The justification of Idling

by Emrys Westacott

The work ethic is deeply ingrained in much of modern society, both Eastern and Western, and there are many forces making sure that this remains the case. Parents, teachers, coaches, politicians, employers, and many other shapers of souls or makers of opinion constantly repeat the idea that hard work is the key to success–in any particular endeavour, or in life itself. It would be a brave graduation speaker who seriously urged their young listeners to embrace idleness. (I did once hear Ariana Huffington advise Smith College graduates to “sleep their way to the top,” but she essentially meant that they should avoid burn out by ensuring that they get sufficient rest.)

There are, to be sure, some distinguished critics of the work ethic. In a 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” Bertrand Russell wrote that “immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous.” In his view, “the morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.”

But Russell doesn’t really praise idleness as that word is normally understood. True, what he advocates is less work and more free time so that people can spend most of their days doing as they please. But he clearly thinks that some ways of spending one’s time are better than others. He hopes, for instance, that, better education will reduce the chances that a person’s leisure time will be “spent in pure frivolity.” He prefers active recreation, like dancing, to passive recreation, like watching sport. And he strongly prefers cerebral to manual activity. He writes, for instance, that

moving matter about, while a certain amount of it is necessary, is emphatically not one of the ends of human life. If it were we would have to consider every navvy superior to Shakespeare.

(For a brilliant logician, this is an extraordinarily bad piece of reasoning. An activity could be one of the possible ends of human life without being the only end or the “highest” end. Equally remarkable, though, is the intellectual snobbery the statement betrays, suggesting as it does that writing a play is self-evidently a “superior” goal to any kind of skilled feat of craftsmanship or engineering.)

Another well- known text criticizing modern society’s excessive commitment to work is Josef Pieper’s Leisure, The Basis of Culture (1948). Rejecting the notion of leisure as an opportunity to recharge our batteries so that we can be more productive, Pieper endorses Aristotle’s assertion that the reverse is true: we work (or more literally, are not-at-leisure) in order to be at leisure. Yet it turns out that Pieper, like Russell, doesn’t really endorse idleness. In fact, he identifies idleness with the sin of acedia, which medieval thinkers like Aquinas viewed as a source of restlessness, discontent with self, and despair.

Pieper does, however, endorse a kind of “doing nothing” that might certainly appear to those immersed in the workaday world as a form of idling. This is what he means by “leisure,” which he describes as “the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding and immersion–in the real”; also as an attitude that allows a “silent openness of the soul” in which one can know (quoting Goethe) “what the world holds in its innermost.” What Pieper describes here is highly reminiscent of the “wise passiveness” with which Wordsworth (in ‘Expostulation and Reply’) claims to feed his mind by sitting on an old grey stone and dreaming his time away. Ultimately, though, Pieper’s notion of leisure is clearly religious. It amounts to time spent communicating with the divine and achieving some sort of enlightenment through this communication. And he argues that for anyone who by default stands within the Christian tradition, this means worshiping the Christian God.

But one can still ask: why is the occurrence of such activities or experiences–worship; immersion; understanding–valuable? This question opens up a rather deep philosophical can of worms that, to mix metaphors with cavalier abandon, exposes the (or an) Achilles heel not only of Pieper but of other German philosophers too, including Nietzsche and Heidegger. Let me explain.

Go back to the reasons for valuing the state of being at leisure. I have no problem with Pieper’s criticism of those who only value leisure in an instrumental way, as a means to the end of being able to return to work, or to work harder, or more efficiently. But does Pieper really succeed in completely getting beyond an instrumentalist perspective? He thinks so, but I have my doubts.

For one thing, Pieper, like Russell, doesn’t seem all that keen on true idling. True idling means relaxing, lounging, chilling, vegging, hanging out, kicking back, and so on. Many people like to spend time in this way–in the park, on the deck, on the beach, by the pool. They are neither hoping nor expecting to approach some divinity or to understand the world in its innermost being. The simply enjoy chilling out. What makes these experiences valuable is easy to say: they are pleasurable. And other things being equal, pleasure is good.

But what, exactly, makes the sort of experience that Pieper has in mind valuable? There are two possible answers. It is either good for the subject having the experience, or it is good for someone or something else. These are not exclusive, of course. But in either case, Pieper is less than perfectly clear about just what makes the occurrence of the experience valuable.

One option, of course, is some form of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism rests on the principle that pleasure or happiness alone has intrinsic value. A crude version treats all pleasures as qualitatively equal. This is the kind embraced by Jeremy Bentham. John Stuart Mill argued for a more sophisticated kind of utilitarianism that allowed some kinds of pleasure to be qualitatively superior to others: on this view, for instance, the pleasure of conducting scientific research or enjoying poetry is qualitatively better (and hence has more intrinsic value) than the pleasure of eating pizza.

In the view of many critics, Mill fails to prove that this is the case, which is hardly surprising since the claim in question probably can’t be proved. Nevertheless, his position is quite reasonable, and it accords with what many of us more or less take for granted. Most parents would prefer to see their children enjoying a wide range of intellectual, emotional, physical, and social forms of pleasure and satisfaction rather than just contenting themselves with basic sensory gratifications. Extending the utilitarian perspective beyond where Mill takes it, one could endorse the idea that what has intrinsic value are not just pleasures but what, for want of a better term, we might call “life-enhancing experiences.” These could include, for instance, a sense of harmony with nature, a sense of unity with one’s fellow humans, the emotional disturbance of passionate love, a melancholic intuition of mortality, joy at a birth, grief over a death, ecstasy in victory, despair in defeat, and a profound sense of the tragic-comic nature of the human condition. The limiting condition, though, is that the painful and miserable experiences not be unmitigated and unredeemed but, rather, be part of a rich life that a person could ultimately be grateful for.

Now let’s pose the question again: what makes such profound, life-enhancing experiences valuable? Why does it matter whether or not they occur? One answer is that they enrich the life of the subjects who have them. In my view this is a good answer and a sufficient answer. The world is a better place when lots of people live enriched lives. But it is also awfully close to a utilitarian response. Classic utilitarianism says that the world is a better place–there is more of value in it–when lots of people enjoy happier lives. The only difference is that “pleasanter” or “happier” is here extended towards “richer” in order to embrace the complexity of human desires and avoid the gravitational pull of a shallow, bland, hedonism.

Pieper, however, would not be willing to say the value of worship lies entirely in the subjective experience of the worshiper. Somehow, he wants to hold that the value of these moments of leisure, or at least some of their value, lies outside the subject. The same goes, I believe, for the value Nietzsche attaches to the profound joys and sufferings of great men; ditto for Heidegger’s belief in the need for philosophers to reconnect with Being. And this is where a certain kind of (typically Germanic) philosophizing runs aground.

A religious thinker like Pieper does at least have a certain option available. He can argue that when human beings devote their leisure to acts of religious worship, they are pleasing God. But unless this kind of talk is metaphorical, it expresses a rather simple conception of God as a being who is pleased or pained by our antics. Moreover, the argument, put this way, is solidly utilitarian. My act of worship adds value to the world because it causes pleasure (to God).

In trying to make clear exactly how moments of leisure devoted to worship are intrinsically valuable in a non-utilitarian way Pieper quotes Aquinas:

it is necessary for the perfection of the human community, that there be persons who devote themselves to the life of contemplation.

But this hardly solves the problem. Just how do the contemplators make the community more perfect? Are they useful, perhaps in attracting divine favour? In that case they are essentially functionaries. Do they make the community resemble more closely some ideal blueprint? If so, why does this matter? Will it make its members happier? Will it please God? In either case, the value of what they do is instrumental, not intrinsic.

For a non-religious thinker like Nietzsche the problem is, if anything, even more acute. On the one hand, he does not believe there are subjects of experience other than human beings that create or register values. In short, there are no gods. On the other hand, he is reluctant to say that the existence of those he describes as “great-souled” individuals has purely subjective value. Apart from anything else, his tragic view of human existence implies that such lives are often likely to involve a preponderance of suffering. This is what underlies his famous statement in the Birth of Tragedy that ‘it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.”

The problem is that if we are to be part of an aesthetic phenomenon, we need an audience. With the disappearance of the old gods and the death of the Judeo-Christian God, however, that audience is lacking. So all that is left as the source of value in the world is subjective experience, happy or sad, rich or impoverished, as determined by one’s nature, actions, circumstances, and fortune.

The upshot of these reflections is that it is extremely difficult to dispense with essentially utilitarian justifications of any human activity. Ultimately, appeal must be made to the occurrence of subjective experiences that have positive value.  And these can and should include the simple pleasure that many people take in genuine idling.