June 1, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Otium et Opium, Part II
The Crisis of Leisure
THE FACT with which we left off—namely, that the intellectuals and artists of the pre-modern era were gifted their leisure—explains to us why there is so little comment on the issue in the writers of the past. Leisure is treated but by implication and in passing by pre-modern thinkers. For leisure was almost always presupposed by past cultures, so that leisure, insofar as it is a problem, is wholly a modern problem.
It may be inferred, based on what we have said, that leisure is thus a barbaric problem as well: for the barbarians are those who lack culture. It therefore might be surmised that the barbarians, by gaining leisure, might perforce gain a culture. But the barbarians do not lack culture alone: what is essential to barbarism is the lack of civilization—that is, the rule in the soul by a reason, a law, or a legal code. The barbarian is the man who has not progressed beyond instinctual obedience to and fatal reverence for tribal custom—to traditional ritual and rubric. Or, to put this another way—the barbarian is the man to whom custom and law are identical.
Modernity, on the other hand, is decidedly civilized. It might even be described as over-civilized. It is the product of the Enlightenment; it is founded on a new set of laws, laws founded in turn on the idea of “rights.” Through these new laws, modernity may well have elevated civilization to a height never yet reached—but this has yet to be seen. What is presently clear is that these laws, in order to be established, required the leveling of all social classes, and in this leveling, the political theorists of the Enlightenment at once created modern civilization, and cut civilization off from its purpose; for they destroyed the subtle social structures within which culture was protected and nourished, and upon which it was able to ascend to the heights.
A second notable fact distinguishes us from the barbarians: we good Europeans, we good Occidentals, are the living heirs of a vast and rich and profound cultural heritage, which barbarian societies never are. No exception can be made for such barbarian societies as were once cultures: by degenerating to barbarism, a society ipso facto loses all its vital connection to any cultural or civilized past. This is to say, we already possess nearly all the external conditions for a new culture. We face but two primary external obstacles: 1.) the displacement of culture’s necessary social structures, and 2.) the disdain, not to say abhorrence, that modern democracy carries toward the very idea of culture. The overcoming of both these obstacles requires the instatement of a new leisure as a first, though not a final, condition.
Thus we see that this modern problem, the problem of leisure, is actually a modern crisis, for leisure is necessary to the continuation of, not to say the preservation of, over two millennia of European culture. We face today the threat that the very conditions for European culture will be annihilated. If this annihilation is permitted, Europe will descend into a new and incorrigible barbarism, Europe will be lost: for her present civilization, lacking a cultural purpose, would have no counterweight to certain of its baser tendencies nor any will to resist its enemies, and would become nothing more than a staging ground for retrogression—a corpse to feed the progeny of that great black wasp which stung it into complacency.
Modern democracy opposes the conditions for, the spirit of, and the very meaning of leisure. Modern democracy senses in leisure the vestiges of the overcome past, of rank and hierarchy, which its own spirit deeply resents and recants. Furthermore, modern democracy possesses goals and intentions which are altogether contrary to those of the leisured life. Thus modern democracy, both directly and indirectly, deliberately and circumstantially, besieges and undermines the bastion of culture.
We must, however, be very clear about this: for modern democracy by no means condemns idleness, or “free time.” So long as the difference between leisure and idleness is misunderstood or ignored, we shall not perceive the danger we are in. Now, free time, time which a man is permitted to kill, is almost universally valued today. It is pursued and spoken of by all and sundry, whilst “leisure” is quickly becoming an antiquated, and even in some places a vaguely opprobrious, word. Contemporary man seeks free time as time in which to pursue such pleasures as he might oppose to his work, and he senses with his precise democratic instinct that leisure is concerned with very different, perhaps even politically suspect, ends. It is this state of affairs which turns modernity against leisure, both deliberately and circumstantially. And since it is through both kinds of opposition that we are given to our crisis, it would behoove us to understand both kinds of opposition as well as we are able.
But a note before we begin: in what follows we speak neither of the rich nor of the poor, but rather of those who are most important to modern democracy—the middle class. The poor we may dismiss, safe in the knowledge that they are quite accustomed to such treatment. As for the wealthy, a few broad observations will suffice. Although the wealthy are liberated from certain of the following troubles, they are yet more shackled to others. Indeed, we may say that they above all others are especially endangered by the present state of affairs, for their wealth gives them an enormous field of possibilities, and a potentially perpetual idleness, while their present social situation frees them from the rigors of aristocratic sensibilities and from the aristocratic sense of duty. Our rich today are something like aristocrats shorn utterly of all sense of noblesse oblige. Ignoring all other dangers adhering to such a creature, we note merely the following: the wealthy are liable today to produce monstrosities of children, children who are given nigh on endless material potential, and who are yet denied that education and rearing which could temper and elevate their souls above the trammels of the merely material. The rich thus have but a compromised ability to secure the preservation of culture from one generation to the next.
But, having given the barest sketch of these troubles, let us move on, and let us consider the state of affairs of today’s “middle class.” We are justified in limiting our considerations to this class alone, for it is indeed they who “rule” in this world.
The first matter to present itself to our attention could be described as the reverse side of one of the great prides of our age. This age is proud, in some ways rightly proud, of its fantastical abundance, through which the “standard of living” has everywhere been raised to unprecedented heights. This abundance makes the conditions of the average man more favorable to his continuation and to his hedonism than they have ever been before. But this same abundance to any man concerned with leisure is as a field of thorns.
In the first place, we are confronted with what we might call a conflict of priorities. In order to achieve its remarkable material success, this age, and our epoch particularly, has demanded that each capable individual (which is to say, nearly every individual) provide himself with the means to satisfy his needs and desires. This is the economic aspect of the democratic revolution, the economic side of the modern obsession with freedom, and it is known as capitalism. Now, this demand placed on all men indiscriminately, this demand that they get themselves their living, forms a key part in the destruction of the old aristocratic privilege. Hitherto, it was the prerogative of the aristocrat, or the man of leisure, to be liberated from trivial or mundane or private financial concerns, for it was understood that the aristocracy’s twin functions—governance and acculturation—were of far higher concern than those of mere survival and amusement. In the present day, it is almost certain that we must occupy ourselves at least some of the time with such matters as preparing our meals, caring for our living spaces, paying rent, and in general making and keeping our merest living. All this can be done easily enough—it is no challenge for most of us—but there is some question of how it must affect a man who wishes to devote himself to higher things, that he must periodically preoccupy himself with the most external of lower things. It may well make one coarser, to direct so much of one’s life to matters that are ephemeral and commonplace, to make oneself actively subordinate to one’s inferiors. Let it be recalled that the hands of the professional laborer needs must fumble with the finer things. What is required here is a revaluation of these necessities in a higher light. Let anyone who wishes to see how this may be done look to Citadelle, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
To add to this trouble, it becomes increasingly difficult to disentangle oneself from the economic web. The farther our epoch advances technologically, the more “luxuries” are converted into “necessities” and the more money is required to make even a single life possible. For instance, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to decline such superfluities as electricity, automobiles, computers, and telephones. The procuring of such goods in turn demands more income, more time, a greater degree of servitude. Such a life as Thoreau was once able to prescribe removes itself further and further from our capabilities.
Finally, due to the locus of modern pride, the system of honors hitherto well established around intellectual and artistic merit has vanished. I do not speak of the philosophers, who fundamentally exist, as it were, extra-honorably, but rather those thinking men who, dwelling much nearer the heart of the “present,” as its spiritual legislators and rulers, have in the past enjoyed a certain amount of contemporaneous respect and admiration. Let me not be misunderstood: men of profundity have ever been compelled to conceal themselves; men of great profundity wear masks like a second, or even first, skin; and all of them must exist to some extent or another in that lofty, extra-temporal and extra-societal society, whose members have all bought their citizenship through the most spiritual of toils and tribulations, the highest kinds of victories and creations. But any healthy culture promotes, to varying degrees, precisely this kind of transcendence; and even if it does not know what such transcendence means, or even that it exists, the healthy culture-directed society is so constituted as to be a ladder of encouragement and material and spiritual aid to its extra-temporal sons and daughters.
Now, some of these conditions have not altered, despite the contemporary climax of modernity. Many intellectuals and artists still today seek honor. But today, one must distinguish the profound from the popular in a way which was hitherto unnecessary and indeed impossible: today, one must say that these two kinds not only differ essentially from one another, but also that they hold a different position in society. We must, that is, distinguish today between the social situation of artists and intellectuals of the first and of the second rank. This latter sort (Matthew Arnold, for instance; or amongst the artists, C.S. Lewis) have ever been firmly contained by the going ideologies, and lack such a nature as could break free of them. They are thus eminently conservative men, even when they are “progressive,” and esteem nothing so much as the honors they are paid by the establishments or concerns they protect. Today, such men abound in more quantity and poorer quality than they have ever done. In accord with modern ideologies, they are exceedingly unleisured, and even relish in what they call their productivity. They are characterized by a love of information at the expense of knowledge, and fact-accumulation at the expense of creativity. Intellectuals and artists of the first rank, however, who are and must be free, very free, of modern dogmas, must today exist in solitude, independently, and, as it were, “dishonorably.” This represents for them a grave social change, which is to say a change in their circumstances rather than in their natures; for they have ever been fundamentally solitary, insofar as they have been the firstlings of the next century. But it will yet cost them something that they no longer have even a nominal social community—at least, not for the nonce.
The material abundance and technological advancement of our age occasions another circumstance vitally endangering to leisure, and this is the ubiquity of distraction. We are ever surrounded by people, voices, petty conversations and conversants, and the noises of traffic, sirens, radios, televisions, and music. Even when we do not seek them out, they find us. They grow each year with a worrying exponentiality, and it is much to be feared that before long the situation for our young will have reached such a point that they will only escape this utterly corrosive influence of technology on the young, if they are fortunate enough to be born to the right parents. This will represent the tipping point—that point at which technology, the most thoroughgoing human attempt to conquer Fortuna, itself produces a harrowing artificial caricature of Fortuna, whose dark relation to human life will be strictly analogous to the relation of a machine to an animal. Even given the present level of these novelties, however, it is difficult to isolate oneself amidst such a stew, it is difficult to get away, it is difficult to find a sanctum. Assuming that one cannot escape easily into one’s own head—assuming that one, like Schopenhauer, cannot peacefully reflect in the vicinity of so much sound and fury—it becomes frighteningly difficult to reflect—at all.
And supposing one does seek out distractions—what does one not find! We are inundated unceasingly by the narcotic effects of popularized technology and by the democratic ever-presence of people. Modern democracy has not so much endangered the world through over-population (it even serves, as statistics suggest, to obviate that “crisis,” replacing it with the crisis rather of certain specific demographic shifts), but rather through what I will here call hyper-population—the indiscriminate spreading of people, of great numbers of people, through all the areas and arenas of human life. We are overwhelmed—indeed, we have become too callous to be overwhelmed—by a flood of possible amusements, a true avalanche of computers, vehicles, and radio; popular arts—from movies to music to magazines; video games and “spectator sports”; momentarily updated news and excessive social opportunities; “social networks” which have blurred the line between the public and the private; accessible pornography, careless romances, and easy sexual relations. I dare say that television alone has wasted more human potency than any other single human invention in all of history—only because the internet is still comparatively young. It requires enormous effort, an almost tyrannical self-mastery, just to free oneself from this easy tyranny of distraction. —Among the great many valuable things this state of affairs has already ruined, it perhaps suffices to mention but one of its most lamentable victims: it has made boredom, has made the promise boredom once held, rare, if not impossible.
All of this brings us to another obstacle to the establishment of a new leisure—modern education. Let us take this in a broad sense, encompassing not only our failing institutions of education—which deserve their own independent consideration—but also societal contributions or interventions generally to the raising of a child. Children today are brought up in this anarchy of distraction and overwhelming sensualism. They are reared within it, which means, they are made a part of it, it is made a part of them. What affect must it have on a child that he is constantly surrounded by entertainments and amusements of which he is really nothing but spectator? What shall he do, when he is given over by his parents to the degrading hands of distraction, from the moment he is born to the moment he is departs their care? when he is taught from the earliest age to lose himself to these games and television shows, these computer “applications,” these contrived realities, which are produced by the most mediocre minds intent upon the most mediocre of aims? when even such games as he plays demand of him no imagination or will, so that he is confined by a specific set of artificial rules, which he neither masters nor takes any part in formulating? Our children are raised as though they were robots; we are not raising men. Indeed, we are systematically breeding a very curious kind of human, who is nervous, narrow-minded, narrowly efficient, boring, petty, and in constant need of distraction, entertainment, or repetitive and mind-numbing tasks. One has only to consider this most recent pullulation of children afflicted with “attention deficit disorder” in order to take the scope of the problem. Let us be clear: he has his value, this type of man; we should be very far from saying otherwise; even the strength of his numbers has its value. But given the social and political conditions of the day, he is as of yet our stumbling block, and a true danger to both the life of leisure and to the education of leisured men.
We may sum up all these quandaries in a simple formulation: the tempo of life today is faster than that of any age heretofore. Our day moves so rapidly that I am not aware of a single man who has actually caught up with it. We are, in a vital and dangerous way, living ahead of ourselves. Our epoch tries to solve this by producing tool-like individuals with very long mental legs and very sensitive antennae—men of adroit alertness, quick mind, and strong memories, who have at their disposal a great warehouse full of “data.” But, apart from other problems such men as these represent, they are too much a part of their epoch to see it for what it is. What is actually needed today, by a seeming paradox, are men who embody an opposite principle—the slow, very slow, very strong tempo of leisure; men, that is, who can maintain their leisure amidst this swarm, and who can, as it were, keep their heads amidst so much chaos. They must have sangfroid and slow eyes these future shapers, that they might take their time amidst all this haste, and might take their time with all this haste. Such men alone will be able to divine what is essential to our epoch and to organize and order these roving essences, that modernity might know at last where it presently stands, and where with so much hurry it is trying to go.
Even apart from the many difficulties we have mentioned, leisure and the leisured man have, for reasons we must consider more at length, the democratic sensibility against them. Leisure, in the eyes of modernity, is a vice, and is looked upon with distaste and suspicions—when it is not openly abominated. And thus it is that the man of leisure is surrounded his whole life by the most spiritual kinds of hazards. He must be strong as the devil if he is to escape demise or disintegration, if he is to retain in himself the possibility of a true leisure. And perhaps nothing will test him more than watching those like him, those facing this same war and these same temptations,—aye, nothing will test him so much as watching these, his most spiritual kin and comrades, as they make the same hazard that he does,—but fail.
Return to Part I
Continue to Part III