There’s a lot of talk these days about the “work-life balance”. It’s the idea that your job shouldn’t take up every working hour of the day, so that you can have things like a family and hobbies. And talking about it, being aware of it, is a pretty new. For most of history, the idea that your job wasn’t the definition of who you were would have made no sense. There’s a reason we have last names like Smith or Tanner: what you did actually did define who you were.
It’s too easy, though, to fall into envisioning the lives of earlier people as being nothing but drudgery. Life in the Middle Ages wasn’t just “nasty, brutish and short”. The very existence of plays from the period tells us that people had their diversions. We know they had games, music, dancing, festivals, celebrations. And consider Mankind.
In a sense, the entire play is a question of finding work-life balance- or any balance, really. While it has (pretty decisively) been argued that the play is an exhortation against the sin of sloth, Mercy’s argument for moderation is not the same thing as moratorium. Mankind is allowed to have fun, he’s just not allowed to neglect his work. Balance. We’re all trying to find it, he’s just unusually bad at it.
And Mankind would not be so easily led astray by the Vices if he didn’t have a sense that life should be about more than just plowing one’s field. He just isn’t very good at finding a balance- for Mankind, it seems to be all work or all play. I’m sure we all still know some people who struggle, as he does, to find a happy medium. Like Mankind, when your day job is not something near and dear to your heart, it can be very easy to prefer to do something- anything- else. (Conversely, if you really love what you do, it’s very easy to forget how to do anything else.)
What’s different for Mankind is that, in a pre-secular society, he not only believes that he has to find a work-life balance, but a work-life-afterlife balance: his religious beliefs mean that he needs to find significant time to invest in acts of faith, as well. This is maybe the hardest part of his thinking to grasp in the modern world, where even those who are sincere in their beliefs tend to slot that part of life into specific, proscribed times- church on Sunday morning, maybe a choir rehearsal or volunteer group on a weekday evening. It can be pigeonholed, scheduled, and worked around, and most people would probably lump it in with “other stuff you do outside of work”. For Mankind it holds a much higher priority… until, of course, the Vices convince him otherwise.
The end of the play leaves us with the impression that the great sin is not so much that the neglect of one’s day job, the work that puts food on his table, but the neglected of spiritual things. Mercy only uses the word ‘measure’ twice, and the Vices once; but that is what the play is really about. We don’t expect that Mankind is going to rush off to join a monastery after the curtain comes down, and devote all of his time to thoughts of God and Heaven. He’s going to back to plowing his field, bringing in his crops, praying in church regularly, and, yes, having the odd drink at the pub.
And he- and Mercy- and therefore, presumably, God- can live with that, because it’s a life in balance.