Chrysostom’s understanding and evaluation of occupations and skills

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Careers, and how they change, are a very popular theme nowadays and are constantly under scrutiny due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The purpose of this article is to illuminate the professions mentioned in Chrysostom’s writings. These professions will be critically discussed based on secondary literature on relevant themes. Such an investigation sheds light on the ancient social world and how idleness, poverty and other social issues were viewed by the ancients. Firstly, Chrysostom believed that God created socio-economic poverty so that people could become aware of God’s providence. Poverty also gave structure to life, because without poverty it would not have been necessary to work and without work, society would have collapsed. However, Chrysostom made it very clear that a profession had to meet three requirements: It had to be useful (χρήσιμος); it had to be necessary/essential (ἀναγκαῖος); and other people also had to benefit from it. Blacksmiths, shoemakers, farmers and bakers are essential; however, their work must also benefit other people. For example, the latter must also share in the crops of the farmer – if a farmer sows only enough wheat for himself, many people will starve. 

Even these essential professions have to adhere to boundaries. A builder’s work is regarded as essential only if he builds houses, not when he builds theatres. A shoemaker must ensure that the shoes he makes for men are not delicate and soft, which would ultimately make men look like women. These statements were not intended to condemn homosexuality as some scholars have at times argued; they were simply in line with other concepts in Chrysostom’s thinking which De Wet (2014a:189) describes as homoeroticism: A male’s appearance had to be “rough” as a symbol of self-control and of the fact that he is self-sufficient.

Social classes and rankings played a major role in the ancient world. It is, therefore, no surprise to read that Chrysostom also ranked professions from important to less important. The criteria which Chrysostom used to determine the rank of a profession again raises the question whether the profession is useful (χρήσιμος) and essential (ἀναγκαῖος). Chrysostom regarded skills such as agriculture, weaving and construction as being at the top of the list, as these skills are necessary/essential (ἀναγκαῖος) and they keep us alive (συνέχουσιν ἡμῶν τὸν βίον). Other occupations, for example, those of a coppersmith, a carpenter and a shepherd, are merely complementary to these skills. However, Chrysostom states that of all of these professions, agriculture is the most important. God instituted agriculture when God made mankind.

It appears that a woman’s place within the labour market was very limited, with one of the few occupations available to women being that of weaving. Chrysostom considered women to be weak because of their lifestyle and their upbringing. He said they grew up in the shadows, in other words in easy conditions; they did not work in the sun like farmers. Furthermore, they were very inactive; they were constantly in the baths, they used ointments and perfumes, their sofas were soft, and all this made them what they are. Chrysostom’s statements regarding women should be seen in light of the fact that most women in his world were rich, therefore his knowledge regarding women in general was very limited. 

Chrysostom also argued that God made the man different. God gave dominion (ἀρχή) and superiority (ὑπεροχή) to the man, while God gave the woman desire (ἐπιθυμία) and the gift of bearing children. God gave the woman the house, and the marketplace to the man, thereby allotting the task to provide food to the man, since he has to till the soil. God gave the ability to make garments to the woman, since the loom and the distaff belong to the woman. Clarke (2006:167) states that Chrysostom’s construction of women “relies heavily on the stereotyping, naturalising, and universalising functions of ideology”.

The general belief is that the ancients never transformed their trades into industries, yet patristic writings often refer to a kind of industry. Chrysostom refers to, for example, the mistress of the house (ἡ κυρία τῆς οἰκίας) who sits on her chair in the house with all gracefulness (εὐσχημοσύνη) while the maids weave in silence and the other servants continue with their tasks. This is in line with Gregory Nazianzus’s reference to weavers who worked in a large venue. Furthermore, Chrysostom states that artisans who work for themselves earn more money than those who work for employers. Despite all these references, the economy of the ancient world could still not be described as “industrial”, as this was not the overarching feature of the economy.

Like so many of the Church Fathers, Chrysostom also had an aversion to money-making professions. He goes so far as to refer to moneylenders as adders (ἔχιδνα). It was difficult for the Church Fathers to see how trading, for example, could be described as a “job” – what “labour” did the person put in to justify the profit? The Church Fathers in particular had two objections to trading, the first being that it was driven by greed and the second that it was fraudulent, implying that traders deceive those who buy from them. 

Fishermen were often associated with poverty. For example, Chrysostom grouped fishermen, tentmakers, tax collectors, the ignorant and the illiterate together in the same category. He attributed the reason for the success of these professions when the individuals spoke about the hope they had in themselves, to God’s power. Yet the statements made by Chrysostom should not be accepted at face value, as his statements could also be a rhetorical technique to emphasise the marvel of the growth of the Gospel under such circumstances.

All the Church Fathers believed that it was expected of Christians to work hard. Chrysostom denounced those who were idle or unwilling to work. He then referred to Paul who was even willing to be a tentmaker, and he added that people who were craftsmen did not have to be ashamed of their craft. Earning a living from hard work was regarded as a form of asceticism; the souls of such people were brighter and their thinking more powerful. It is quite possible that Chrysostom had the Euchites (derived from the Greek word for pray) and the Messalians (derived from the Syrian word for pray) in mind when he denounced idleness. It is known that these two sectarian groups originated in Syria in the middle of the fourth century. They believed that making handicrafts was not conducive to one’s spiritual life. Several Church Fathers condemned their teaching.

In conclusion: It is interesting to note how many of Chrysostom’s arguments are still relevant today. When students enrol at university, their parents are often worried when their children want to pursue careers that are not considered “useful” or “essential”.

Keywords: apprentices; artisans; careers; idleness; women


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Chrusostomos se verstaan en evaluasie van beroepe en vaardighede

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