The Wisdom of the Scribe

August 13th, 2019

The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure;
and he who has little business may become wise.
How can he become wise who handles the plow,
and who glories in the shaft of a goad,
who drives oxen and is occupied with their work,
and whose talk is about bulls?
He sets his heart on plowing furrows,
and he is careful about fodder for the heifers.
All these rely on their hands
and each is skillful in his own work.
Without them a city cannot be established,
and men can neither sojourn nor live there.
Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people,
nor do they attain eminence in the public assembly.
They do not sit in the judge's seat,
nor do they understand the sentence of judgement,
and they are not found using proverbs.
But they keep stable the fabric of the world,
and their prayer is in the practice of their trade.

  • Sirach 38:24-26,31-34

The concept of occupation and vocation has come up often in my thought over the past few years as I have pondered what exactly I do, and by extension who I am, or how I consider myself. I call myself a writer because I enjoy writing poetry and essays like these, as well as code that people pay me to write. Possibly because my occupational path has taken me through the world of advertising, I have concerned myself with the problem of "consumption," which resolves to either greed or laziness. What people call "consumer" society takes its appearance from either an unchecked or insatiable acquisition of objects, or a failure or refusal to consider their disposal. Oftentimes the two meet.

The wealthy consumer acquires many things (e.g. a boat) upon which his life does not depend and which enriches his soul less than he might imagine. This results in the awful industrial society which toward the aim of production enslaves both land and man. These resources are not returned to the earth for many eons.

The impoverished consumer acquires many inexpensive items as stopgaps for his immediate needs: fast food, plastic cups, and the like. These quickly-produced items vanish from use as rapidly as they enter. A meal is gone in a sitting, its wrappers discarded. A cheap widget breaks a small and irreplaceable plastic part; the entire object is discarded. This process too fuels the fires of industry, producing refuse to be buried in the earth for untold eons.

I realized first that to confront this scourge, one man can do little against the overwhelming tide of greed and ignorance, and even less if he does not first confront those impulses in himself. That process takes a life's effort by itself. So while the root of the weed is being extracted, there is repentance to do. Repentance means to turn away from the old way. So I set myself to turning away from this endless spiral of production, consumption, and disposal. This also takes many forms and may take a life's effort as well.

During this process of repentance, one must still eat and provide for one's family, so I set myself to learning about ways to do this that do not participate in the industrial spiral — labeled under the increasingly commercialized word "sustainable." I learned about working the earth to produce food. I learned about traditional methods of manufacture that use all parts of the resource. I stumbled many times buying many things I still did not need. And throughout this all I supported my financial needs by writing code. I dreamed of one day "being" a farmer, or something similar. I fantasized about woodworking, tailoring, any of the traditional crafts.

However, I still cannot imagine myself to be anything but a writer, a thinker. My forays into craft have indeed produced fruit but even those fruits represent thought more than they do craft. They represent my thought experiment in how to live a life free of this damned material spiral. As many projects as I have finished another dozen lie unfinished, or hastily finished, or discarded. They represent failures of craftsmanship but successes of thought. The purest, most lasting form of thought is the written word. That has remained constant throughout my life. Even the "craft" by which I make my living is no more than written word.

I labored under the shadow of the existential question — "who are you?" — through all of this, even after I decided cautiously to declare myself a writer and to figure out the details later. I worried that without some craft to show for my labor I would simply cease to be meaningful, which to the writer is to cease to exist — to be edited out. I worried about my "productivity," that I was not doing enough, making enough, to be a fully-actualized person, to justify my existence and the food and drink I did consume. What use is the laborer who reclines in the field? I read many words comparing my trade to architecture or other material skills. But I know that specific code does not last long — only the thoughts which the code represent do — only its wisdom. And it usually represents the author's working-out of a problem, not some concrete solution. I feel unfit to call myself a craftsman, despite all my effort.

So when I read these words of the son of Sirach writes, something within me stirs.

The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure

How much time have I spent active and worrying about how to become wise?

They [the laborer] are not sought out for the council of the people

Yet this desire lies deep within me.

I questioned myself: Could I be a failed craftsman? So I looked to my ancestors. My father was a professor. Before him, a cameraman. Preachers and engineers run in my blood, rarely men of what the Scripture calls craft. And I have always wanted to be a writer, a teacher, a poet. It seems unlikely that I was meant to be otherwise.

And yet I had worried so much about making something tangible that I had forgotten about leisure. Leisure is not laziness or a refusal to interact. Leisure implies a sort of detachment, an aimless observation that simply takes in the facts of the world. And the man who observes much has much wisdom. The man who observes little, often, knows much about that little. Thus they keep stable the fabric of the world. The craftsman who knows the contours of a chair makes seats that bring not mere utility but even peace to the sitter.

This Scripture also leads me to wonder what has been wrought by other scribes ignoring their call to leisure. Wendell Berry calls abstraction the sin of the twentieth century. Automation comes naturally from abstraction. Perhaps the under-idle scribe, worried about production and pretending to be a laborer, has abstracted away the jobs of countless millions by making machines where an honest day's work would have produced a better product and a more satisfied man. I know if I search my thoughts I have concernedly invented a laborer's problem and "solved" it with an abstraction. How many craftsman have idled away their hours doing rote and mindless tasks without the tradition of the trade to guide them? How many woodworkers have resigned themselves to cleaning pools? How many cobblers have spent their lives guarding shopping malls? How unstable has the fabric of the world become? The injection-molding machine that makes chairs steals one man's skill at bringing peace through seating and brings ruin to many.

In Kurt Vonnegut's novel Player Piano, the protagonist Paul Proteus early in the book is repairing a manufacturing machine and describes the process of automating it:

Rudy hadn't quite understood what the recording instruments were all about, but what he had understood, he'd liked: that he, out of thousands of machinists, had been chosen to have his motions immortalized on tape. And here, now, this little loop in the box before Paul, here was Rudy, as Rudy had been to his machine that afternoon—Rudy, the turner-on of power, the setter of speeds, the controller of the cutting tool. This was the essence of Rudy as far as his machine was concerned, as far as the economy was concerned, as far as the war effort had been concerned. The tape was the essence distilled from the small, polite man with the big hands and black fingernails; from the man who thought the world could be saved if everyone read a verse from the Bible every night...

Later on Paul meets Rudy in a bar where "'Let's drink to old times!' said Rudy, raising his glass. He didn't seem to notice that silence greeted his proposal, and that he drank alone."

Finally after Rudy pays to play a tune on the player piano, Rudy ponders "Just the way the feller hit 'em. Look at 'em go!...Makes you feel kind of creepy, don't it, Doctor, watching them keys go up and down? You can almost see a ghost sitting there playing his heart out."

Perhaps the scribes would do well to stay out of the laborers' business. But I say that mostly to myself. I wonder about a world which lets the craftsman practice his craft and does not burden him with philosophy — a world which gives the scribe lease to observe and not pressure him to produce. So I begin again as I have begun before: resolving to live out that knowledge of order I have been given, knowing as the scripture says "the Kingdom of God is within you," (Luke 17:21) In summary my aim is this, as written by Saint Paul in Romans 12:1-2,4-6: "present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect...for as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given us, let us use them"