Repair [at an earlier stage of our culture] was not so much a habit as an honoured custom. People respected the past of damaged things, restored them as though healing a child and looked on their handiwork with satisfaction. In the act of repair the object was made anew, to occupy the social position of the broken one. Worn shoes went to the anvil, holed socks and unravelled sleeves to the darning last — that peculiar mushroom-shaped object which stood always ready on the mantelpiece.
The custom of repair was not confined to the home. Every town, every village, had its cobbler, its carpenter, its wheelwright and its smith. In each community people supported repairers, who in tum supported things. And our surnames testify to the honour in which their occupations were held. But to where have they repaired, these people who guaranteed the friendliness of objects? With great difficulty you may still find a cobbler — but for the price of his work you could probably buy a new pair of shoes. For the cost of 15 digital watches you may sometimes find a person who will fix the mainspring of your grandfather’s timepiece.
The truth is that repair, like every serious social activity, has its ethos, and when that ethos is lost, no amount of slap-dash labour can make up for it. The person who repairs must love the broken object, and must love also the process of repair and all that pertains to it.
I am greatly taken by the way Scruton frames the work of repair here, especially the idea that the impulse to repair arises from and is sustained by love — and that the particular form of love at work here is friendship. By repairing the things of this world we exhibit friendship towards them — and they become friends to us in return.
People need things, and things need people.
The critical moment of their mutual support is the moment of breakdown. Suddenly, the object on which everything depended — the car, the boiler, the drain, or the dinner suit — is unusable, and you contemplate its betrayal in helpless unbelief. It is some time before you overcome your self-pity enough to recognise that its need is greater than yours.
We get angry at broken things, and want to throw them out — and this impulse often governs us even when the broken thing is not a car or a drain but democracy or education. (Maybe democracy and education are not objects but rather hyperobjects.) But what if we were to think not that our education has betrayed us but rather that its need is greater than ours? What if we were to think that towards even something so vast and complex we have the obligations of friendship? And, if we meet those obligations, perhaps we could even enjoy the benefits of friendship.