In his great essay “Literature as Equipment for Living,” Kenneth Burke argues that proverbs may be described as a kind of purposeful realism (my phrase, not his):

Here there is no “realism for its own sake.” There is realism for promise, admonition, solace, vengeance, foretelling, instruction, charting, all for the direct bearing that such acts have upon matters of welfare.

Then Burke suggests: What happens if we think of all literature that way? “Proverbs are strategies for dealing with situations” – maybe all works of literary art do the same, just in different and more complex ways. If so, you need sociological categories for thinking about literature:

What would such sociological categories be like? They would consider works of art, I think, as strategies for selecting enemies and allies, for socializing losses, for warding off evil eye, for purification, propitiation, and desanctification, consolation and vengeance, admonition and exhortation, implicit commands or instructions of one sort or another. Art forms like “tragedy” or “comedy” or “satire” would be treated as equipment for living, that size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes. The typical ingredients of such forms would be sought. Their relation to typical situations would be stressed. Their comparative values would be considered, with the intention of formulating a “strategy of strategies,” the “over-all” strategy obtained by inspection of the lot.

What Burke calls “the ‘over-all’ strategy” might be a synonym for the “general theory” I described, with reservations, in a recent post. But let’s set that aside for now, and think about equipment.

In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes,

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

This is an astonishingly rich passage, but let’s begin exploring it by looking at one phrase: “to equip the saints.” The relevant word there, katartismon (καταρτισμὸν), appears in this one biblical location only, but it’s related to a whole complex of words that are dispersed throughout the letters of the New Testament. You’ll probably recognize the two parts: kat (down) and artisimon (shaped, formed, adjusted). The meaning is “adjusted just so” or “shaped just right” – which is why you sometimes see it translated “perfected,” though I don’t prefer that meaning. Throughout ancient Greek you see versions of this concept:

  • ἐναραρίσκω (to fit or fasten in, to be fitted in)
  • ἐπαραρίσκω (to fit to or upon, fasten to, to fit tight or exactly)
  • προσαραρίσκω (to fit to, to be fitted to, firmly fitted)
  • συναραρίσκω (to join together, to hang together)

The core idea is that of good workmanship, of something well-crafted. Closely related (thematically though not etymologically) is a passage from earlier in the letter to the Ephesians in which Paul says that we are the craftwork of God – esmen poiēma ktisthentes en Christō lēsou epi ergois agathoispoems made in Christ Jesus for good works.

The particular craft that seems to be contextually lurking behind all these terms is carpentry, and more specifically joinery – making the joints snug and tight and the surfaces smooth, so that the work thus crafted will hold together when it’s stressed or buffeted. That said, in the long passage quoted above Paul moves easily from the image of a well-made case to the image of a well-knitted body – because a body, being organic, will be not just soundly made but also capable of increasingly varied and challenging actions. A healthy body is more capable and adaptable than a well-crafted case because it can grow in size and strength, and improve in dexterity. (A body as old and decrepit as mine can still learn a new trick or two; even now I can through exercise increase not just my muscular power but even the density and strength of my bones.)

Still, it’s impossible not to remember that the art or craft in which the young Jesus was trained was that of a builder, a tekton.

To be equipped, then, in Paul’s sense, is not a matter of “the things we carry” but rather the formation we have undergone. (The German word Bildung doesn’t refer to building, rather to imaging — Bild means image — but the correspondence of the two words is a lovely accident.) Christian formation is equipment not in the sense of having the right tools but rather of being properly built, which means, chiefly, having the right habits – but no: the right habitus. The whole panoply of customary actions and perceptions located in one’s body, and one’s mind, and one’s social surround. (My brothers and sisters in Christ are part of my habitus.)

To return to Kenneth Burke: What if we were to think of literature and the other arts as a kind of repository of habitus, a motley collection of practices and strategies? “Motley” because we can never adopt them simply and straightforwardly – we have to accept the inevitability of bricolage. But still: experiences not just to admire or appreciate but to use. Edward Mendelson’s idea of “literature as a special form of intimacy” seems relevant here – literature, and the other arts, as equipment for living, equipment shared by fallen mortals, thinking reeds, puzzled people in the process of being formed. An improvised sociology for wayfarers.