Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn
In the 24th episode of the first season of Community (NBC), Troy discovers he has a natural talent for fixing plumbing, and must ward off a persistent maintenance worker (Jerry Minor, Brickleberry), who wants him to use his talent to become a plumber:
[Troy comes into the toilets licking some white cream off his fingers. He opens the tap to wash his hands, no water comes out. He sees a wrench, seizes it and uses it like a master while whistling]
THE MAINTENANCE WORKER (comes out of hiding and applauses): Impressive. I dismantled that valve and I put out that free cake because I wanted to see what you could do. You got a gift, kid. You know that, right?
TROY: A gift for sinks. Big deal. I’m a student. I like learning.
THE MAINTENANCE WORKER: Yeah, right. Learning. Learn everything. Learn until you’re dead! Or… you can call this number. [He gives Troy a business card] Now that’s a company that fixes toilets and sinks.
TROY: Oh, man…
THE MAINTENANCE WORKER: LISTEN TO ME! Toilets and sinks. Real things. Things that people always use and always need to get fixed. This is a life, kid! A real one! Doing something that matters. Something that makes sense.
TROY: The only thing that makes sense… is this. [Troy points at his brain] Learning. Thoughts. So I can think, and get a student loan! And grind my own coffee! And understand HBO!
THE MAINTENANCE WORKER: You don’t have to do that, kid. You’re special!
[Troy bursts out of the room]
THE MAINTENANCE WORKER: YOU COULD BE A PLUMBER! [Troy has left the place] You could be a plumber.
The humour of that scene comes from the fact that the maintenance worker talks about plumbery as if it were some sport or art for which some people were naturally gifted and that one could admire. The humour in Community is very often based on parodies: someone discovers that a kid has a gift that no one has noticed yet, that person tries to convince the kid or his family to do something about it but he runs away from it… This is a popular synopsis. But the cinema makes us wish that the kid finally exploits his talent, that he sings (The Chorus, by Christophe Barratier) or plays football (Any Given Sunday, by Oliver Stone) or studies mathematics (Good Will Hunting, by Gus Van Sant), because the public wishes they had the same talent.
What is less admirable about plumbery geniuses?
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt refers to Aristotle’s Politics to depict the value of professions in Ancient Greece: “The Greek public opinion in the city-states judged occupations by the amount of time and effort they required.” She quotes: “There are great differences in human ways of life. The laziest are shepherds; for they get their food without labor [ponos] from tame animals and have leisure [skholazousin] ” In the time of Aristotle, laziness (aergia) was somehow a condition to the skholè: a life of leisure, that is essential to the political life, “freedom from labour and life necessities“. The Greek citizens disregarded any occupation that was not political, that would waste both their time and energy, and the only purpose of which was sustenance (ad vitae sustentationem). As Arendt recalls it, no labour was seen as respectable at all in Ancient Greece, it was better not to work at all, labour was for slaves and animals, leisure and political life were for real citizens. However:
“In the world of Homer, Paris and Odysseus help in the building of their houses, Nausicaa herself washes the linen of her brothers, etc. All this belongs to the self-sufficiency of the Homeric hero, to his independence and the autonomic supremacy of his person. No work is sordid if it means greater independence; the selfsame activity might well be a sign of slavishness if not personal independence but sheer survival is at stake, if it is not an expression of sovereignty but of subjection to necessity.” Nowadays having a job is somewhat crucial to have a place in society and unemployment is a real plague. As argued by Hannah Arendt, the modern age reversed the traditional rank of action and contemplation with “its glorification of labor as the source of all values and its elevation of the animal laborans to the position traditionally held by the animal rationale”.
Under the Roman Empire, trade-related occupations were considered as “sordid”
Arendt deliberately connects the modern distinction between intellectual and manual labor with the ancient distinction between “liberal” and “servile arts”, even though the difference between liberal and servile arts does not lay in the degree of intelligence, but is a sheer political criterion. She refers to Cicero‘s De Officiis to present the Roman distinction of occupations: Liberal occupations are those that involve “prudentia, the capacity for prudent judgment which is the virtue of statesmen, and professions of public relevance (ad hominum utilitatem) such as architecture, medicine, and agriculture“. All trades (scribes, carpenter, etc.) were considered as “sordid,” “unbecoming for a full-fledged citizen, and the worst are those we would deem most useful, such as fishmongers, butchers, cooks, poulterers and fishermen.”
Can intellectuals be considered as “workers” at all?
Even though the concepts of manual and intellectual work were invented in the Middle Ages, the distinction between the two is modern. Since modern times, labor is glorified and every occupation has to “prove its usefulness for society at large”. Under such conditions, intellectuals claimed their place in the working population. But Arendt adds: “At the same time, however, and only in seeming contradiction to this development, the need and esteem of this society for certain “intellectual” performances rose to a degree unprecedented in our history except in the centuries of the decline of the Roman Empire.”
Today’s intellectuals are yesterday’s slaves
Arendt concludes: “It may be well to remember in this context that throughout ancient history the “intellectual” services of the scribes, whether they served the needs of the public or the private realm, were performed by slaves and rated accordingly. Only the bureaucratization of the Roman Empire and the concomitant social and political rise of the Emperors brought a re-evaluation of “intellectual” services. In so far as the intellectual is indeed not a “worker”—who like all other workers, from the humblest craftsman to the greatest artist, is engaged in adding one more, if possible durable, thing to the human artifice—he resembles perhaps nobody so much as Adam Smith’s “menial servant,” although his function is less to keep the life process intact and provide for its regeneration than to care for the upkeep of the various gigantic bureaucratic machines whose processes consume their services and devour their products as quickly and mercilessly as the biological life process itself.“