May 26, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Otium et Opium, Part I
IN A DAY overwhelmed and overburdened with haste, with productivity, with material growth and business, it seems to me that what is needed, perhaps more than most anything else, is a rejuvenation or in some places a resurrection of a contrary and opposing spirit, one that has long been buried ‘neath all this bustle and hurry, and which yet must yearn to free itself of the fetters of modern “progress.” I speak of the spirit of leisure, the life of leisure; I speak against the hostility toward and the enervation of these things; I speak so as to aid in the reconstitution of their value. Our epoch, which is materially the richest of any epoch in history, may yet be deeply impoverished beyond any epoch before it; at the same time, it might be richer through and through, more promising, more vital than any before it. But one cannot speak of the wealth or poverty of the day unless one knows the secrets of the day. This essay, before anything else, is an investigation into certain of those secrets.
I. The Meaning of Leisure
LEISURE is the backbone of culture.
It is unfortunately necessary to pause here, at the very embarkation of our discourse, to clarify a few things about this word “culture,” for it has become effaced by over-use and carelessness. We must preserve the horizons of our communication. Our language is a fertile land, but it is not without borders. It is the habit of democratic sensibility to redefine whatever undemocratic words it is not forced to discard; the only proper response to this subterfuge is to insist on nobler or more radical meanings to such assimilated words, and to rediscover such words as have been abandoned by modern “progress.” Thus we remind this modern world that, as ever, the true guardians of the language are not mere advocates of the victorious cause.
So let us assert, first and foremost, that culture and custom are not identical—that, contrary to its present usage, culture is a term of distinction. Not every human group, nor even every society, possesses a culture; it is rather the exception than the rule. There exists no “consumer culture,” “post-modern culture,” “cannabis culture,” nor whatever other linguistic perversions our social scientists have fabricated. Still less is there such a thing as “primitive” or “popular culture”—indeed, these are contradictions in terms. We contemporaries see this concept consistently undermined, because it is ever the present-day temptation to embrace “multi-culturalism,” and to insist that every ethos is equal to every other, and to call whatever does not agree with this by the name of “bigotry,” “prejudice,” or “intolerance.”—And before I am taken by my reader as an enemy of democracy, let me say at once that I have no will to uproot the modern spirit, and still less to turn men back to some bygone era. Indeed, I should not write this essay, nor these words on culture, if I did not believe that they might finally even reinforce our “democratic groundwork.”
Now that we have cleared the way of certain obstructions to the right construction of these words, let us return. Leisure, as we have said, is the backbone of culture. Never yet has an overactive civilization produced a culture; such societies ever remain, and must ever remain, at the stage of civilization at best. Neither Sparta nor the United States, for instance, ever surpassed this stage. Nor can a culture remain a culture if it surrenders its leisure. The reasons for culture’s absolute dependency on leisure will be rendered clear in due time. It must first be understood, however, that culture is strictly a societal outgrowth, and its absence from a society does not prohibit the development of cultured individuals within that society. Such individuals, however, when they do arise, needs must dearly suffer from the lack of a proximate culture; their genius and their vitality have not the proper soil, and they must grow like hyacinths upon the water, thriving remotely by whatever nutrition should drift from the shore. Such men as this are fated to be incomplete in their growth: either they are the forerunners to a future culture within their society, and will share the deep imperfection of all human beginnings, or they are the remote growths of some established culture, like the offshoots of the aspen tree, whose subterraneous branches can spring up far from the center. But such offshoots usually can be nothing more than minor growths in comparison with those nearer the heart. Such men as these, be they forerunners or remote growths, are yet in need of leisure, and must devote themselves to its cultivation with the same assiduity and fervor they should if they were today surrounded by the highest of cultures—perhaps even a greater assiduity and fervor, for the need which besets them is so much the greater.
Prior to the democratic revolution of the last hundred years, leisure was the preserve of aristocratic civilizations. Indeed, one may make so bold as to claim that culture and social aristocracy have hitherto been believed to be inseparable; and more—that culture and aristocracy are inseparable. During the Enlightenment, however, this belief was undermined by many of the classic liberals; and contemporary man, who stands as the son of the civilization they presaged, has eschewed this belief with them. This is only predictable, for the thinkers of the Enlightenment held that education and science could raise the standard level of intellect, and that one might bring wisdom, like the fire of Prometheus, down to the whole of mankind. Contemporary man, who sees the results of this attempt, believes that this attempt has been successful, for never before in history has the average man been so well informed of present-day goings on, nor has he ever felt himself more competent to sway and direct these goings on—nor, for that matter, has he felt more competent to determine his own fate or even the fate of society at large. It thus seems that aristocracy has been debunked, and has been revealed as an empty class-structure, devoted to nothing more than perpetuating its arbitrary and oppressive wealth. Modernity has thus replaced the outmoded “aristocratic culture” with present-day “popular culture,” just as it replaced social aristocracy with democracy and capitalism, and philosophy with science and universal education.
Now, “popular culture” does not need leisure to subsist. Indeed, “popular culture” devotes itself precisely to those who are not at leisure; it is the product and the object of unleisured people. Every culture of the past, on the other hand, requisitioned an entire class of leisured men, both for its production, its enjoyment, and its comprehension. It presupposed aristocracy. One sees implicit awareness of this in every culture of the pre-modern world. Consider, for instance, the roots of our word “school”—from the Ancient Greek “schole”, primarily denoting leisure and rest, and consequently a discussion, a work of leisure, and a discipline, from which complex understanding the Greeks and the ancients in general bolstered their belief that labor coarsens and makes the soul rough and unrefined. Or consider a less distant example: the British upper-classes long regarded it as ungentlemanly for one to be paid for one’s writing. This seems to me far less to protect literature against the biasing influence of patronage, than to separate literature decisively from the baseness of money-getting, and from all the haste, the primal need, and the temporality that money-getting necessarily entails. That is to say, this custom seems to me an attempt to plant literature firmly upon a foundation of leisure.
Why, then, was leisure assumed so necessary to culture? For the simple reason that, without it, the spontaneity of the human soul would lack a suitable arena for its activities. Without time, time free of temporal responsibilities and distractions, the soul cannot act protractedly upon itself, and instead wastes its spontaneity in little pieces, diffused over a multiplicity of external events. But the protracted self-action of the soul is absolutely necessary for human creation. That is to say, the spontaneous soul requires leisure so that it might engage its two highest activities—rumination and contemplation, those loftiest aspects of the soul’s twin powers of “analysis” and “synthesis.” Rumination is the distilling and dissecting of the great complex of human experience; it is an effort, over undistracted time, to arrive at what is essential in these experiences; it is an effort to grind away the dross of events. Contemplation is the consideration of these essences by themselves, the arranging of these essences with regard to one another, and the production of new complexes, purer complexes, which are variously artistic, intellectual, or philosophical. Without rumination, one remains ever the dupe of appearances; and without contemplation, one remains ever their slave. Without leisure, both these activities, as well as the activity of true conversation—which is nothing but rumination or contemplation with an other—are impossible. This explains to us why overactive societies prove incapable of culture. Without leisure, man is brutalized, turned practically into a reactive beast, and cut off from his highest powers.
With these things in mind, we consider again the pre-modern civilized world, and find ourselves immediately in danger of a common misunderstanding. It may well seem to us that leisure is nothing but a certain kind of time—that is, time freed from distraction and responsibility. We are somewhat justified in this conclusion, for it seems that the aristocrats of the past sought out for themselves this kind of time, and nothing but this kind of time, in order to secure their leisure. But then, we must recall to ourselves that prior times presupposed a great many essential things that we of the present-day simply cannot presuppose. In prior times, culture was given; the aristocrat—that is to say, the man of leisure, the aristocratic soul—was given; and the education of the aristocrat—that is to say, the interweaving of the aristocratic soul with a given culture, the placing of the fountain upon the fountainhead—was given. This should suffice to indicate to us that leisure is much more complicated than mere spare time. Let us say provisionally that leisure is spare time wed with a certain state of being.
For the present, however, we pass over this “state of being” as an open question, and note merely the following: leisure is the precondition for an activity of the soul, which activity we have begun to understand. But more, leisure is the preparation for this activity; without this activity as its end, leisure is a concept without meaning. This fact, that leisure is the preparation for an activity, serves to disabuse us of another common misconception—that leisure and idleness are identical to one another. Indeed, we must now say that these concepts are actually contrary to one another in a key respect, for the idle man is totally passive: his passivity is what defines him as idle. But there are two kinds of idleness. The first is composed, like leisure, of time free of distraction and of responsibility; but it lacks attendant activity, and so resolves itself into boredom, that is, in a waiting to be acted upon. The second kind of idleness is composed of time free from responsibility, but not from distraction; among other things, it includes what is known as “entertainment” today, which might be defined as “action without substance.” Boredom is valuable insofar as it can become a goad toward leisure, toward higher activity. It has been often commented upon, for instance, how a man who falls ill and who is consigned to the sickbed might over the course of his illness arrive at an awareness of things which he hitherto lacked. Immersed in silence, a man is driven to seek distraction; finding none outside himself, he might feed upon the activities within himself. If he grow desperate enough at the doldrums, a man might even become his own wind. He who is constantly entertained, on the other hand, will never find leisure; for his is an animalistic pleasure in the whittling away of time, in the subtle inebriation of pure reflexivity. The man who is entertained needs must lose himself—while the man who is bored might actually come to find himself.
There is a third concept beyond leisure and idleness which is related to both of them, and which it would be well for us to discuss: and that is recreation. As its name suggests, it is the activity of rejuvenating oneself. That is to say, it is a kind of repose, but a repose which is partially active. It is a repose from the conscious, or mental part of leisure’s activity; but this repose is necessary precisely because not all of leisure’s activity is conscious. Indeed, we might go so far as to say that the most important part of thinking takes place quite “under our awareness.” “Thinking,” as it is commonly understood, is actually nothing more the conscious reception of the productions of certain subterranean processes. It is possible temporarily to exhaust these hidden sources, by bringing their doings too quickly or too prolongedly into the light of consciousness. Recreation, then, is a way of distracting the conscious part of the mind, to allow the subconscious time to pursue its particular, mysterious activities, and to replenish, as it were, its empty funds. Recreation seeks to divert the mind without ignobling it; it seeks to turn the mind toward honorable activities of a subordinate sort—toward physical activities, competitions, debates and disputations, and the enjoyment of music, celebrations and ceremonies, and noble games. Recreation, then, unlike idleness, keeps certain laudable parts of the soul alive and alert. It sharpens and strengthens, for instance, a man’s will, even as boredom makes it flaccid, and as entertainment dulls it. Recreation is thus the noble counterpart to a life of leisure—and, what is more, is indispensable to it, as the occasional rainstorm to the plant.
In the past, leisure and recreation were either a caste privilege—a corollary to the wealth and the slave-base of the higher classes—or they were deliberate acquisitions, as when certain philosophers prized lives of liberal poverty. The intellectuals and the artists, before the past few hundred years, were almost universally gifted leisure by their fate, for they were almost universally born to the upper classes of their society, or granted the privileges of the same by the old system of patronage. In modern democracy, this has changed, this must change, for there no longer exist any “upper classes.”
The intellectuals and artists, which is to say the free spirits, of the present day, must learn to do with this change.
Continue to Part II