“Those bygone workmen did not serve, they worked. They had an absolute honor, which is honor proper. A chair rung had to be well made. That was an understood thing. That was the first thing. It wasn’t that the chair rung had to be well made for the salary or on account of the salary. It wasn’t that it was well made for the boss, nor for connoisseurs, nor for the boss’s clients. It had to be well made itself, in itself, for itself, in its very self. A tradition coming, springing from deep within the race, a history, an absolute, an honor, demanded that this chair rung be well made. Every part of the chair which could not be seen was just as perfectly made as the parts which could be seen. This was the selfsame principle of cathedrals.”
Charles Peguy, Basic Verities: The Honor of Work
It is easy to be discouraged. It seems Peguy was. He recalled the peasants he knew in his youth, in late-mid-nineteenth century France. He sensed a pervasive change in the new century.
“This atrocious economic strangulation which year by year tightens its grip on us did not exist. One earned nothing. One spent nothing. And everybody lived.”
Changes in the social-economic-political landscape are indeed significant factors in human life. They must be reckoned with. In Peguy’s estimation it will be much harder for the common man to develop and exhibit the work ethic that had characterized the French peasant. He makes a strong case for his concern. One hundred years ago.
But I for one wish first of all to revel in his description of a workman. We can set aside the precise accuracy of his historical assertion, and his judgment regarding what has crushed such workmanship. Before considering what might be done to cultivate such characters again—a consideration well worth making, we might for starters simply gaze in wonder…at the image he has painted with his words, of a workman.
Charles Peguy (1873-1914) was a French poet and essayist. He died in battle in World War I.
Image: I thank Pexels free images.
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We can also consider in what small ways we, too, can do more of our work in the way Peguy describes.
Indeed, indeed. Yes we can.
Thank you for this description of the ideal of genuine workmanship. Life, like a chair, cannot be well and beautifully constructed purely for economic ends. This is the crux of the quandary in which we live, that everything is now subjected to an economic calculus and its worth measured solely by cost/benefit analysis. Yet surely the economy, like the Sabbath, was made for man (and woman), not vice versa. Once we again get the priorities right, the rest will follow.
Well said, Newton. Well said.
Beautifully said Dr Cuddeback. Interesting, my mom taught me how to sew and that the INSIDE of the garment must be as perfect as the outside, and that plaids must match as perfectly as possible. My father’s hobby was making furniture – I still have some chairs he made before I was born (that was a LONG time ago!). Perfection for the sake of doing things right! I still try to do things that way, and have apparently taught my kids that ethic. Thank you.
Ginger, It is heartening to hear these things! Thank you for sharing. What a treasure that you still have some of your father’s furniture. And what a greater treasure that you have passed on that ethic.
I had occasion this past weekend to return to my hometown in Vermont. Doing a little sightseeing, we pulled over at Clear Lake Furniture in Ludlow Vermont. It was about 9:30 on Sunday morning so they were not open but there was a craftsman there who opened the food and let us in. Should that have happened? Probably not. We were certainly not potential customers yet that craftsman shared his stories with me for over 30 minutes while the rest of the family ooooed and aahhhed over the furniture in the showroom.
Every piece might have qualified as a MASTERPIECE. Incredible workmanship. Did the younger members of the family “get it” Who knows, but the way this followed on the heels of your article, maybe God caused him to be at work on Sunday morning and caused us to pull off the road on a whim.
Thanks Dice for sharing this. What a remarkable experience. I can remember such experiences with my father. Experiencing that as a family is especially nice.
I try to do excellent work with my knitting. If I notice a mistake a few or more rows back I un-knit it and do it again, being more careful with each succeeding row. At one time I regretted that the entire piece did not look as neat as that done by machine-made. Then someone said, “That’s the beauty of hand-made. Not every stitch is like the last…” I’ll go with that.
Kmbold, Nice point. Just so you know, John Ruskin would heartily approve of that point about hand-made work. Aiming for ‘perfection’ in our work does not mean machine-like regularity.
I’m fortunate enough to have interns whom I work with for about 6 months during the year. One specific concept I teach them is “progress not perfection”. I encourage them to always strive to improve their skills and grow. The process is just as important as outcome.
Barbara, Thank you for this excellent point. This raises an issue one would like to raise to Peguy in a theoretical discussion, which perhaps could be put like this: why is the ‘perfection’ of the chair so important? It seems to me that what you’re raising here points to an important nuance: namely that at issue here is a profoundly human reality–the reality of the very working of the worker. Would Peguy perhaps say that aiming for the perfection of the chair is how we cultivate the right disposition of the worker? On this score it would be interested to consider the Japanese approach to how certain arts are in fact a cultivation of the human soul. Thanks again.
Hello, I have a question about your comment. You mentioned the Japanese approach to how certain arts are in fact a cultivation of the human soul. I’m not familiar with this. Could you possibly share a resource with me which I could read? Is there a website or a book about the Japanese concepts? Thanks.
Barbara, You ask a great question. I wish I had more resources on this. First of all, I had this in mind when I wrote this post about handwriting. My wife learned a bit about the Japanese arts when she studied under the great music teacher, Suzuki. Dr. Suzuki wrote a book called “Nurtured by Love,” which ostensibly is about training people in music but is in fact about much more. I recommend it. If I find something else I’ll let you know. Thanks for asking.
Thank you Prof. Cuddeback, and thank your wife. As a musician myself, I think I will like this book.