From the journal Material For Thought, issue number 9
© 1990 Far West Editions
The Companions of Duty
Les Compagnons du Devoir, until recently little known even in Europe, is a lay community for French artisans organized under a secret Rule at least six hundred years ago and still in existence. Its members aspire to rectify some of the deviations from which their consciences suffer and to become an example to the multitudes of other workers.
Each one spends his professional life subject to the ordinary conditions of existence as a carpenter, a mason, farmer, plumber, metal-worker, shoemaker, draper, milliner or whatever. Returning to the community in the evening, he adapts to a program of activities and rituals which establish his right place in the communal hierarchy and are specially devised for his training or master- ship as a man.
Houses were established by the
Order in the principal cities of
The Compagnonnage was reformed and revived in the first part of the nineteenth century and has survived the industrial revolution in France and the growth of the trade union movement, many of whose benefits it anticipated. It is
tempting to imagine the appearance
of a similar (and much needed) Order among the workers in
The following essays, translated from editorial articles in the monthly journal of Les Compagnons du Devoir in Paris,* deal with the whole question of what is work in the contemporary mass production culture, and with the need to bring the idea of quality back into the minds of “‘blue collar”‘ workers, especially through the mastery of traditional crafts.
The New Barbarian
Times are hard. Those coming will be harder still, but this is not what makes us apprehensive. We greatly fear that in the conceivable future men will be made to forget the little that remains to them of conscience and we will be on the verge of a barbarism the likes of which has never been witnessed—worse by far than that displayed by those blonde-haired ancestors of ours who, dressed in bear skins, descended in hordes on the mighty decadence of Rome.
Certainly the new barbarian will not present himself in the guise of an inferior. Better organized and still better armed, he will without doubt have all the developments of science at his disposal and in such force that man, overwhelmed by this display, will all the more readily give up his freedom and even the memory of it.
Even now, the barbarian is in our midst taking root among us in the realm of the mind. It is not a matter of an invasion by new races as before. The attack comes from the behavior of those beings growing ever more numerous with whom daily we rub shoulders, and whose concept of life runs counter to everything that makes life worth living. Today it is from within that the invasion takes place.
But what then separates us from these men? The answer is not simple, for the distinctions are many. We are especially struck by the new barbarians’ lack of hope and by how little they love freedom.
Let us first examine the nature of hope itself, since this suffices to separate humanity into two categories. For we do not mean by hope what animates the masses, namely the struggle for simple social justice. What will become of the people when they have attained these goals? This revolt, with which we can sympathize to a degree, will change nothing. If hope ends here, it is not hope. Hope goes beyond justice.
What we call hope is this attraction to the future; it is this feeling deep inside each of us without which the whole of humanity falls into decay. It animates each of us, and because of it each of us brings to the community of man his portion of good will and being. When a man does good it is because he hopes. And this is true even if his effort is made with purely personal views in mind. It is only necessary that this effort be freely made.
To suppress hope and all that it creates of excellence in us deprives humanity of an outlook toward something beyond itself, of a direction vital to life. It is one of the hallmarks of the new barbarism not to recognize this hope. Instead, it promises to give the masses all kinds of material advantages and a patterned, prefabricated intellectual nourishment formulated and standardized.
As for freedom, that is lost in the measure that barbarism grows. The myth of progress which so fascinates modern man accommodates itself perfectly to a lack of hope and the absence of freedom; do we not see already what the world attempts to offer to the crowd in exchange? The games and circuses of the ancient Romans, but more subtle, more diffuse and diluted, are here with us now pursuing man and tracking him down.
The Companions do not see how they can set themselves in direct opposition to this state of things no matter how we measure the road already traveled. What they can do, those who are resolutely free and faithful to hope, is to live their lives as Companions in spite of everything, to remain with those who will always have the taste for being complete and finished men.
Deceived by the enormous and complicated machinery of instruction which no longer gives them confidence to live from within, in respect to their futures nor in relation to their fellow creatures, the young are isolated. They take refuge in refusal or some other disconcerting attitude in front of long-established habits and conventions proposed to them by their elders, or they remain depressed and dishonored in a life without character. Can we pretend that it is the fault of youth? Government efforts in the fields of education do not get to the depth of the problem. It is not at all enough that they work with highly evolved material means and innovative methods. Nothing will change the facts of the matter. In school one can learn, but one can only be truly educated through contacts with life.
The Compagnonnage is, for the worker, the school of life, a school in which the values and virtues of work are developed, a life in which the trade brings a substance which enriches the man, permits him to fulfill himself and to face all of his duties. It is not just one particular aspect of the life of the young worker which is studied, but everything is taken into account in order to make of him a complete man, endowed with a well-tempered character which cannot be drawn into the bitterness to which nearly all our contemporaries fall prey, and which cannot be blamed on difficult times since it flourishes even now in this “‘fat cat”‘ era. Because the life in and surrounding the trades provides a normal and proper condition of life, it prompts and generates learning, and makes possible the development of conscience. It is then between these two domains—the man and the conditions of his life—that education takes place.
The Idea of Order
The idea of order comes from conscience. It is entirely different in nature from those structures, so often illusory, erected like houses of cards by falling powers hoping to remedy their woes.
Order reaches out to offer men what they lack in moments of need. It is always a breakdown in society which gives birth to order. Order which does not come from this need is only the fruit of men’s fantasies and is short-lasting.
Those who consider themselves modern, and who are only of today, without a yesterday or tomorrow, will poorly understand the usefulness of order. They are oblivious to the fundamental scheme of things underlying society’s movements. They do not see on so large a scale at all. Doubtless they think that the idea of order is finished; that there is no longer any need for it. They are mistaken. Never before has it been so necessary to make the conscience of man emerge again, so as to overcome the present difficulties and those no less serious which are in the making. For our existent institutions are not up to the task of leading us out of our agonizing age. Our institutions, by the measures they take, will only hasten the decay, and will strangle the movements of freedom to which we aspire. For it is the principal characteristic of order to be the refuge of freedom. And it is by this freedom in action (among brothers who are known to one another) that men can thus find again the original and permanent ideas which have been profoundly altered by modern society. It is by this freedom that order will be able, once its task is completed—when it has gathered the fruit of its task, protected and reformulated it—to reintegrate this essential thing into society.
What then is the essential thing that the Compagnonnage is dedicated to preserving? It is the conscience of the working man. Like all movements of conscience, it has two paths. One is purely interior, leading toward the liberation of the individual, toward personal progress and the conquest of self. To that is directed all the teaching of the Compagnonnage, its method of training and its spirit of work. The other path is to the exterior; it renders the individual responsible for humanity, since our civilization like all other civilizations will be judged by the evidence of the works of its workers.
Let us therefore look for this contact with conscience. With this flame alive in each of us, to which our world actually denies oxygen, let us share in this rediscovery. What do we fear? Who can stand in fear of finding what is true and essential? For us, our field of experience is well known and we do not wish to go beyond it: it is the domain of work in the everyday sense, in its development at the core of the life of man, in its projection outside the individual. What an enormous factor work is, the practice of a trade! Man is involved with the business of his life at the minimum a third of his time. If one calculates that the remaining time is spent in sleep, in an active physical life, in pastimes intelligent or not, one sees that the place of work is immense. How can such a factor of preparation and accomplishment be slighted? How can these human potentialities be restored?
When one heard the mason singing on the scaffolding at the top of his voice or the painter whistling (that very curious ability of the lips which seemed to be beneficial to the operation of the paintbrush) it would have been hard to believe that some short decades later these men would be rendered mute and that a transistor radio ever-ready with quick tunes would replace the part that those men gave to the sounds of nature.
We have all had the occasion to sing while working. And we know without any pretention that it can express an inner state, a moment of accord and unity with what one is and with what one is doing.
To work while singing expresses an action rich with a certain equilibrium. It does not destroy attention. To listen to a radio is not properly speaking “to listen” in the full meaning of the term; it is to be absent from oneself at the invitation of a noise. This makes me think of those households in which the radio is played and thus people do not listen to their lives. When one sings while working and when one stops singing, one reaches silence, and that silence is without doubt a moment available for thought. For the transistor people, there is no longer a silence of this kind and very little availability: they are absent from themselves. Of course they are absent from their work and always taken up by the outside. It is perhaps one of the explanations for passivity: to be passive is to be absent.
Not only does the worker rarely sing anymore while working, but he also writes less and less. The problem is the same in its essence. Of course we are not speaking of the avalanche of books, journals and diverse periodicals which submerge us on all sides. That is a little like the noise of the transistor: One can read like one can go to the cinema, in order to forget, not in order to think (in order to be passive, and not in order to be active) and the image is a powerful aid for this forgetting. This refusal of thought is a symptom of our time.
We maintain this: The only real progress is individual progress, brought about by one’s own effort. Collective tendencies are all around us beckoning us toward a perfect mirage which has nothing to do with the undertaking of this personal effort. We are all too inclined to place ourselves above and beyond the other forms of life, whereas we are inside of them, as they are also in us, and we are answerable to them in all the fibers of our being, both physically and spiritually. We do not dominate them, we support them and they us. None of the great discoveries which mark the march of what we call progress has taken into account this inner property. We believe that a progress of such a nature in which quantity is the profit, and because of which quality becomes questionable, uncertain and without duration, does not take into account the idea of the complete development of man. It cannot therefore be true progress. For not only is the man intentionally forgotten, but everything turns against him and he comes away crushed by the experience.
The present-day tendency toward professional specialization causes us to lose sight of the real idea of the perfecting of human beings.
We do not repudiate progress, we do not set it up against the mind, nor the hand, and we do not abide by a system which opposes the machine and the hand as one might suppose. Furthermore, we think that the Compagnonnage must offer some solutions by throwing light on the situation and by continuing its research based on the results of the kind of work which allows thought and hand to work together, a research which will contribute to the humanization of work (a humanization which will not simply play into the hands of the materialists).
*Published as Le Compagnonnage by Jean Bernard,