Wednesday, 17 June 2009

C.S. Lewis on Good Works and Good Work

I recently came across the passage below by CS Lewis in The Joyful Christian (it's a book full of snippets; by clicking on the title of this entry you will be directed to the whole piece) and i found it interesting that he lists cabinetmakers amongst the last bastions of craftsmanship. He even goes into (some) details, when describing 'real honest-to-God work': 'sound structures; seasoned wood, accurately dovetailed, the stresses all calculated; skill and labour successfully used to do what is intended...'

This piece also resonated with me particularly in light of the discussions on a previous post about the religious community's role in environmentalism. Lewis proclaims, 'Let choirs sing well or not at all', reminding us that focussing on the 'real' thing is no excuse for doing things half-assed. Anyway, here is the piece:

'Good Works' in the plural is an expression much more familiar to modern Christendom than 'good work.' Good works are chiefly almsgiving or 'helping' in the parish. They are quite separate from one's 'work.' And good works need not be good work, as anyone can see by inspecting some of the objects made to be sold at bazaars for charitable purposes. This is not according to our example. When our Lord provided a poor wedding party with an extra glass of wine all around, he was doing good works. But also good work; it was a wine really worth drinking. Nor is the neglect of goodness in our 'work,' our job, according to precept. The apostle says everyone must not only work but work to produce what is 'good.'

The idea of Good Work is not quite extinct among us, though it is not, I fear, especially characteristic of religious people. I have found it among cabinetmakers, cobblers, and sailors. It is no use at all trying to impress sailors with a new liner because she is the biggest or costliest ship afloat. They look for what they call her 'lines': they predict how she will behave in a heavy sea. Artists also talk of Good Work; but decreasingly. They begin to prefer words like 'significant,' 'important', 'contemporary,' or 'daring.' These are not, to my mind, good symptoms.

But the great mass of men in all fully industrialised societies are the victims of a situation which almost excludes the idea of Good Work from the outset. 'Built-in obsolescence' becomes an economic necessity. Unless an article is so made that it will go to pieces in a year or two and thus have to be replaced, you will not get a sufficient turnover. A hundred years ago, when a man got married, he had built for him (if he were rich enough) a carriage in which he expected to drive for the rest of his life. He now buys a car which he expects to sell again in two years. Work nowadays must not be good.

For the wearer, zip fasteners have this advantage over buttons: that, while they last, they will save him an infinitesimal amount of time and trouble. For the producer, they have a much more solid merit; they don't remain in working order long. Bad work is the desideratum.

We must avoid taking a glibly moral view of this situation. It is not solely the result of original or actual sin. It has stolen upon us, unforeseen and unintended. The degraded commercialism of our minds is quite as much its result as its cause. Nor can it, in my opinion, be cured by purely moral efforts.

I guess when you think about it, the precedent for Good Works is in the first chapter of Genesis:
וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים, כִּי-טוֹב--and God saw that it was good.'
Ricky Gervais expounds on Good Work in Genesis:


  1. '...and God saw that it was good.'
    I have never heard that passage put into that context. Very insightful.


  2. Thanks, TK! Personally, i find the observations of (certain) comedians rather enlightening on the Bible (and in general--their ability to connect disparate things and to reframe the mundane and make it fresh is fascinating, and definitely connected with the miracle that is language)--like Ricky Gervais, Robin Williams, Billy Connolly. I think Mel Brooks was right on in his depiction of Comicus as a standup philosopher in The History of the World...