Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labor until the evening. Hebrew Scriptures.
The latest gospel in this world is, Know thy work and do it.Carlyle.
Work must be numbered among the world’s greatest necessities. Every visible object is a product of some form of activity. From the combination of chemical elements, which compose a crystal, up to the human mind writing a poem or chiseling a statue, there is a scene of incessant toil. Whatever may be said of the beneficence of the plan, the arrangement of earth is such that every attainment costs its full price. Whether we wish a harvest of wheat or a harvest of art, food for the body or food for the soul, we must work for it.
“The heights by great men gained and kept
Were not attained by single flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward through the night.”
The more the brain and heart of humanity expand, the more its tasks multiply and the greater and more varied its industry becomes. If modern man has found many new facilities for acquiring things, he has also multiplied the number of things to be acquired. If he can travel much more rapidly than in former times, he only wants to go farther and to visit many more places. If machinery enables him to make a thousand times more pins and needles and carriages and engines than could his ancestors, he wants a thousand times more needles and pins and carriages and engines than did his ancestors. The same learning which has enlarged the capacity and strengthened the power of the public mind has correspondingly widened the area of learning over which the mind is compelled to journey in its search for knowledge. More than two thousand years ago the Latins said : `No excellence without labor.” They said : “The gods exchange goods with man in re-turn for work.” They said : `Life gives nothing to mortals unless they toil for it.’ The vast intervening period, instead of repealing, has rather confirmed and widened the sweep of that law. Every advance of civilization brings in new tasks for hand or heart or mind. The necessity for labor is unceasing and universal.
In high, poetic speech, the New Testament calls man a co-worker with God. His work was to carry forward the plan of creation. Before he arrived upon the scene, gravitation had moulded earth into form. Radiation had cooled it. Chemistry had mixed its atmosphere in right proportion. Heat and cold, alternating, had decomposed rocks and made a soil. Thence came many-formed vegetable and animal life. Afterward, with manifold, but partly unawakened powers, came man. Gradually he became a worker, but on a higher plane. New products of industry appeared. Gravitation could form a world and guide it through space, but there its work closed. Icebergs could grind down mountains and sunbeams warm the soil and make it fruitful, but they could do no more. A new form of work was demanded and a new kind of worker. In answer to this demand, man appeared. Amazing union of thought and action, of genius and talent! To a brain, bold in its conceptions, was joined a hand strong and deft to execute. To prophecy, power of performance was added. Behold the result ! There is no continent, no island, no spot of land or ocean that has not felt the power of mankind. From that source came cultivated fields ; thence came the thousand cities all the way from ancient Babylon to modern Seattle ; thence continent-spanning railways and ocean-traversing navies ; thence all machinery that lifts and pounds, that pushes and draws, that forges and weaves, that marks the flying hours on earth and brings to view the hidden stars of the galaxy ; thence the libraries that instruct ; the music that in-spires or soothes ; the temples that refine and en-noble. Material forces made earth, but mental forces adorned it. Nature made the canvas, man painted the picture.
Being universal, work must be necessary, and, being necessary, it must be beneficent. It not only increases the utility and beauty of earth, but it in-creases the strength and happiness of the worker himself. Horace wrote to Virgil that he should mix some pleasure with his toil. The counsel was wise. But it is doubtful if any hour of idleness ever brought a delight equal to those hours in which Virgil saw his great poem, under his laborious care, advancing toward completeness. It seems strange that labor should ever have been regarded as a penalty following some far-off sin of mankind. For a creature worthy of being called human, perpetual idleness can-not be a perpetual pleasure. It is more likely to be a perpetual misery. To an awakened mind, some kind of task is a necessity.
Doubtless the world’s labor is not equally distributed. Some have too many, others too few tasks given them. Excessive toil is not a blessing. When children, at the command of greed, work in factories too many hours of the day and too many days of the year, and when men and women are so chained to their tasks by poverty that no time for repose or for refining life by coming in contact with nature or the high influence of education is granted, then the divine law of labor is far away. That picture painted by Thomas Hood shows labor, indeed, but not happiness.
“With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags
Plying her needle and thread.
From weary chime to chime ;
As prisoners work for crime.
My labor never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A crust of bread and rags.”
That picture belongs, not to the world’s honorable industry, but to the world’s sorrow. Ruskin says that the deadly night-shade is the primrose with a curse attached. Thus the multitude of over-worked human beings are to the legitimate and beneficent industry of the world as the night-shade is to the primrose. Growing side by side, in the same civilization, the one differs from the other by having a curse attached to it. One brings happiness ; the other, misery.
But, admitting this modifying clause, the main proposition, that labor is a beneficent necessity,passes unchallenged. Most of us work to make a living, but it is the work itself that makes life worth living. More than the wages we receive at the end of the week or the month or the year, in value, is the discipline, the firmness, the steadiness of purpose, the self-poise, the power to overcome difficulties, we receive. A call to work often awakens us from dreams of indolence and cowardice into which it is easy to sink. It has power to make the days something else than mere dull links in an endless chain of time. They become radiant envoys sent hither to remind us of high and sacred opportunities. Often work makes lonesomeness and bereavement en-durable ; takes half the heaviness out of sorrow and blunts the dart of personal grief. Many a time our footsteps have been arrested at the crumbling edge of despair’s black abyss and turned back toward light-flecked fields of hope, when to our hearts has come the thought : `But there is still work for us to do.”
In Hawthorne’s story, the boy did not like his teacher whose name was Mr. Toil. Running away from school, he saw some haymakers and thought it would be pleasant to join them. As he drew near he saw Mr. Toil swinging a scythe. Leaving the meadow, he entered a carpenter’s shop, but there Mr. Toil was pushing a plane. Then he saw some soldiers, and Mr. Toil was marching in the ranks. Having wandered for a day, and finding no place for an idler, he returned to school, went to work, and his discontent left him. Mr. Toil proved to be his best friend.
The story was written for all of us. When we try to run away from all kinds of work we run away from happiness. We do not defraud our employer, the world, so much as we cheat ourselves. A piano that is silent forever may be called a piano. If its case is of rosewood or mahogany it may help add to the elegant furnishing of a room. But it is defeating the purpose for which it was made. It is so with a human being. If he decline all useful activity, he is only an organism composed of certain attributes called human. He is of no use. Industry may choose its own direction. From a central point where it is generated, electrical power may go out in many directions and for different purposes. Thus with man. His activity need not be all exhausted upon a trade or profession or a farm. There are many things he may do. It is only asked that every person be an agent of useful power. Each mind must plan, each heart must beat in harmony with the power which made and upholds the world.
What a scene of activity opens before the reflecting mind ! Trains running in every direction. Ships sailing over all seas. Earth sprinkled with cities containing their busy multitudes, crossing and re-crossing each other’s paths, weaving an inextricable labyrinth. All over earth are men with every kind of implement in their hands. Building walls, digging ditches, making watches, making steel rails, handling freight, mining iron and coal and gold and copper and diamonds. Here, fields are being plowed or planted or reaped. There, fishermen are spreading their nets. Yonder, shepherds are leading their flocks to pasture. The toil of all ages and all man-kind makes the great outspread scene impressive. The whole earth is a workshop.
That labor and happiness walk hand in hand, workers must be friends of each other. The many orders and unions of laborers, under existing conditions, are perhaps necessary. But they do not include all the rights and duties of mankind. Hand-labor is no more indispensable than mind-labor. Hostility between capital and labor is a foolish assumption resting upon no fact. They are dependent upon each other. Apart from labor, money is powerless. All the wealth of the United States could not construct the Panama canal. It could not sweep a street or mow a lawn or make a pair of shoes or write a sermon. But, as money is dependent upon labor, so labor is dependent upon money. Some grasping men, who have capital, and some foolish and vicious leaders, among laborers, may be enemies; but the vast majority of employers and employed are friends. Every employer has the right to fix the scale of wages he can afford to pay, but no right to compel men to work for the wages offered. So every man has the right to decline the offered wages, but no right to compel the employer to raise the wages. When he destroys property to compel the payment of higher wages, or beats his neighbor, who is willing to work for the wages offered, his rights as a citizen cease. He becomes a criminal. A preacher may think his services are worth one hundred dollars a month and refuse to take seventy-five dollars a month. So far his action is perfectly legitimate. He may be mistaken, but he is to be pitied more than blamed. But if he break the windows of the church or stand at its door on Sun-day morning with a club to keep the seventy-five dollar preacher from taking his place, he immediately assumes a different position with regard to the public. His case is not one for philanthropists, but for the police. The preacher is only one kind of laborer among many kinds. The law for him is the law for all workers. Money did not make this law. Human experience made it. Society exists for all its members. It is not founded upon the rights of those who demand five dollars for a day’s work nor upon the rights of those who will only pay four dollars, but upon the rights of human beings who have agreed to live together under certain established laws. That labor is sometimes underpaid may be true, but this offers no excuse for violence. For one book, Victor Hugo received eighty thousand dollars. It may have been more than it was worth, but the publishers did not try to compel him to sell the manuscript for less than his price. All they were entitled to was the privilege of refusing to pay as much as he asked for it. For “Paradise Lost” Milton received only sixty dollars. Doubtless it was worth much more than that. He had the right to ask more than he received and to hold it until that kind of goods rose in price. But with that his rights ceased. He could not prevent others from writing poetry and selling it at a lower price. He had no right to destroy the printing press of the publishers who refused his, and accepted cheaper poetry. But the law for poets is also the law for miners and molders, and telegraph operators. Society has principles that are more vital than mere values. However it may be in therapeutics, in adjusting difficulties between employers and employed, like will not cure like. Wrong cannot be remedied by wrong.
Lack of sympathy among the many members of the great toiling multitudes works a two-fold injury. The first injury is : The world is prevented from advancing in goodness and beauty as rapidly as it otherwise would. The second is : It robs workers of a part of their rightful happiness. Weariness, resulting from toil over a useful task, is a kind of pleasure. In the accustomed poem it was the fact of useful labor that made the night rest so welcome and so undisturbed by any remorse to the humble village blacksmith.
“Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees its close ;
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night’s repose.”
If he had spent two-thirds of the day quarreling with his customers about the price of his work, he would have been no less tired, but much less happy. The plowman, of whom Gray speaks in his famous Elegy, returning in weariness to his cottage at sun-set, adds beauty to the landscape, because a good day’s work had been done. His weariness all came from walking in the furrow and guiding the plow. Had half of it come from fighting his landlord or complaining over his hard lot, his mind would have been disturbed by passion and the harvest would have been delayed by so much time as he had wasted. The cur-few would have disturbed the air as melodiously, the lowing herd would have adorned the scene, but the weary and unhappy plowman would neither have added any beauty to nor have found any pleasure in the quiet summer evening landscape. It is thus every-where. Weariness is welcome when it follows faithful toil. The weariness of a Christ stands forth as something divine.
There is a widespread rumor that many laborers fail to bring any kind of faithfulness to the performance of their tasks. Unless they are constantly watched, their work is done imperfectly. They take no honest pride in doing it well. They are mere time-servers, their chief concern being to receive the greatest amount of pay for the smallest amount of skill and industry. The labor unions reduce all workers, in a particular field, to the same level of mediocrity. There is no room for personal excellence to manifest itself. No man is permitted to do more or better work than his union prescribes. This is fatal to any inherent desire to reach individual excellence. Personal ability and possibility are tyrannized over by the organization. Man is nothing; the machine is everything.
If the rumor is as well-founded as it is widespread the condition is lamentable. Faithlessness in an appointed task may be bad for the work, but not as bad as it is for the worker. The damage done to his employer is very small compared with the damage done to himself. Every good or evil act reacts upon the actor. Thus, if work be slighted, the slight re-coils and injures the character of the worker. By his faithlessness his employer may lose a part of his money, but he himself loses a part of his own soul.
The world’s work is never completed. Old and new tasks await every generation. Earth must be tilled year after year. Hammers of industry must ring; forge fires must blaze ; orations must be spoken ; poems must be written ; youth must be instructed from age to age. Minds must plan, hearts resolve, hands execute unceasingly. As earth has rolled far away from those sunbeams which encompassed it in the great Palestine and Grecian era, so it has rolled far away from many of the customs of those ancient days. But, as now, where new sunbeams fall, up-springs a richness and beauty equal to any past time, so in this present era of reason and benevolence up-spring a thousand new tasks and duties. The amazing fabric of civilization will continue to be woven out of many strands of varying texture and color furnished by countless millions of minds and hearts. Humanity will never be discharged from the philosophy of patient labor. Around it will always lie a world so composed that at man’s touch it will send forth more and still more of truth, of goodness, and of beauty.
The reflections of this half-hour have been awakened by the fact that many are about to enter upon some months of renewed activity after a few weeks of rest. Many are hurrying back from mountain and seashore and woods and lakeside to resume their accustomed tasks. Tomorrow morning the streets will be full of school children, none of them very happy. In a few days trains will be crowded with students returning to college. Hundreds of thousands of teachers will be at work. All kinds of business and professional men will resume their toil with renewed energy.
Periods of rest are valuable for two reasons : They bring a refreshing to overworn bodies and minds, and thus extend the length of time in which one can en-gage in his life work. He can not only work for more years, but he can do better work. Their second benefit is: They give one opportunity to see his task with the required perspective. It appears in its true relations ; and he is able to place a more correct estimate upon it. Sometimes duties become perplexing and irksome when one is in their midst. The daily work hardly seems worth while. Sometimes a brief respite corrects this false estimate and he finds his inspiration and enthusiasm coming back with their old-time force. Instead of repining that he is compelled to work, he rejoices that he is still permitted to perform his allotted share of the world’s tasks. He finds that amusement is only the wreath worn round the forehead of life. It is not life itself. Like a Christ he feels that he must perform the work of Him who sent him to earth. The soul must express itself. Its sympathy, its truth, its benevolence, its honor must go forth in deeds.
In such spirit may we all resume our duties. May we bring to them our deepest thought, our noblest passion, our sincerest purpose, never doubting that, if done in this spirit, whatever our work may be, it can-not fail to receive an ample reward.