“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.
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