In tenui labor . . .

David French, in his Sunday newsletter,

But when we speak of our own energy and our own efforts, here’s a basic truth. We can have a large amount of influence over a small number of people and a small amount of influence over a large number of people. The question that can and should challenge so many of us—especially those most engaged in politics—is whether our efforts are calibrated to our impact.

Which reminded me of the following from G. K. Chesterton:

But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes and books; to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.

What’s Wrong with the World, p. 132 of the edition linked above

And this in turn reminded me of another quote, in a similar vein, by Jane Austen, in a letter to her nephew, James Edward Austen Leigh:

What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of variety and Glow? – How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much Labour?

British Library, Add MS 89437

Here is a photograph of the autograph text, from the webpage linked above:

Jane Austen’s “little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory” were of course her novels.

Taken together, the sentiments of French, Chesterton, and Austen teach a salutary lesson in the importance of loving labor on a small scale. A lesson for which Virgil’s Georgics provides a fitting motto: in tenui labor, at tenuis non gloria, “my toil is on a slender theme, but slender not is its glory!”

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