Eric Gill (1882-1940) was a versatile English sculptor, printmaker, typeface designer, and thinker who left a complex and troubling legacy. His religious views were often at odds with his apparent inability to control his sexual appetites, which included incestuous relations with at least one of his sisters and the sexual abuse of his two oldest daughters, as revealed in a 1989 biography by Fiona MacCarthy.
These revelations have exposed Gill’s bad character, but have not ended the urgency of his work. As Jeffrey Polet, a professor of political science at Hope College in Michigan, concluded in a lengthy essay, “The Problem of Eric Gill,” in the magazine Local Culture this past March, “Our sinfulness may taint our art or industry, but it doesn’t destroy it. The radiance of his sin should not blind us to the clarity of understanding he brought to the sins of modernity, nor to the plausibility of some of his creative responses.”
One of Gill’s preeminent concerns was the dehumanizing impact of industrial capitalism on workers, a theme explored at length in a collection of his writings, A Holy Tradition of Working: Passages from the Writings of Eric Gill, first published in 1983. A new edition of that book has just been published by Angelica Press, with a preface by Wendell Berry that finds a contemporary context for Gill’s ruminations. We present that preface here.
We live in the age of scientific and technological genius, as we have confirmed by a literature of self-congratulation. For the sake of this—as a payment in advance—we had to overrule any concern for long-term consequences, mainly because of our inability to foresee at any distance the consequences of the innovations made by this kind of genius.
We have not yet measured the full extent of the results of the decision, hardly by plebiscite, to burn the fossil fuels, which was the first step in our present direction. The step beyond that was also taken, on behalf of all of us, by a gifted few. The genius of the makers of the first atomic bomb was undoubted by themselves, and it was proven by their success: It worked! But it was soon evident from their very success that they had worked with a radically foreshortened sense of time and history, and, except in terms of the crudest, most immediate utilitarianism, they did not know what they were doing.
After seventy-five years, we can only fear any further revelation of what they were doing. We know moreover that we now are living generations earlier in the just-begun histories of the computer revolution and genetic engineering. The genius that has produced these inscrutable beginnings is itself a product of industrialism, its fragmentation, and specialization of work.
Under the rule of specialization, people trained to do one thing or one kind of thing produce a technological solution to one problem: to win one war, to speed one kind of thought, to protect one crop from one kind of pest. The aim is to produce a partial result, which forbids any thought or any fear of what might be the whole result.
The nearest to a whole result so far of this kind of work is a calamity exactly the size of the world, the evidence of which is the world’s rapid, increasing, and measurable destruction. It is this immense failure of industrially directed, profit-oriented science and technology that defines our need, and the urgency of our need, for sciences that are limitable or reasonably predictable in their effects, from which we need not fear a chain reaction of ramifying and accumulating harms: the sciences, let us say, of ecology and of non-industrial agriculture and medicine, the aim of which is not victory or profit but health, various kinds of wholeness. Such sciences as these, because they submit to a universal standard that is not merely technical, immediately verge upon art, for they imply and require right ways of working, or work done with love in the service of goodness, truth, and beauty.
The manifest failure of the misdirected genius of industrialism, together with the consequently enlarged need for good work, defines newly and urgently the pertinence of the teachings of Eric Gill. Gill (1882-1940) was a Christian, a remarkably versatile artist, and a philosopher remarkable for his willingness to carry principles to the test of practicality. As a thinker, we might say, his genius was for applied culture. Or it may have consisted simply of his ability to see what was perfectly obvious: that the ways and values of the industrial world contradict at every point the traditionally prescribed ways of giving honor to God and Nature and Humankind.
The requirements of industry, Gill said, reduce workers to performers of mechanical functions in the making of parts of products. They do not choose their work, or work according to qualitative standards of their own. They have no need even to know what they are making, and often they do not know. They cannot show by their work their love of God or the world or the thing they are making or the user of the made thing. The working life of industrial workers is thus rewarded, not by their work, but merely by a paycheck and time off.
In his life and work, Gill kept clear the connection, on the one hand, between art (in the broadest sense: a way of making anything) and economy, and, on the other hand, between art and religious faith. From so clarifying a standpoint, he saw plainly that, for the sake of the narrowest kind of efficiency resulting in profit, industrialism destroyed the integrity of both work and workers. The working life of the industrial worker was entirely predetermined, choiceless, a kind of slavery. And so Gill’s thinking rests upon a principle that is fundamental and absolutely necessary:
“The test of a man’s freedom is his responsibility as a workman. Freedom is not incompatible with discipline, it is only incompatible with irresponsibility. He who is free is responsible for his work. He who is not responsible for his work is not free.”