A Social Heresy


ONE of the great heresies — or Heresy. perhaps more correctly, fallacies — of modern times is the notion that a man ought to work steadily all day long. It seems to be taken for granted that any person of regular occupation who fails to “ keep a-moving” (I shall explain the origin of this phrase presently) during business hours is recreant to himself, to his employer, if he has one, and to society at large. Thus, a great deal of work is done that ought to have been postponed, or never performed at all; and thus, also, men are encouraged — nay, forced — to prevaricate and to dissemble. My attention was lately called to an illustration of this necessary hypocrisy. The reader will doubtless remember that often, traveling by railroad on a wet day, he has glanced through the window of his Pullman car (I always go second class myself), and observed, as the train dashed by, a small group of section-men, or track-repairers, standing outside their hut, with shovels, pickaxes, etc., in hand, all ready to resume work, notwithstanding the severity of the weather, so soon as the road should be clear again. “ Hard, indeed, is it,” mentally ejaculates the kindhearted reader, “ that these faithful men should have to face so pitiless a storm ! ” and he goes back to his novel. But, between ourselves, the little scene which I have just described is purely theatrical,— a bit of comedy which the track-repairers perform out of deference to that pervading, remorseless theory that a man ought to work steadily through the day. To put the matter more concretely, the sectionmen reason thus : “ The boss ” (meaning the division or general superintendent) “may be on board of this particular train, and so it behooves us to make a show of industry.” As a matter of fact (I have it in a confidence which will not, I trust, be violated by any member of the Club), these track-repairers spend most of the time, when it rains, very snugly in their little house, and it is only when they hear the premonitory roar of a passenger train that they grasp their tools and form a picturesque group outside the door.

However, I am not chiefly concerned with the hypocrisy entailed by this vicious notion of working every day and all day. What troubles me most is its ill effect upon the health and spirits of the community. It is a notorious fact, proved many times by statistics, that the longest-lived persons are ministers ; and we all know how spasmodic their habits are, — how they write their sermons in a hurry on Saturday, are busy with their various functions on Sunday, and then laze about for the next two or three days. This system is a wholesome one. On the other hand, laborers’ lives are comparatively of short duration, despite their work in the open air, and freedom from intellectual or spiritual wear and tear. The reason is that their labor is regular and constant, and thus, having no long intervals of repose, they get stiff, and wear out before their time. The weekly debauch of many mechanics is a protest — not, I admit, a well-chosen one — against the theory in question.

The spasmodic method of the clergyman is the natural method. The beast of prey, for example, does not spend his whole time, day after day, pottering about the forest in a routine manner. On the contrary, he goes off for a vigorous, well-sustained hunt, and then, having gorged himself on the proceeds, he lies down to repose and meditation, until some further and pressing necessity for action arises. Great men — who are always much closer to nature than ordinary men — follow the same plan. Daniel Webster, for example, never constructed his stupendous legal and forensic arguments by so many “ days’ work,” as the phrase is, duly separated by eight hours’ sleep every night. His habit was, after preparing himself by a slight dose of medicine, a long nap, and a moderate repast, to perform his task by one mighty and continuous effort. And Mr. Webster’s capacity for loafing between whiles was as monumental as his intellect. Extraordinary tension cannot, indeed, be endured without an antecedent period of repose any more than a tiger can spring without first crouching.

This is true of physical as well as of intellectual exertion. Dr. Sargent, of Harvard College, who recently examined a successful prize-fighter, stated that there is about him a certain inertia, or instinctive husbanding of resources, which characterizes, as the doctor justly remarked, all men capable of great deeds, physical or mental.

It is a remarkable fact, too, that, as civilization advances, the spasmodic instead of the routine system of labor begins to recur. English professional men of the present day work very hard while they are at it, but they take long vacations. In this country, — in Boston, for instance, — it used to be the custom for a lawyer to arrive at his office by nine o’clock, and to stay there, with an hour out for dinner, until six o’clock. It was wittily said, many years ago, of a prominent member of the Boston bar, who spent part of the year in a remote suburb, "—’s notion of life in the country is to go home late, and pick up apples in his orchard after dark by the light of a lantern.” Nowadays, the lawyer gets to his office at half past nine or ten o’clock, and leaves it by four in the afternoon. In the summer he takes a long vacation. More work is done now than formerly, but it is done with a rush, and the intervals of repose are longer. Thus extremes tend to meet; and the typical man of two or three centuries hence will doubtless approximate still more in his habits of exertion to the lion, the hear, and the fox.

But at present we must look to certain communities which are primitive, or at least comparatively so, for examples of properly ordered labor and rest. In the British Provinces, for instance, if a man has a piece of work to do, he accomplishes it ; and then he sits down to rest, to meditate, and to confer, instead of turning his hand immediately, in a perfunctory way, to some new task. It is a common saying among farmers in the neighborhood of Boston that a laborer from the Provinces is “ no good ” until he has had a year or two of breakingin. That is the length of time, as they reckon, which is required to transform him from a lordly, natural, spasmodic man to a docile, automatic, laboring machine. In Maine the farming class have the same healthy habits of work, — or rather of rest ; hence their ruddy complexions, their infinite humor, the ripe development of their social faculties.

Sometimes, the two forms or stages of civilization, the spasmodic and the automatic, come in conflict. Thus, some years ago, a man of property from Connecticut, a “ hustler,” in the slang of to-day, settled in a small Maine town, with the intention of " booming ” the place. One morning he directed his newly acquired " hired man ” to perform a certain piece of work. The employee complied with alacrity. He finished the job, and then — why, then he came into the house, sat down in an armchair, and crossed his legs, with a view to a little rational conversation with his employer. But the latter was astounded and outraged by this conduct, new to him, and implying a new conception of an employee’s duty. He was a tall man, having extremely long arms, which, in moments of excitement, he was accustomed, after the fashion of Dominie Sampson, to wave with the sweep of windmills. “ I pay you,” he exclaimed, flourishing his arms in this manner, bending and contorting his whole body, “ I pay you to keep a-moving, to keep a-moving ! ” This was strange doctrine for that town, and happily, so far as I have been able to observe, it failed to take root there. The inhabitants, whether hired or otherwise, have never learned to “ keep a-moving.”