Thomas Edison, alas, bestowed upon us one of the flattest platitudes of our time, when he said that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Edmund Spenser put it more nicely, writing that the “happy mansion” of honor is not for the slothful, because:
Before her gate high God did sweat ordain,
And wakeful watches ever to abide:
But easy is the way, and passage plain
To pleasure’s palace; it may soon be spied,
And day and night her doors to all stand open wide.
We forget, however, what Edison surely did not forget, namely that all the perspiration in the world will not of itself invent the phonograph. And we forget what Spenser is careful to illustrate most clearly and disconcertingly, namely that sweat is often spent for objects that, of themselves, are dishonorable and that conduce neither to the individual’s good nor to the common good. We may sweat for things that destroy. We may sweat for vanity. We may sweat – it is one of the canniest devices of the great Perspirer below – for pleasures that soon cease to please.
It’s a strange place, this Big Rock Candy Nation. For much of the sticky candy is overlaid with dust and grime. We work hard, we sweat – well, it is mostly metaphorical sweat, since few of us actually spend any time clearing a field or quarrying slate from a mountain. And we believe we are owed a living from our sweat.
The young man with the degree in sociology believes that somehow that degree, and the many thousands of dollars he has spent to obtain it, should be convertible, by a kind of magic, into a decent living for himself and for a family, in that time when he and his bedmate shall think it well to marry and to allow nature, for a change, to take its course.
The young woman studying criminal justice believes that somehow that degree will endow her small and shapely frame with sufficient momentum and authority that chiefs of police will strew her path with roses, and malefactors of twice her strength will submit – so long as she eats her spinach, or her oat bran muffins, as the case may be.
Absent is the notion that one must work to attain an excellence in something real, so that one might sell a sculpture, or teach Latin, or cook fine meals, or whatever one may invent to meet the needs of one’s fellow men.
Virtues on display: The Allegory of Good Government (Ambrogio Lorenzetti, c, 1340)
On the RC Mountain, The relationship between the worker and the public is subtly reversed. The worker no longer says to himself, “There are people out there who need their old houses repaired, and I will see to it that I can provide for that need.” That would be to adjust himself to circumstances. Rather he says to himself, “I should like to train myself in this field, and of course there will be a job waiting for me when I am done.” That is to expect that circumstances will adjust to oneself.
I do not wish to be insensitive to people who lose their jobs in hard times. My point is that there is a subtle connection between believing that by mere activity, even sweaty activity, I gain a moral claim upon my fellows, and believing that virtue depends upon my needs, or on my (often strongly held) beliefs.
In this new dispensation, I claim the right to assert something, as for instance the goodness of fornication, just as I claim the right to a job of my choosing. It does not occur to anyone that virtue – here the Latin source, virtus, manhood, is instructive – is by nature difficult, involving the kind of self-denial that is preparation for greatness of soul.
I merely claim virtue by holding “virtuous” beliefs, as for instance that carbon emissions should be squelched (by other people), or that higher taxes should be paid (by other people), or that free education should be provided (by other people). I comfort myself with correct policies whose consequences I do not have to examine, and whose costs I do not have to pay.
If I affirm, from my comfortable distance, that open homosexuals ought to serve in the military, I get to enjoy the Rock Candy lollipop. I’m a good fellow, unlike those others who don’t see as far as I do.
All of the virtues, even the grayish one called tolerance, are difficult to attain. But we on the RC Mountain have come to expect them, just from being the people we are. So long as we don’t shoot pigeons or smoke cigarettes, and we pull the right lever in a voting booth, we are all right. And if we sweat a lot, even if it is for emptiness, we are worthy of everyone’s admiration.
Justice is what we are owed, not what we owe. Temperance is for the waistline, nothing else. Courage is to be offensive, prudence is to be sly, and chastity is strictly for the time being. We will be the spiritual equivalent of a skinny kid with a sunken chest, but we will move mountains.
Or somebody will move them for us.