That sport best pleases that doth least know how:
Where zeal strives to content, and the contents
Dies in the zeal of that which it presents:
Their form confounded makes most form in mirth,
When great things labouring perish in their birth.
Love’s Labor’s Lost
Strange to say (though not much stands outside that category nowadays) one of the signs of the times are signs. We have all seen them because they are everywhere: “Now Hiring,” “Sign-On Bonus,” “Help Wanted.” Help wanted, indeed—on a large scale, and looming even larger on Labor Day. There is something deeply ironic about celebrating the American work ethic when it seems that work ethic is among the COVID-19 casualties. Do we dare celebrate labor when we have, to some extent, lost the love of labor, and thereby, lost labor’s true purpose?
Labor Day was intended to celebrate the achievements of the American labor movement that has made this country what it is. Or what it was—which begs the question, what has it become? Besides the fact that the postmodern workforce has inclined increasingly with the culture toward an American fantasy rather than an American dream, it is astonishing how the effect of a pandemic scare seems to have shown the true colors of our laborers. With the government printing monopoly money to assuage the effects of “panic porn” (as Bill Maher crassly but cunningly put it), Americans are choosing not to work. But what kind of people are we if we don’t want to work?
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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There is a Greek myth that echoes the biblical deluge in which a man and a woman, Deucalion and Pyrrha, are preserved in a boat from a flood sent by Zeus to destroy the Bronze Age. When the waters subside and Deucalion and Pyrrha lament the loss of the human race, they are cryptically instructed by Themis, goddess of justice, to throw the bones of their mother behind them. They interpret this to mean that they should throw stones—the bones of mother earth—and when they do, the stones thrown by Deucalion become men and those thrown by Pyrrha become women. And thus is the earth repeopled and the reminder given that man is a sturdy race, well-suited for toil.
The ancient myth speaks truly to the present-day melee and malaise, as most ancient myths do, mirroring what Catholics hold by faith in the Scripture regarding our common lot as fallen sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. Labor is a curse, an effect of sin, but it is also an integral post-Eden part of who we are. The sweat of our brow and the toil over the thorny earth is our fate together with the grace to find fulfillment and joy and salvation in labor, for God can and does bring good out of all things. But, when it comes to work, the worker must participate in His grace to make burdens light and yokes easy.
In a society that has closed off so many avenues of supernatural grace, however, it is only natural that that society should develop a type of TGIF aversion to work. It is a simple fact that much of the joy of labor is harder to come by these days where there is a kind of a cold, automated, mass-produced, policy-driven, corporate-interchangeable quality in the workplace and the workforce. Work has become overly concentrated on status and security, and far less on the union of labor and love—a real restitution. In short, labor has become more self-centered, which is never self-fulfilling or redeeming. Insulated as many are against discomfort and deficiency, overrun by laborsaving devices and the preoccupation over convenience, it is harder to find joy in hardship and suffering because hardship and suffering are generally regarded as the prime evils.
Without authentic labor and trial and trouble there can be no authentic joy at their overcoming. Without some struggle to survive, without striving against elements and difficulty and complexity, without connection to the earth and cooperation within a communal dynamic, there can be no true celebration or enjoyment. In Latin, “enjoy” finds its root in fruor, “I enjoy,” related to “fruitfulness”—not something of mere, immediate pleasures, but of the joy after some labor. This order of reality is our nature, and people are forgetting how to work because they have forgotten (or rejected) this principle, because they have forgotten (or rejected) what it means to live and enjoy, which is far more than just making a living.
While it is a Marxist principle that man is measured by his technologies, his means of production, there is another aspect of Marxism that has reared its ugly head in our times which seeks “equality” through frivolous government handouts, which impedes engagement with the good of work. The signs posted in shop windows and over highways proclaim an ingrained denial of the human condition in the denial of the fundamental role of labor in our lives. And denying human nature is part and parcel with society’s slant to have what it wants, when it wants, how it wants, and would rather not have to work for any of it.
Hearkening again to the ancients, “Without labor, nothing prospers,” Sophocles said. Ours is not a prosperous people, though we are wealthy, and the negative attitude toward work is reflective of that spiritual decline. It is incredible how difficult it has become to satisfy the expectations of the masses, which are always on the move, ever seeking but never seeming to find. So many have unwittingly become devoted to the search instead of the destination, as Goethe famously said. As prosperity has progressed, the capacity to be satiated by prosperity has regressed. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, melancholy Jaques calls such “wealth and ease” nothing more than “a stubborn will to please,” and he speaks rightly. The more society shifts into couch-potato culture, the more difficult it is to be as hardy, tough, and enduring as rock.
This Labor Day, as our nation contemplates the end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan, we can consider what Catholic writer and professor John Senior said in a conversation with his friend and colleague Dennis Quinn: “The idea of war—we fight so much, we forget what peace is. We lose sight of the end. We don’t know what we’re fighting for. We work, but we don’t know what we’re working for.” To which, Quinn replied, “We work to achieve some sort of security. Well, security means to be free from care. That’s what the word literally means, to be free from care. What do we mean by that, except some sort of internal and external freedom from the cares of the world, a kind of internal and external peace?”
If we enjoy no external or internal peace, can we call ourselves free? The attitude underlying much of the current concern and dissatisfaction over our work and our jobs and our careers is the result of a purely pragmatic attitude toward freedom and labor. True freedom and true peace involve the unimpeded capacity to realize the human good. Freedom in America is defined more and more as mere license, which enslaves when inclinations stray from the good. This American delusion defines liberty as getting whatever is wanted and, moreover, that the government is there to give it.
Senseless entitlement for handouts and bailouts is not freedom, however, but slavery. Effort is viewed solely as an instrument to be used to some external effect, and work is simply seen as an investment in human productivity, like Orwell’s pathetic Boxer and his pathetic mantra, “I must work harder.” By this, we live only to work, which is in opposition to the view of the ancients and the Catholic Faith, where we work in order to live. The subordination of men and women to purely functional or utilitarian ends reflects a limited view of labor, corresponding to a limited view of humanity, a view that is hardly a vision.
To reestablish the claims of a life higher than that which is merely pragmatic, we must first seek to regain a true and complete vision of who we are, a vision which will itself serve to illustrate the essential nature and force of a higher calling to labor and love and stewardship, in the possession of which we will gain perfection and regain paradise. Let us remind our fellow Catholics and fellow Americans by our lives about the value of hard work and the type of leisure that it brings—that leisure which Josef Pieper called the basis of culture. But leisure can only be a basis of culture if there has been hard work that has preceded it, that has made it possible. Let’s get to work.
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