a civilization ‘outside in’

Ceramic tile screen  by Bernard Leach

Ceramic tile screen by Bernard Leach

The art forms of a community are the crystallizations of its culture (which may indeed be a different thing from its civilization), and pottery traditions art no exception to the rule. In the T’ang period it is not difficult to recognize the Chinese genius for synthesis, here reinterpreting Greek and Buddhist ideology in terms of contemporary need, and combining these elements within the native framework of Taoist and Confucian concepts, thus fundamentally modifying and extending the boundaries of their ideas of beauty and truth. In the greatest period, that of the Sung dynasty, all of these different influences are welded together in one, for unification was then supreme. Until the beginning of the industrial era analogous processes of synthesis had always been working amongst ourselves, but since that time the cultural background has lost much of its assimilating force, and the ideas we have adopted and used have been molded into conformity with a conception of life in which imagination has always been subordinated to invention and beauty to the requirements of trade. In our time technique, the means to an end, has become an end in itself, and has thus justified the Chinese criticism of us as a civilization ‘outside in’.

Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book (1976) p. 14 (originally published 1940)

I first became interested in Bernard Leach because of his relationship with Yanagi Sōetsu. He introduced Yanagi Sōetsu to William Blake’s works and Yanagi later wrote a book on Blake. He also introduced Yanagi Sōetsu to the western world.

What is most compelling to me about this particular quote is the dual ideas of imagination subordinated to invention and beauty to trade. Another curious thing about this bit is that productive tradition is framed as a process of assimilation, whereas most “traditionalist” would see assimilation as destructive of tradition, a diffusion of cultures rather than a focusing and synthesis. There is much to unpack.

The idea of imagination destructively being subordinated to invention is counterintuitive to the standard definition of imagination, which is frequently defined as the “invention” of new ideas from old, or the creation of new data beyond existing sense data. In either case, these definitions of imagination necessarily entail invention. What sort of imagination can exist without it?

It seems to me this can be answered without resorting to too many contortions through William Blake. One of the first things we read in my undergraduate seminar on Blake with R. Paul Yoder was his letter to Dr. Trussler from 1799, which begins:

Revd Sir

I really am sorry that you are falln out with the Spiritual World Especially if I should have to answer for it I feel very sorry that your Ideas & Mine on Moral Painting differ so much as to have made you angry with my method of Study. If I am wrong I am wrong in good company. I had hoped your plan comprehended All Species of this Art & Especially that you would not reject that Species which gives Existence to Every other. namely Visions of Eternity You say that I want somebody to Elucidate my Ideas. But you ought to know that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men. That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care. The wisest of the Ancients considerd what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act. I name Moses Solomon Esop Homer Plato

I still remember those days fondly: “That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care” was a great way to start my first formal training in a poet which I had read since I was a teenager and barely understood. Of course it wasn’t easy: it wasn’t supposed to be. You’ve got to admire the balls on a guy who can write a letter to a guy who rejects your work that opens this way. What is most important about these contradictions is that they “rouze the faculties to act.” The key section in the letter, however, comes just a bit later:

I percieve that your Eye [s] is perverted by Caricature Prints, which ought not to abound so much as they do. Fun I love but too much Fun is of all things the most loathsom. Mirth is better than Fun & Happiness is better than Mirth–I feel that a Man may be happy in This World. And I know that This World Is a World of Imagination & Vision I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun & a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity & by these I shall not regulate my proportions, & Some Scarce see Nature at all But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is So he Sees. (Erdman, 702)

Too much fun is loathsome; happiness is better than mirth, and to see the world imaginatively is the greatest happiness. The happiness that Blake speaks of here is seeing the world itself, not something foreign that has been invented and brought into it in the conventional sense— “Nature is Imagination itself” . To see things as they are sounds a bit like Bacon, whom Blake loathed, but Blake doesn’t fit into the empiricist frame. For Blake, “As a man is, So he Sees”—the man of inspiration and imagination is not the same sort of man as the man who refuses to see. Reverend Trussler had clearly fallen out with the spirit world: to truly see the world, for Blake, was to see God in the world.

Thus, the modernist impulse towards “making it new” sits  uneasily against Bernard Leach’s more Blakean view of imagination as nature. The subjugation of imagination to invention moves in lockstep with the dissimulation of beauty to the requirements of trade in Leach’s construction of the state of the arts, no doubt under the influence of William Morris: “In our time technique, the means to an end, has become an end in itself,” here, again, the modernist celebration of new and better machines seems to chafe in the mid century. Morris saw the structure of society as an unavoidable matrix which art emerges from: if society is shallow and obsessed with surface character, then so goes the arts. Leach references Morris, as the my leading quote continues:

Since the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the reaction started by William Morris has been taking place mostly outside industry and has culminated in what I have called the individual, or artist, craftsman. Beginning in protest against the irresponsible use of power, it came to an end in pseudo-medieval crafts little related to national work and life. Thence has arisen the affirmation of the mechanical age in art—functionalism. This, through let us say, Picasso, le Corbusier and Gropius of the Bauhaus, is having its effect on all crafts. A movement which however is based by its initiators on a new and dynamic concept of three-dimensional form, tends among those who attempt to carry over the idea into industry to an over-intellectual effort to discover norms of orderliness and utility. Such a process limits the enjoyment of work to the designer, and overlooks the irregular and irrational element in all fine activity including the making of pottery. (14-15)

It is important to remember here that Blake rebelled strenuously about conventional, mechanized regular typesetting choosing instead to write backwards in etching fluid to create his plates for his poetry. Both Blake and Morris tend to harken back to the earlier tradition of illuminated manuscripts as an antidote to industry. Though I do think Leach rightly indicts the degeneration of Morris’s arts and crafts movement to nonsensical medievalism. Interestingly, Leach’s attack on functionalism is picked up again by David Pye in 1962, which is where I have a mind to turn next.

The relationship/definitions of beauty and imagination play a key role in defining “happiness” in this pursuit of the “simple life” that I’ve been on about for the last bit. That’s the reason for these monumental digressions. Eventually, I’ll get back to William Morris: I really believe that his approach, and its fracture across the twentieth century, deserves a closer examination.

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Seeing Beauty

No experience can advance the cause of the handicrafts more than the cultivation of the habit of seeing beauty all along the way of life. An increasing number of our people are cultivating that habit and are practicing in their homes the sound and satisfying principle expressed by the great craftsman, teacher, and philosopher of art William Morris, who said “Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

It is the homemakers of America scattered throughout all the states, in cities towns, villages and open country who are, as has been said, the hope for the fireside industries of the Southern Highlanders, and, it may be added, for the handicrafts of all the rural areas of our country. These homes are more than temporary markets, more than recipients of whatever may be offered for sale to them; they are in a very real sense partners with the makers in conserving and developing the extraordinary range of handwork with which the United States is so richly endowed.

Allen H. Eaton, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands (1937) p. 331-2

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Public and Private Beauty

Graceful SimplicityThere is a distinct abuse of bulleted lists in Segal’s book. Nonetheless, many of the concepts buried in these bullets deserve close attention and comparison with other variations on the general ideas.  The “graceful” aspect of Segal’s formulation of graceful simplicity is steeped in aesthetic values which converge and diverge with earlier deployments of the concept.

It amazes me just how frequently these basic concepts can be traced directly to William Morris, Ruskin, and the intrusions of industrial capitalism. William Morris lamented the shoddy products of his time and the lack of aesthetic beauty in the lives of the many.

Segal implicitly agrees with Morris, though he never cites him. There are however many   divergences on a path to a quite socialist conception of the problems. Segal places the lack of the beauty into the public sphere, rather than the private though he does bulletize the household first:

  • Beauty must not be thought of as residing solely or even primarily within things. There is a beauty that is the architecture of time; it requires slowing down and doing things right, and it may call for less income and more time, rather than the reverse.
  • A life of graceful simplicity does not require that our homes be museums; it does not require that every artifact of daily use be striking. At the same time, from the point of view of gracefulness, a life that is aesthetically impoverished is abhorrent.
  • One dimension of graceful living is the awakening of aesthetic appreciation, and with that will come a selectivity that often, without any additional cost, results in attainment of things of beauty. Anyone who has wandered through flea markets and garage sales and thrift shops knows that there are great things to be found—beautiful objects, not noticed or not valued by others.
  • Things of beauty exercise a special power—they radiate within their spaceand as they draw us into their orbit they close our consciousness to that which is outside. Thus, it is not necessary that all our possessions be beautiful, only that some things are. (68)

The first point, about an “architecture of time” seems more unique, or at least reactive to the “slow” movements that were emerging around the time that he composed his book. The second, third, and fourth points are eerily similar to Yanagi Sōetsu’s concepts of mingei and the intimate nature of craft beauty, which probably had Morris as their original source. Ultimately, it seems as these concepts flow through many mouthpieces who differ largely only in emphasis rather than substance. Where Segal really breaks ground, in my opinion, is in next few bullets

  • One of the inexpensive sources of beauty is in our own creative ability. In part, this is a matter of tapping into our own latent abilities to take a beautiful photograph, to sculpt, to draw, or to play an instrument. These to some extent involve mastery of technique. But within the household, we are constantly engaged with the issue of design and arrangementwhether it be the utensils, the tools, the furniture, the towelswhat we find in every space is that beauty resides not just in the objects, but in how they are arranged with one another. Perhaps this is better understood by thinking about marketplaces. If one has traveled in the Third World countries and gone into marketplaces, sometimes one is stopped short by an exceedingly beautiful display, formed with fifty loves of bread or with a few dozen shirts. (68-9)

I’ve got some serious issues with this section. First, it seems really horrible to suggest that photography, playing music, sculpting, etc., are somehow latent in people and only need to be summoned by practice and technique. Photography, for example, is largely (in my opinion) a matter of disabusing oneself of the notion that you actually know anything about it simply because you’ve seen a lot of it. It’s not latent, in fact, it is perhaps the most opposite of a latent skill I can possibly think of.

Photography is a recording technology that you might think you understand by simply being exposed to it: it only takes a few stabs at imitation before you figure out that maybe you don’t know so much about it after all. It’s hard, at least if you’re doing it right. Skill isn’t an internal matter of getting in touch with yourself and your hidden talents; it’s about understanding a variety of technologies from the pencil to the chisel, including perhaps also the piano and the camera. Practice and education are far more constituent of “talent” than any innate quality, at least in my opinion. In design and arrangement however, things might well be different.

 

I remember stopping at Buc-ee’s in Lulling, Texas a while ago and being struck by this wall of products. It struck me then that it didn’t represent real choice, but rather the illusion of choice. Though there are a multitude of flavors listed, they’re pretty much the same product (salt, sugar, soy, etc.) with just a touch of different in the chemical/spice treatments added. As I’ve learned to do more with basic food products like rice (which comes in a myriad of varieties with completely different properties) it occurs to me that the knowledge of how to transform raw materials into meals presents a more impressive array of choices than the wall of flavor powders. But I digress: the display was beautiful in a bizarre way.

Though I find the reference to the beauty of Third World markets a bit condescending and imperialist (ah, those simple peasants and their displays), Segal is onto something with the beauty of arrangement. Of all that he’s mentioned, arrangement is as close to a “latent” talent that most people can be said to have. While it can be developed through education and practice, we all “know what looks right” if we give ourselves half a chance. The fact that he chooses an economic locus (the market) as an example of commonplace beauty is a bit like a Freudian slip; lusting after products in a shop window is a beautiful thing.

I recall my mother, being a woman used to living on very little, would just revel in moving her furniture around from time to time to “improve” her surroundings. Furniture arrangement was probably the only “artistic” pursuit she ever attempted. Crafts, like needlepoint or knitting, though popular with most of her sisters, always reminded my mother how much better they were at it. She didn’t find it relaxing in the slightest. But furniture arrangement, well, that was just her way of getting in touch with beauty. So, I think Segal’s point is a good one even if it is clumsy in its expression.

But the real breakthrough, I think, is in the final bullet of his list:

  • The beauty in our private spaces, inside our homes, is accessible only to us and our friends. But perhaps of more significance is the aesthetic quality of public space, be it the architecture of houses, yards, gardens; the pavement of the streets; the shops; the trees; the skyline; or access to the sunset. In economist’s terms, these are public goods, in the sense that the enjoyment of them by one person does not diminish their availability to others. They are not, in the ordinary sense, consumed.

It is this point that really merits discussion at greater length. It’s not really something that can be addressed by individual action. It’s a question of social beauty, not of individual or consumer beauty. I hadn’t really thought of beauty as a social concept before.

I must admit that I felt “happier” living in the Twin Cities*, though I was of lower economic means then.  With the highest per capita arts spending of any major metro area and a park system pretty much second to none, Upstate New York suffers by comparison. Natural beauty is widely available here, and wonderful— but the lack of civic beauty is hurtful to the spirit. I live in a beautiful enclave, accessible only to those with means. And my heart sinks when I step outside of it.

*There is a rebuttal to the linked article, but I stand by my opinion– it’s the best place I have ever lived.

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I may not be graceful or simple, but I’m trying to be persistant

Graceful SimplicityOne of my deepest difficulties as a reader and a researcher is my tendency to chase footnotes and citations, sometimes until I wander off permanently from the primary text. It was a real pain in grad school, because it usually ended up with other people thinking I was showing off my extensive reading. That’s not really what I was after; mostly, I just get curious. For example, even though I read and didn’t really care for Thoreau’s Walden, I just ordered a cheap dover copy since I hate e-books and PDFs. I blame Jerome Segal. It may not be obvious that’s what I was doing when I wandered down the alleys of some of the recent posts.

I’m still trying to process the Segal (and EP Thompson’s book on William Morris too, for that matter). It’s hard to try to focus when there are so many interesting topics at hand. To recap a bit, I summarized the basic framework Segal establishes for impoverishment and listed his criteria for a so called “Aristotelian approach” to political life.

Segal invokes Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech , focusing particularly on the lines:

“Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.”

There are some interesting rabbit holes to fall down in this book. I had encountered Edward Bok before in a journalism independent study back when I was working on my master’s degree, but didn’t realize until Segal brought it up that his magazine, Ladie’s Home Journal, was a big proponent of “simple living” at the turn of the twentieth century. I’ve trolled their archives on ProQuest for a while, finding all sorts of things that I won’t get lost in here. As Zoe Nyssa once remarked, my mind is a strange and mysterious place.

Segal summons John Woolman, Ben Franklin, and Thoreau to establish a different version of the “American Dream” that begins with simple living. It’s an alternate sort of economics, which he sums up:

The point of an economy, even a dynamic economy is not to have more and more; it is to liberate us from the economic—to provide a material platform from which we may go forth and build the good life. That’s the Alternative American Dream. (22)

The material that follows isn’t really as interesting as the primary sources he cites. He’s got a survey of various “simple living” self-help books, and some political policy arguments about the state of NRI (needs related income) and the difficulties of simplifying things when it’s actually harder to get enough money to maintain a basic standard of living than it has been in the past. Segal has some unique and concrete policy ideas working within existing government programs, like the earned income credit and medicaid, to assist people in finding a better basic quality of life. The general conclusion, after exploring the increasing costs of security, education, transportation, housing, etc. is this:

A general picture emerges. Yes, Americans over the years have increased consumption expenditures quite considerably. Much of this increase in household expenditure has gone to meet fundamental needs, either because needs were previously unmet, or because in real terms the cost of meeting these needs has increased dramatically.

This is quite a different picture than is commonly portrayed of our affluent society. For most Americans, their subjective experience that they always need more money than they have—is not to be explained by inflation in their appetites or standards of decency (e.g.”I must have more square feet, a newer car, better furniture, new gadgets, or I’ll just die), but rather by socioeconomic conditions that have resulted in unmet need or increased cost of meeting long-existing needs. (65)

It’s Segal’s framing of these “unmet” or “long-existing” needs that I find most fascinating. He actually discusses aesthetic impoverishment. It’s not something you see much outside of Morris and other Arts and Crafts literatures. In a long series of bullet points he frames a social conception of beauty that has some interesting twists, which I’ll turn to next. It’s almost socialist in its approach rather than individualist; coming on the heels on so much about standard economic needs, it’s a surprise. Rather than the conventional “ugly American” indictment of consumerism, Segal is on to something quite different.

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The Way of Craftsmanship

I have been writing for a long time about crafts, digging into almost virgin soil, and what I say may seem strange to unaccustomed ears, dubious, and difficult to accept because it is contrary to prevalent thought. I have continuously received a flow of doubting enquires from friends and strangers alike, so I decided to gather my ideas together into the form of a series of questions and answers reviewing the bone structure of my arguments.

Q. What are crafts?

A. Things made to be used by people in daily life, such as clothes and furniture. Something different from fine arts, such as pictures made to be looked at.

Q. What is the particular kind of beauty in crafts?

A. Beauty that is identified with use. It is a beauty born of use. Apart from use, there is no beauty of craft. Therefore, things made that do not stand up to use or that ignore utility can barely be expected to contain this kind of beauty.

Q. What is the meaning you attach to the word “use”?

A. The word is not to be understood merely in its materialistic sense. The reason for this is that mind and matter must not be thought of as separate. Use therefore covers both. Such objects are to be looked at and touched with a responsive feeling of pleasure in use. If crafts are only designed from a utilitarian point of view, then pattern, for example, is uncalled for. But good pattern adds to the function of that utensil. It becomes an indispensable part of use. On the other hand, however useful an artifact may be, if it causes in the mind a feeling of ugliness, it detracts from total service. The issue becomes clear in the province of food. Satisfying the demand of hunger is not the sole province of good cooking. We need good presentation and good flavours—that helps our appetite. Again, use that fulfils the mind alone is meaningless, like a wax replica of food. By use, then, I intend the indivisibility of mind and matter.

Q. What is the special quality of beauty in crafts?

A.  The special quality of beauty in crafts is that it is a beauty of intimacy. Since the articles are to be lived with every day, this quality of intimacy is a natural requirement. Such beauty establishes a world of grace and feeling. It is significant that in speaking of craft objects, people use terms such a savour and style. The beauty of such objects is not so much of the noble, the huge, or the lofty as a beauty of the warm and familiar. Here one may detect a striking difference between the crafts and the arts. People hang their pictures high up on walls, but they place their objects of use close to them and take them in their hands.

The Unknown Craftsman, 197-8

Additional material of interest can be found in “A Japanese William Morris: Yanagi Soetsu and Mingei Theory

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One man’s craft is another’s commodity

“Fast modern contemporary furniture, I want no part of it. People wanting to express themselves, it’s just simply crap. That’s what’s causing all the ills of our society, individualism with nothing to express. You tear your guts out to express yourself and it ends up in frustration and a terrible environment…. (Wood is) a gift we should treasure and use in the most logical and beautiful way, and personal expression is quite illegitimate. It’s an arrogant conceit, and we have too much conceit in our society.”

— George Nakashima interviewed by John Kelsey for the January/February 1979 issue of Fine Woodworking (Issue No. 14). 

cited by Chris Schwarz

I was taken aback by the misreadings and vitriol that occurred in the comments over at Lost Art Press regarding this quote. Comparing George Nakashima to Kanye? Really? It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme, but it’s what happens when American “rugged individualism” butts heads with eastern ideas of craft. The weird thing is, I was reading at the time about one of the fundamental Jainist tenets, aparigraha at the time that this tempest in a teapot was brewing.

This concept is found at the center of various yoga approaches as well, probably including the particular flavor embraced by Nakashima. It relates to the “simple living” reading I’ve been doing in a direct fashion, being the stricture against taking more than one needs, or wasting resources needlessly. Individualism, which frequently takes the form of “personal expression” can easily be termed unnecessary and a poor use of resources. Hoarding and showing off— as expressions of ego, are equally heinous under these ethical systems.

Of course Nakashima is a famous wood hoarder, as well as a craftsman with a highly individual signature style. He would dispute that though, claiming that he simply follows the spirit of the wood. One man’s individualism is another mans “truth to nature,” and one man’s rescuing of resources from decay and ruin is another man’s hoarding. It all depends on what angle you look at it from.

As the quote continues, it’s clear which side John Kelsey stands on:

Looking at a small table salvaged from a madly extravagant and extremely fragile burl, I see what he means: The wood is merely displayed, utterly simple. It is as if the tree had given away a part of itself and there it sits, without human intervention. We know that someone has sliced the stump into boards and saved this ruined piece from the firewood pile, cleaned it up and defined its edges, and given it a true, oiled surface. But this work does not intrude, there is no precious molding or delicate dovetail to announce the craftsman’s ego. The tabletop seems to have evolved directly from the material, as Nakashima says, it is probably the only thing that could have been done with such a piece of wood. (46)

That is of course the problem with taking quotes out of context; often, the explanation for the claims is just a line or two away in the remaining text. There’s an illustration of this table, but my PDF of the article isn’t really of sufficient resolution to do it justice. The table is described as an engineering problem:

Nonetheless, something is holding it off the ground, a base tucked well back and unobtrusive. It’s not a narly branch or root section (which Nakashima calls “gauche barbarisms”_, it’s a designed intersection of vertical slab and horizontal runner. I ask how this base evolved from the material and Nakashima explains that it is “almost purely an engineering job, it’s just to support the top and do it in a way that’s satisfying to me. I don’t mean that I’m beyond design, but I don’t design from the approach of art school, I design from the material.

The final passage is the most telling, though, and it closes out the article:

FWW: Are you working from a tradition, are you consciously part of a tradition?

Nakashima: Well, if I’m in a tradition it’s a mixture of early American and Japanese. I think I work very much in the Japanese idiom, the use of materials, the type of materials, but what we do also has roots in America.

FWW: You imply that aside from being a skilled craftsman and aside from knowing the material intimately and being able to design with it, there’s another dimension here.

Nakashima: Yeah, it’s a spiritual one, and I think it actually comes first. . .

 

I’m pretty certain that this dimension is actually primarily Indian; Nakashima spent time in Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Reading Nakashima’s book The Soul of a Tree, there’s a lot of “simple living” material in there as well, and attitudes towards tools. For example, he calls his approach to machinery “intermediate,” choosing a combination power tools and handwork, steadfastly choosing to market to a local community rather than a broader audience because he does not seem to be overly concerned with profit. His furniture may sell for millions these days, but it wasn’t created with a primarily economic intent. It’s really something when capitalists get ahold of scarce spiritual artifacts; the bidding goes up pretty quickly. It tends to pollute the ideas that originally birthed them.

The Fine Woodworking article is similar in the way it weaves the economic topics together. In a sidebar, Nakashima laments taking on workers to train them and having them leave for more lucrative work before he gets any advantage from their skill. He suggests that people who want to learn contact trade schools or go to countries that have apprenticeship systems rather than calling on him. But the last comment there is not about profit, but it is about wealth:

Skills are maybe the finest resource any nation can have, and we don’t have that in this country and that’s why things are getting so bad. This country prides itself on automobiles and can’t even make a decent automobile, a sad situation. Whereas if one has skills, one could make the slums bloom with no money at all, simply by work and skills. (42)

Money is only a small part of Nakashima’s world view, as it should be. It’s ludicrous to translate everything into that. Theories of work and skill are not commensurate with theories of labor and exchange.

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Crisis of Confidence

Washington, D.C., has become an island. The gap between our citizens and our Government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.

What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.

Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift. You don’t like it, and neither do I. What can we do?

First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this Nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans.

One of the visitors to Camp David last week put it this way: “We’ve got to stop crying and start sweating, stop talking and start walking, stop cursing and start praying. The strength we need will not come from the White House, but from every house in America.”

Full transcript

Treating the household as the center of the polis persists from Aristotle to Jimmy Carter and beyond. Jerome Segal points to Carter’s speech for its indictment of the excesses of material wealth and their impact on the psyche of the American people. This speech wasn’t effective at the time, but it’s an incredibly interesting thing to revisit.

As global energy markets are disrupted not by OPEC, but with the overwhelming efficiency and superior technology of American energy companies. We’re producing too much now, and instead of lines at the gas pumps we’ve got falling prices. But we still have, by most measures, a lack of faith in the future.

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves.

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Jimmy Carter, Craftsman

DIY: The 87-year-old former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (left) put volunteers half his age to shame by chipping in, alongside wife Rosalynn (right), to help build a series of one-room houses on the earthquake hit island of Haiti

DIY: The 87-year-old former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (left) put volunteers half his age to shame by chipping in, alongside wife Rosalynn (right), to help build a series of one-room houses on the earthquake hit island of Haiti

I grew up on a relatively isolated farm, long before we had electricity and when all the labor was by hand or with livestock. My father did the building and repairs, made many of our hand tools, and was a good cobbler and an expert blacksmith. As soon as I was physically able, he expected me to do my share of the work, and I was an eager student. I expanded my skills as a Future Farmer of America, and was required to make a few pieces of furniture, usually as gifts for my mother.Later, when I was a young naval officer with a base pay of $300 a month, it was important for my wife, Rosalynn, and me to live as inexpensively as possible, so we chose unfurnished apartments. There were fully equipped hobby shops at the large submarine bases, staffed by qualified personnel who helped in the design of furniture and provided good advice on the types of wood, proper joints, gluing techniques, and the use of power tools. I made the necessary beds, tables, and other furniture, but the only piece we brought home from the Navy was a white oak cabinet for high-fidelity sound equipment.

When Rosalynn and I moved back to Plains, we lived in a government housing project, and I was struggling just to earn a living for our family. I can’t say that I improved my woodworking skills during those years as a farmer and struggling businessman, since my only tools were a handsaw, hammer, drawknife, and an auger and bits, but I made some couches, lounge chairs, and tables that we still use every day. During this time, I became more familiar with the local woods and accumulated a good supply of lumber.

I had very little time for woodworking while we lived in the governor’s mansion in Atlanta, which had no shop facilities, or immediately thereafter when I was a campaigning full-time for president.

From Fine Woodworking #174, pp. 82

also see Highland Woodworker Episode 3

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Unnatural Wealth

Graceful SimplicityReturning for now to Jerome Segal’s book, there are some interesting leaps from Aristotle. I do not really understand some of the leaps he makes to declare some perspectives “Aristotelian.” Taxonomies that appear in Aristotle are frequently sketches that are contradicted elsewhere, deployed as matters of argumentative convenience.

What seems clear in my reading of Book I of the Politics is that Aristotle builds an analogical argument from nature, with the household as the central “natural” unit of human interaction and structure.

Economics, as such, is an element of only passing interest. Economics is important because it plays a part in the management of the household, just as it does in other political units. In the household, economics is of lesser importance. The status quo of power relations is of the most compelling interest to Aristotle, and it is unlikely that the status of economics is generalizable across all fields of political endeavor. Nonetheless, Jerome Segal identifies an Aristotelian approach to a “politics of simplicity” in neat bullet points:

  • There is no distinct economic realm
  • Economic institutions and policy must be judged in terms of how they affect the good life and the healthy personality
  • The central institution to be supported by economic life is the household (which in turn supports activity in the larger world).
  • The good life is not one of consumption, but of the flourishing of our deepest selves
  • Absorption in a life of acquisitiveness distorts the personality out of all recognition.
  • What we need for our well being is only a moderate supply of material goods. As we acquire more, material possessions are of diminishing value. (9)

What troubles me most is his first point: “There is no distinct economic realm.” I just can’t see where he gets this. Aristotle actually divides “economics” into two types. There is an economics of wealth given by nature which is essential to supporting a household. However, there are those who cannot restrain their desire, in a manner somewhat analogous to drug addiction (my comparison, not Aristotle’s):

The origin of this disposition in men is that they are intent upon living only, and not upon living well; and, as their desires are unlimited, they also desire that the means of gratifying them should be without limit. Those who do aim at a good life seek the means of obtaining bodily pleasures; and since the enjoyment of these appears to depend on property, they are absorbed in getting wealth: and so their arises the second species of wealth getting. For, as their enjoyment is in excess, they seek an art which produces the excess of enjoyment; and, if they are not able to supply their pleasures by the art of getting wealth, they try other causes, using in turn every faculty in a manner contrary to nature. (1: 9, 1258b)

The “contrary to nature” part is the key—Animals seldom kill more than they can eat, for example. It isn’t that the “economic realm” doesn’t exist, so much as the danger of managing wealth in a manner that is unhealthy. In Book 10, Aristotle continues to explain that just as a weaver must know how to tell good wool from bad, and know how to take it from nature and use it, so must the head of a household deal with the getting and spending associated with household goods. It is a part of household management, and as such is “natural.”

As for the problem of excess, in a later treatise, Economics, once attributed to Aristotle but now thought to be by a pupil of his, the problem is compared to trying to haul water in a sieve. There is no need for wealth that one cannot protect or use effectively. That’s where the “diminishing value” thesis is actually based: it’s not really commensurate with a “too much wealth is bad for you” admonition. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad to Aristotle’s schema, only that it can be unnatural and not worth the effort.

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Productive Slaves

Part of the problem in looking to Plato or Aristotle for theories of “craft” is the low social status of artisans in their schema of a perfect world. It’s a class thing, and people who made things were beneath the heads of household that made up the polis in the ancient world. It’s confusing, because both might occasionally speak glowingly of techné (art and craft) one moment and then speak as if artisans were barely a step above slaves. The difference, as I see it, is a thorny distinction between productive and practical crafts. But determining the difference difficult: rhetoric, for example, is classed as productive by Aristotle although it’s product (persuasion) is hardly tangible in the same sense as say, pottery.

In the Nicomachean Ethics 6:4 Aristotle defines techné as a “reasoned habit of making,” as distinguished from habits of doing. In other words, action is a separate matter which though it might require reasoned habits as well, but doing is separate from making. Things that come into being by accident are atechnic, while things that are consciously brought into being are the result of a techné. You’d think that being excellent or skilled as a maker of things would be well respected, but they aren’t— there’s an anxiety that is hard to figure out.

The problematic passage that has occupied me for several days is 1:12 of Politics. It begins:

Thus it is clear that household management attends more to men than the acquisition of inanimate things and to human excellence more than the excellence of property which we call wealth, and to the excellence of freemen more than the excellence of slaves. A question may indeed be raised, whether there is any excellence at all in a slave beyond those of an instrument and of a servant— whether he can have the excellences of temperance, courage, justice, and the like; or whether slaves possess only bodily services. And, whichever way we answer the question a difficulty arises; for, if they have excellence, in what will they differ from freemen?

It’s a thorny issue, given even greater depth as artificial intelligence makes it possible that “thinking machines” will soon work along side us. If machines or tools have “excellence” then at what point do they have the same privileges as the masters? Aristotle argues from what he considers to be a “natural” hierarchy, for differences in kind and degree:

All classes must be deemed to have their special attributes; as the poet says of women, “silence is a woman’s glory” but this is not equally the glory of man. The child is imperfect, and therefore his excellence is not relative to himself alone, but the perfect man and his teacher, and in like manner the excellence of the slave is relative to a master.

It’s my understanding that the introduction of differences in kind was a move to distance him to the simple distinctions of degree in Plato’s Republic, but it’s obviously a difficult move to support. One of the problems of this argument from analogy is trying to introduce degrees of slavery. That’s where the artisans come in:

Now we determined that a slave is useful for the wants in life, and therefore he will obviously require only so much excellence as will prevent him from failing in his function through cowardice or lack of self control. Someone will ask whether, if what we are saying is true, excellence will not be required also in the artisans, for they often fail in their work through a lack of self-control. But is there not a greater difference in the two cases? For the slave shares in his master’s life; the artisan is less closely connected with him, and only attains excellence in proportion as he becomes a slave.

Now it might be possible to read this generously that being a “slave to art” is a good thing, but the next line makes it clear that Aristotle isn’t thinking of that:

The meaner sort of mechanic has a special and separate slavery, whereas the slave exists by nature, not so the shoemaker or other artisan. It is manifest, then, that the master ought to be the source of such excellence in the slave and not a mere possessor of the art of the art of mastership which trains the slave in his functions.

The distinction is that the slave is “natural” whereas the artisan pursues his special form of slavery by choice. To the degree that the artisan (as a special slave)  is subservient to the master/purchaser of his wares, he might become excellent. The argument seems particularly weak here. The best selling (or at least those who sell to the best people) are therefore the best?

Holt N. Parker reads this a bit differently, distinguishing two analogical chains:

Master -> slave -> tool -> product
Craftsman (ἀρχιτέκτων) -> assistant (ὑπηρέτης) -> tool -> product

The move, as he sees it, is distancing the master/craftsman from the tools through an intermediary, literally keeping their hands clean:

Between the master and the tool is the slave/assistant, a tool for using tools (1253b33)49. The master does not weave: he orders the slave (the ensouled/intelligent-at-least-to-the-point-of-understanding orders/endowed-with-a-soul-albeit-a-defective-one possession) to weave on a loom (the tool) which produces cloth, another type of possession. Aristotle then reverses this argument by analogy. Since slaves are the ones who handle tools, anyone who handles tools ought (in a well-run polis) to be a slave. (87)

Curiously, this argument isn’t sustained through the Politics. Aristotle reverts to a body/soul analogy to argue for natural slaves. In short, any hierarchy in service he could marshall to support the status quo. I was really most amused by Parker’s notation of Eric A. Havelock’s observation regarding the Politics in a footnote:

The Politics is an arid treatise, intensely condensed and codified, the work of a mind that has now perfected its own self-analysis and brought every one of its prejudices and moods to total abstraction (382)

Women, slaves, artisans— Aristotle clearly wanted to look down upon them all.

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