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Saturday, September 08, 2012

A Labor Day Epiphany

Well, the title isn't entirely correct, since it isn't technically Labor Day today. But it is close enough for horseshoes, hand granades, government work and thermonuclear devices.

Everyone recognizes the problem described in this letter. No one wants to do dirty jobs. Heaven knows I don't. But the reason we don't want to do dirty jobs... that requires a little more thought.

Flash back to the days of ancient Rome and ancient Greece. These were, like virtually every subsistence-level society, slave labor societies. Aristotle and Plato could afford to think high-brow thoughts because millions of slaves toiled and died under the hot sun to feed these two lazy lounge lizards and thousands more like them.

The Greeks and Romans both despised anyone who worked with their hands. Manual labor was fit only for slaves and "artisans", who were generally also slaves. Greek and Roman politicians warned their sons to stay as far from manual labor as possible.

Sure, today we celebrate Archimedes as a tremendous engineer. But he thought of engineering the same way most people think of prostitution, and for exactly the same reason. He felt his time spent designing and building machinery was a prostitution of his talent. Free men were meant to think, not to do.

The Olympics and games like them were intended as ritual offerings to the gods, in which the players strove to exemplify a divine idea. Of the three classes of people who attended the games: merchants selling their wares, athletes, and the audience, only one was considered capable of actually fully participating in the ritual - that would be the spectators, of course. While the merchants sold their wares, while the athletes sweated and sometimes died in front of them, the spectators were able to meditate on the spectacle before them.

The gods themselves exemplified the Greco-Roman attitude. In the entire pantheon, only one god was crippled and ugly - Hephaestus/Vulcan. He was the smith, the maker of technology, the only one who got filthy dirty in his craft. His feet were on backwards and he had been cast from the heights as a child because of his extreme ugliness.

Indeed, out of all the pantheons of all the gods in all the cultures of the world, I am aware of only one culture which rejected the idea that manual labor was not fit work for divinity. That would be the Hebrew faith, the faith whose God actually worked with His own hands in the clay of the earth and breathed His own life into the clay His hands had formed.

Catholic faith followed Jewish example. The apostle Paul was proud to say that he took no money for preaching the Gospel, rather he worked with his hands as a maker of tents. The entire Christian monastic movement was built around "work and prayer". Medieval monasteries, hotbeds of chastity and youth, were unique in the world in that the monks did not just wander as beggars, rather they worked with their own hands to tame the forests, swamps and desolate places of Europe, raising farms and towns where there had been desert.

Western Europe was uniquely Catholic and uniquely scientific, because Christianity revered work crafted with one's own hands. Instead of being a slave, the artisan was celebrated by society, in much the same way that those who pursue leisure activities (sports players, actors) are celebrated today.

Labor was hard, but suffering in one's work was reasonable because... well, because we are meant to imitate Christ and HE suffered in His work. He was a carpenter, He worked in wood as He had long before worked with His Father in clay. When we worked with our hands, we imitated God. We even point this out in our liturgy: "Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.... Fruit of the vine and work of human hands, it will become our spiritual drink." Our manual labor has divine meaning.

And there, exactly is the nub of the problem. As Christianity is slowly leached out of society, society will necessarily return to its natural hatred of labor. We will return to the Greco-Roman slave society, where intellectual pursuits are celebrated above all else. We can return to this kind of society because we have machines to replace the slaves, machines to do the work of our hands.

Some of the simplest machines are the inclined plane, the screw, the wheel. Simple machines have made our lives easier, made it possible to build more complex machines to ease our lives. In the past, eighty to ninety percent of the people in any culture used to work on the farm. Today, less than 2% do. Now eighty to ninety percent live in a city and have other people, other machines do their work for them. If they do not spend their lives thinking, neither do they spend their lives working with their hands.

If work was made for man, if work is a way by which we image God, then can we be surprised that the loss of the sense of God goes hand-in-hand with a disgust for those who work with their hands? The pursuit of the Ivy League degree is all very well, and, as I've pointed out elsewhere, the life of the mind has greatly contributed to essentially obliterating physical poverty in the last two hundred years. Still, we should be very careful not to allow our children to denigrate those who work with their hands. Instead, we should make clear to them that such work is spiritually at least as great, and arguably greater, than any white collar job could be.

Or, to put it more succinctly, this country will not be headed back towards God until the plumber is as revered as the doctor. It will not be Christian again until its citizens are as willing to enthusiastically clear a plugged toilet as they are to read a fine book, as willing to change a dirty diaper as sample haute cuisine. We will only get our people back in the churches if they are first willing to get back in the septic tanks.

How many priests and bishops are willing to lead them there?

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