Friday, December 17, 2010

It's Off to Work We Go!

The tension between the way elitists view work and a more moderate view of work runs through history. The nobles of Athens viewed themselves as superior in all ways to their slaves, and saw this superiority confirmed in the fact that the slaves had to work. Work was one of the worst things that could happen to a person in the minds of the Greek aristocracy of the classical era, and it was a badge of shame.

By contrast, the emerging Judeo-Christian tradition saw something respectable in work. The dignity of every human life lent itself to labor, and human effort dignified the task. Yale's Kenneth Latourette describes the attitude toward work among the monks of the early middle ages:

The Benedictine rule and the many derived from it probably helped to give dignity to labour, including manual labour in the fields. This was in striking contrast with the aristocratic conviction of the servile status of manual work which prevailed in much of ancient society and which was also the attitude of the warriors and non‑monastic ecclesiastics who constituted the upper middle classes of the Middle Ages ... To the monasteries ... was obviously due much clearing of land and improvement in methods of agriculture. In the midst of barbarism, the monasteries were centres of orderly and settled life and examples of the skillful management of the soil. Under the Carolingians monks were assigned the duty of road‑building and road repair. Until the rise of the towns in the eleventh century, they were pioneers in industry and commerce. The shops of the monasteries preserved the industries of Roman times ... The earliest use of marl in improving the soil is attributed to them. The great French monastic orders led in the agricultural colonization of Western Europe. Especially did the Cistercians make their houses centres of agriculture and contribute to improvements in that occupation. With their lay brothers and their hired labourers, they became great landed proprietors. In Hungary and on the German frontier the Cistercians were particularly important in reducing the soil to cultivation and in furthering colonization. In Poland, too, the German monasteries set advanced standards in agriculture and introduced artisans and craftsmen.

In addition to being centers of learning, preserving the intellectual treasures of Greek and Roman civilization, the monasteries were also centers of work, and of giving a value and meaning to work. Here we see the emergence of notions which speak indirectly to human equality and human dignity. This might perhaps explain why Europe didn't embrace institutionalized slavery to the extent that other continents did: European culture, and western civilization, could not bring itself to believe that one man was inferior to others merely because he found himself in the role of a manual laborer.