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Monday, May 2, 2011

The Art of Not Being an Idiot

If Divine Mercy Sunday hadn’t fallen on May 1 this year, along with the beatification of Pope John Paul II, then the Church would have been absorbed with the (optional) Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, a feast instituted in 1955 by Pope Pius XII as a means of counteracting the “May Day” celebrations sponsored by Communists. The point of this feast is to meditate on the life of St. Joseph and on the true meaning of human work, and so, loathe to let it wholly pass by, I want to honor it by meditating in the next few posts on one of the most remarkable books I’ve read in some while: Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft. This wise and provocative book is about the value of human work, but its theme necessarily causes it also to touch on questions of economics, education, contemporary management practices, moral and political philosophy, and—most germane to the concerns of this blog: the nature of art in the sense of craftsmanship.

Let’s begin with the central thesis of Crawford’s book. As the title suggests, Crawford believes that our culture’s general devaluation of manual work has caused us to lose touch not only with ideals of craftsmanship, but also with the ideal of perfection of the soul, that is, with virtue.

“The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self” (p. 16).

Failure to cultivate habits of manual work, accordingly, results in a kind of narcissism. “A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs. At such a moment, technology is no longer a means by which our mastery of the world is extended, but an affront to our usual self-absorption” (p. 16).

Crawford points out that the ancient Greek word idios, from which our English word “idiot” is derived, means “private” or “self-enclosed.” The true idiot “lacks the attentive openness that seeks things out in a shared world” (p. 98), the very kind of attentiveness learned through engagement with a craft—whether the fixing of washing machines or of motorcycles (besides being a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, Crawford also owns and operates Shockoe Moto, an independent motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia).

Here Crawford leans upon the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch to help him make connections between attentiveness and virtue.

“Iris Murdoch writes that to respond to the world justly, you first have to perceive it clearly, and this requires a kind of “unselfing.” “[A]nything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue” (pp. 99-100). Crawford then quotes Murdoch’s definition of virtue:

“[V]irtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”

In other words, to grow in virtue is to learn how not to be an idiot. A discipline, Crawford contends, that can be practiced just as much through manual work as in so-called intellectual work.

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