“How can he become wise who handles the plough?
…each becomes wise through his work.”
Ben Sira and Aristotle are of one mind regarding the scribe’s pursuit of wisdom. “The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure; and he who has little business may become wise.” (Sirach 38:34) Wisdom in the normal and proper sense comes in the pursuit of higher knowledge, a pursuit that demands both setting one’s heart on higher things and freedom from mundane pursuits.
But the worker of the land “sets his heart on ploughing furrows, and he is careful about fodder for the heifers.” “So too is every craftsman and master workman who labors by night as well as by day…” Ben Sira points to what is both the manual craftsman’s challenge and his path to fulfillment.
Going through a variety of types of craftsmen, Ben Sira uses evocative language to convey the depth of their commitment to their work.
“Each is diligent in making a great variety.”
“He sets his heart… and he is careful to finish his work.”
“… intent on his handiwork…”
“He inclines his ear to the sound of the hammer, and his eyes are on the pattern of his object.”
“He sets his heart on finishing his handiwork, and he is careful to complete its decoration.”
“He is always deeply concerned over his work…”
“…and he is careful to clean…”
Clearly, Ben Sira knew real tradesmen. And without condescension, he honored them. He saw their essential place in the great order of the cosmos. “Without them a city cannot be established, and men can neither sojourn nor live there.” Without manual laborers there is no human life.
It is not just that we need the products of their work. We need them. We need them to be a certain kind of person, living as Belloc wrote of peasants by the “continual labor of their lives.” They, and not just their products, are irreplaceable.
To be such craftsmen they must set aside, to some real extent, the systematic pursuit of wisdom—which is the work of the ‘scribe.’ Thus, a certain wisdom they will not attain: “They are not sought out for the council of the people, nor do they attain eminence in the public assembly.”
But their path can have precious fruits. Ben Sira has something to offer here that transcends anything explicit in the thought of Aristotle. Ben Sira’s words imply a call to manual workers. What they do is bound up with higher things, and they should act that way. They should live and work by the highest standards because this is what they owe: to themselves, to others, and to God. They are not just ‘making a living.’ They are contributing to the order of the cosmos by their excellence in service.
As they attend to the many human things that need attending, they can become wise in their own way. Like the scribes, they can play their part in the cosmos, and receive that part with gratitude and enact it with generosity. And by their fidelity in this, with excellence and integrity, they receive the gift of any rational creature’s righteous participation in the order of the cosmos. Mysteriously, they grow in the very Wisdom that governs all.
So if the wisdom of the scribe in some sense remains remote for them, they certainly need not be cut off from higher things. Ben Sira concludes his reflection with what is at once praise and admonition to manual workers:
“But they keep stable the fabric of the world, and their prayer is in the practice of their trade.”
This post is third in a series on Ruling Our Households Like the Cosmos.
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