- Dignity of Labor
Labor, either of the head or the hand, is the lot of humanity. There are no exceptions to this general rule. The rich who have toiled early and late for a competence find their present ease more unendurable than their past exertions, and the round of pleasures to which, in other days, they looked for a reward of their toil in actual realization, resolve themselves into drudgeries, often worse than those from which they vainly fancied they had escaped. The king on his throne is beset with cares, and the labor he performs is ofttimes far heavier than any borne by the poorest peasant in his dominions. The high and low alike acknowledge the universal sway of labor. That which is thus the common lot of mankind and reigns with such universal sway can not be otherwise than honorable in the highest degree.
Labor may be a burden and a chastisement, but it is also an honor and a glory. Without it nothing can be accomplished. All that to man is great and precious is acquired only through labor. Without it civilization would relapse into barbarism. It is the forerunner and indispensable requisite to all the sweet influence of refinement. It is the herald of happiness, and makes the desert to blossom as a garden of roses. It whitens the sea with sails, and stretches bands of iron across the continent. It is labor that drives the plow, scatters the seed, and causes the fields to wave in golden harvests for the good of man. It gathers the grain and sends it to different regions of the earth to feed other millions toiling in less favored channels there. Labor gathers the gossamer web of the caterpillar, the cotton from the field, and the fleece from the flock, and weaves them into raiment soft, warm, and beautiful. The purple robe of royalty, the plain man’s sober suit, the fantastic dress of the painted savage, and the furry coverings of arctic lands are alike the results of its handiwork, and proofs of its universal sway and honor. Labor molds the brick, splits the slate, and quarries the stone. It shapes the column and rears not only the humble cottage but the gorgeous palace, the tapering spire and stately dome.
It is by labor that mankind have risen from a state of barbarism to the light of the present. It is only by labor that progression can continue. Labor, possessing such inherent dignity and being the grand measure of progress, it is most fitting that man should not taste life’s greatest happiness, or wield great influence for good, or reach the summit of his ambitious resolves, save only as the result of long and patient labor. Life is a short day; but it is a working day, and not a holiday. Man was made for action, and life is a mere scene for the exercise of the mind and engagement of the hand—a scene where the most important occupations are, in one sense, but species of amusement, and where so long as we take pleasure in the pursuit of an object it matters but little that we secure it not, or that it fades when acquired.
Life to some is drudgery; to some, pain; to some, art; to others, pleasure; but to all, work. Let none feel a sense of sore disappointment that life to them becomes routine. It is a necessary consequence of our natures that our work and our amusements, our business and our pleasures, should tend to become routine. The same wants, the same demands, and similar duties meet us on the threshold of every day. We look forward to some great occasion on which to display ourselves, some grand event in which to give proof of a heroic spirit, and complain of the petty routine of daily life. On the contrary, it is this succession of little duties—little works apparently of no account—which constitute the grand work of life; and we display true nobility when we cheerfully take these up and go forward, content to
“Labor and to wait.”
Alas for the man or woman who has not learned to work! They are but poor creatures. They know not themselves. They depend on others for support. Let them not fancy, they have a monopoly of enjoyment. They have missed the sweetest pleasure of life, even the pleasure of self-reliant feeling, born of vanquished difficulties. They know not the thrill of pleasure experienced by him who carries difficult projects to a successful termination. Each rest owes its deliciousness to toil, and no toil is so burdensome as the rest of him who has nothing to task and quicken his powers. They do not realize, in their blind pride, what labor has done for them. It was labor that rocked them in their cradle and nourished their pampered life. Without it the very garments on their back would be unspun. He is indebted to toil for the meanest thing that ministers to his wants, save only the air of heaven, and even that, in God’s wise providence, is breathed with labor.
Labor explores the rich veins of deeply buried rocks, extracting the gold and silver, the copper and tin. Labor smelts the iron, and molds it into a thousand shapes for use and ornaments, from the massive pillar to the tiniest needle, from the ponderous anchor to the wire gauze, from the mighty flywheel of the engine to the polished purse-ring or glittering bead. Labor hews down the gnarled oak, shapes the timbers, builds the ship, and guides it over the deep, bringing to our shores the produce of every clime.
But mere physical, manual labor is not the sole end of life. It must be joined with higher means of improvement, or it degrades instead of exalts. The poorest laborer has intellect, heart, imagination, tastes, as well as bones and muscles, and he is grievously wronged when compelled to exclusive drudgery for bodily subsistence. It is the condition of all outward comforts and improvements, whilst, at the same time, it conspires with higher means and influences in ministering to the vigor and growth of the mind. Not only has labor inherent dignity, but it is almost a necessity for mind as well as body. Man is an intelligence, sustained and preserved by bodily organs, and their active exercise is necessary to the enjoyment of health. It is not work, but overwork, that is hurtful; it is not hard work that is injurious so much as monotonous, fagging, hopeless work. All hopeful work is healthful; and to be usefully and properly employed is one of the great secrets of happiness.
Most interesting is the contemplation of the victories achieved by the hand of labor—victories far grander than any achieved by physical force on the field of battle; for its conquests are wrested from nature. The very elements are brought under subjection, and made to contribute to the good of man. It displays its triumph in a thousand cities; it glories in shapes of beauty; it speaks in words of power; it makes the sinewy arm strong with liberty, the poor man’s heart rich with content, crowns the swarthy and sweaty brow with honor, dignity, and peace. It is one of the best regulators of practical character. It evokes and disciplines obedience, self-control, attention, application, and perseverance, giving a man deftness and skill in his physical calling, and aptitude and dexterity in the affairs of ordinary life. Work is the law of our being, the living principle that carries men and nations onward. Manual labor is a school in which men are placed to get energy of purpose and character—a vastly more important endowment than the learning of other schools.
The laborer is placed, indeed, under hard masters—the power of physical elements, physical sufferings, and want. But these stern teachers do a work which no compassionate, intelligent friend could do for us, and true wisdom will bless Providence for this sharp necessity. Labor is not merely the grand instrument by which the earth is overspread with fruitfulness and beauty, the ocean subdued, and matter wrought into innumerable forms for comfort and ornament; it has a far higher function, which is to give force to the will, efficiency, courage, the capacity of endurance and of devotion to far-reaching plans.
We must, ever remember that it is the intention only that disgraces; that all honest work is honorable; and if your occupation be not so high-sounding as you would like, still it is better to work faithfully at this until opportunity opens the door to something higher. Because you do not find just what suits you, to refuse to labor at all, to play the drone, is to act unworthy of yourself and your destiny. Neither is it beneath you to make yourself useful, regardless of what your position and wealth may be. A gentleman by birth and education, however richly he may be endowed with worldly position, can not but feel that he is in duty bound to contribute his quota of endeavor towards the general well-being in which he shares. He can not be satisfied with being fed, clad, and maintained by the labors of others, without making some suitable return to the society that upholds him. It matters not what a person’s natural gifts may be, he can not expect to attain in any profession to a high degree of success without going through with a vast deal of work, which, taken by itself, would rightly be called drudgery. That quality in man which, for want of a better name, we call genius, does not consist in an ability to get along without work, but, on the contrary, is generally the faculty of doing an immense amount of work. Young men sometimes think that it is not respectable to be at work, and imagine that there is some character of disgrace or degradation belonging to toil. No greater mistake could be made. Instead of being disgraceful to engage in work, it is especially honorable. The most illustrious names in history were hard workers. No one whom posterity delights to honor ever dreamed or idled his way to fame. To be idle and useless is neither an honor nor a privilege. Though persons of small natures may be content merely to consume, men of average endowments, of manly expectations, and of honest purpose will feel such a condition to be incompatible with real honor and true dignity.
The noblest man on earth is he who puts his hands cheerfully and proudly to honest labor, and goes forth to conquer honor and worth. Labor is mighty and beautiful. The world has long since learned that man can not be truly man without employment. Would that young men might judge of the dignity of labor by its usefulness rather than by the gloss it wears! We do not see a man’s nobility in dress and toilet adornments, but in the sinewy arm, roughened, it may be, by hardy, honest toil under whose farmer’s or mechanic’s vest a kingly heart may beat. Exalt thine adopted calling or profession. Look on labor as honorable, and dignify the task before thee, whether it be in the study, office, counting-room, workshop, or furrowed field. There is equality in all, and the resolute will and pure heart may ennoble either.
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