Thursday, December 13, 2007

More on William Morris' Philosophy...

"If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for; I should answer; A beautiful house; and if I were further asked to name the production next in importance and the thing next to be longed for; I should answer; A beautiful book. To enjoy good houses and good books in self-respect and decent comfort, seems to me to be the pleasurable end towards which all societies of human beings ought now to struggle."
~William Morris

Well, there you have it from the man himself! Morris' mania for beautiful things is well documented. And it's no secret that books and houses were two of his chief obsessions. As a designer, writer and publisher, he devoted himself to human comfort and education. But is he being a bit excessive to argue that human beings ought to "struggle" so that people can enjoy beautiful houses and books "in self-respect and comfort." Is Morris going a little over the top here? Shelter and an education are important, to be sure--but why the emphasis on comfort and beauty? And are these things really significant enough to fight for?

This is a difficult question. While Morris is widely recognized as an early socialist thinker, I would think that many socialists would have a difficult time with his emphasis on beauty and comfort. Many would read a quote like this and say to themselves, “why should I bother with a beautiful home and collecting possessions like books? How bourgeois!”

Today Morris' impassioned idealism seems almost quaint when he argues that “all societies of human beings ought now to struggle” in order “to enjoy good houses and good books in self-respect and decent comfort.” But is Morris talking about having a gorgeous McMansion to show off and a showy bookshelf? Morris’ philosophy of life was rooted in the writings of John Ruskin. Ruskin argued that modernity had turned a whole class of people--the working class---into something less than human beings. For Ruskin, the assembly line was the nadir of human innovation, reducing a group of people into mere cogs in the wheel of society (this is one of the important distinctions features of Morris' and Ruskins' political philosophy--it was socialist, not communist, and placed tremendous weight on the importance of the individual). Morris and Ruskin felt human beings deserved work that gave them a feeling of distinction and pride, rather than treating them as yet another machine required in order to produce cheap, shoddy, production-line goods.

If you've ever worked a summer flipping burgers, stuffing envelopes, or doing similar monotonous work, you probably know what this feels like. Now, compare that feeling with your pride when you've produced a beautiful piece of needlework, cooked a fabulous meal, or finished another satisfying project. Pretty different, eh? And while our protestant work ethic society tries to tell us that we should feel satisfied and proud in our minimum wage jobs, we somehow still can sense the difference.

Work does not have to be "white collar" in order to produce a feeling of accomplishment (a day of landscaping might be as satisfying to some as a day in the office). In fact, it might be even more soul-killing than less "elevated" pursuits (cooking dinner). A beautiful home does not need to be extravagent. Indeed, a remarkably simple home was what Morris advocated most. The important thing is that one's house/apartment/room is comfortable and satisfying. It should be a place that reflects your personal values and makes you feel proud of your accomplishments.

The same should be true of one's books. I will take this idea one step further and argue that this also applies to one's education. Books were one's education, for the most part, in Morris' day, so I don't think it's too much of a stretch to argue that our children deserve to be educated in an environment where we are respected and treated with dignity. Unfortunately, far many schools, highschools and universities treat their students as a means to an end. Children are taught not to expect too much from their lives and unversity students are urged to choose careers that "fill the market's needs" rather than one that satisfies their own longings for personal development.

Is Morris being a trifle idealistic? Perhaps, but that's what I like best about him. And I'm willing to join in the struggle for self-respect and comfort!

No comments: