Sunday, August 30, 2009

Productive Labor and the Mind

The poem by Morris in the previous post led me to think that it's been too long since I quoted from his always interesting essays. Here's an interesting quotation:

Yes, we do sorely need a system of production which will give us beautiful surroundings and pleasant occupation, and which will tend to make us good human animals, able to do something for ourselves, so that we may be generally intelligent instead of dividing ourselves into dull drudges or duller pleasure-seekers according to our class, on the one hand, or hapless pessimistic intellectual personages, and pretenders to that dignity, on the other. We do most certainly need happiness in our daily work, content in our daily rest; and all this cannot be if we hand over the whole responsibility of the details of our daily life to machines and their drivers. We are right to long for intelligent handicraft to come back to the world which it once made tolerable amidst war and turmoil and uncertainty of life, and which it should, one would think, make happy now we have grown so peaceful, so considerate of each other's temporal welfare.

[William Morris, The Revival of Handicraft]

The important thing to carry away from this, I think, is that productive manual labor -- in the broad sense of working with one's hands to produce something -- is, contrary to the way it is often portrayed, an intellectual occupation. It's not intellectual in the sense that, say, reading in a library is, but that it is an intellectual occupation can be seen very clearly when we contrast it to two the two things to which it is most opposed: mere drudgery or unproductive toil, and frivolous pleasure-seeking. What serious hand-work has that both of these lack, whether the handwork be construction, or machining, or quilting, or any number of other very different things, is that the hand-work is an active use of the intellect and will. It takes the hand and other instruments and makes them instruments of the mind. Unproductive drudgery and frivolous pleasure-seeking are senseless: productive manual labor makes sense and always gets its point from something in the work itself. Drudgery dulls the mind by giving it nothing to do; frivolity dulls the mind by distracting it from better things; but real work with one's hands, even very simple work with one's hands, sharpens the mind by focusing it on a good. There is no need to romanticize it; it doesn't provide everything the mind needs and it is not in every case the best available form of life. But productive manual labor, with its practical and creative planning, problem-solving, and inspiration, is the beginning of a truly human way of life, and as such is an intelligent and in its own way thoroughly intellectual way of life. If you ever talk with genuine craftsmen and artisans, people for whom handicraft is not just a hobby but a life, you'll quickly come to see what I mean -- it's not the stereotyped image of intellectual life most of us have in our heads, but it's a life devoted to understanding, with its own research and study, with its own passionate pursuit of basic principles and fundamental causes.

And even for the bulk of us, who could never even at our best make it more than a hobby, we are better off having it than we are having what's most likely to be filling our lives if we don't have it. It's worth remembering that in this world we will rarely be faced with a stark choice between handicraft and superior intellectual pursuits. We are usually faced instead with a choice between real handiwork, however simple and basic, in which, as Morris says, we are "able to do something for ourselves," and pursuits that are not an especially good fit for creatures with minds who want to do or make something good. And when people denigrate those who do practical, productive work, it's not in the service of genuine intellectual life, of which it's actually a version, despite being the simplest version. Instead it's in the service of a sham intellectualism, that practiced by "hapless pessimistic intellectual personages, and pretenders to that dignity," who, by attacking productive labor, are shutting themselves off from the possibility of being, as Morris says, generally intelligent, intelligent in more than tiny enclaved areas of life.

ADDED LATER: Serendipitously, Alexander Pruss had already posted something on a related topic the same day.

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