To counteract the disorder of a city engulfed by internal strife and upheaval, we in the West would do well to rediscover the true meaning of vocation. We may cultivate an abundant yield simply by applying the virtues we associate with the master craftsman—diligence, recognition of quality, and striving for mastery—to whatever we do, whether work or leisure.
A characteristic feature of contemporary society is a lack of appreciation for traditional craftsmanship. Few have captured this sentiment with as much verve as the celebrated American cartoonist Bill Watterson, who once exclaimed that “We don’t value craftsmanship anymore! All we value is ruthless efficiency, and I say we deny our own humanity that way! Without appreciation for grace and beauty, there’s no pleasure in creating things and no pleasure in having them!”
To the extent that it undervalues craftsmanship, modernity again proves itself the exception. Indeed, for much of Western history the craftsman occupied an honored and sacred place in the social fabric, whether brewer, builder, or blacksmith. We can glean an impression of the way contemporary attitudes towards craftsmanship differ from those of our forebears by looking to the various guilds and professional associations that proliferated in Europe’s cities and kingdoms during the Middle Ages, and which were themselves vestiges of similar institutions that dated from antiquity, such as the Roman collegium. At a practical level, the guild system helped to set fair prices and ensure that what was produced met given standards of quality. At the same time, it served to bind practitioners of a given craft together in a fraternal manner. As G.K. Chesterton argued in his work, A Short History of England, because membership in a guild was predicated on a long period of apprenticeship that in turn depended on mutual trust and cooperation among its members, the antagonistic “class struggle” that would later plague industrial society was rarely to be found:
A Guild was, very broadly speaking, a Trade Union in which every man was his own employer. That is, a man could not work at any trade unless he would join the league and accept the laws of that trade; but he worked in his own shop with his own tools, and the whole profit went to himself. But the word ‘employer’ marks a modern deficiency which makes the modern use of the word ‘master’ quite inexact. A master meant something quite other and greater than a ‘boss.’ It meant a master of the work, where it now means only a master of the workmen.
In addition to stable employment and good social standing, mastery of an art or craft in the guild served a spiritual function. To the medieval imagination, the efforts exerted by the craftsman in honing his art were conceived in metaphorical terms that evoked the soul’s journey toward spiritual perfection and unity with God. This is still reflected in the word journeyman, or the rank one achieved after progressing from the apprentice stage but before being recognized as a master. We also find an inkling of it in the word culture, which applies the same imagery of reaping, sowing, and abundant fertility associated with the word agriculture to the cultivation of the soul and human personality. In this sense, imagining one’s profession in terms of a craft took mere work and imbued it with an initiatory dimension, such that eventually acquiring the ability to produce a masterpiece or work of high quality reflected a similar attainment in inner, spiritual terms. A lucid depiction of this ‘initiatory’ aspect can be found in the work of the French scholar René Guénon:
By this attachment to principles human activity could be said to be as it were ‘transformed,’ and instead of being limited to what it is in itself, namely, a mere external manifestation, it is integrated with the tradition, and constitutes for those who carry it out an effective means of participation in the tradition, and this is as much as to say that it takes on a truly ‘sacred’ and ‘ritual’ character. That is why it can be said that, in any such civilization, ‘every occupation is a priesthood.’
As Guénon’s description suggests, the rigorous development of skill and mastery implicit in the phrase ‘honing one’s craft’ not only worked to orient the craftsman toward the divine, but also pulled something of the divine down into the individual craftsman. Through the fruits of his labors, this ‘divine substance’ could then be passed on to the world at large. We glean something of it when we allow ourselves to partake of the craftsman’s art. We are attuned to it when the resonance of a maestro’s violin strings conjures up a pang of emotion in us, or when we momentarily recover our sense of grandeur while passing through the shadow cast by a Gothic spire.
Unfortunately, such experiences have become increasingly novel in modern, industrial life, where works of quality, beauty, and substance are seemingly overwhelmed by the mass-produced, the plastic, and the cookie-cutter. To the conservative mind, this lack of beauty and cultivation goes some way in explaining the insatiable “hunger” that permeates modern life, and which we all too often try to alleviate with cheap substitutes. In his 1946 work Die Perfektion der Technik (rendered in English as The Failure of Technology) the German author and lawyer Friedrich-Georg Jünger linked this gnawing feeling of starvation to the technical (as opposed to spiritual) mentality on which much of modern life is based:
When we enter a factory, be it a cotton mill, a foundry, a saw mill, or a powerhouse, everywhere we get the same impression. The consuming, devouring, gluttonous motion racing through time restlessly and insatiably, reveals the never stilled and never to be stilled hunger of the machine… [a]nd the rational mind which stands behind the machine and keeps watch over its automatic, mechanical motion—it too is hungry, and hunger follows it everywhere. It cannot shake off hunger; it cannot free itself from it; it cannot be stilled, however hard it may try… [f]or rationalization only sharpens hunger and actually increases consumption. This growing consumption is a sign not of abundance but of poverty; it is bound up with worry, want, and toil.
In the midst of such famine, can it come as any great surprise that we have lately proven so enthusiastic in our efforts to tear down and dismantle? That we prefer endless innovation at the expense of what is tried and true? Long-accustomed to staving off our hunger with what is quick and easily digestible, as a culture we no longer have any reverence for that which reserves its nourishing fruits for the most devoted of seekers.
Implicit in the conception of craftsmanship advanced here is the idea of vocation, which comes from the Latin word vocare, or “to call.” In the Catholic tradition, one’s vocation is the special task to which a person is called by God. Though one is ultimately free to ignore it, he does so at the risk of never discovering the true extent of his abilities. Moreover, vocation is not something that the individual chooses, as if out of a college course catalogue. Rather, the vocation chooses the individual, and he must consciously endeavor to uncover what that vocation is. As professor of philosophy Kerry Walters explains, vocation “demands a sense of direction, a sense of individual mission and purpose.” When we realize our vocation, we discern the “spiritual true north by which to plot our course.”
In contrast to charting out a “true north,” today we hear all too often of friends and colleagues who are merely “working for the weekend,” or who move frequently from one career to another whenever a more lucrative opportunity happens to come along. While there is certainly nothing wrong with time away from the office or taking advantage of new or more lucrative opportunities, the emphasis placed on these considerations indicate that the idea of a genuine calling or vocation has gradually become something foreign to the Western imagination. As Ananda Coomaraswamy, the traditionalist philosopher largely responsible for introducing Eastern religions to the West, wrote:
Our hankering for a state of leisure or leisure state is proof of the fact that most of us are working at a task to which we could never have been called by anyone but a salesman, certainly not by God or by our own natures. Traditional craftsmen whom I have known in the East cannot be dragged away from their work, and will work overtime to their own pecuniary loss.
In classical philosophy, vocation has its corollary in Plato, in whose work we often find repeated the following imperative: “Do thine own work, and know thyself.” Indeed, finding and following one’s vocation depends first on one’s having arrived at the hard-won self-knowledge that only comes from arranging one’s inner faculties in a hierarchical way—a process of spiritual development that Plato likens to the proper ordering of a city. As Yale law professor Anthony Kronman explains:
Like most Greeks, Plato identifies the being of a thing—of an animal, a person, or even an institution like a city—with its well-being, and its well-being, in turn, with a certain hierarchical and harmonic order of its parts. To be disorderly is, on this characteristically Greek view, simply not to be at all. Thus a city that is divided by factional disputes must at some point, according to Plato, lose its identity as a city and become instead a mere collection of individuals. And a person whose soul is similarly divided must eventually lose his personality, this distinctive unity that makes him more than just a collection of parts.
Pulling all of these disparate threads together, we can speculate one of the root causes of the Western cultural decline that seems so pervasive today: In the world that has abandoned the ideas of craft and vocation, we see that individuals have seemingly been left disordered. This disorder manifests itself in the insatiable feelings of “hunger” that have become difficult to escape in our world of mass products and machinery. Departing from Plato’s metaphor of the well-ordered soul, we find a link between the internal dissolution of the individual and the disorder of a city that has been engulfed by internal strife and upheaval.
In the end, we are left to consider how long a culture or civilization comprised of disordered persons can persist before it too begins to lack a true being. How long before it descends into the kind of chaos that we might expect from the proverbial city or state rent asunder by civil strife and factional disputes? Perhaps we have already reached this point. To counteract it, we in the West would do well to rediscover the true meaning of vocation. Thankfully, we needn’t reestablish the guild system or devote ourselves to stonemasonry to do this. Rather, we may cultivate an abundant yield simply by applying the virtues we associate with the master craftsman—diligence, recognition of quality, and striving for mastery—to whatever we do, whether work or leisure.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
G.K. Chesterton, A Short History of England
René Guénon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times
Friedrich-Georg Jünger, The Failure of Technology
Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art: Why Exhibit Works of Art?
Anthony T. Kronman, The Lost Lawyer: Failing Ideals of the Legal Profession
Kerry Walters, Finding Perfect Joy with St. Francis of Assisi
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been brightened for clarity.