Friday, June 28, 2013


Manus is one of the more unusual words with which the young Latinist must contend. As one might expect, manus means hand, but it also by extension can mean handwriting, and it can even mean a band of men. Never mind that, though, for the important concept for us now is that of manus as the seat of paternal authority. Ultimate power the Roman paterfamilias held in his hands over his family and property, arranging marriages, property, and all family business until his death. So too from his hands could he pass his power to (emancipate) his son, or send from his hands (manumit) a slave.

In another respect, though, were the hands of ancient man his life, for they were intimately connected with his livelihood. Across the professions the hands do the work, from the noblest farmer who puts his plow into the ground to the baker kneading dough and the soldier holding his spear. Those first Christians too must have felt the same connections as they cast their nets into the sea. In the ancient world, a man's hands were the seat, symbol, and means of his agency.

Specialization and technology have to varying degrees diminished the sense of importance otherwise obvious in the manual world. Specialization has offloaded good a deal of life's labor to others, leaving less of it for the average person. Technology has either replaced or distanced us from much work, whether it is the digital keyboard separating us from the striking of the typewriter, which itself separated us from the craft of penmanship, or firearms, which separate the act of, well, killing. Recorded music enables people to listen without playing, and cars to move, all without any sense of power, material, or process.

Sailing is perhaps the most illustrative example, for with one hand on the tiller and another grasping the sheets, you are part of the tool that is the boat. You can feel every shift, from the turbulence of the sails to the smooth groove of a good tack. With that power naturally comes responsibility, but the manual interaction forces an appreciation of the process, material, and power involved.

Is there any reason we can't cultivate such an appreciation today? Not that I can see. Apart from the general awareness it would engender, I think it would lend a little more reverence to life; perhaps people would think before getting so handsy and reckless. Most of all I should imagine a difference at mass. It's all well and good to teach children to be reverent and careful, but you can't be reverent without cultivating the skill of reverence, and you can't do that without some appreciation, however slight and inchoate, of what you are and how you meet the world.

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