There is dignity and value in work. You who live in America once knew this. You did not think lesser of a man because he got his hands dirty with honest toil. To the contrary, you thought it a grand thing to build and to create. But all that has changed…
Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Homer: On Work
Perhaps you think that because I celebrate the life of soldiers in my epics that I harbor a low view of those who labor with their hands. Nothing could be further from the truth. Though most of my soldiers would look down their noses at a farmer or a carpenter or a blacksmith, I do not share their prejudice against those who work.
I marvel, as you should as well, at the beauty, grace, and strength of my general-kings. Their high birth, their training in courage and endurance, their focus on glory are all things to be admired. When you people of the future cast off your aristocrats, you lost something precious. There is something to be said for having a class of people who are freed from manual labor and can thus devout themselves to the pursuit of virtue, honor, and excellence.
Still, there is dignity and value in work. You who live in America once knew this. You did not think lesser of a man because he got his hands dirty with honest toil. To the contrary, you put a high premium on craftsmanship. You thought it a grand thing to build and to create. You taught that idle hands were not a sign of nobility but of laziness, that a man who did not work was to be censured rather than praised.
But all that has changed. While continuing to forsake the good of aristocracy, you now insist that your own children be freed from working with their hands. You think it shameful, in fact, if your children take up a trade.
Oh, my friends of the future, open your eyes and see again what a high and glorious thing it is when a mortal uses his hands to shape chaos into order. War is a noble pursuit, but its arts are those of destruction. But the carpenter at his bench, the farmer at his plow, the potter at his wheel: all participate in the arts of creation.
When my Thetis, the immortal mother of Achilles, begs Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods, to make new armor for her son, he takes her hand and assures her that, if he could, he would lift Achilles out of the battle and keep him safe. But he does not have the power or the right to do such a thing. Instead, he makes the grieving mother a promise: that he will fashion on his forge such magnificent armor that Achilles will shine like a god when he returns to the battlefield.
How I love Hephaestus. Of all the gods of Olympus, he is the only one who works, the only one who fashions things of beauty with his own two hands. He, too, is the only one who is not perfect in form and beauty. He limps and sweats like a mortal man, yet he is a god nonetheless.
His workshop is a magic place, equipped with cauldrons that move on their own and bellows that blow on command. He even has maidservants made of metal who do his bidding. Each time I sing of his workshop, I smile like a child. Indeed, what young lad would not want to visit the smithy of Hephaestus? Children feel instinctively that all those who make things with their hands are magicians and conjurers.
Be like children again, and renew your sense of wonder for the arts of creation. Do not scorn those who know the inner secrets of wood and clay and stone. Give them the honor that is due them. They do with the elements of nature what bards like myself do with words; they set them in a new and deeper harmony. It is they who fight entropy and decay, who hold the world together.
Did you notice where my heroines spend most of their time? They are not idle busybodies gossiping in the market stalls. They sit at their loom and weave magnificent clothing for their families. Together with the farmers and the carpenters, the potters and the blacksmiths, the musicians and the poets, they transform life from an eternal struggle into a thing of beauty. They, as much as the kings and the soldiers and the lawgivers, make civilization possible.
I hope you noticed in my song of Troy that no soldier dies anonymously. Not only do they have names; they have unique stories. Those stories are so vital to me that I stop my battle scenes again and again to tell them in their fullness.
And the stories I tell rarely concern their skill with the sword. I tell instead of their lives back home: on the farm, in the shop, at the forge. I tell of the weapons they made, not the weapons they used; the sons they raised, not the ones they killed; the ships they built, not the death those ships brought.
To the great generals, they are nothing more than causalities of war. To me, they are individual men who were dragged away from a kingdom of creation to serve in a kingdom of destruction. I will not let their stories go unheard. They are to me the architects of that living space for which the Trojan War, for which all wars, is fought.
Even in the midst of death and despair that space continues to persist. And that space is defined by those who work the soil and the wood and the metal. It is their stories that give meaning to that space, even as the stories of Achilles and Hector and Ajax and Diomedes give meaning to the war between Greece and Troy.
Again, I challenge and implore you to open your eyes anew to the value and significance of work. Don’t let the shining armor that Achilles wears into battle blind you to the fact that that armor was made by a craftsman who took pride in the labor of his hands.
Don’t let the heat and noise of battle distract you from the arts that build and restore. Remember the magic workshop of Hephaestus!
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from “Vulcan Forging the Thunderbolts of Jupiter” (1636 – 1638), by Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy of Wikipedia.