The honor of labor

The leg of the chair well made 

Mom & Lucia laughing in my studio. Photo credit @mandybort

“The general disaffectedness with labor”, wrote Charles Péguy. in 1910, “is the profoundest defect, the fundamental defect of the modern world”

The dignity of labor, every kind of labor, even the most humble, has made our civilization great. Peguy saw in the France of his time a progressive decline in this sense of noble endeavor: he noticed it first and foremost in the steady loss of joy. “ Work was becoming a sentence, a servitude, to the extent that one could no longer be fulfilled by working: no longer find satisfaction in a job well done.

Again on the same theme “in the majority of workplaces, people sang: today they snort…” More than one hundred years ago he wrote words that I still see as true today.

While he detected this decline, he also identified and proposed the most beautiful and dignifying piece about work, whether humble or noble. What matters in a job is the conscience you have while doing it. The dignity of changing diapers is exactly the same as the one found in a lawyer that defend the human rights at the UN. It’s a total game changer for my daily life. Millet, famous French painter affirms that is exactly in the most humble work of cultivating lands that he finds “true humanity and great poetry

Millet, The Hay Trussers. 1850, Louvre – Paris.

I’d like today to celebrate Labor Day reading together this masterpiece from Péguy.  

I’ve been reading it since I was a child framed on a wall in my dad’s office. I remember it with the detail of a chair from Vincent Van Gogh’s painting ‘Chair with Pipe’. ( 1988. National Gallery, London. Image below)

“There was a time where the leg of a chair had to be well made. It was natural, it was understood. It was an achievement. It was not for the pay that it had to be well made, or in proportion to the pay. It did not have to be well made for the master, or for connoisseurs, or for the master’s customers. It had to be well made for its own sake. For the thing that it was. […] And even part of the chair hidden from view was made with the same perfection as the part exposed to view. The same principle as for the cathedrals. It was not a question of being seen or unseen. It was the work itself that had to be well done. Every single thing, from walking onwards, followed a rhythm, a ritual and a ceremony. Every fact was an event: consecrated.”

This is my inspiration, it has always been. I have to thank my father, who put up these words on the wall and most of all lived his job in this way.

I have to thank Péguy, Van Gogh, Millet and everyone that in this world does their job well done, for its own sake. 


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