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ESSAYS ON SOCIAL SUBJECTS,
It is fortunate for the mass of mankind that their time is pretty well laid out for them. They are spared the problem which must constantly vex the souls of men busy men, not impelled by sheer necessity—what is to come of their work, and why they do it. The man who ploughs or carpenters sees a satisfactory fruit of his labours. He knows that the world could not get on without him, that he, as one of a class, is perfectly indispensable to the wellbeing, the existence even, of mankind. That we must work, and that, because we must, something useful will be provided for us to do, every believer in a Providence cannot but assume. But people who idolise work of their own devising, a common form of worship in our time, are inevitably subject to self-delusions. Very few men who work with their brains, who invent work of any kind for themselves, can, in fact, be as sure that they are benefiting their species as the man who weaves or digs. Many
authors unquestionably are serving their generation, many philanthropists, many preachers, many philosophers, many—let us say—essayists and critics; but the mere dignity of the sphere and the conviction of utility, though self-sustaining, do not of themselves prove it. In fact, the higher the aim, the less confident should men be of the result. We are commanded to work, work is an instinct, and head-work in a certain sense is a higher form of work than hand-work; and the individual plods on, trusting to these general truths. But except where there is an abiding afflatus—an outpouring which a man must utter or die—except a man is habitually “overflowing as the moon at the full,” it may almost be doubted whether literary work could be carried on by modest men without the common tie which makes all labourers one brotherhood, that they earn money by it. Money is something positive, a reason for exertion apart from the sense of the value of your work. Your work may not be good, even in your own eyes; it may not teach or prove, or edify or amuse; but the idea of wages reduces the pen to the instrument of an honest trade, and the wielder of it to the condition of an honest labourer. He is not oppressed by the humbling sense of shame or failure, by the sore misgiving that he is spinning worthless cobwebs out of his own vitals, only for the remorseless housewife Oblivion to sweep away; for if he does not serve society, it serves him. Something comes of the transaction; which cannot always be said of the mere fancy work done for honour and glory, or even for the gratuitous benefit of the human species. We believe the world of writers, on whom men rely for their daily supply of teaching and amusement, would be “utterly consumed by sharp distress” at the emptiness and vanity of their work, but for the sedative and consoling reflection that they are day-labourers, and write for their hire, and therefore may flatter themselves, by analogy with their brethren of the plough and loom, that what is fairly paid for is worth having, and that what is worth paying for must have some intrinsic worth. If there is a fallacy, it is decently hid. Under it the husbandry of the brain is still carried on, and a precarious crop harvested.
We doubt whether work should be so very delightful to the worker as it seems to be to some people. A little enthusiasm now and then carries him pleasantly forward, and habit makes it bearable and comparatively easy. But for the brow to sweat is not in the nature of things agreeable, though we feel the better for it, perhaps, when it is cool again. Whenever the mere process of work becomes a man's highest pleasure we suspect something wrong, some deficiency. He ought to be glad when it is over. He ought not to undertake it but with some feeling of necessity,—something impelling him slightly against the grain. Liberty ought to seem greater and better than compulsion, even deliberate self-compulsion. Whenever people set their heads to constant work we may be perfectly certain that they are losing more than they gain, that they are sinking in the scale at once of meditative and social beings,