The Soul of Work

It’s hard to envision what work was like in the Garden of Eden. But there was work there, of some kind, because, even before the Fall, we were commanded to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gn. 1, 28)

The scholars say that “subdue” (Heb. kabash) is a strong term, as it had to be, given the natural forces the first humans faced. We’ve had to think more carefully about subduing since the advent of modern industrial power, because to subdue can now mean to destroy. But we’ve had a long struggle with nature, as a result of the Fall. And it’s not over. And neither, by a long shot, is our work to subdue ourselves.

Before the Fall, work may have been like something that comes to us only rarely now, on those very few days, when work seems almost like play. And the product of work emerges trailing glory, like an extension of the work of the Creation itself. I marvel at times how people with a green thumb (which I don’t have) make things grow, or how some people seem almost to be able to talk to and control horses or dogs or other animals.

After the Fall, work, alas, more often bears the marks of something gone awry that we can only partly – and repeatedly – try to fix. Theologians debate whether work became a punishment, or whether it is “co-creation,” in St. JPII’s more recent perspective. Whichever, we know it’s now usually demanding.

The great Saint Augustine of Hippo, writing sixteen centuries ago, near the Fall of the Roman Empire (a time troubled and sinking and not unlike our own), asked repeatedly, on his way to Catholicism: what is evil? Why do we find ourselves in a world in which so many things need our efforts and so many awful things occur? It’s a mystery, the mysterium iniquitatis.

After trying Manichaeism and Neo-Platonism, and finding their answers to the mystery unsatisfactory, Augustine became Catholic and discovered an answer still worth thinking through. Evil is privatio boni, the absence of a good that ought to be present, at a given time, in a certain way, and to a specific degree. In other words, an absence that disturbs the whole created order of the good.

A good answer, particularly for human evils, for the ways we fail to do what we need to do, towards one another and even in regard to ourselves. It works less well as an explanation for evils in the natural world. We’ve been banished from the Garden and only dimly glimpse now what our original relationship with the Creation was meant to be.

Bearers of the Burden by Vincent van Gogh, 1881 [©Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands]
Bearers of the Burden by Vincent van Gogh, 1881 [©Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands]

But to recognize that deeper meaning of the failures of human action, points towards a crucial truth. We can work randomly, as if work is just something we need to do to get by. Or we can see that work, all work, is a path to restoring our humanity, both individual and communal. We can even – one of the more obscure mysteries of grace – work to restore our material world to that state in which it, perhaps, once more easily served us. Artists and artisans thought of work that way in medieval times.

It’s deeply unfortunate that these Christian truths, like so many others, have disappeared from our common life, especially today, Labor Day. We act as if work is a transparent thing, obvious and easy to carry out.

You could call it a form of modern Pelagianism. Or Prometheanism. Our labors are never only our labors, as if we have – or can create at will – the blueprint for human life and destiny. And that all it takes is enough effort to attain to the good. We can be grateful today for the many men and women who lived and worked before us, and made many things possible – particularly in America. But maybe we would honor them even more if we were also grateful to God, as they were, for the chance to work within his Creation.

The Church initially resisted modern labor movements, which came out of socialist and Marxist circles, and which were philosophical enough to know that they wanted something incompatible with the Christian vision of the world. There had been labor associations earlier – guilds, professional societies, academies, etc. – but they operated under the sacred canopy.

The modern celebration of “labor” operated more in the vein of socialist “workers of the world unite.” Unite to throw off the social order – and God’s order – since both were thought merely to repress us. As many workers were later to learn, they had much to lose under that dispensation besides “their chains.”

That was another world. We’re now seeing whole sectors of work disappearing from our world, and new ones needing to be created. We worry over the winners and losers in globalization, rightly so, and the effects on our politics, and even our culture and morals. But we’re in one of those transitional periods. No presidential election, no series of elections, will resolve things for some time to come. It’s part of the intellectual work we must now do to bring things new and old to bear on our situation.

There remain some simple certainties. In Genesis, God clearly commanded two things, fundamental things. First, that we have families and children, “be fruitful and multiply.” Environmental questions notwithstanding, that’s still the case today. Indeed, where people don’t value children and families – real families, where men and women become “one flesh” (Gn.2: 24), not mere passing attachments – they have lost the will to participate in the drama of life on earth.

Second, the earth will not last forever, and neither will we. But it is a work of God, opus Dei in its most literal sense, the divine office, to multiply and have dominion as the Dominus, the Lord Himself, would wish the world to be ruled.

Something to ponder, in our unsettled America, on Labor Day.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.