Work as Virtue

When Adam disobeyed the Lord in the garden, what was his punishment? He had to get a job. (To say nothing of the punishment of having to wear pants.) Until that first sin, there was no such thing in the world as labor. Actually having to work is the punishment that men endure because of original sin. No longer do all good things simply spring up from the ground, but bread must be earned “by the sweat of one’s brow.”

As an American, however, I was raised in the shadow of the “Puritan work ethic.” Labor has been transformed from a punishment to a solemn duty. According to Albert Jay Nock in his scathing Our Enemy the State, “this erection of labour into a Christian virtue per se, this investment of work with a special religious sanction, was an invention of Puritanism.” As England changed from Catholic feudalism to a Puritan merchant state, what is more natural than the emerging merchant class teaching the working class that God wants them to embrace labor? What better way to ensure a productive workforce than to tell them that hard work is a religious mandate?

As compelling as Nock is, I am unable to give up on hard work as a virtue. It seems to build character and, if viewed properly, teaches valuable lessons about patience, the value of time, and myriad other things. The sticking point for me is the idea that it is a religious virtue. I agree with Nock that “there is no hint that God would take it amiss if one preferred to do little work and put up with a poor living, for the sake of doing something else with one’s time.”

So work hard and enjoy the proceeds (both tangible or otherwise) of your labor. Or don’t work hard and enjoy that.

Beer of the Week: Dos Equis Amber Lager – Dos Equis Amber Lager has a dark cream head, almost tan, that hangs around for much longer than expected. The beer itself is surprisingly clear for how dark it is. The smell is dominated by bready malts. The taste is very much the same. There is not much hops to speak of, but a full, rich malt profile makes this beer a winner. There is a lingering sweetness that might be just a bit too much, but otherwise, this is a darn good beer. I am glad somebody worked hard to make it.

Reading of the week: Our Enemy The State by Albert Jay Nock – Nock has a very firm and critical grasp of history and his willingness to take on deeply seated beliefs and ideas is very impressive. This reading shows of both of these qualities. Nock writes that “the best witness to the essential character of the Puritan movement in England and America is the thoroughness with which its doctrine of work has pervaded both literatures, all the way from Cromwell’s letters to Carlyle’s panegyric and Longfellow’s verse.”

Since the beer is “Two X’s” and Nock specifically mentions Longfellow, I include:

Bonus reading: The Village Blacksmith by H. W. Longfellow – This poem is a perfect illustration of what Nock wrote about Longfellow and the Puritan work doctrine. The smith loves his family and is a godly man, but his paramount virtue is his labor. He is a hero because he works hard “Week in, week out, from morn till night” and like Adam, the smithy’s “brow is wet with honest sweat.”

Question of the week: I feel a strong resistance to Nock, but I cannot put it into words. Is that because there actually is something wrong with Nock’s characterization of work ethic, or is it because I have been thoroughly indoctrinated?

Pleasures that the townsfolk never know…

Last autumn, I got on a ship and sailed from Korea to the east coast of Russia, the first leg of a 2+ month journey on which I was embarking. Naturally, I was very anxious about the whole trip. I also already missed the friends I’d left behind in Seoul, many of whom I had no realistic expectation of ever seeing again. I was lonely and ill at ease. But in the evening, I found a bench on deck to lie on. I looked up into the immense, dark sky and saw stars that I’d not seen in months. See, the night sky in Seoul is so badly polluted with light that often only the moon and the planets are visible. But out at sea, miles from shore, I saw so many stars that I became positively giddy.

Cities are amazing. They provide marketplaces where any taste can be satisfied, cultural exchanges of all sorts, and innumerable diversions. But they have their down-sides as well. They have everything, but precious little space to put it all; all of the sights, but none of the skies. I consider myself extremely lucky to have spent nights in cities where neon bar signs burn until the metro re-opens in the morning. I am equally lucky to have spent nights where there is no cellphone reception and no lights to spoil “the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.”


Beer of the Week: Fosters Lager: The stars on Fosters cans make up the Southern Cross, a constellation that is not visible to most of the northern hemisphere. While in Australia, I got a chance to see the Southern Cross. I also learned that a more appropriate slogan for Fosters would be, “Fosters: Australian for tourist,” since the natives generally prefer other brews. Fosters has is a very subtle hint of beer flavor. Mostly it is just water flavored. There really is nothing to this beer at all. Also, if you are in the United States, be sure to check your labels; there is a good chance this beer is brewed in Canada, Texas or Georgia.

Reading for the Week: Clancy Of The Overflow by Banjo Paterson – Australia’s premier poet wrote this lovely piece that compares the city life with that of a cowboy. Clancy moved out to the country to drive cattle, and the narrator of the poem would gladly trade the dirty, crowded city for the open spaces that Clancy’s found. I can’t say I blame him.

Question for the week: Do the respective appeals of city and country life speak to opposite desires in our nature, or do they appeal to the same desires in different ways?

Of Memory and Destiny

Education, formal education, usually stops in one’s early twenties. There are those who achieve advanced degrees and, if they are fortunate, remain involved in formal education for the rest of their lives. The life of the student is somewhat glorified in my mind. My love of learning is so deep that I can scarcely imagine a better life than that of a professional learner of things. Recently, however, I have made attempts to see the value of a life beyond books. As Alexei Fyodorovich said in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, “People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.”

Memory preserves us. A memory of goodness and warmth can protect us from straying from the right path. Above all, the reason that memory is a good education is the reason that all education is good: it prepares us for whatever the future might hold.

Dostoevsky isn’t advocating a life of nostalgia, but a life guided by deeply embedded principles. The man with good and cherished memories doesn’t pine for what he has lost, but he sees in his memory all of the good things of which he is capable. Karamazov tells us that the man with but a single cherished memory “will reflect and say, ‘Yes, I was good and brave and honest then!'” And that memory will remind him that he can still be so good and so brave and so honest.

Look back at your greatest moments and reflect on all the greatness that may yet lie before you. All you must do is remember how good you can be. “Don’t be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something good and just!”


Beer of the Week: Mickey’s Fine Malt Liquor – As it turns out, Mickey’s Malt Liquor is what you should drink if you don’t want to remember. The distinction between beer and malt liquor is primarily a legal technical one. In many administrative districts, once a beer exceeds a certain alcohol content it must be marketed as “malt liquor”. There are a few beers, such as Carlsberg Elephant, that are “premium” beers labeled as malt liquor. However, the bulk of beers known as malt liquor are simply cheap, high alcohol beer. Mickey’s falls into this category. The distinctive “hand grenade” bottle really should be enough to warn the consumer that this is a bad choice to ingest. Mickey’s is actually just unremarkable, but most malt liquors aren’t brewed to be remarkable. It is not good, but if the goal is to get hammered while drinking out of bottles that look like explosive ordnance .. well, there you have it.
Upon drinking the second bottle (I always drink two of each beer I review,) I am beginning to suspect that I actually have an acquired taste aversion to this beer. Maybe I drank too much one night that I don’t totally recall and it made me sick. For whatever reason, the first sip of the second glass instantly made me feel a bit queasy. In fact, now that I think about it, the last time I had this beer, I also ate an inordinate number of steamed shrimps. My body rejected the combination of Mickey’s and shrimps. Some things are best forgotten.

Reading for the Week: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky – This excerpt from the end of the novel is pretty much what I want somebody to read at my funeral. I have seldom been so emotionally moved by a piece of writing. Maybe I should read it sober, just to be sure.

Question for the week: What memory do you have that edifies and preserves you?