June 7, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Otium et Opium, Part III
Leisure and Modernity
WE ARE LIVING ahead of ourselves. This fact alone should suffice to demonstrate that our age, which goes so very far toward making a life of leisure impossible, is itself in direst need of that life. We, who live in the midst of the hastiest epoch of the hastiest age, have a clear and urgent need which must be attended to before any other; we must secure for ourselves a new leisure. And toward that end, we must understand as clearly as we are able the relationship between ourselves and our age in regard to leisure.
Speaking societally, there is no higher purpose at present than the midwifing, as it were, for a new rebirth of Occidental culture. In past centuries, some of the profoundest European minds envisioned the inauguration of a unified Europe. They envisioned, no longer a French culture, nor an English culture, nor a German culture, but a European culture. It was to this as-yet-unborn Europe that they committed some of their loftiest cultural aspirations. These aspirations are not contained in, and have nothing to do with, our contemporary European Union. More: times have changed since the dream of a European culture first emerged in the world. Europe is threatened, its future is threatened, by the possibility of the final vanishing of European culture—the replacement of Europeans by foreign peoples who have no love nor understanding for European culture, abetted by the Europeans themselves and their growing nihilism.
Speaking as an American, one is ever confronted with a fundamental alternative: to be an American, or to be a European. America is, after all, a European experiment, and an experiment in the most important of all modern European political developments—liberalism. Indeed, as far as Europe is concerned, America is important only as this experiment. But to be an “American European” is to spiritually controvert the American Revolution, is to attempt what is perhaps impossible—a reweaving of the American destiny with the European. And yet, as an American, a non-European American, one is young, so young. How many good American things are there? Shamefully few, surely, despite the quarter millennium our nation has been granted already. And so, as a non-European American, one must be engaged in preparing the way for an American culture. But this means ignoring or attenuating the crisis of Europe, which is identical to the crisis of modernity. Aye, this means enacting a new revolution, a spiritual revolution, as it was prepared by such men as Thoreau and Emerson and Melville, but which was never carried beyond the stage of instigation. And this attempt must come in a moment of the most extreme crisis both for America and for Europe—a crisis which no American can comprehend, moreover, without first understanding the European origins of that crisis. And so it would seem that any serious American is bound eternally to Europe, and that any serious American must seek, in some basic sense, to be part, not indeed of a unified Europe, but of a unified Occident.
This is not the place, however, to consider America’s dilemma, nor her embattled relation to her ancestral fatherland. Suffice it to say, there are good reasons for considering the old idea of American culture to be a chimera—and if not, there are equally good reasons for wondering what such a culture might ever become. America, then, would be at present nothing more than a breeding ground and a training ground for free spirits, men dedicated to the service of the future of the Occident, men for whom “the future regulates every today.” As such a breeding ground, America is in many ways exceptionally suitable; nor should she be altogether proud of this fact.
But these considerations merely reaffirm what we have already said, and bring out to us what we have already intimated: today, the men of leisure must find a means of existing as men of leisure without the aid of any established social class. They must do this, because it is imperative today that the status of Occidental civilization be evaluated, and that such materials as this evaluation provides be arranged so as to prepare a future Occidental culture. Insofar as such an endeavor demands community, these men of leisure must form for themselves a new society built, as it were, above society—a hidden society, devoted exclusively to the aforementioned critique and preparation. As for this preparation and this critique—these are well beyond the scope of our present intentions. We should give them but a few words, such as speak to our subject.
Europe today is in something of the same state as America, only clearer, more advanced and refined, since Europe is closer the root than is America, and lacks America’s short- and near-sightedness. America exists tenuously in a state of semi-barbarism. She has de jure abandoned the laws upon which she was founded in favor of “public opinion,” or mere custom, and it will not be long before this abandonment becomes apparent also de facto. This is made all the more poignant in America because there is very little unity to custom there, and thus very little to justify speaking of a single nation or people apart from our founding laws and the spirit with which those laws were constituted. Now, this whole present-day movement is made but half-consistently, of course, and that is the saving grace; but the common man draws the ultimate consequences of his opinions in but a matter of time, and there is reason to fear present trends. What is required, nay, what is demanded, is a new establishment of law within the souls of we latter-day moderns; and this in turn demands the proper foundation, which will inevitably be an incomplete one without leisure and leisured men. This need itself, this new establishment of law, this revitalization of modern civilization, this preparation of the way, will demand all the ingenuity and all the strength of the first-comers, the true law-givers and artists, of the twenty-first century. It has yet to be seen whether we will decline or carry the challenge which confronts us. What is clear is this: if the future has staked any ground within our souls, if the day after tomorrow has any rights at all with us, if we are not merely contemporary men, then we have no choice but to transform possibility into necessity, and to make of necessity a virtue.
We said above that the particular activity for which leisure is the preparation is spontaneous and protracted self-action of the soul. If we are to achieve the task we have set for ourselves in these reflections, we must understand how this activity of leisure relates to the modern age; we must understand, that is to say, leisure’s meaning for us—or, to be more precise, what leisure’s meaning means to us.
eisure, as we have insisted, is not idleness, precisely because it is preparation for activity. But neither should we make the opposite mistake, and try to claim that leisure is a specie of labor. Labor—or, to employ our old formula, time sans distraction, but not sans responsibility,—is simply reactive activity. Let this not be misunderstood; labor can demand, and indeed must to varying degrees demand, consciousness. What is decisive is this: labor is always involved with the external—not the contemplation of the external, but the demands of the external. Labor is nothing but distraction through physicality.
Now, the twin functions of leisure’s activity—rumination and meditation—have three specific tasks for we men of modernity: distillation, projection, and self-formation. First, there is a need today, a pressing need, for rumination on the present-day state of affairs. The overburdening mass of present experience must be taken to task, must be sifted and distilled, so as to reveal what is essential to it and what is mere dross—and there is indeed an exceptional amount of dross. It is not enough to possess facts; what must be understood is the state of these facts, the “first principles” from which these facts come and upon which they are arranged. Far less is it sufficient to act, though the great temptation of all times of crisis is precisely to act at once and decisively. For action without deliberation is worse than blindness. Only through distillation of modernity, together with much “untimely contemplation,” can it be understood what the needs of our age and our epoch truly are. Second, when these needs have been adequately assessed and placed within their context, a program of action must be laid forth—more, must be acted upon. The project of the future, for which the present is but the material, must be determined; we must plot for ourselves a course over the great empty sea which modernity has embarked upon. For modernity, as any man can see who has eyes for it, is set adrift, has less of a purpose even than a rover, and is quickly allowing the spark of its future to be extinguished by the indifference of its present. If it is not to ruin itself upon some unholy iceberg, men are needed with sufficient care to guide and steer it. There is a great urgency behind this; for I fear the time is quickly coming when the capsizing of our human boat will be lacking even in those who might notice or mourn its passing.
Finally, we come to the third task of leisure in modernity, and the one which is perhaps most unique to the modern age: and this is the artistic self-formation of the soul. That this is a necessity for any man who feels a calling in him, is precisely for such a one an undeniable and inescapable truth. Democracy ever brings with it this perilous situation: the mixture and confusion of the human soul; the admixture of every class, every human type, every race, into every other. It was common in aristocratic societies that the classes, through strict marital segregation, generally produced on the one hand men of aristocratic soul, and on the other men of working-class soul. This of course was never and never could be perfectly differentiated; genetic accidents are ever possible, and intermarriage between the classes is sometime or another inevitable; and furthermore, marital segregation by no means entails sexual segregation, so that it has never been abnormal to find bastard children, especially in the lower classes—children who naturally revealed seemingly inexplicable higher traits. But these exceptions could not help but prove the rule; in past cultures, there was a more or less clean division between the classes, both externally and internally. Democracy, which is marked by a universal and precipitous interbreeding of class and race, has perforce mixed the traits of class and race into the souls of nearly all its offspring. To inherit such a soul is to inherit a character partly contradictory, partly at war with itself, partly chaotic—a soul that is aggregate, but disunified. The individual today—which is to say the man of a higher calling—requires leisure that he might recognize the structurelessness in himself, and might act against it. This action, this particular self-action and -reaction of the soul, which we have called the artistic self-formation of the soul, requires an iron will, honed and empowered and nourished through the most spiritual kinds of trials and tests. Leisure is required for two purposes: to allow a man to drive adamant into his will, and to give him the time he must have to shape and form the disorder of his soul through that will.
Modern men have democracy in their souls. Each one of us is legion. But herein—within our great hazard—lies our great promise. The individual today for the first time in history is important as an individual—not as a culmination of a particular ethos (for what ethos today is worth culminating?), nor as the most perfect exemplar of a specific notion of universal virtue (for what is left of universal virtue, in the wake of our epoch’s deep-seated a-moralism?), but rather as the highest and most sublime of unique self-creations.
There is, of course, a danger in stating such matters so obviously—the danger that they be heard by crude ears, by men who are modern enough to somehow take these statements for granted, but who are not self-sufficient nor self-conscious enough to know their true meaning and import. What is being laid forth here is the very opposite of an excuse for formlessness or spiritual anarchy. What is being laid forth here is a behest to the heights, a call to arms for those born warrior enough to do battle. Indeed,—so very far from being a doctrine of hedonism, or “relativism,” or “individualism,”—what is being laid forth here is a cry against the disarray to which men are now falling prey, an insult thrown in the face of dissolution and of dissipated souls, and a call, to those who are worthy of it, to step beyond the enfeebling and arbitrary milieu of the modern state of being.
Ah, and perhaps this response has aroused some modern soul, the very kind of which we speak, to indignation or resentment? Well, so much the better, for this is only to be expected—indeed, having come to where we are come, it cannot be avoided. We have already stated that modern democracy needs must view leisure as a vice; then let us explain to ourselves why this is so, that we might know the sources of our opposition. And let us speak a word too toward those of us who are resentful or indignant: modernity could not be any other way, nor should it be; and insofar as the state of affairs which we are about to articulate are not true, or are becoming less true, it is for a single reason alone: these modern virtues which we are about to discuss—yes, its virtues—are withering, and barbarism is encroaching upon the civilized world.
Modern democratic man is marked more than anything by his belief, his fundamental and indelible conviction, that men are at bottom equal. Modern democratic man is a social beast through and through—which is not to say only that he is a political beast, for this truth encompasses that. He believes, cannot question, does not wish to question, the dignity of man as such. Because of this, it is assumed by modern man that the paramount goal of political action is the raising of the “standard of living.” Neither the capitalists nor the socialists nor the communists nor even the anarchists understand politics in a way different from this; their bickering falls wholly on the battlefield of means, never ends. All these strive, or at least claim to strive (and a man’s avowed motivations are more meaningful, speaking socially, than his concealed ones), for a society of universal peace and plenty, where war and struggle, fear and want, even pain and discomfort, have been eradicated—as much, at least, as such things can be eradicated.
Now, the man of leisure is and must be a man somewhat asocial, somewhat extraneous to social goals and relations: he must be, to some extent, a man unto himself. For leisure involves a radical turning inward, a sort of fascination with or obedience to one’s innermost being and activities and creations. It may be, as Ortega y Gasset claims, that such a man is not inherently “selfish,” insofar as the goals he sets up for himself exist beyond his life, so that he is ever striving to attain something “greater than himself”; even so, he does not live for others, but for his own “duty,” or his own will. He is thus seen by modern democratic man as anti-social; and even though this is nothing but a misunderstanding, it yet will and must determine most of the relations between the two. He is viewed as selfish and elitist—and perhaps he is—but these are unacceptable stances in democracy. He is viewed as a lover of struggle and tumult, for he does not shrink from these things, and perhaps even seeks them out periodically. These problems are compounded by the fact that leisure is neither idleness nor labor; for the first would make the leisured man more affable, the second, more sympathetic, and both, more comprehensible: but the leisured man does not take much deep heed of most others, except insofar as his whimsy or his will contravene his tendencies; and neither does he labor for the “good of the whole” as it is understood in our fractured day, preferring instead to focus on his own self-completion. And thus, he is viewed as a threat to the social bloc, which can neither understand him nor sympathize, and which will certainly, so long as it recognizes him for what he is, never support him.
Our age is moreover a swarm toward production; it is the age of business par excellence. Everything is in haste in this world today, as we have already noted in speaking of our age’s tempo. The man of leisure is the very opposite of a man of business, and thus he will be considered lazy, unproductive, foolish, and in general a dross upon the “work force” and its “progress.”
Modernity, of course, is said to be very “individualistic,” which is to say, it is said to favor tolerance and diversity. It may be wondered, then, how it is possible that it could take the thoroughly intolerant stance we have imputed to it. But let us say what this “individualism” really is: it is nothing but the love of each and every for being human; it is, in other words, nothing other than a love for the collective—only, in abstracto. And as such, it will remain an intolerant love, will even be encouraged in its intolerance, against anything that threatens its homogeneity.
Let us analyze all this more carefully. We said above that today’s man, the modern democratic man, is a communal beast. What does this mean? Not that he has been convinced into loving his neighbor, nor that he has had the value of society and social things proved to him. On the contrary, his love goes much deeper than his reasons. He is social before anything else; his abstractions and his love of abstractions come later. He is communal by nature; he is not strong enough to be individualistic. This has ever been the case with most of humanity. Today, two things alone are different: today, a much greater number of human beings than ever before at least share in these instincts; and today, the communal beast “rules.”
This state of affairs makes reasonable the inference that the modern man, this democratic animal with power in his hands, was given his power, since it is unfeasible he would ever have had the strength or courage necessary to take this power by his own deeds. It is also reasonable to infer that the philosophy upon which his rule is based was also given to him. One should never suspect that he himself has generated this philosophy: generation is beyond him. His philosophical framework is the gift of such men as Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Descartes, and Rousseau, amongst others. But he still clings to his framework tenaciously, because he is a mix of mainly democratic and partially aristocratic soul, and therefore is the conceptual animal in absolute: he “understands” this philosophy’s importance to him, and his own inability to do without it. This must not be misunderstood: he is a reactive being, or at least primarily a reactive being; and thus in him is perfected the ability to respond wholeheartedly to floating concepts—concepts which do not have a greater context, which are part neither of a system nor an organon of intellect. He is and must be involved with concepts of the crudest and most disconnected sort, those cast off or torn away from their greater import. He is, we might more precisely say, the bromidal animal.
Herein lies his potential, and herein his danger, for he does not and cannot understand such men as are involved in true contemplation, nor those who are, as it were, the garden for the fruits of such contemplation. The man of leisure does not involve himself with the mores of the day, or does so only incidentally. He is involved in much more complex and, to the common man, mystifying notions and values. He pursues none of what the common man views as goods, being concerned with more spiritual goods. And thus, he is taken by the common man to be either dangerous or irresponsible or unpleasant or stupid, and so he calls down either the common man’s loathing or his mistrust or his dismissal. But this in turn means that he calls down the ruling group’s loathing or mistrust or dismissal, this means that he is in opposition to the men who “rule” in this world. Our time’s spiritual legislators and rulers are today not in a position to legislate nor to rule.
And this is one of the great emergencies of our time.
Return to Part II
Continue to Part IV