What Would Plato Do for Labor Day?

“Of the painter we say that he will paint reins, and he will paint a bit?” Socrates asks Glaucon in the epilogue to Plato’s Republic. “But does the painter know the right form of the bit and reins? Nay, hardly even the workers in brass and leather who make them; only the horseman who knows how to use them—he knows their right form.”

But what about the horse? I naysay. The horse whose teeth grind at the bit, whose head rears at the pull of the reins? The horse who’s goaded by human hands once removed from the body whose movements they guide by brass and leather? Hands of the one who knows best, according to Plato, the true forms of these instruments of control? I wonder, this midnight after a long Labor Day, about the gulfs and the groans between brute force and and fine art. Between servitude and the artist’s work. Between those who must do for survival and those who must make for nothing but the sake of beauty. Between coerced labor and what W.B. Yeats calls “Adam’s Curse”: We must labor to be beautiful, to make a fastidious art of love looking up at the moon.

I confess privileged guilt and ambivalence and ignorance. I’m among the we who labor to be beautiful, who spend hours stitching and unstitching lines of poetry, sometimes thinking this is the hardest work of all, wishing I weren’t cursed with the compulsion to write, knowing I’m blessed to be able to. Are the forces that yoke some to inhumanely heavy loads and let others do hard labors of love comparable matters of human fact? Of all unlikely things to think about when almost 10 percent of Americans are jobless. Because I had the privilege of sitting in the sun over a free lunch (there are, sandwiches catered to Yale, when the cafeteria workers are off for Labor Day), scribbling on the margins of my homework—questions next to rhetorical questions meant to teach us how to be just.

For someone privileged to work mostly in words, hearing the oratorical art of Barack Obama is a way of connecting the disparate dots of the haves and the have-nots: “the risk takers, the doers, the makers of things.” Obama’s inaugural address is a call to honor work, a latter-day Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, for us now again verging on great depression, a litany to “men and women obscure in their labor.”

What about the man who cleans the glass over the photo archives I’ll research to earn my student keep? I’m much more alienated from his labor, in this era of digital collections, than the horseman from the bit. Here I go, belaboring to be beautiful, to bring this blog home to the metaphor with which it began. But there’s no elegant analogy between the Windexers of the world and the hands that guide horses by the reins, no allegory to make of imagined reflections off library glass case covers and the shadows across my notes on the margins of The Republic.Franny and Zooey connecting over their dead brother’s metaphor for an artist’s aim at perfection: Seymour would tell Zooey to shine his shoes every time he was going on talk-show air. But the audience can’t see them, Zooey would protest. “Shine them anyway,” Seymour would say. “Shine them for the Fat Lady”—the undesirable nobody you can’t even see out there, tuning in by radio. It’s like a health care worker making hospital corners for a coma patient, my friend and fellow writer Lisa Levy said, in a book-club conversation about the words that make her wrist tattoo: Shine your shoes.

Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.