A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Why are we here? What should we be doing? How is the best way to spend our time? These are questions some people never ask. The very first reading in the Great Books Series is Rothschild’s Fiddle by Chekhov. The main character, an old man named Jacob, ponders his own life and this is what he found: “Life had flowed past without profit, without enjoyment; gone aimlessly, leaving nothing to show for it. The future was empty. And if you looked back there was only all the awful waste of money that sent shivers down your spine. Why couldn’t a man live without all that loss and waste?” This is the question Weber tries to answer in this reading. How can we live our own lives without all that loss and waste? In last week’s reading Weber laid the foundation by defining Traditionalism: “a man does not by nature wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose.” In this view, people work only as much as they have to work so they can pay the bills. The rest of their time they would rather devote to leisure activities. That may be true, but it’s only one view of work and leisure. Weber lays out four alternatives for consideration. Theory one: we work because work is the primary purpose we’re here on this earth. This is what the early Christians believed: “Work hard in your calling. The most important thing was that labor came to be considered in itself the end of life, ordained as such by God. St. Paul’s saying “He who will not work shall not eat” holds unconditionally for everyone. Unwillingness to work is symptomatic of the lack of grace.” In the book of Genesis Adam and Eve tilled the Garden of Eden even before The Fall (when they were banished from the Garden) and had to work by the sweat of their brows. Under this theory work is not a punishment, it fulfills our human nature. Theory two: we work to maintain our lifestyles and have enough leisure time left over to devote to other activities. Weber says that according to “Thomas Aquinas labor is only necessary according to natural reason or prudence, for the maintenance of the individual and community.” Presumably this extra leisure time would be used to develop our minds, refresh our bodies and renew our spirits. Working beyond what is necessary takes away from these important activities. Theory three: we work because God told us to work. The Puritan view differs from both the early Christian and the medieval Catholic views stated above. The Puritan theologian Richard Baxter writes: “wealth does not exempt anyone from the unconditional command. Even the wealthy shall not eat without working, for even though they do not need to labor to support their own needs, there is God’s commandment which they, like the poor, must obey.” In other words, even if a person has all the money they’ll ever need, they should still work; because God says so. Theory four: we work because it molds us into a certain kind of person. The habits we gain from working are good for us, apart from the paycheck which helps us earn a living. “A man without a calling lacks the systematic, methodical character which is demanded by worldly asceticism.” Weber believes this is the modern Protestant view of work. Workers in modern capitalist societies develop certain values and Weber thinks “They set the clean and solid comfort of the middle-class home as the ideal.” Some people like this ideal; others hate it. Is “the clean and solid comfort of the middle-class home” the highest rung of human evolution? Or is it all just a trick to keep our nose to the grindstone, doing jobs we hate in order to maintain a normal lifestyle like other middle-class people? Which is right? Readers must decide for themselves.