31 July 2015

Labour in Ecclesiasticus

A few years ago, I found myself in the position of having to teach a couple of very gifted 9th-graders a book I'd never read before: Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. At the time I was on the cusp of rethinking at least a few of my conservative beliefs, but that story is for another time. From my own perspective, the current topic actually only ends up being political in a roundabout way.

At one point Burke is responding to a statement by the chancellor of France, Jean-Sylvain Bailly, to the effect 'that all occupations are honourable'. Burke responds:

If he meant only, that no honest employment was disgraceful, he would not have gone beyond the truth. But in asserting, that any thing is honourable, we imply some distinction in its favour. The occupation of an hair-dresser, or of a working tallow-chandler, cannot be a matter of honour to any person--to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments. Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule. In this you think you are combating prejudice, but we are at war with nature. [1]

Now the interesting thing here to me was not Burke's sentiment, as striking as we may now find it, but a footnote that he apparently meant to support his statements. There, he quotes the Authorised Version translation of 'Ecclesiasticus, chap. xxxviii', verse 24, 25, and 27:

'The wisdom of a learned man cometh by opportunity of leisure: and he that hath little business shall become wise.' -- 'How can he get wisdom that holdeth the plough, and that glorieth in the goad; that driveth oxen; and is occupied in their labours; and whose talk is of bullocks?'

'So every carpenter and work-master that laboureth night and day.' &c. [2]

Unfortunately, while I had dipped into 'Ecclesiasticus', also known as the Wisdom of Sirach, or just Sirach, on occasion, I had never read the whole thing through and had certainly never come across this passage. But the subject of learning, work, and leisure was one that interested me and continues to do so, and I really had to go look up the whole passage. As beautiful as the KJV is, I shall quote from my chief reading translation of the Deutero-canonical books, that of Edgar J. Goodspeed, beginning at 38:24 and continuing through the rest of the chapter.

A scribe attains wisdom through the opportunities of leisure [scholes],
And the man who has little business to do can become wise.
How can the man who holds the plow become wise,
Who glories in handling the ox-goad?
Who drives oxen, and guides them at their work,
And whose discourse is with the sons of bulls?
He sets his mind on turning his furrows,
And his anxiety is about fodder for heifers.
It is so with every craftsman and builder,
Who keeps at work at night as well as by day.
Some cut carved seals,
And elaborate variety of design;
Another puts his mind on painting a likeness,
And is anxious to complete his work.
It is so with the smith sitting by his anvil,
And expert in working in iron;
The smoke of the fire reduces his flesh,
And he exerts himself in the heat of the furnace.
He bends his ear to the sound of the hammer,
And his eyes are on the pattern of the implement.
He puts his mind on completing his work,
And he is anxious to finish preparing it.
It is so with the potter, as he sits at his work,
And turns the wheel with his foot;
He is constantly careful about his work,
And all his manufacture is by measure;
He will shape the clay with his arm,
And bend its strength with his feet;
He puts his mind on finishing the glazing,
And he is anxious to make his furnace clean.

All these rely on their hands;
And each one is skilful in his own work;
Without them, no city can be inhabited,
And men will not live in one or go about in it.
But they are not sought for to advise the people,
And in the public assembly they do not excel.
They do not sit on the judge's seat,
And they do not think about the decision of lawsuits;
They do not utter instruction or judgment,
And they are not found using proverbs.
Yet they support the fabric of the world [alla ktisma aionos sterisousin],
And their prayer is in the practice of their trade
[he deesis auton en ergasia technes]. [3]

While Sirach certainly seems to support Burke's belief that manual labourers, craftsmen, and tradesmen lack the leisure to attain the necessary learning to be of value in public affairs and decisions, the most striking aspect of the passage to me was not the elabourate underscoring of this point. Instead, two things caught my attention.

First, the emphasis Sirach places on the attention and care with which these men do their work. The very thing that to his mind, and Burke's, prevents them devoting care to wisdom, learning, and public affairs, is their intense devotion to their labours. One does not get the sense that these men are naturally or constitutionally incapable of doing the work of the learned, rather, they apply themselves to other work with the same rapt attention that a scribe gives to instruction, judgment, and proverbs. Indeed, it is the same attention that Simone Weil--surely in agreement with the Fathers--has called the chief characteristic of prayer: 'The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer.' [4]

Second, just as the workers themselves are depicted with surprising sympathy, so their work is not denigrated either. The importance of such work is not given the same emphasis as the devotion of the workers, but we see it in two verses, thirty-two and thirty-four:

Without them, no city can be inhabited,
And men will not live in one or go about in it.

Yet they support the fabric of the world
And their prayer is in the practice of their trade.

In the words of Fr Patrick Henry Reardon, 'Even as he contrasts the varying labors of the scribe and craftsman, however, we don't find in Sirach the signs of disrespect and disparagement obvious in other authors who elaborated the same contrast....Sirach's respectful tone is closer to Hesiod's Works & Days.' [5] In his introduction to the Deutero-canonical books, David deSilva agrees:

[The Egyptian wisdom book] Satire on the Trades, earlier attributed to Duauf but more recently ascribed to Kheti (Pritchard, ed., 1950: 432), was probably used in some form (or, at least, a work that included essentially the same content) by Ben Sira as a resource for 38:24-39:11. Both speak of the importance of leisure for learning the scribal arts, the arduousness of a variety of occupations involving manual labor, and the greater honor that comes to the scribe. Ben Sira's descriptions of the crafts of the farmer, smith, and potter include many specifics found in the older, Egyptian text, which, however, includes many more occupations in its litany and is much more negative about the value of these people and the quality of their life. Ben Sira exhibits here a considerably greater degree of respect for manual laborers and artisans than does his source (see 38:32, 34). [6]
Indeed, I would argue that 'respect' is too weak a word for these two statements, as terse as they may be. Sirach has in fact told us that the man who works with his hands is fundamental to human civilisation and culture, and furthermore, that his work is his prayer (deesis, or 'supplication'). [7] The significance of verse 32 is that the scribe (who is ultimately the theologian), whose work Sirach goes on to praise as being higher, cannot do what he does without the labourer, whose toil furnishes the leisure that the scribe requires (v. 24). The same observation can of course be applied to all those whose vocation is in the 'liberal arts'.
But as important as this insight is, particularly for practitioners of the liberal arts who may have a tendency to look down their noses at the so-called servile arts, it still may leave the labourer himself a bit in the cold. One thinks perhaps of the milkman, Tevye, who longs to be able to study Scripture and discuss it with the learned men. It seems to me that however much we may need to recall the utility of work, its service of some end that lies outside itself, we find in verse 34 an affirmation of work that joins it directly to the chief end of man, thus giving it its fullest possible meaning.
Ultimately, however, the deesis of the hands must be joined to the deesis of the mind. Work is sanctified most fully when it is joined with the prayer of the heart. As St Basil the Great writes:
For prayer and psalmody, however, as also, indeed for some other duties, every hour is suitable, that, while our hands are busy at their tasks, we may praise God sometimes with the tongue (when this is possible or, rather, when it is conducive to edification); or, if not, with the heart, at least, in psalms, hymns and spiritual canticles, as it is written [Col. 3:16]. Thus, in the midst of our work can we fulfill the duty of prayer, giving thanks to Him who has granted strength to our hands for performing our tasks and cleverness to our minds for acquiring knowledge, and for having provided the materials, both that which is in the instruments we use and that which forms the matter of the arts in which we may be engaged, praying that the work of our hands may be directed toward its goal, the good pleasure of God.
Thus we acquire a recollected spirit--when in every action we beg from God the success of our labors and satisfy our debt of gratitude to Him who gave us the power to do the work, and when, as has been said, we keep before our minds the aim of pleasing Him. If this is not the case, how can there be consistency in the words of the Apostle bidding us to 'pray without ceasing' [I Thess. 5:17], with those others, 'we worked night and day' [2 Thess. 3:8]. [8]
[1] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France & On the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event, ed. Conor Cruise O'Brien (London: Penguin, 2004), p. 138.
[2] Ibid., p. 138.
[3] The Apocrypha: An American Translation, tr. Edgar J. Goodspeed (NY: Vintage, 1989), pp. 297-8.
[4] Simone Weil, 'Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God', The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being, ed. Richard M. Gamble (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2008), p. 589.
[5] Fr Patrick Henry Reardon, Wise Lives: Orthodox Christian Reflections on 'The Wisdom of Sirach' (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar, 2009), p. 130.
[6] David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context, & Significance (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002), p. 168.

[7] The Authorised Version of course appears to miss completely the significance of deesis in this verse, rendering the line rather misleadingly as 'all their desire is in the work of their craft'.

[8] St Basil the Great, Ascetic Works, Vol. 9 of The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, tr. Sr M. Monica Wagner, CSC [NY: Fathers of the Church, 1950], p. 308.

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