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- Essays On Work And Culture - 2/15 -


This deepest significance of work has always been divined even when it has not been clearly perceived. Men have understood that there is a spiritual quality even in the most material products of a man's activity, and, even in ruder times, they have discerned the inner relation of the things which a man makes with the man himself. In our time, when the immense significance of this essential harmony between spirit and product has been accepted as a guiding principle in historic investigation, the stray spear-head and broken potsherd are prized by the anthropologist, because a past race lives in them. The lowest and commonest kind of domestic vessels and implements disclose to the student of to-day not only the stage of manual skill which their makers had reached, but also the general ideas of life which those makers held. When it comes to the higher products, character, temperament, and genius are discerned in every mutilated fragment. The line on an urn reveals the spirit of the unknown sculptor who cut it in the enduring stone. It has often been said that if every memorial of the Greek race save the Parthenon had perished, it would be possible to gain a clear and true impression of the spiritual condition and quality of that race.

The great artists are the typical and representative men of the race, and whatever is true of them is true, in a lesser degree, of men in general. There is in the work of every great sculptor, painter, writer, composer, architect, a distinctive and individual manner so marked and unmistakable as to identify the man whenever and wherever a bit of his work appears. If a statue of Phidias were to be found without any mark of the sculptor upon it, there would be no delay in determining whose work it was; no educated musician would be uncertain for a moment about a composition of Wagner's if he heard it for the first time without knowledge of its source; nor would a short story from the hand of Hawthorne remain unclaimed a day after its publication. Now, this individual manner and quality, so evident that it is impossible not to recognise it whenever it appears, is not a trick of skill; it has its source in a man's temperament and genius; it is the subtlest and most deep-going disclosure of his nature. In so far as a spiritual quality can be contained and expressed in any form of speech known among men--and all the arts are forms of speech--that which is most secret and sacred in a man is freely given to the world in his work.

Work is sacred, therefore, not only because it is the fruit of self- denial, patience, and toil, but because it uncovers the soul of the worker. We deal with each other on so many planes, and have so much speech with each other about things of little moment, that we often lose the sense of the sanctity which attaches to personality whenever it appears. There come moments, however, when some intimate experience is confided to us, and then, in the pause of talk, we become aware that we are in presence of a human soul behind the familiar face of our friend, and that we are on holy ground. In such moments the quick emotion, the sudden thrill, bear eloquent witness to that deeper and diviner life in which we all share, but of which we rarely seem aware. This perception of the presence of a man's soul comes to us when we stand before a true work of art. We not only uncover our heads, but our hearts are uncovered as well. Here is one who through all his skill speaks to us in a language which we understand, but which we rarely hear. A great work of art not only liberates the imagination, but the heart as well; for it speaks to us more intimately than our friends are able to speak, and that reticence which holds us back from perfect intercourse when we look into each other's faces vanishes. A few lines read in the solitude of the woods, or before the open fire, often kindle the emotion and imagination which slumber within us; in companionship with the greatest minds our shyness vanishes; we not only take but give with unconscious freedom. When we reach this stage we have reached the man who lives not only by but in the work, and whose innermost nature speaks to us and confides in us through the form of speech which he has chosen.

The higher the quality of the work, the clearer the disclosure of the spirit which fashioned it and gave it the power to search and liberate. The plays of Sophocles are, in many ways, the highest and most representative products of the Greek literary genius; they show that genius at the moment when all its qualities were in harmony and perfectly balanced between the spiritual vision which it formed of life, and the art form to which it commits that precious and impalpable possession. One of the distinctive qualities of these plays is their objectivity; their detachment from the moods and experiences of the dramatist. This detachment is so complete that at first glance every trace of the dramatist seems to have been erased. But there are many passages besides the famous lines descriptive of the grove at Colonus which betray the personality behind the plays; and, studied more closely, the very detachment of the drama from the dramatist is significant of character. In the poise, harmony, and balance of these beautiful creations there is revealed the instinct for proportion, the self-control and the subordination of the parts to the whole which betray a nature committed by its very instincts to a passionate devotion to beauty. In one of the poems of our own century which belongs in the first rank of artistic achievements, "In Memoriam," the highest themes are touched with the strength of one who knows how to face the problems of life with impartial and impersonal courage, and with the tenderness of one whose own heart has felt the immediate pressure of these tremendous questions. So every great work, whether personal or impersonal in intention, conveys to the intelligent reader an impression of the thought behind the skill, and of the character behind the thought. Goethe frankly declared that his works constituted one great confession. All work is confession and revelation as well.

Chapter III

Work as Self-Expression

The higher the kind and quality of a man's work, the more completely does it express his personality. There are forms of work so rudimentary that the touch of individuality is almost entirely absent, and there are forms of work so distinctive and spiritual that they are instantly and finally associated with one man. The degree in which a man individualises his work and gives it the quality of his own mind and spirit is, therefore, the measure of his success in giving his nature free and full expression. For work, in this large sense, is the expression of the man; and as the range and significance of all kinds of expression depend upon the scope and meaning of the ideas, forces, skills, and qualities expressed, so the dignity and permanence of work depend upon the power and insight of the worker. All sound work is true and genuine self-expression, but work has as many gradations of quality and significance as has character or ability. Dealing with essentially the same materials, each man in each generation has the opportunity of adding to the common material that touch of originality in temperament, insight, or skill which is his only possible contribution to civilisation.

The spiritual nature of work and its relation to character are seen in the diversity of work which the different races have done, and in the unmistakable stamp which the work of each race bears. First as a matter of instinct, and later as a matter of intelligence, each race has followed, in its activities, the lines of least resistance, and put its energies forth in ways which were most attractive because they offered the freest range and were nearest at hand. The attempt of some historians of a philosophical turn of mind to fit each race into a category and to give each race a sharply defined sphere of influence has been carried too far, and has discredited the effort to interpret arbitrarily the genius of the different races and to assign arbitrarily their functions. It remains true, however, that, in a broad sense, each race has had a peculiar quality of mind and spirit which may be called its genius, and each has followed certain general lines and kept within certain general limits in doing its work. The people who lived on the great plains of Central Asia worked in a different temper and with wide divergence of manner from the people who lived on the banks of the Nile; and the Jew, the Greek, and the Roman showed their racial differences as distinctly in the form and quality of their work as in the temper of their mind and character. And thus, on a great historical scale, the significance of work as an expression of character is unmistakably disclosed.

In this sense work is practically inclusive of every force and kind of life since every real worker puts into it all that is most distinctive in his nature. The moral quality contributes sincerity, veracity, solidity of structure; the intellectual quality is disclosed in order, lucidity, and grasp of thought; the artistic quality is seen in symmetry proportion, beauty of construction and of detail; the spiritual quality is revealed in depth of insight and the scope of relationships brought into view between the specific work and the world in which it is done. In work of the finer order, dealing with the more impressionable material, there are discoverable not only the character and quality of the worker, but the conditions under which he lives; the stage of civilisation, the vigour or languor of vital energy, the richness or poverty of social life, the character of the soil and of the landscape, the pallor or the bloom of vegetation, the shining or the veiling of the skies. So genuinely and deeply does a man put himself into the thing he does that whatever affects him affects it, and all that flows into him of spiritual, human, and natural influence flows into and is conserved by it. A bit of work of the highest quality is a key to a man's life because it is the product of that life, and it brings to light that which is hidden in the man as truly as the flower lays bare to the sun that which was folded in the seed. What a man does is, therefore, an authentic revelation of what he is, and by their works men are fairly and rightly judged.

For this reason no man can live in any real sense who fails to give his personality expression through some form of activity. For action in some field is the final stage of development; and to stop short of action, to rest in emotion or thought, is to miss the higher fruits of living and to evade one's responsibility to himself as well as to society. The man whose artistic instinct is deep cannot be content with those visions which rise out of the deeps of the imagination and wait for that expression which shall give them objective reality; the vision brings with it a moral necessity which cannot be evaded without serious loss. Indeed, the vitality of the imagination depends largely upon the fidelity with which its images are first realised in thought and then embodied by the hand. To comprehend what life means in the way of truth and power, one must act as well as think and feel. For action itself is a process of revelation, and the sincerity and power with which a man puts forth that which is disclosed to him determine the scope of the disclosure of truth which he receives. To comprehend all that life involves of experience, or offers of power, one must give full play to all the force that is in him. It is significant that the men of creative genius are, as a rule, men of the greatest productive power. One marvels at the magnitude of the work of such men as Michelangelo and Rembrandt, as Beethoven and Wagner, as Shakespeare, Balzac, Thackeray, Carlyle, and Browning; not discerning that, as these master workers gave form and substance to their visions and insight, the power to see and to understand deepened and expanded apace with their achievements.

Chapter IV

The Pain of Youth

It is the habit of the poets, and of many who are poets neither in vision nor in faculty, to speak of youth as if it were a period of unshadowed gaiety and pleasure, with no consciousness of responsibility and no sense


Essays On Work And Culture - 2/15

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