The Beauty of Work, the Injustice of Toil
The Beauty of Work, the Injustice of Toil

The Beauty of Work, the Injustice of Toil

Why John Ruskin should be a patron saint of the "faith and work" conversation.
March 1 st 2015
Appears in Spring 2015

The graveyard shift is a gift when you work on ovens that run at 900 degrees. That's a visceral memory I have from the season I spent working on an air filter assembly line in the FRAM factory in Stratford, Ontario. Even on warm summer evenings, the cool air piped into the factory was a tiny bit of respite from the nonstop heat of the ovens that Steve Ray and I attended on ten hour shifts.

We would bike to work together in the evening and then take our stations on the line. To our left we could see the various stages of construction. To start, a machine would dispense liquid plastic into a metal tray—a ring of fluid that would eventually become the hard plastic circle of the filter—and then begin its journey on a conveyor belt. It would next pass by a woman who inserted a circular screen into the fluid. The next person in line would insert the corrugated paper that would function as the filter. Then someone would insert another screen on the inside. Half of the filter was assembled and was winding its way toward the oven that would bake the liquid into hard plastic. But the oven would also light the paper on fire. That's where I came in. My job, for ten hours straight, was to place a metal cover on the filters before they made their way into the U-shaped oven. Across from me, Steve would then take the caps off and turn over the filters to repeat the process on the other side.

It is better to embrace the imperfection of free work than the perfection bought with the degradation of workers.

Unlike jobs I've had in other factories—in a feed mill slagging 50 kilo bags, or making airbrake suspension springs out of hundred pound slabs of metal—this job at FRAM wasn't back-breaking. But it was monotonous. While hard labour can be oppressive and exploitive, the tedium of doing one activity over and over in the wee hours of the morning can be dehumanizing in a different sort of way. We were effectively reduced to cogs in a machine, biological robots with a "job" that was just a single task whittled down by the efficiencies of the division of labour. The work was mind-numbingly boring.

Then again, as a young husband in my first year of marriage, I was grateful for well-paying work. (I had been laid off from a construction job a week before landing the job at FRAM.) While I can recall a few late night conversations with Steve about the alienation of labour and Jeremiah's prophetic critique of injustice for workers (Jer. 22:13), for the most part we were happy to have a job. No doubt my placid approach to all of this was linked to the fact that I didn't plan to spend a lifetime there. But Steve did, and he didn't waste much time wondering about how his work was "meaningful"—or at least didn't let such haunting questions distract him from keeping his head down and making it through each shift. Indeed, I can imagine how Steve would respond to the question: "Meaning? What are you talking about? I've got mortgage payments." Hoping for meaningful work is a luxury few enjoy.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Vocation

I think of this season in my life whenever I read the literature generated by the burgeoning "faith and work" conversation here in North America. The core convictions undergirding this conversation are close to my heart: a vision of Christ's lordship that extends to every sphere of our lives; a refusal of any dualism that carves up our lives into "sacred" and "secular" compartments; a deeply Reformational affirmation of the goodness of creaturely life; a working out of the Reformation's "sanctification of ordinary life"; and more. All of these convictions generate a deep sense of why our daily work matters to God, as well as an expansive understanding of vocation. God calls us to bear his image by cultivating his creation, unpacking and unfurling all of its potential in a vast array of work, from potato farming to parenting. Your work matters to God.

Absolutely. It's just that the "work" we talk about when we talk about "faith and work" so often tends to be the work of professionals and creatives. Our examples and conversations gravitate toward work in which workers have significant degrees of autonomy and agency and the power to direct and shape what they do. The "faith and work" fellows programs that are sprouting up across the country tend to be populated by folks in finance and fine art not firemen and farmers. The "working class" doesn't often seem to show up at our "faith and work" events.

There's nothing malicious in such exclusions, nor is it in any way intentional. But the bias of the conversation toward professional, "creative," largely white-collar work means that many people who undertake manual or menial labour simply don't see themselves as having a voice in this conversation. How might we expand the conversation to include those who work with their hands? How would the conversation have to change? What difference would it make to our reflections on faith and work if we imagined our audience included those working the trades? What do we have to say to Steve Ray working on that air filter assembly line?

I want to suggest we could learn how to expand and shift the conversation if we looked to a new conversation partner, one we'll find in the past: the Victorian critic and writer John Ruskin (1819-1900).

Making Academics Sweat

Try to picture this: Oscar Wilde, the acerbic aphorist and consummate dandy who flitted through London wearing capes and feathers, bent over a shovel building a dirt road in rural Oxfordshire. This is not one of Wilde's publicity stunts. This is part of his Oxford education as designed by one of his most influential teachers: the Slade Professor of Fine Art, John Ruskin.

Nonplussed by the Oxford fixation on leisure and athletics, as his biographer Joan Abse notes, Ruskin argued with his colleagues that what the students needed to experience "was the pleasure and the arduousness of useful, physical work." That conjunction of pleasure and arduousness will seem odd to anyone who has never been part of a team engaged in manual labour. But Ruskin knew otherwise, and thus instituted what we might call Oxford's first-ever "service-learning" program. The work crew building the road to Ferry Hincksey included young men who would go on to become leading cultural figures in England, including Wilde and historian Arnold Toynbee.

But Ruskin was not only concerned that the country's elite might embrace and experience the virtues of manual labor; he also wanted to empower the working classes through education and reflection. Thus while on the one hand he instituted the work program for Oxford students, he also helped establish the Working Men's College alongside Christian socialists like F.D. Maurice.

The inaugural reading for the first lecture at the Working Men's College on October 31st, 1854 (Reformation Day, we might note!) was a chapter from Ruskin's landmark book, The Stones of Venice called "The Nature of the Gothic." A bracing manifesto, it articulates not just an aesthetic vision but Ruskin's understanding of the nature of craftsmanship. Delving into this iconic essay helps us get a sense of Ruskin's contemporary relevance.

The Price Of Perfection

In "The Nature of the Gothic," Ruskin distinguishes the "Gothic" architecture of northern Europe from other "schools"—Byzantine, Classical (Greek), and so forth. But Ruskin doesn't just talk about architectural styles; he is fundamentally interested in the different societies that generate them. He is less focused on the buildings and more focused on the work that produces them—and the experience of workers who build them.

Ruskin admits that Gothic architecture has a kind of "savageness" about it, especially when compared to the pristine perfection of, say, an Egyptian pyramid or a Palladian column. The intricacies of Gothic cathedrals in Cologne or Amiens exhibit a kind of beautiful mess when compared to the neoclassical lines of, say, the U.S. Supreme Court building.

What interested Ruskin was the price of the perfection we so prize. And he was unabashed in his diagnosis: such perfection was the product of different sorts of slavery, social organizations in which the workman was denied any independence or autonomy. Nor did Ruskin pull any punches in drawing a parallel with the present-day: "[T]he modern English mind has this much in common with that of the Greek, that it intensely desires, in all things, the utmost completion or perfection." This is a fine and natural desire, Ruskin counsels, but not when a desire for perfection trumps other more noble goods:

[W]hile in all things that we see or do, we are to desire perfection, and strive for it, we are nevertheless not to set the meaner thing, in its narrow accomplishment, above the nobler thing, in its mighty progress; not to esteem smooth minuteness above shattered majesty; not to prefer mean victory to honourable defeat. [...] But, above all, in our dealings with the souls of other men, we are to take care how we check, by severe requirements or narrow caution, efforts which might otherwise lead to a noble issue.

Ruskin doesn't shy from making us uncomfortable: "And now, reader, look round this English room of yours, about which you have been proud so often, because the work of it was so good and strong, and the ornaments of it so finished." Look again, he exhorts, and reconsider the perfection and accuracy of everything you see: "Many a time you have exulted over them, and thought how great England was, because her slightest work was done so thoroughly. Alas! If read rightly, these perfectnesses are signs of a slavery in our England." The price of our mass-market uniformity and machineground perfection is too high when it reduces the worker to a servile tool. It is better to embrace the imperfection of free work than the perfection bought with the degradation of workers.

The Beautiful Mistakes Of Craftsmanship

To the so-called perfection and uniformity of Classical (and Modern) architecture, Ruskin contrasts the beautiful imperfection of the Gothic:

Go forth again to gaze upon the old cathedral front, where you have smiled so often at the fantastic ignorance of the old sculptors: examine once more those ugly goblins, and formless monsters, and stern statues, anatomiless and rigid; but do not mock at them, for they are signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone.

The "modern" pre-occupation with pristine perfection, exquisite finish, and predictable uniformity is bought with a price: the effective enslavement of the "divided" labourer who is reduced to a tool. But the Gothic— which is a distinctly Christian architectural grammar—rejects such slavery because it embodies a fundamentally different understanding of work and the nature of the worker: "[I]n the mediaeval, or especially Christian, system of ornament, this slavery is done away with altogether; Christianity having recognized, in small things as well as great, the individual value of every soul." While we wouldn't want to romanticize the situation of medieval craftsman, Ruskin rightly notes the degree of freedom and autonomy granted such workers in their craft. This includes a recognition of both the limits and nobility of creaturely finitude:

[I]t not only recognizes its value; it confesses its imperfection, in only bestowing dignity upon the acknowledgment of unworthiness. [...] Therefore, to every spirit which Christianity summons to her service, her exhortation is: Do what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do; neither let your effort be shortened for fear of failure, nor your confession silenced for fear of shame. And it is, perhaps, the principal admirableness of the Gothic schools of architecture, that they thus receive the results of the labour of inferior minds; and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole.

There are two important lessons we learn from Ruskin in his ruminations on the Gothic: (1) a deep affirmation of the beauty of handiwork, manual labour, and the nobility of the trades; and (2) a concerted attention to the contemporary conditions under which so many toil, with an abiding interest in the systemic aspects of labour in a society. Our "faith and work" conversations need to spend much more time on the first theme, paying attention to the work of Matthew Crawford (Shop Class as Soul Craft), Richard Sennett (The Craftsman), and others. Since Crawford's voice is featured elsewhere in this issue, here I want to focus on the second aspect of Ruskin's contribution: his critique of the conditions of labour.

Degradation And Dehumanization

While Ruskin's prose is sometimes a bit purple in this regard, and while we wouldn't want to look to him as an economist, there is something downright prophetic in his concern about the conditions of labour in industrialized England. Indeed, his voice might give us new ears to hear Jeremiah and Amos—without the misguided statism and default progressivism that so often attends other such critiques.

For Ruskin, what generates resentment about inequality is not inequality per se but the conditions under which we work. "It is verily this degradation of the operative into a machine," he observes, "which, more than any other evil of the times, is leading the mass of the nations everywhere into vain, incoherent, destructive struggling for a freedom of which they cannot explain the nature themselves." In industrialized societies— and, we might add, post-industrial societies— it is not sheer lack that generates destabilizing protest.

It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means of pleasure. It is not that men are pained by the scorn of the upper classes, but they cannot endure their own; for they feel that the kind of labour to which they are condemned is verily a degrading one, and makes them less than men.

You don't have to picture a Dickens novel to understand this; it's a dynamic familiar to anyone who has seen Office Space. The muchvaunted division of labour, he warns, doesn't just divvy up tasks; it can fragment human dignity. Ruskin plays on Adam Smith's favourite example of the division of labour: pin-making.

Now it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day; but if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished,—sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is—we should think there might be some loss in it also. And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this,— that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages.

That everyone has a smartphone and cable TV is not justification for dehumanizing work. These material benefits are only smokescreens to obscure the way so much work continues to degrade human beings into mere "operatives," even if we never get our fingernails dirty.

It can be met only by a right understanding, on the part of all classes, of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy; by a determined sacrifice of such convenience, or beauty, or cheapness as is to be got only by the degradation of the workman; and by equally determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour.

And that can't be changed just by the "attitude" you bring to your work. Nor will it be transformed if you see your work as an expression of the cultural mandate and the goodness of creation. It requires change that is systemic and social. It requires change in the cultures of industries and corporations, as well as nudges in law and policy. If the faith and work conversation is worth its salt it should encourage a generation of new Ruskins willing to name these realities and call out the powers-that-be to change the very conditions of labour.

A Two-Pronged Program For Good Work

Ruskin's passion about these matters never subsided. Indeed, later in his life the passion boiled over into a kind of fuming, righteous anger that had to find an outlet. He found two: a series of "Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain" that he published under the cryptic title, Fors Clavigera (though he emphasized the letters were addressed to "masters and princes as well"). The letters were meant to rouse the consciousness of both the aristocracy and the working class with a vision for how society—and hence work—could be otherwise. Skeptical of politics as a solution, Ruskin saw civil society as the source of transformative power. So he took what gifts he had—as a writer, commentator, and critic—and put them to work in the service of good work.

The letters that comprise Fors Clavigera feel like a kind of Victorian Tumblr, an eclectic, from-the-hip mix of commentary, quotation, jeremiad, and vision-casting. In an 1880 letter in which Ruskin documents the deplorable living and working conditions of the poor in England and France, he reminded his readers about the point of his endeavor. "Every syllable" of Fors Clavigera, he emphasized, was bent on revaluing "the arts—which the vulgar economists are wholly incapable of weighing; and a yet more vast realm of human enjoyment—the spiritual affections—which materialist thinkers are alike incapable of imagining." My colleague, Brian Dijkema, director of the Cardus Work and Economics program, works in precisely this same space—between economic reductionism and materialistic disenchantment, with a view to revaluing work in our penultimate existence in light of an ultimate good. In this sense, Ruskin has his heirs. May their tribe increase.

The second, related, endeavor that would occupy the rest of Ruskin's life (and consume the bulk of his personal wealth) was the Guild of St. George. The vision was to create a "National Store" that would stand in stark opposition to the national debt burdening government—not a "company store" of goods and products but a national treasury of land to be worked, art to be appreciated, and schools to educate thoughtful workers. You can see how the scheme grew out of Ruskin's experience with the Working Men's College. The Guild of St. George would be a movement within civil society, bringing together the upper classes and the working classes in a common effort. Rather than found separatist colonies, these would be resources embedded in the nation's cities—starting in industrial Sheffield and then expanding. The Guild of St. George was, by some measures, a beautiful failure. Or you could say it was an example of "faithful presence," bearing witness to how work could and should be otherwise.

What if the growing network of "faith and work" centers and institutes across the continent looked more like the Guild of St. George? We like to stage our "faith and work" conferences in Manhattan and Seattle and San Francisco. Are we willing to invest in the "Sheffields" of our day? Do we have the audacity to bring the skilled trades and venture capitalists into conversation around a common goal? While we extol the creative work of artists, can we get equally excited about others who work with their hands— plumbers and electricians and hairdressers? Where's the Veritas program for trade schools?

As we devote energy and resources to "good work," we shouldn't just be concerned with "meaningful" work; we should be equally concerned with just labour conditions. Good work, Ruskin observed, happens in good societies. The good society is one that avoids economic reductionism without being economically naïve. To be heirs of Ruskin is to undertake an aggressive program of what

Abraham Kuyper liked to call an "architectonic critique" of society—one that is sensitive to the plight of the working class and not just excited about the creative class.

All our talk about good work isn't worth a penny if it doesn't generate concern about unemployment, for example. Kuyper was unabashed about this: "God has not willed that one should drudge hard and yet have no bread for himself and his family," he wrote. "Still less has God willed that any man with hands to work and a will to work should perish from hunger or be reduced to the beggar's just because there is no work." Similarly, all our celebrations of vocation ring hollow if we ignore those for whom such talk is an unimaginable luxury.

As we rightly discern how the Gospel relates to our work, let's move beyond mere celebration and affirmation. We might start by recognizing that many of us who have the luxury of "creative" work also have dirty hands. We are complicit in systems that too often disempower the disadvantaged, in structures that generate dehumanizing work. Our passion for good work should include advocacy for those who get their hands dirty in jobs we all silently ask them to do.

James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith was the editor-in-chief of Comment from 2013-2018, and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the new editor-in-chief of Image Journal


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