Objective Realities: in honor of Tom Palermo

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Thinking about manual engagement seems to require nothing less than that we consider what a human being is. That is, we are led to consider how the specifically human manner of being is lit up, as it were, by man’s interaction with [the] world through his hands. For this a new sort of anthropology is called for, one that is adequate to our experience of agency. Such an account might illuminate the appeal of manual work in a way that is neither romantic nor nostalgic, but rather simply gives credit to the practice of building things, fixing things, and routinely tending to things, as an element of human flourishing.

~Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft, 63-4

The genius of Crawford’s argument is to draw our attention to something that is an essential part of moral formation, but rarely shows up in our accounts of moral character. That the auto-mechanic or plumber, with greasy hands and clothes that smell of epoxy, might be exemplars of rectitude and excellence is surely a revolutionary thought to some. But these paragons of meaningful work are exactly the kinds of people that Crawford wants us to think on and lift up as moral examples. The skills required for their trades require virtues, and precisely those virtues that are conspicuously lacking in our cultures today: attention, care, endurance, long-suffering, patience. All of these are crucial for flourishing in the manual arts. But they are also crucial, Crawford argues, for flourishing as human.

Last week, a beloved member of the bicycling community died. Tom Palermo was an accomplished framebuilder. His work demonstrated a careful, thoughtful, and beautiful approach to his craft, a craft which exemplifies the hard realities not only of construction, but also of the practice and act of riding. Cycling is an activity that demands careful attention on the builder’s and rider’s parts. Virtues are required in both. Cyclists, good cyclists, have an uncanny awareness of their bikes, their surroundings, the elements… Good cyclists can tell you something about human psychology based on their experiences of drivers. Good cyclists can tell you something about human flourishing.

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