Some might be surprised that Benedict’s Rule placed such emphasis on obedience, because the activity most often associated with the monastery is work. The thumbnail summary of the Rule, Ora et labora, seemed to confirm that observation. “Pray and work” was a Benedictine motto written on the gates to their land and the entrances to their buildings.
But on second look, work and obedience are very similar. Work demands humility and discipline. It establishes an outside criterion for action, an objective standard to which you have to bend your will if you are going to accomplish what you intend. Also, the command from the monastic superior often took the form of a work order, so the challenge to self-will was doubled: you had to obey the abbot, and you had to subject yourself to the requirements of the task. From the earliest days in the deserts of Egypt, anchorites seeking to conform themselves to “God” used work as their routine pratice. Work, like obedience, was a primary tool for unmasking and emasculating the false self — the egoic self that believes it has no Creator and Matrix but itself — and replacing it with the true Self. Theosis.
Work in a Universe of Spirit
But the understanding of reality determined by modern science has radically changed the context in which work is defined. For thousands of years and right up into our times we had been convinced by ancient scientists that reality was characterized by ideas that emanated from a divine Spirit-Mind capable of creating an entire cosmos for the purposes embedded in those ideas. This had a major effect on our understanding of the place of work in human life and society.
The principal creative activity in such a cosmos was not physical effort but the emanation of mind — ideas, thinking, also called contemplation. It could hardly be called work. It was an effortless, almost passive event, where mind and its ideas accounted for the form that reality assumed, going and coming. A divine Mind generated the ideas that a subordinate, created, god-like “Craftsman” (Logos) implanted in matter. A human mind then reads the ideas that had been placed in the material “receptacle” and understands them. This was Plato’s theory and it was accepted as settled science by the educated class throughout the Greco-Roman world. When the uppser classes took over Christianity in the second century Plato came along with them.
Matter, in this conceptualization, is a passive partner whose role, like that of an empty bowl, was calculated in terms of the amount of emptiness (potential) it brought to the creative moment. Matter was entirely eclipsed by the creative power of the ideas that are responsible for the form that things have as existing entities.
In that world whatever existed did so only because it was in possession of form. Matter conferred no reality whatsoever. Existence came only through the form, the essence, the idea.
Spiritist monism. Even aside from Plato’s imaginative projection of another world where ideas like “justice” had substantial existence, by making idea the sole source of existence in this world, he reduced matter to a kind of non-being, a foil for the perfection of spirit at best, when not disdained as hostile to the rational goals of the universe. Dualism at first sight appears to admit a certain parity between metaphysical principles, matter and form, and Aristotle tried to establish exactly that. But it didn’t stick because it simply wasn’t true … the only reality in that universe was spirit and its ideas. Matter was not fully real; without form matter could not exist, whereas forms, like Plato’s substantial ideas, the idea of “being” and the human soul, could and did exist without matter, and his “World of Ideas” (later the “Mind of God”) was popuated exclusively by these real “essences.” Dualism is a misnomer. Platonism was a spiritist (idealist) monism where positive form was thought to overcome a negative matter that was hostile to existence. Matter was alien, destructive and corrupting. If something existed it was because form was able to dominate and neutralize matter’s negativity.
The body. Those premises have had a disintegrating effect when applied to the world of man in society. First, it divided the individual human organism in two, body and soul … and granted all life and reality to the soul, even to the point of imagining it could exist without the body. It exalted rational cerebration and emotional distance over a respect for organismic wholeness — feelings, emotions, urges, instincts, needs, originating in the body. It identified matter as the source of all corruption, irrationality, sin, sickness and death. The body was denigrated as a source of uncontrollable deflection from the soul’s pursuit of rational goals … in personal morality, in interpersonal relationships, in all manner of human endeavors and in politics. The body was corrupt flesh whose appetites it shared with the animals. Disdain for the body was axiomatic. This vision was responsible for a generalized cultural pathology I have called “autogenic disease,” a sickness unique to the human species where the individual identifies its own body as alien, hostile, and tries to destroy it.
The concrete task, therefore, of the “lovers of wisdom” in the Platonic universe was to find ways to control, suppress, ignore, even eliminate the body as a factor in the destiny of the human individual, or at least to reduce its damaging effects to a minimum. The goal was the liberation of spirit from matter. Matter was to be discarded … and death itself was adduced as a confirmation of that. At death our spirits (“souls”), freed from matter as from a dungeon, returned to the world where they originated, the world of spirit, the real world. All ascesis was developed to assist in the liberation of the spirit from the body made of matter, and the process of applying them was called, aptly, spirituality.
Work. It almost goes without saying that in such a universe, work — physical, bodily labor — would be looked on as humanly demeaning, the effect of the fall of humanity from spiritual immortality into subjection to the disintegration, decay and corruption characteristic of all matter and by inclusion, the human body. This was exactly the interpretation that Augustine and the Romanized Western Christian Church imposed on the Genesis account of the sin of Adam and Eve, where manual labor was labeled as a punishment. The need for physical labor to secure human survival was seen as a permanent scar on the human race, a sign of our shame, and a reminder that our very bodies are the twisted versions of what they should have been before being abandoned to domination by their material side.
The desert hermits, starting from these very same premises, took work and applied it to their pursuit of humility. Since work was the most demeaning activity imaginable, they embraced it, much as they embraced obedience, for its power to neutralize the false self, born of an existential insecurity that spawned a grasping neediness, self-protective pride, self-exalting abasement of others. They turned work into a tool of humility and a proclamation of their rootedness in Being in a sustained effort to allow their real Self to emerge — the Self that knows itself to be an emanation and part of existence itself and therefore radically secure. And, because they were working out of Platonic philosophical assumptions about the nature of reality, work also provided a way to challenge the body’s un-natural inclination to avoid exertion, seek comfort, ease and leisure, disobeying the demands of spiritual reason. Work, as a training ground for the spirit gaining domination over the body, was a tool of liberation from the addicting, enslaving laziness and self-gratification that ruled the flesh.
Arbeit Macht Frei. In a most grotesque caricature of this classic monastic view of work, the Nazis used the infamous phrase, arbeit macht frei, welded in steel onto the gates of a number of their concentration camps; it means “Work makes you free.” Some claim that the fact that it is also found on the gate to the death camp at Auschwitz was simply an unconscious extension from its primary use in the first camps of the early thirties where good work performance could actually earn you freedom. Regardless, what we have in the Nazi motto is an iteration of the ancient dualist attitude toward work: that because it represents a conquest over laziness and self-indulgence, work liberates the spirit and re-establishes the reasoning mind’s domination over the flesh. Did the Nazis intend the hideous irony that death itself frees the “soul” from the body and can be considered a liberation like work? Was mass extermination actually some twisted expression of the Platonic paradigm? It is just as conceivable that it was the creation of a sadistic cretin as an unconscious bureaucratic oversight. Whatever else it was, it was the re-application of the classic Western dualism regarding the human organism. It was an atitude toward work that reflected the false premises that molded our culture.
Slavery. Then, in a further step, in a world whose economy for thousands of years into the past had been based on slave labor, the spirit-flesh duality was called on to explain and justify slavery and the military conquests required to maintain a continual supply of free labor. Even as untraditional a thinker as Aristotle was held in thrall by the rationale of the matter-spirit divide. He said that slaves were more carnal, less spiritual than their masters. They were therefore less rational, and like little children, required the guidance and direction of their superiors. Slavery, therefore, was natural — it was both just and necessary.
What made the masters superior, of course, was their greater degree of immateriality. They were wealthier, less needy, less animal, more detached from the demands of the body and therefore more rational, more spiritual, more human than the slaves. Such thinking was also open to racist interpretations. Aristotle’s arguments were employed to devastating effect two thousand years later when the issue of the “humanity” of the indigenous people of the Americas was debated before Phillip II of Spain. Bartolomé de las Casas contended at court with representatives of the plantation owners of New Spain, the beneficiaries of the free labor provided by the encomienda system of Church sponsored slavery. Witnesses said that De las Casas in fact won the debate, but the king was hostage to other considerations. The results were never made public, but the recently promulgated “New Laws” derogating the encomienda system were quietly rescinded. The implication was that by Aristotle’s standards native Americans were racially sub-human. Aristotle had provided the justification for encomienda to remain in place into the 18th century. Slavery and the new-born Africa-to-America slave trade had received a validation that would postpone its abolition for hundreds of years. “Heathen” required the work training provided by “Christian” masters in order to overcome the bestiality incurred from centuries of enslavement to Satan and the flesh. Thus was racism born as the result of the distorted application of religious doctrine.
Attitudes of pro-slavery supporters at the time of the American Civil War were bolstered by contemporary scientific ethnology which identified “inferior” races destined to die off unless they had the protection and security offered by American style slavery.
The family. Consistent with its import in other areas, spiritism has had a divisive influence on the human family in the West. Women’s inferior status in society, already well established long before the Platonic era, was given a deep, almost religious corroboration by Platonism. Women were assimilated to the body and matter, and men to mind and spirit. Women were seen as chained to chidbearing and child rearing by the female body and its inescapable cycles, while both before and after the generative act, nature left men free for other pursuits. Similar to its validation of slavery, dualism justified the exploitation of women by men as another example of spirit’s natural superiority over matter, and the need to keep the body under control.
Children were seen as physical entities devoid of rationality, even more akin to the animals than women, and requiring harsh measures for their training and ultimate growth in “reason.” It was not unlikely that under such auspices men would be assigned the duty of exercising control over women as they did over children, and that included corporal punishment. At a time when a man, seriously pursuing Christian perfection, did not hesitate to lash his own flesh to bring it into subjection, it was unlikely he would refrain from doing so in the case of a headstrong wife. It is within the memory of many of us that it was generally accepted, by both women and men, that a husband’s (the word itself came from the care of animals) responsibility included the physical discipline of his wife.
From the identification of slaves, women and children with irrational matter and the underside of human life, the kinds of work assigned to them came to be infected with the same denigration and disdain. Since they were sub-human, like animals, the tasks they were given to perform were “servile:” menial, unthinking, unworthy of the energies of a free male “rational spirit.” Thus there developed a distinction between labor that was servile and labor that was not. Not surprisingly, servile labor was manual labor, strenuous, repetitive, and having to do with those aspects of life distasteful to most people — our bodily needs. Field and farm labor along with kitchen work to this day are considered the most menial of occupations regardless of the fact that we are all totally dependent on the product of their labor for our very existence. So much for the market theory of value.
Blue collar / white collar
These distinctions are with us still. And they are reflected in the levels of remuneration, the prerogatives and conditions of work at each level and the social respect accorded to the persons who are associated with each kind of work. A wage slavery as we have today in the modern world would not exist unless there had pre-existed another, more primitive slavery, which had already established the norms and expectations of the labor performed by the worker and the quality of his humanity. Ancient Mediterranean slavery melded seamlessly into feudal agricultural serfdom and then into industrial wage slavery because the last is merely the evolved form of the first. All stem from the same erroneous premises: that there are two “things” out there, spirit and matter, and spirit has value and matter does not. The strenuous labor associated with the unavoidable subjection of human organisms to their material needs — food, clothing, shelter, self-defense, and the survival labor required to continue to exist — was despised and segregated, assigned to those considered of little worth and most dispensable, in order to free up the elite rational spirits among us for the work that is truly human: the work of the mind and the spirit. Thus the elite were those who worked with their mind and their mouth, and never with their hands.
The abasement of the “servile” laborer in our western “Christian” societies is as universal and unchanging as it is contradictory and incomprehensible to the premises adduced to explain it. The “good news” announceed by Jesus did not disparage working people. The structural inequalities taken for granted in countries whose systems were shaped by Western Christianity is clear evidence that “Christian” influences other than the gospel were at work. The fact is that a seriously corrupted version of Jesus’ message came to dominate among his second century followers in the lands of the ancient Mediterranean. A distorted Christianity flourished there precisely because the nature of its corruption was a fatal accomodation to the social values and religious assumptions of the Roman Empire, which included not only the institution of slavery but, more importantly its spiritist justifications. Constantine’s choice of Christianity was an indicator of how thorough that accomodation had already become before 312.
Feudal and then Mediaeval class structures set the functioning inequalities of the ancient world in legal concrete in the form of an inherited aristocracy because, in large measure, the Church had “baptized” them through its embrace of Platonic spiritism. Applied to its own institutions, matter-spirit dualism created class distinctions between clergy and people and even in the monasteries ascetical egalitarianism succumbed to the realities of class. The educated, often ordained monk’s “work” in the scriptorium copying manuscrupts and in the chanting of the office was kept separate from the hard labor of the illiterate “lay brothers” who toiled in the fields, foundries, workshops, laundries, kitchens and refuse management of the monastic enterprise. The origin of the iconic Catholic Rosary was the substitution of 150 “Hail Marys” in place of the 150 psalms that the working “brothers” were not permitted to pray. The distinction lasted into our times.
A sea change in perspective
This overview of the traditional meaning of work for human / Christian fulfillment may serve as a prolegomenon to a new understanding of reality ushered in by modern science. It is remarkable how damaging it is to apply a distortion of such wide import as spiritism (traditionally called idealism), mis-labeled as dualism, to all of reality. It accomplished the vilification of matter, and assured the self-loathing of the human individual, the subjugation of women, the brutalization of children, the disdain for manual labor and the abasement of the laborer institutionalized in a two class system that despite disclaimers is with us to this day.
What happens when we include the advances of modern science in our thinking? Science has discovered that all of reality, whether in the form of particles or force-fields, and regardless of its level of structural and operational complexity, is comprised of a homogeneous material energy that first and foremost is responsible for being-here, existing. To be, in other words, far from being spirit, is to be matter. This turns the ancient world with its assumptions, values and prejudices on its head. Work is no longer a sign of our disgrace and shame, to be avoided whenever possible and relegated to those considered less-than-human. Work is the natural survival activity of all organisms made of matter. Work is the primary manifestation of the conatus, the innate engine of our existential bearing. Work is the primary expression of the presence of LIFE.
 David Reynolds, “The Slave Owners’ Foreign Policy” NY Review of Books, vol LXIV, No 11, June 23, 2017, p.51