" is available for purchase. If you would like a digital copy of this resource use the button below.
1. Ryan Tafilowski, Virtue & Vice at Work (Denver: Denver Institute for Faith & Work, 2022), 8.
2. Ibid., 15-21.
3. Ibid., 38.
4. Ibid., 61.
5. Ibid., 47.
6. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 46.
Cameron Blom serves as an intern at the Denver Institute and is in the process of earning his MDiv from Denver Seminary, following which he hopes to earn a doctoral degree in Theology & Science. Though originally from the rolling, corn-covered hills of Iowa, he’s quickly acclimated to the mountain life. In his free time, he enjoys reading, hiking, having philosophical discussions with friends, and catching the latest Christopher Nolan movie.