June 15, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Opium et Otium, Part IV
Leisure in Modernity
THEN LET US speak a word toward the reclamation of leisure, though it must be a limited and, in the end, insufficient word. It is a complex topic, one that a man can exhaust neither in writing nor in life. We can here but sketch the essences of it, the mere borders and possibilities of it; we must leave the rest where it belongs—first, to a broader study of manners; second, to individual circumstance. And this sketch should begin nowhere than with an analysis of leisure as a state of mind, which we are finally in a position to consider.
Leisure demands two components, an external and an internal. We have already treated of the external. The internal is by necessity more obscure, and involves at least two parts: birthright and education, this last term again being understood in very broad terms.
A man’s birthright is what is given him. It is his character, his fate. It is the immovable bedrock within his soul upon which his future cannot help but built itself. The aspects of his birthright can neither be altered nor augmented; we may say they are permanent, even though they may change; for any change that they undergo occurs solely from their own internal laws. If a man is destined to the life which we have herein considered and implicated, he must be born a certain way, with certain features and characteristics, which he cannot acquire if he does not possess already, at least in potentia. He must be capable of contemplation, of gleaning that delight in thinking or intellectual creation which some men are fated for, and most are eternally denied. He must be capable of self-control, self-discipline, self-mastery; he must not be at the whim of the moment, nor of event, nor of circumstance. He must have a soul rich in potential, a soul of some passion, some drive, some complexity, some wildness and inscrutability, and some will. He must be able to conduct himself with what is rarest in this age: a bearing of energetic lentissimo, a temperament which is neither nervous nor distractible, nor somnolent nor lethargic, but which possesses in itself a mastered and secret strength. Finally, he must have a soul of such stuff as he might mold and arrange, in order that education, both self-education and external education, has sufficient substance to work its power upon.
This education, in its turn, has two components: one given, and one taken. Of the given, there is the personal and the general. We cannot comment on the personal, for it is individual to each; and as for the general, we have dealt with it to some extent already, leaving the great deal which is left over for another essay. What remains then is the education one takes for oneself, or, in the context of this essay, the way in which one makes oneself a man of leisure.
Before all else, a man must take care of his body; everything depends on that. What is physical commonly translates into what is spiritual; strength of the body into strength of the soul, weakness into weakness. To be in possession of one’s physiology is perhaps the first and certainly the clearest of all responsibilities one should take upon oneself. Physical strength, health, beauty—these are very far from being subsidiary concerns: diet, nutrition, and exercise are of the essence to higher life. When the body is enervated, so becomes the spirit; when the body is weak, so becomes the will: experience is the first witness to this. And even beyond these basic concerns, there is so much importance concealed in one’s merest physical comportment! Slowness and control of all one’s movements, grace in body, elegance of gesture, even the way one uses one’s voice or eyes—the speed, for instance, with which one deigns to glance—these things are not without their consequences in one’s internal life. To overlook these matters is to overlook some of the underpinnings of one’s very being.
Speaking spiritually, it is necessary that one have contempt for the petty cares, the trifles and transient concerns, that are liable to consume so much of a man’s life. One must sweep away the clutter that exists within oneself and without oneself, so that one has the ability to give one’s attention where it is due, and to turn it away where it would be merely demeaned. One must cleanse one’s soul, one’s surroundings, and also the society one keeps. One must mercilessly cull all one’s small cares, all one’s half-natural, half-instilled obsessions with petty matters; one must deny oneself the low pleasure of such distractions, be they intellectual or emotional; one must deny everything that would make one lazier or simpler (cleanliness bears little relation to simplicity). One must have a will to be surrounded by ordered living environments, by clear lines, clear physical and spatial relations; one must learn that murkiness and obscurity in one’s home makes for murkiness and obscurity in one’s soul. One must also take cares with one’s social relations: there are reasons for keeping up rapport with small-minded men, to be sure, but one must never allow superfluities here; one must never allow social “obligations” to become weeds on one’s life; one must never become the servant of expectation. Indeed, one’s “responsibilities” in general must be taken to task: one has no responsibilities but those one lays upon oneself, and these must be selected through the most stringent of standards and a monomaniacal view only to the future. As for the “responsibilities” entailed by one’s fellow man, moral or social as they are—well, as for that, one is simply—irresponsible, and there are few things thought by most men to be duties or commandments that should not be disregarded or even violated.
All these matters demand a battle against the modern haste, as well as a sovereignty over oneself and one’s actions. Our age, insofar as it seeks to be productive, is infatuated with speed; this must be combated with every power at our disposal. We must destroy our horror of “wasting time,” of being unproductive, of “doing nothing.” Furthermore, as a corollary and compliment to this, indeed, as a prerequisite to this, we must grow increasingly indifferent to our reputation; we must learn to live in disregard of convention, often in contempt of convention. Most every man today is part “herd animal”; and though this is a blessing, it must be sternly regulated. Whatever is in us of the “sheep and worm” must be kept in fence or underground, so that it does not control us, but we it; so that, when the time comes, we might bring these animals out, to vivisect them and understand them; so that, when these creatures come to control us, it is only because we have temporarily—allowed them to do so.
Above all, one must inure oneself to this principle, must ultimately even learn to love this principle: misunderstanding amongst the many, honor between the few. This age views leisure as a vice, hierarchy as a vice, self-possession, hardness against oneself and others, as vices: one must learn then to conceal oneself, and to be indifferent to the public opinion. One possesses traits and ideas and purposes that would horrify; then one must wear masks. One will certainly appear vicious or monstrous or evil in certain eyes; one will be betrayed also by accident; but one must neither be ashamed of this appearance, nor of the truth that underlies it. Toward the end of concealing oneself, one must learn the arts of misdirection and silence. One must know how to speak so as to say nothing, and how to retain one’s silence without engendering suspicions. One must take full advantage of the necessary misinterpretations that will attend to one’s life, neither resenting them nor being resigned to them, but rather considering them as marks of honor, and using them toward the furtherance of one’s own goals.
And one must learn sovereignty, must ever reinforce the sovereignty one has over oneself; one must become a law-giver to oneself, one must become autonomous. This requires solitude and self-mastery. It requires that one cut oneself off from the herd, not physically, as a hermit, but psychologically and spiritually, as an individual. Solitude demands isolation, occasionally even physical isolation; it demands that one be on one’s own even in the company of others, that one almost never ceases to be alone, even when one has an audience. Self-mastery demands control over one’s impulses and one’s passions, control over one’s reactivity, over one’s response to pain and pleasure, to the pain of being isolated, being “different,” the pain of bearing the great burdens one has placed upon oneself, and those as well that one has had placed upon oneself by one’s secret fate.
With this word, we come to the extremity of our subject. The question of leisure and the life of leisure, as has been suggested and hinted at, is a key part of the larger and more sweeping question of the relation between aristocracy and society—the question of culture. And this question in its turn demands a consideration of the following problems: the relation of civilization to society to culture; the relation of the “mass man” to the individual; the relation of ethnos to ethos, or to use our inadequate modern words, of race to custom; the question of nobility; the importance and place of manners in this modern age; and finally the course of the future, and what will be necessary to contravene a new and ultimate barbarism.
How one makes oneself a man of leisure, how one slows the tempo of one’s soul, without thereby reducing the power of one’s soul—this is the first task set before us. It is a task of the greatest difficulty, as we have seen, and as we know from the most intimate and painful experience. It is moreover an indispensable task for us—for we cannot live without it. Indeed, we have been born into a hazardous life, filled with dangerous desires and dangerous goals, compelled by a dangerous and imperious demand within us; opposed at every turn, disdained, disregarded, despised even; by turns secretly and openly at war with our world, with our condition, with our circumstances and our age, even with ourselves—and how could we will it otherwise! In this life, promise and hazard are eternally wed; every summit of every mountain threatens a fall; every drop of blood a man sheds finally strengthens his heart that much the more. —And how could we will it otherwise!
Return to Part III