Ego & Soul: The Modern West in Search of Meaning

Ego & Soul: The Modern West in Search of Meaning

by John Carroll

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Examining the battlegrounds across which a struggle for meaning is being fought—including work, sport, intimacy, shopping, tourism, computers, democracy, and a retreat into nature—this work is a compelling investigation on how modern man lives. Dissecting the intersection between culture and religion, this spiritual study reviews the desperate search


Examining the battlegrounds across which a struggle for meaning is being fought—including work, sport, intimacy, shopping, tourism, computers, democracy, and a retreat into nature—this work is a compelling investigation on how modern man lives. Dissecting the intersection between culture and religion, this spiritual study reviews the desperate search for meaning through everyday activities.

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Ego & Soul

The Modern West in Search of Meaning

By John Carroll

Scribe Publications Pty Ltd

Copyright © 2008 John Carroll
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-921753-05-3



A lot may be learnt about a culture by looking at its heroes. The men and women idealised in the art of the Renaissance were principally religious — Jesus, the Madonna, Mary Magdalene, Moses, and David. There were also figures from classical mythology — Botticelli's Primavera and Venus, Titian's Danaë. And there were images of secular leaders such as Donatello's equestrian warrior, Michelangelo's Lorenzo de Medici, and Titian's Emperor Charles V. The popes were portrayed like worldly potentates. With Vermeer, however, in seventeenth-century Calvinist Holland, there is a cultural sea-change. Seminal portraits of the lacemaker, astronomer, geographer, kitchen maid, and artist show people at their daily work. The individuals are nameless, unknown. It is the work itself that is celebrated.

Take The Geographer, today hanging in Frankfurt. The man is alone, standing bent forward over his worktable. His left hand leans on a closed book; the right one lightly balances a pair of dividers. He gazes with fierce concentration into an imaginary distance, his mouth slightly open, his look mixing systematic practical thought with reflective inwardness. Rays descending obliquely through a lead-lighted window play on his figure. In front of him is a nautical parchment map; two other maps lie rolled up on the floor, and a sea chart of Europe is hung on the back wall.

Here is a complete theory of work as central to the good life. Through dedication to a practical task (in this instance, cartography), a life may be both identified and illuminated. A series of balances is established. The man charts the Earth, the domain of matter, but does so through mind — just as, in reverse, the truth seen by intellect is penned onto parchment, where it will endure. The mapping is a tracing of a public and a private world, with the sea chart a projection of the man's inner condition: the ocean of unconscious self is placed, its contours known. He is not a lost soul. The Delphic injunction to 'know thyself' is achieved through work.

The turbulence of emotional life, of intimacy, is mastered, too. Covering the front of the table is a richly woven oriental rug, hanging down to the floor. It is rumpled, symbolising unrest in what is closer to the Earth, in the domain of his instincts and desires, in his personal affairs. Bending forward, he is in part drawn to the disordered rug, weighed down by what it represents. The maps on the floor are another sign of spillage. His task is severe; his failed attempts, discarded. Yet the geographer himself, in spite of a troubled look, is composed. He is robed in blue, edged with red bands — representing blood and passion — running in a V down the front of his body, revealing an abundant white undershirt — representing innocence and virtue. The passion is in harmony with the virtue, their controlled form mirroring the dividers, the tool through which he weighs up the right balance of things.

Work thus has a personal function, as a sort of meditative means for conquering the trials and sufferings inflicted by life. This occurs by gaining a poise whereby the conscience is freed to rule, to see the right way and direct movement along it, or at least to accept what is without complaint.

But there is a further gain, and it is the vital one. The geographer at his work is in a state of prayer, hoping that the spirit will breathe through what he does, making it more than a profane and mundane labour. His is the Protestant seeing God 'through a glass darkly', by means of a central life activity that is pursued with all his heart and mind and virtue. The hoped-for reward is a moment of grace.

The painting is complete. It is, in itself, an order glowing with the sublime — the sublime in the world. At its centre is the human individual, whose presence has twin foci. There is the right hand balancing the dividers, body as tool, moving to achieve a three-way harmony, with mind, desire, and the task — which, as we say, is 'at hand'. Vertically above is his face, through which the viewer can sense the power of concentrated mind, a charge between the eyes as hard and clear as diamond. Mind is not just trained intellect. It is also soul. Soul and hand rule the world, and attract the light from beyond. They do so through work.

Above the geographer's broad shoulders, on top of a cupboard, is a globe. His shoulders are bent forward. It is as if he carries the Earth upon them. In this guise, he is Atlas, the ancient titan. The Calvinist allusion is to his responsibility, as an individual, to the world. Everyone is born into that responsibility, which is fulfilled through a vocation. Moreover, the globe is contained in a wooden frame in the shape of a cross. This cross is against the back wall, very much as a crucifix would be positioned in a church. The home, or place of work, is the new church.

The ethos envisioned by Vermeer has shaped modernity. There is a belief — call it faith — that a state of being is accessible in which mind, body, and external world are fused, moving together in harmony as if obeying the same universal law. In sport, the term used is 'form' — the team (or athlete) that strikes form suddenly finds it has almost superhuman powers of movement and control. Form is a state of grace. If modernity has any understanding of the religious category of grace, here is its main expression. Homer knew it, too. In The Iliad, when a warrior carries all before him, his enemies assume that some divinity is acting through him.

The Protestant ethic is the belief that such a state may be achieved through work. Vocation is a means of acting in the world so as to make oneself open, receptive to grace. Grace may or may not come — that is beyond human power. Whether the god breathes through the man, as Homer put it, cannot be willed.

The transformation in the attitude to work has made the modern world. Capitalism would not have been possible without a majority of the working population gaining a capacity for methodical application, sustained over long and regulated periods of time. This depended on a change in psychological disposition from the character typical of the European Middle Ages — low self-control, explosive temper, inability to concentrate — with traits, in short, that the modern world would identify as delinquent. It was still the case in Elizabethan England that descriptions of church congregations and theatre crowds convey the impression of widespread restlessness and an inability to sit still, of people with dispositions driven to constant chatter, joking, nudging, shuffling, and spitting — as one historian has put it, like a class of tiresome schoolboys. No modern factory or office would function staffed by such people. The change in attitude to work went with a slow change in character towards a greater capacity for self-discipline, emotional control, and prolonged concentration.

Turning to our own times, and the sociological facts, the question is: what are the signs of the continuing existence of this Protestant work ethic? In particular, is it flourishing, just surviving, or in terminal decline?

There are two dimensions to the question. The first concerns the influence of the ideal itself — the hope that work can be fulfilling in the Vermeer mode — and whether this ideal is being sustained. The second dimension is the practical one that, however powerful the ideal, it may be becoming more difficult to find employment — jobs — with which it is possible to identify in the Protestant-ethic manner.

There is little evidence of a decline in the ideal, however materialist and consumerist the surface social signs may be. On meeting a stranger, the first serious question that is asked is usually, 'What do you do?' This is a Protestant-ethic interest. Identity is charted by occupation — not by rank, school, ancestry, wealth, or leisure associations. Those without work, subject to scorn by others as lazy and parasitical, are hardly ever content with their state. They are likely to be depressed in their idleness, with feelings of guilt and superfluity. Theirs is a Protestant-ethic bad conscience.

The resentment generated by a job badly done is nearly universal — at the hurled spear that does not fly truly, as much as at the replaced window that sticks, or the new car that rattles. However, such outrage is underlined in Protestant-ethic cultures, as illustrated in the greater likelihood in the West, than elsewhere, that a complaint about poor service or faulty goods will have an effect, rather than merely eliciting a shrug of the shoulders. The widespread contemporary cynicism about politicians stems from a suspicion that they are more driven by their own selfish interests than by the public good — in other words, that they are betraying the law of their particular work.

The hard-working professional and managerial elites apply themselves not just because of the money and the status that they acquire. There is pleasure in the job well done: the successfully built enterprise, the well-designed project, the grateful patients and clients, even the precisely and elegantly drafted memorandum. And the pleasure is not like that of a tasty meal or a good wine. It is the satisfaction of having been the agent for contributing something substantial, perhaps lasting, to the world — a microcosm of order somehow echoing the larger order, an instance, a manifestation. That microcosm might be petty, judged on any rational terms — the memorandum might be read by only one other person. Nevertheless, the judgement that counts is the inner knowledge that this was a job well done.

The same elites have difficulty in relaxing. Their holidays are organised like work, with games of tennis and golf that have to be scheduled, books to be read, business projects to be mapped out, and social contacts to be extended. The devil who drives must be kept busy. This is not simply obsessional neurosis. The work ethic never sleeps, insisting that time is precious, that perfection must be constantly worked at, and that idleness is a type of death.

The work ethic was tested in the 1960s by a fashion that emerged for taking up creative hobbies. It drew upon the 'counterculture' of the time, and a new, progressive view of education that saw the teacher as a facilitator for the self-realisation of the child. The utopian assumption was that each person is, in essence, a polymorphously joyful centre of creative potential, cruelly stifled by society. While Rousseau was the patron philosopher, the main influence was the young Marx, and especially an often-quoted passage from The German Ideology. Marx had speculated that in a future when there was no more scarcity, division of labour, or competition, a man would be free to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and rear cattle in the evening, and to be an intellectual critic after dinner.

What happened in practice was a burgeoning in adult-education classes in painting, sculpture, pottery, creative writing, macramé, weaving, and so forth. Most initiates did not sustain their interest for long. The exceptions were those for whom the hobby became serious. In other words, a casual pastime only became fulfilling when it changed into a vocation. The paradigm was, for instance, the middle-aged woman who discovered that she had a talent and a passion for pottery, leading to a rigorous and methodical dedication to her craft, and who, a decade later, was producing objects of fine professional quality. Such is the power of the cultural blueprint — as psychologically binding as any genetic code.

In 1974, a Chicago disk jockey named Studs Terkel published a study of Americans at work. It was based on hundreds of interviews with people from across the country, and across the full range of occupations. It is remarkable for the rich openness of the reflections of ordinary men and women. Terkel is a gifted interviewer. In his introduction, he observes that his study is as much about the search for daily meaning as for daily bread, and that only a happy few find it. The majority are loaded with weariness and discontent. Terkel discovers in all his subjects a deep yearning that their work should give them something more, some 'acknowledgment of man's being'.

There are recurring complaints. A general frustration is caused by work and its quality not being recognised — for example, a steelworker believes that the stones of the Empire State Building should register the names of all the men who helped build it. The jobs are often a curse in themselves, a form of drudgery, reducing the person's goal to simply getting through the day. And there is widespread resentment against close supervision, at being spied upon.

These, however, are superficial compared with two themes that resonate through Terkel's book. The first is a longing for vocation. As an editor of health-care literature puts it:

I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job ... Jobs are not big enough for people. It's not just the assembly line worker whose job is too small for his spirit, you know? A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don't dare. So you absent your spirit from it ... It's so demeaning to be there and not be challenged. It makes you not at home with yourself ... It's possible for me to sit here and read my books. But then you walk out with no sense of satisfaction, with no sense of legitimacy.

A receptionist lamented, 'A monkey could do what I do.'

The second theme is a distinction between jobs that have intrinsic value and ones that are superfluous to human needs. A fireman puts it thus:

The firemen, you actually see them produce. You see them put out a fire. You see them come out with babies in their hands. You see them give mouth-to-mouth when a guy's dying. You can't get around that shit. That's real. To me, that's what I want to be. I worked in a bank. You know, it's just paper. It's not real. Nine to five and it's shit. You're lookin' at numbers. But I can look back and say, 'I helped put out a fire. I helped save somebody.' It shows something I did on this Earth.

The people most likely to be fulfilled in their work are in the fireman mould, including doctors, nurses, and policemen. Some remark on the pride they felt when their work was admired for its courage, dedication and, above all, for it making a real difference to the lives of others. What is not remarked on is perhaps even more important: the gratitude of those helped. There is vindication — confirmation and recognition — in true gratitude. This is one mode of union with another that transcends ego.

Terkel also records numerous cases of the work ethic in pure form. There is the waitress, for instance, who takes pride in her skill:

When somebody says to me: 'You're great, how come you're just a waitress?' Just a waitress. I'd say, 'Why, don't you think you deserve to be served by me?' It's implying that he's not worthy, not that I'm not worthy. It makes me irate. I don't feel lowly at all. I myself feel sure. I don't want to change the job. I love it.

When the plate is put down you can hear the sound. I try not to have that sound. I want my hands to be right when I serve. I pick up a glass, I want it to be just right. I get almost Oriental in the serving. I like it to look nice all the way. To be a waitress, it's an art. I feel like a ballerina, too ...

If I drop a fork, there is a certain way I pick it up. I know they can see how delicately I do it. I'm on stage ...

'cause you're tired. When the night is done, you're tired. You've had so much, there's so much going ... You had to get it done. The dread that something wouldn't be right, because you want to please. You hope everyone is satisfied. The night's done, you've done your act. The curtains close.

Likewise, there is a bank-teller who laments that each job, however humble, is not valued as special in itself. A football coach puts it more buoyantly: 'The greatest feeling in life is to take an ordinary job and accomplish something with it.' And to name a few more who love what they do, there is a housewife, a book-binder, a jockey, and a president of a broadcasting corporation.

What conclusions may be drawn from Terkel's study? There is powerful support here for the pervasive influence of the work ethic, in the hopes and aspirations of almost all people in relation to their jobs. From fulfilment to despair, the interviewees' reflections are almost entirely scripted by the ideal of vocation. The modern tragic stage is not set where families starve, plague is rife, or barbarians invade. According to Terkel's life-stories, it is set in the workplace, even more than in family life. What is less clear is whether the likelihood of satisfaction is diminishing — whether the testimony of the waitress is becoming the rare exception.

An Australian study on work in the 1990s, conducted by Belinda Probert, would suggest that Terkel's findings have not dated. It concluded, specifically in relation to the Protestant work ethic, that its hundred lengthy interviews across the occupational spectrum showed 'a quite remarkable degree of commitment to paid work'. The men and women were attached to their work as much for the meaning it gave to their lives as for the income. They responded unanimously in the negative to the question of whether they would give up work if they won a lottery.


Excerpted from Ego & Soul by John Carroll. Copyright © 2008 John Carroll. Excerpted by permission of Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John Carroll is professor of sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne. He is the author of numerous books including The Existential Jesus, Terror: A Meditation on the Meaning of September 11, The Western Dreaming, and The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited.

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