Friday, 29 October 2010

Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610

Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain who build it.
Except the Lord keep the city, he watcheth in vain
who keepeth it.
It is vain for you to rise before dawn:
rise later, ye who have eaten the bread of sorrows;
When he will give sleep to his chosen.
--From Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610, VIII: Nisi Dominus [Psalm 127]

Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 is one of my favourite pieces of sacred and classical music. It is grand, visionary, almost impossibly beautiful in the construction of its harmonious parts. The Vespers (evening prayers), were later converted into the essential components of the Church of England service of Evensong: Psalms sung, hymns, the canticles of Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, each followed by the doxology (of a type presaged in Monteverdi's piece). The Idle Historian, attached to all things nostalgic is, of course, very fond of the ritual of Evensong. Even more so as it has become clear that it is a doomed tradition and that weekly living celebrations in parish churches that have continued unbroken for half a millennium -- on dreary, rainy Sunday afternoons and on pleasant, sunlit summer ones alike - will die out with the older generation. Evensong will, sadly, quite possibly be practised only at places such as Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's [pictured] for the benefit of visiting tourists looking for a taste of Ye Olde England.

But this post is not about the decline of religion, but rather the influence of competing religious ideas on that most basic block of time that consumes the human day: work. The question of work, and our attitudes towards it, are historically based. The words listed above, from Nisi Dominus [Psalm 127], reflect the pre-Protestant Reformation view of how work and the Divine Will intersected. In this formulation, it was actually vain and intolerably arrogant to imagine that by long hours of toil one could somehow change one's lot or destiny. The Gospel of Luke tells the parable of the rich man who laboured to build new barns, storing his great wealth in preparation for years of ease -- "But God said unto him, [Thou] fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?" (Luke 12:20) In the Catholic formulation there was work to be done, yes -- but strictly as one was allotted given one's station in life, and no more than was necessary for the individual and community. To attempt to amass wealth was not only discouraged by usury laws and hierarchical constraints, but also by the belief that over-striving was sinful. The Protestant Reformation changed all this, and one does not need to be an historian to be familiar with the ideas in Max Weber's famous book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to be aware of how entrenched Puritan ideas (most particularly in North America) have combined with the prime value placed on characteristics such as industriousness, thrift, sobriety, and frugality.

Work and its obverse (idleness) would be, by its very title, the prima facie purpose of this blog. Not that the Idle Historian is really all that idle -- idleness is rather a jumping-off point for deeper explorations of the life of the mind, of the nature of modern existence and, yes, a certain amount of contrarianism (even "young fogey-ism"). Modern popular philosopher Alain de Botton, in his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, explores the fact that modern work is often more sorrowful than pleasurable - and that we derive meaning in work, essentially, from community and feeling that our efforts contribute to the betterment of the whole in some way.

This question of what makes us happy in work, or the lack thereof, struck me particularly in a recent article in the publication Foreign Policy, "In Praise of Laziness." It deftly combines an exploration of current political flashpoints over work and the retirement age in France, with an historical inquiry into how our cultural antecedents influence the value we place on work and productivity. The author of the article, Robert Zaretsky, relates a unique historical account of a town named Montaillou and of the 14th-century conflict between Cathars in this tiny region of France, and central Roman Catholic authorities at Avignon. Among other areas of disagreement with the outside world, the villagers held certain ideas about property and work which were to be swept away with the advent of a more rigorously hierarchical society in turn imposing its own ideas of social order. Yet the ideas of the Cathars continued to hold sway; indeed, the author points out that "French literary tradition that treats laziness with the gravity and intelligence it deserves."

The values of this vanished world meant that extremes of neither wealth nor poverty were tolerated, and that there was very little crime. If it sounds vaguely, well, "socialistic," it was not a socialism of imposition, but rather of intrinsic values - a certain mentalité. They worked as they needed to in order to live, but no more: "...for the village's shepherds, in particular, wealth was not measured in terms of money, property, or possessions. Instead, a rich life was one filled with travel and daydreaming, conversations and meals with friends." As to the conflict with the centralized church: "There was nothing grand or operatic about this resistance; rather, it was the reflex of a society that did not think it was in need of repair. It was a world where social and class distinctions were largely irrelevant, where neither great wealth nor great poverty was tolerated, where a moral economy grounded in material life and common traditions had little in common with the new world's emphasis on abstract laws and transcendental values."

The article, in telling such a unique story of a "clash of civilizations," suggests that conflicting ideas about the nature of work run deeper than any right/left political, or Catholic/post-Reformation, divides. Clearly not everything was delightful under previous regimes, nor is work today simply reducible to soulless grinding in a giant cog. We certainly cannot live a modern urban life herding sheep and spending the day solely in conversation and sharing a repast with our neighbours. Nor would we necessarily want to - demands of contemporary work also make our lives more diverse and rewarding in many ways. Yet even in the highly industrialized 20th century, philosopher Bertrand Russell believed that individuals needed to work only four hours per day. Many hold to the belief that our ballooning hours of work are needless and fruitless -- contributing only towards ever more illusory ideal of "growth" and ever increasing amounts of environmentally destructive and unnecessary goods and services.

Finally, returning to the theme of religion, Christ emphatically enjoined his followers to be "in the world but not of the world." This means that one must necessarily engage with work, social and community issues, politics, and other areas of daily life with the world as we encounter them. But at the same time, the values one brings to these tasks should be outside the prevailing blights of greed, avarice, and selfishness. It is an injunction that most anyone -- religious or otherwise -- seeking to effect change or bring counter-cultural ideas to bear, will naturally follow to some extent. To find our truest and best selves we step outside the dictates of the world, if not its actual activities. In this way, maybe the lazier habits of a previous world have something to teach us.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

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