Godliness and Work, by Mary Irwin

In “Godliness and Work”, Casson insists that Greeks and Romans relied on muscle power instead of that of wind or water not due to lack of knowledge, the cheapness of slavery, or the abundance of the workforce. Instead, cultural values around the concept of labor prevented these classic civilizations from shifting to more modern power sources. When Christianity became popular, these ideas shifted, and alternative energy sources also became more prevalent.

Casson starts by highlighting points from discussions we’ve had in class: the Greek, and later the Romans, did understand the uses of water, wind, and even steam energy. However, they used this knowledge to create art or even playthings: these technologies were used to entertain, not to revolutionize how work was done. He goes on to explain that typically, historians cite the prevalence and cheapness of slavery as the reason there was not a shift from animal power to alternative power sources during the times of the Greeks and Romans. Casson claims that this is not the case; slaves were expensive to buy, and required lifelong food, housing, medical care, and so forth. He also dissolves ideas that an abundance of people in the workforce held these classical societies back: Casson indicates that there was actually a dearth of workers most of the time.

After ruling out popular ideas as to why the Greeks and Romans didn’t capitalize on other power sources, Casson presents his thesis that the cultural and societal values around manual labor were to blame for these civilizations’ lack of “progress”. Craftsmen at the time were the lowest of the low on the social ladder, and working manually was seen as ignoble, which is a bit harsh! These ideas were even reflected in Greek mythology: the Greek god of the forge, Hephaestus, was seen as the laughingstock of Olympus, and was portrayed as being “ugly and lame” (he was still a god though, which is more than most people can claim).

With the advent of Christianity, these ideas changed entirely. Christians valued labor, and even saw it as a religious act. Stemming from this stance, they saw no reason not to make labor easier, and so employed wind and water power sources to do so.  God was portrayed as a craftsman, and was respected, an almost direct inversion of the public response to Hephaestus. With this shift in ideology, alternative power sources now had cultural backing and approval.

For me, Casson’s article really emphasizes the social and cultural aspects of technology and its uses. The Greeks and Romans had alternate power sources at their fingertips, and also possessed the knowledge and materials needed to implement them on a large scale. However, it was their culture, values, and ideas about labor and social class that confined them to the use of man or animal power. The hardware and knowledge aspects of wind and water-powered technology were available, but no organization was established, again due to cultural and societal values.

The same emphasis on social and cultural aspects of technology goes for Christians, though with opposite results. Their religion, and the social implications associated with it, valued labor, and allowed alternative power sources to gain respect and use. They had the organization aspect in addition to the hardware and knowledge, allowing them to capitalize on these power sources.

(527 words)

Interestingly, the idea of having a god of craftsmanship even existed in the time of the Egyptians. Ptah, later known as the god Memphis, was the Egyptian “god of craftsmen, pottery and creation”. He created the art of masonry, and was a patron of all the arts. Ptah also was thought to have created earth and the heavens. Clearly, Ptah’s job description goes beyond that of the Greek’s Hephaestus, as it includes aspects of creation. In this way, Ptah aligns a bit more with the God of Christianity: God was portrayed as a craftsman, but was also understood to have created the world and surrounding universe as well. http://www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/kunoichi/themestream/ptah.html#.W9DAW2hKhPY

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