The dignity of manual labor

No race or society can prosper until it learns
that there is as much dignity in tilling a field
as in writing a poem.
Booker T. Washington,
born April 5, 1856

 In the early 1970s I had a poster with these words of John Gardner:

An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

I once shared this with someone who worked in the New York City Catholic Peace Fellowship office where I volunteered every once in a while. He noted that he was a plumber and that I was studying philosophy.

The dignity of work is a theme of Catholic Social Thought that is often overlooked, especially the dignity of manual labor. There is, within many of us, a subtle prejudice against manual labor. Why get my hands dirty when I can use my mind?

But many spiritual leaders of the twentieth century, especially Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Lanza del Vasto, have not only praised manual work but have considered it essential for a true spiritual life. Otherwise we become oppressive!

Sad to say I don’t do enough physical labor, though I really should try my hand at raising a few vegetables. But I have always respected manual laborers and I see them as essential, though neglected, members of our world, often doing more for the common good than office workers and intellectuals.

Manual labor, especially farming, demands a lot of skill and expertise. As Brazilian theologian Clodovis Boff wrote (Feet-on-the-Ground Theology, p. 60):

A human being should be able to exercise the same degree of skill in picking beans and doing research, hauling papayas and consulting books.

And manual labor should be seen as a place for prayer. As Gandhi noted:

Whether you wet your hands in the water-basin, fan the fire with the bamboo bellows, set down endless columns of figures at a desk, labor in the rice-field with your head in the burning sun and your feet in the mud, or stand at work before the smelting furnace, so long as you do not do all this with just the same religiousness as if you were monks praying in a monastery, the world will never be saved.

And so I need to try to live a life where I use my hands as well as my head and heart. After all, Jesus was a manual laborer for many years.



One response to “The dignity of manual labor

  1. John – Gardening is good for the soul! It’s a truely medatative experience to run my hands through rich soil. I am headed out this morning to see if the garden plot is dry enough to till. Gotta get in those peas and potatoes. Let me help you get started:


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