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Wedding at Cana good workOne of C.S. Lewis’ lesser-known essays, “Good Work and Good Works” was published in the Catholic Arts Quarterly close to Christmas, 1959. Lewis’ assertions in the essay are a testimony to the prescience achieved by authors whose thought is grounded in principles of truth combined with the right use of reason. Over half-a-century ago, Lewis lamented the divorce between “good works” and “good work,” and in the years between publication and now the situation in this regard is dramatically more pronounced.

To describe the proper relationship between “good work” and “good works,” Lewis begins with Christ at the Wedding at Cana. Christ did a good work by providing wine to all at the wedding, but more than that, it was also good work, as illustrated by what the governor of the wedding said to the bridegroom: “Thou hast kept the good wine until now.”

With Christ modeling the proper marriage between “good works” and “good work,” Lewis declares that “the great mass of men in all fully industrialized societies are the victims of a situation which almost excludes the idea of Good Work from the outset.” Building something to be obsolescent has become an economic necessity: “Work nowadays must not be good.” Lewis explains that this situation has “stolen upon us, unforeseen and unintended” and warns us not to be morally glib about this development, as “the degraded commercialism of our minds is quite as much its result as its cause.” The materialist reductionism and of the age is  a result of original and actual sin and in turn promotes further sin, as businesses are compelled to engage in planned obsolescence; in the end we have a snake eating its own tail, as our society slithers further into decay.

It used to be that in a small indigenous community in which families relied on artisans for their pots, pans and hunting weapons, several things kept the quality of those goods good. The artisans lived in close proximity with the people who used their products, and the flourishing of the community depended on their good work. In these early economies, the life of a specialist was a good life for a man: a life of “usefulness, a reasonable amount of honor, and the joy of exercising a skill.” Through most of history, then, artisans and artist doing good works for society had also done good work.

Lewis explains that now there are two kinds of jobs: One is a job which is really worth doing even if one were not paid for it, although one necessarily must be paid for practical living; the second kind of job is done solely for the purpose of making money. This second type would be done by no one, but for the payment of it. Lewis suggests that we ought to be thankful that there are still many jobs of the first kind, like the agricultural laborer, policeman, priest, teacher, doctor, and artist. These are jobs one would do without pay if possible, and they include those things families would have to do for themselves with less specialized skill in the absence of professionals. The opposite extreme of the second kind of job is prostitution. The work is cut off from every natural consideration of the marital act, even lust, and done solely and degradingly for money.

Good work can still be done by those engaged in the former kinds of jobs, but good work in the latter sort is not necessary. Lewis notices that the engine behind promoting these second kinds of jobs is advertising. In a good society, things made would be useful and would be wanted. In the world in which we live, where the sole value in many jobs is the money they generate, “wants have to be created in order that people may receive money for making the things.” Lewis explains that the more important trade becomes in a society, the “more people are condemned to—and worse still, learn to prefer—what have been called the second kind of job.” The first kind of jobs involving good works and good work become the domain of a lucky minority, while the “competitive search for customers dominates international situations.” Lewis warns of what ought to be easily recognized: This consumerism cannot go on forever, “but unfortunately it is most likely to perish by its own internal contradictions in a manner which will cause immense suffering.”

Perhaps Lewis’ most ominous warning about the subtle changes being wrought by this situation is that it has imposed a deep corruption on the artists. It has always been the job of the artist to “delight and instruct the public.” The artist would necessarily lead his audience to consider the higher things, the finer things. This seems no longer to be the case. At the highest levels of the arts, the artist no longer seems to have a duty to us: “It is all about our duty to him. He owes us nothing, we owe him recognition.” Lewis notices that this phenomenon has infected many different types of artisanal jobs. No longer does the smith work so that the warriors may fight, but the “the warriors exist and fight in order that the smith may be kept busy.” Lewis identifies well-intentioned, but misguided, motives to be the root of these modern problems. He says a “real advance in charity stopped us talking about surplus populations and started us talking instead about unemployment. The danger is that this should lead us to forget that employment is not an end in itself.” And thus, when making money and employment become our ends, the considerations of good work vanish.

Most devastatingly, this loss of the tie between good work and good works has occurred in the field of education. No longer is the teaching class there to educate children, but children are there to keep the teaching industry busy. An idol has been made of education as a major source of employment, which in turn promises to make employable citizens. This snake eating its own tail has completely lost sight of the “good work” that must necessarily be an integral part of true teaching. In the public schools good work is almost non-existent. Poll the public classrooms and it becomes immediately clear that few “educational professionals” are truly interested in what learning takes place there, and the focus among students and parents is to “get an education” in order to “make money.”

As in the case of education, nearly all of the first kinds of jobs–those worth doing for their own sakes–have been damaged by the divorce of good work and good works. The medical field, psychology, law enforcement, the judicial system, education and many more first kinds of jobs have been inverted to imitate the second kinds of jobs; now most people do them, not out of a sense of duty to others, or for the joy of developing a needed skill, but to make money. Both kinds of of jobs now bow to the idol of profit and create problems in society they falsely portend to solve.

“Great works of art and good works of charity had better also be Good Work,” Lewis proclaimed five decades ago. “Let choirs sing well or not at all. Otherwise we merely confirm the majority in their conviction that the world of business, which does with such efficiency so much that never really needed doing is the real, the adult and the practical world; and that all this culture and religion are essentially marginal, amateurish and rather effeminate activities.”

Christ turned water into wine for the wedding party, and the wine was good. Our very biggest problem today is not that people don’t want to do good work; it is that we no longer know what good work is. We ignore C.S. Lewis’ prescient warning at our own peril. Let us in our own lives rediscover an understanding of the nature of good work. Then let us reconcile good works and good work and begin a recovery of our culture… for the sake of a world sliding into irrevocable darkness.

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Published: May 13, 2015
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A convert to Catholicism, he is a catechist, a school teacher, and a writer and speaker on matters of faith, culture, and education. He holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Steven is a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange, and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.
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1 reply to this post
  1. This argument makes little sense, from Lewis. Manufacturers did not just start making things so that they would go obsolete, those products were cheaper to make, and therefore more people could afford them. Manufacturers made what people wanted to buy. You can still buy very high quality products, if you are willing to pay for them.

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