Mt. Airy, Philadelphia. As I read Matt Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, I thought often of Simone Weil, that young champion of the workers of the world who took it into her head to find out first hand what it was like to be a worker. Weil, like Crawford, was very alert to the dangers of losing a grip on reality within a world spun by intellectual fantasy and fashion – after all, she was active in the communist party for a time, until she realized that revolution was the amphetamine of the intellectual. In the factory, she discovered that Taylorized work destroyed one of the great graces of manual labor: the intellectual and aesthetic contact with reality through the hands, which can give the worker a firmer and truer sense of the world than the dreams of philosophers, poets and artists often afford them.

The connections between Crawford’s reflections and Weil’s are not accidental. Aside from being concerned with some of the same questions Weil pondered, Crawford also relies at crucial points on Iris Murdoch’s Sovereignty of Good, which is inspired primarily by Weil’s thought. The central theme uniting all three authors is the one made poignant first by Augustine: the vitiating effects of self-enclosure on thought, imagination, sentiment and character. But it is a particular virtue of Weil and of Crawford to see into and spell out the way in which manual labor bears on this theme.

Whatever advantages Weil may possess as a thinker, Crawford has weighty advantages as an experienced worker. No one of Weil’s acquaintance would ever be so foolish as to ask her to fix anything. She knew intimately the soul-crushing power of factory work, and the revelatory joys and gratifying weariness of farm work, but never the satisfaction of repairing a broken machine. This difference turns out to be quite important.

For, although Weil is hailed as a reviver of Platonism in the twentieth century, she entirely misses a crucial dimension of Platonic thought, namely Plato’s basic psychological analysis. One will search in vain in her writings for a discussion of thumos, the spirited aspect of the soul that is concerned with anger, pride, dignity, offense, overcoming obstacles and rising above one’s limitations. This represents a serious lack of self-knowledge on her part, for she was widely recognized as a willful character and an extreme ascetic, determined to overcome and eradicate what she called the “mediocre” aspects of the soul. Her writings issue an uncompromising call to direct one’s love and attention wholeheartedly to the Good that transcends all the limiting considerations of this limited world in which we live out our days.

Crawford raises at least by implication a question that Weil needed to face up to, namely the problem of the puzzling relationship between our spirited passions and the pursuit of the Good. Following Murdoch’s Weil-inspired idiom, he characterizes the mechanic’s responsibility to the demands of the broken machine as a kind of “unselfing”, but at the same time recognizes the desire for mastery, dignity and self-sufficiency as a driving force of this responsiveness. Is it unselfing or self-affirmation that is at work here? We could take an easy way out and say that our motives are complicated, but the reality seems a bit more, well, complicated than that.

Spiritedness has a peculiar relationship to truth. While we all want some kind of recognition, we also want some assurance that we actually deserve it. We recognize that, to receive recognition worth having, we must possess some kind of excellence, skill, or responsible agency. Hollow recognition provides hollow satisfaction, and we can’t ultimately escape consciousness of this condition, paper over it as we may. But conversely, a competence that we can take satisfaction in (and that can make real creativity possible) depends on an apprenticeship, a submission to the non-arbitrary demands of the thing to be made, grown or fixed. This, Crawford emphasizes, is an apprenticeship in love of truth:

Any discipline that deals with an authoritative, independent reality requires honesty and humility…. If we fail to respond appropriately to these authoritative realities, we remain idiots. If we succeed, we experience the pleasure that comes with progressively more acute vision, and the growing sense that our actions are fitting or just, as we bring them into conformity with that vision.

While spiritedness may lead us to exaggerate how responsible we can ultimately be for the goods of this world – and so lead to empty reactionary or revolutionary ire – it can also lead us to contempt for the world and the desire to overcome it completely through renunciation. But it can only find its satisfaction in a responsibility for the goods of this world that accepts both the demands of love and the reality of failure.

Thus Simone Weil’s recovery of the Good as a metaphysical principle, profound and important as it is, ultimately hollows out the world of its rich variety of concrete goods for which we can bear responsibility and love. For her, the Good is beyond being, but not constitutive of beings themselves. Working in the factory is a submissive awareness of the stark Necessity that reigns supreme in this world; working the land, for her, adds the enchantment of the sublime natural poetry that carries our love beyond this world. But caring responsibly for children, for neighbors, for animals and plants, for stuff – this is where the subtle dialectic of self-assertion and submission to reality works its way toward the satisfaction of resigned loving responsibility, which sometimes attains to the stature of virtue.

For reasons more essential than marketing value, Crawford’s book combines a personal narrative with philosophical reflection on work, knowledge and character. It offers much material for reflecting on this dialectic by which the spirited element of our souls is guided to its fulfillment by both seeking to make for itself a very personal, dignified place in the world in which it can be effective, and also submitting to the impersonal demands of what is good and true in that world in which it seeks to stand upright. I for one would have been delighted to see a more sustained reflection on that theme, as I suspect Crawford has much to offer here. But it is part of the broad appeal of Crawford’s book that it puts us on the trail of any number of important questions and reflections without insisting that we follow him at great length down any one of those trails.

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Mark Shiffman was born in north Florida to the son of expatriated New York secular Jews and the daughter of small town, pillar of the community southern Presbyterians. After spending much of his childhood in Alaska and California, he discovered in his Tennessee adolescence, first reluctantly and then gratefully, that more than half his heart belonged to the South. He occasionally rediscovers this viscerally when his body descends below the Mason-Dixon line from his northern exile in Philadelphia, where he has also brought his wife into exile from her lifelong home of Chicago. They live in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia with their two sons, having moved from one of the more successfully racially integrated neighborhoods in America (Hyde Park) to one of the most. Mark received his education from the McCallie School in Chattanooga and the surrounding mountains and trees, St. John’s College in Annapolis and the Santa Fe desert, Pendle Hill outside Philadelphia and the woods around Crum Creek, the University of Chicago and the icy prairie winds, and the Catholic Worker House and grimy streets of New York City. He is assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions and affiliate faculty member in Classical Studies at Villanova University. He has also taught at Brooklyn College, Notre Dame, the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania. His current projects include books on the political philosophy of Plutarch and on the meaning of modern individualism, as well as a translation of Aristotle’s On the Soul (Focus Press).


  1. Following this commentary on Crawford’s estimable book, I am still moved to marvel as to why, with all of our technological and spiritual claims, a book like this generates more than passing note. It merits note specifically because of the radical dysfunction of the modern technocratic capitalist system wed to empire. We need to be told, at long last, that our work should be fulfilling, that craft labor is intellectually vibrant and that the antithesis of these..our modern debt-financed technocratic bonanza of cause and effect averse service workers is counter-productive. I’m glad he wrote the book but it begins to appear altogether too close to a diagnosis of terminal illness. Should the popular culture take note, we might find a cure…..or at least something of merit to debate while we recuperate in search of a cure.

    There are numerous other things we could boil it down to but one of the ideas that strike me is that the current mechanistic and linear system has as its roots the Enlightenment and Post Enlightenment philosophy of Hobbes..with his meditations on Materialism and Social Contract, Locke with his conception of property as a manifestation of labor and both of these vulcanized to the linear mechanisms of Cartesian thought in order to produce a kind of Idiots Guide to the Enlightenment in 2009. It’s Close But No Cigar Time. Commercialism has picked through and chosen those thoughts that payed and jettisoned any of the less categorical spiritual beliefs as largely impractical or impediments toward progress. This , of course, saved a lot of time in the blazing of a trail from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from 1492 to the present day. Oddly enough a runt spiritual urge survives.

    When the European Enlightenment and its Judeo-Christian antecedent strode ashore on the North American continent, or Asia, or Australia , or Africa…..it met long established cultures with a so-called “primitive” mien that were neither linear in their concept of time and progress nor particularly enamored of western ideas of discrete property ownership based upon individual labor…..Native empires notwithstanding. These so called “heathens” possessed a rich spiritual life of , in the case of the Aborigines, 50,000 years of Dreamtime and in the case of the Americas, at least 10,000 years of an abiding interplay with the land and the life upon it. Ceremony of deeply held beliefs accompanied each labor and a strong sense of individual place presided. I am not descending here to Rousseau’s Noble Savage…there was much brutality afoot with murderous actions and no small display of warfare but nobody can deny the largely germ-obliterated primitives their spiritual host. Sure, we can point to cannibalism and the untoward frequency of skull fractures in female aborigine skeletons and all manner of atrocity but that is not the point. This is not a comparison of betters.

    Crawford calls for the most basic of human pleasures , a love of endeavor and a camaraderie in effort that encourages human intelligence in all its forms: intellectual, kinetic, individual and group. This is something we have largely marginalized in the modern age in our embrace of a kind of HeeHaw Cartesian Orgy of Categorization in Service to Materialism. Those we credit with our cultural growth would not wholly abide us in our present state.

    I am not advocating some kind of sentimental notion of a new age Goretex clad Hunter Gatherer, I’m asserting that it just might be time to explore an authentic New World in which spirit, non-linearity and the embrace of life can temper the Cartesian Institutional excesses which have become so voraciously consumptive and thoroughly deracinating as to start what appears to be a short course in social entropy. Not to be too Romantic but I’d call it a Jaguar Dance on the Rocket Gantry. Maybe Peyote really does work better when benefited by a zip lock plastic bag. Metaphorically speaking of course.

    Call me Neo Primitive. I Yawp, therefore I is. Craft is a finely tuned loving response to the benefaction of Nature and it is, if nothing else, a bit of poetry offered up to God, sometimes dirty, sometimes spare and elegant but always deeply abiding. That “Continental Mind” that I believe Stegner suggested in us perhaps overlooked something in the mad rush from coast to coast. It’s time to pause a bit and pull out the caliper and measure our output with hand, mind and heart. Take your time, it aint as linear as we think it is. Personally, the copy of “Caritas in Veritate ” I have been returning to has dirty fingerprints all over it and it remains profoundly beautiful in my hands…. illuminated by the light of Helios. Confusing? Youbetcha!

  2. I think you made an error in thinking Simone Weil did not ever discuss “spiritedness”. I know she directly addresses it in “Lectures on Philosophy.” Indirectly I think it is implied whenever she discusses the will, or the instances when obligation requires us to “do violence to ourselves.” The reason this doesn’t hold any special place in her thought, I think, is because it is much more important to know that the will/spiritedness is simply a tool, and “that in all cases there is only a choice between evil and supernatural good.” (paraphrase) The point being, that self-assertion, strictly defined, is never good, but spiritedness in service to the good is not the same as self-assertion.

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