Although thoroughly rooted in ancient, pre-Christian paganism, "May Day" acquired a whole new identity in the 19th century as various labor movements (and eventually the Communist Party) made May 1 a day of socialist solidarity. In an attempt to co-opt this communist and socialist celebration, Pope Pius XII in 1955 proclaimed May 1 as the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, belatedly giving May Day a Christian, Catholic character. Barely 14 years later, however, the 1969 calendar reform downgraded the one-time 1st class feast to a merely optional memorial! Even so, I celebrated St. Joseph the Worker with suitable solemnity this morning at our local St. Joseph School. (With the subsequent collapse of communism, followed by globalization's disastrous impact on organized labor, the modern May Day of workers’ solidarity is itself likely much diminished - even if, like our American Labor Day in September, it still remains a holiday in many countries).
Celebrating St, Joseph the Worker at Mass this morning, I was quite taken by how the Collect of the Mass addresses God as the Creator "who laid down for the human race the law of work." After two millennia of Christianity, it may be easy for us to forget how new was the view of work, which Christianity introduced into the classical world. In Book VII of his Politics, Aristotle famously insisted that citizens could not be mechanics or shopkeepers, lives he considered ignoble and inimical to goodness; nor could they be farmers. For Aristotle (and the classical world his philosophy summarized) leisure was necessary for both goodness and political activity (Politics, VII, ix, 1328b-1329a). The ancient democratic polis presupposed a population of free non-citizens (and un-free slaves) whose work would produce the surplus necessary to make possible the higher culture and political activity of the citizens. Obviously work was necessary and important, but it was leisure which was valued. Contrast that with the completely different environment one finds, for example, in St. Benedict's Rule, according to which true monks (the monastic equivalent of citizens) live by manual labor - like the apostles before them. Again, while work was necessary, it was not the point or purpose of monastic life, which was prayer and contemplation. Unlike the polis, however, the monaastary expected its citizens to do the necessary work themselves and accorded a moral value to labor which the classical pre-Christian world never did or could.
In the modern world, the labor movement, besides advancing the material interests and economic well-being of workers also restored moral and social value to the world of work retrieving what had seemingly been lost in the alienating experience of industrialization. In the United States and in Western Europe, one result was the rise of the most propserous working class in human history - a new "middle class" anchor for civil society and democratic nation-states.
Now, all that is imperilled again, as once again those who live by work seem squeezed by economic forces and their way of life appears to be losing that "middle class" character. The increasing inequality in our society separates the economic elite from the laboring classes not just economically but (as in antiquity) culturally. A half-century ago, my father's boss was certainly richer than my father and accordingly had greater access to a greater amount of luxury. But the gap between their incomes was nothing like what we see today. And, just as important, neither was there the cultural gulf that now exists. My guess is that my fatrher's boss and the "blue-collar" employees his company hired had more in common culturally and morally than separated them. Their values, their overall outlook on what life was about and what mattered most were much more similar than is experienced today. And, in that, lies one of our greatest challenges and one of the greatest obstacles to reparing our fractured society.