The Graeco-Roman cultural crib within which the early church developed had strong opinions concerning work - particularly work of the manual kind. For example, Aristotle argued that manual labourers were not deserving of citizenship, 'for no man can practice virtue who is living the life of a mechanic or labourer.' Within Xenophon's Oeconomicus, Socrates concurs with Critobolus that manual labour defiles the body, harms the soul, and because of a lack of leisure and the absence of a connection with the land, work rendered one a bad friend and poor defender of the city. Likewise for Plutarch, it is axiomatic that manual labour is incompatible with intellectual aspirations.
Against this backdrop, early Christians developed a special place for manual labour, particularly within the Eastern monastic traditions shaped by Basil of Caesarea. Nowhere is this more evident than in Basil's Hexameron, nine sermons preached c. AD 370 on the first six days of creation. Far from the Hellenistic suspicion towards work, Basil is well aware that there were labourers within his congregation, and he devised an early form of morning and evening prayer to further their growth. (Basil's model, that what labourers needed spiritually was to hear God's Scripture as they headed out to work and returned from their labour, was to have a significant influence on Thomas Cranmer when he combined the monastic hours services into Morning and Evening Prayer for the common folk).
As Basil exegetes Genesis 1, God is said to be an artisan, who in his wisdom has made a harmonious and beautiful world. He is described as a creator, a maker or poet, an artisan, and even the master craftsman. Meanwhile the Son is revealed to be synergos - co-creator. God is likened to a builder, a carpenter, a metalworker, a weaver, a vine-dresser, and a potter, and creation is said to be his workshop.
According to Basil, the creation can fill those who recognize it as creation with wonder and love for their creator; moreover, humans can become participants in God's creative act.While God's workmanship is different from our own - he creates ex nihilo - nonetheless that God laboured entails for Basil a dignity to our work. Rather than being irreconcilable with God, labour is consonant with God's dignity and pre-eminence. Work is therefore so much more than a necessary evil. It is a way of representing God's image in the world, exercised through humble dominion over our co-creatures for both their good and ours. This is why manual labour became a core element in the monastic communities influenced by Basil. Influenced by his sister Macrina, Basil's asceticism valued the work of one's own hands (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2.9, 4.11). In contrast to the sophistry of the prevailing Hellenistic culture in which Basil had been educated, work became a means for philosophy, contemplation, and controlling the body.
For Basil, such work could have only one true end: love. Rejecting self-sufficiency as a value, the end of labour was to strengthen the community, providing charity with an opportunity to bear fruit. Basil's Asiatic ascetic communities therefore were both a hive a of silence and production; a place for contemplation and study alongside incredible industry as the community members, who would have previously given away their possessions to the poor, worked for common good of society. Alongside farming, the community would have undertaken carpentry, weaving, leatherwork, metalwork, and medicine. Tools were carefully maintained. Children were educated and taught crafts. Prices were to be kept low. And in trying to balance 1 Thessalonians 5.17 with 2 Thessalonians 3.8-9, Basil counselled that prayer and work were not mutually exclusive:
In this way we fulfil prayer even in the midst of work, giving thanks to him who gave both strength of hand to work and cleverness of mind to acquire the skill and also bestowed the material with which to work, both in the tools we use and in what is requisite for the crafts we practice, whatever they happen to be. And we pray that the works of our hands may be directed to the goal of being well pleasing to God.Given that the material, the tools, the strength, and the art are gifts from God, to work for Basil is to immerse oneself into the charity of God. Never an end in and of itself, to work with your own hands is to be purposed towards loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself.