Before a man complains of his wages, then, let him ask himself: Have I mastered my work? Am I loyal? Am I capable of larger responsibilities, and of wider control?
WILLIAM MORRIS says: “It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which shall be worth doing, and be of itself pleasant to do: and which should be done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome, nor over-anxious.”
This theorem cannot be upheld in its entirety, though there is a deep truth beneath it. There are many things, such as the collecting of garbage, the washing of the dead poor, the cleaning of cesspools, the butchery of cattle for the market, and the execution of capital criminals, which can scarcely be called pleasant to do, and must yet be done. As long as the world is the world, and there is in it sin, decay, disease, and death, we cannot hope to make the work or the conditions of work absolutely ideal: we can make ideal the spirit in which work is done!
A fine story is told that long ago, when the cholera once broke out in Philadelphia, the hospitals fell into a fearful state. One day, a plain, quiet little man stepped into the chief hospital, looked about a moment, and set to work. No task was too dirty or disagreeable for him; no detail was too disgusting. He did anything he saw to be done,—called in additional doctors, organized the nurses, and himself waited on patients night and day. He soon had the hospital in good shape again. When the crisis passed, and every one began to demand, Who is this man?—they were told: It is Stephen Girard. The work was not pleasant, but the spirit was kind, and the heart delighted in its self-appointed toil.
Work in general, however, that has worth has several elements. First, It must be individual. It must be joyfully done: there must enter into work the vitality of a happy spirit. It must be spontaneous. This is why machine-work can never be thoroughly beautiful: it lacks the spontaneity of life. The hand never makes two things alike. With the mood, the weather, the occasion, there are little touches added which a machine cannot give. Life always varies and thinks of new effects.
When we try to realize what work is, when it is merely an amount of toil prodded out of man or woman by a hard taskmaster, we have only to look back to the bondage of Israel in Egypt, or to the time of Scylla, when there were thirteen million slaves in Italy alone: slaves whose set tasks were of over two hundred and fifty kinds; who worked on the road-building, on public works, and in rowing in the galleys of the slave-propelled ships. In Carthage agriculture was for a time largely carried on by slave-labor. How different is this slave-labor from the craft-work of mediaeval times, when, under the protection of the guilds, manual labor became exalted to an artistic rank, and the workers at the loom, the metal-workers, the wood-carvers, the tapestry-weavers, and the workers in pottery and glass produced objects whose beauty has never been either equalled or surpassed. Andrea del Sarto and Benvenuto Cellini were workers, and their work remains.