Reading Notes: Sennett on Craftsmen


Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman turns out to be the first of three projected books that, collectively, will propose new ways of managing human behavior for the better. I’m only a few pages into the first chapter, and already I’m overwhelmed by the force of Sennett’s ideas.

Here’s what he has to say about the second volume, Warriors and Priests.

Religion and war are both organized through rituals, and I investigate ritual as a kind of craft. That is, I’m less interested in the ideologies of nationalism or jihad than in the ritual practices that train and discipline the human body to attack or pray, or hte rituals that cause groups of bodies to deploy on the battlefield or within sacred spaces. Again, codes of honor become concrete by choreographing movement and gesture within the physical containers of walls, military camps, and battlefields on one hand, and shrines, burial grounds, monasteries and retreats on the other. Ritual requires skill; it needs to be done well. The priest-craftsman or warrior-craftsman will share the ethos of other craftsmen when seeking to do the work well for its own sake. The aura surrounding ritual suggests that it is mysterious in origin, veiled in operation. Warriors and Priests seeks to see behind this veil, by exploring how the craft of ritual makes faith physical. My aim in this study is to understand how the fatal marriage of religion and aggression might possibility [sic] be altered by changing the ritual practices in each. This is a speculative enterprise, to be sure — but it seems more realistic to explore how concrete behavior might change or be regulated than to counsel a change of heart.

Having read this, I had to run an errand, and as I was walking up the Yorkville High Street I listened to the great duet from Act II of Verdi’s Don Carlo, “Dio, che nell’alma infondere amor.” This rousing, martial-sounding music is not actually warlike in meaning; on the contrary, it is a prayer that “the desire for liberty” will be “kindled” in the men’s hearts. Liberty is the gift with which we express our love for our fellow man, and ideally at least, the bestowal ought to require no bloodshed. Verdi’s music conjures serried ranks of troops marching off to glory, but the words — of which, you may be sure, he was supremely conscious — counsel something beyond war. When it hit me that Don Carlo might be a means for “changing ritual practices,” with all that Sennett hopes for from such possibilities, my eyes suddenly flooded with tears.