Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Fine Line Between Leisure and Sloth

A fine line separates leisure from laziness.

Of course, it all depends on what we consider leisure. Is leisure lying around on a hammock catching up on your sleep? Or is leisure taking more time to improve your badminton game?

Is leisure just the activity you engage in when you are not working, and does it matter if that time is a paid or unpaid vacation?

Some definitions of leisure consider it to be the un-work, anything that you are doing that does not contribute to industry, commerce or manufacturing.

Leisure can be a respite from work, but it can also be an end in itself.

If you are gainfully employed, leisure is a respite. If you are not gainfully employed, if you have too much time on your hands, we would  not say that you have a lot of leisure.

Of course, there is a political dimension here. Working people dream of having more leisure. Politicians are happy to provide it, no matter the cost.

Thus, some people are allowed to retire at 50 with a full pension and health benefits. They will be able to enjoy their golden years—all 30 of them—without having to worry about earning a living.

Making leisure into an end in itself undermines the work ethic by making a fetish of sloth.

In a nation where leisure or sloth is fetishized you would expect there to be a considerable number of people who are grossly obese.

If we allow people to believe that vacation is the meaning of life we will have a nation where people feel that their goal is to lie around a swimming pool, inhaling chlorine fumes and working on their skin cancer.

Richard Posner connects the love of leisure with the aspirations of the British aristocracy and the landed gentry.

Richard Posner explains that: “… the traditional aspiration of the English upper class was not to work at all.”

Posner is reviewing a bizarre book by two modern Keynsians, Robert and Edward Sidelsky.

Strangely, two writers who want to give everyone more leisure do not seem to know what it is.

Posner explains:

They say that the true sense of the word is “activity without extrinsic end”: “The sculptor engrossed in cutting marble, the teacher intent on imparting a difficult idea, the musician struggling with a score, a scientist exploring the mysteries of space and time — such people have no other aim than to do what they are doing well.” That isn’t true. Most of these people are ambitious achievers who seek recognition. And it is ridiculous to think that if people worked just 15 or 20 hours a week, they would use their leisure to cut marble or struggle with a musical score. If they lacked consumer products and services to fill up their time they would brawl, steal, overeat, drink and sleep late. English aristocrats in their heyday didn’t work, but neither did they cut marble or explore the mysteries of space and time. Hunting, gambling and seduction were their preferred leisure activities.

Apparently Sidelsky and Sidelsky see leisure in terms of creative activity, work that does not belong to the manufacturing, commercial or industrial economy.

Of course, as Posner says, they wrong to the point of being ridiculous. An amateur sculptor might very well be whiling away the hours between soap opera episodes but still it is ridiculous to say that doing sculpture is intrinsically purposeless.

All of the examples involve purposeful activity, and purposeful activity does have an extrinsic goal.

The only way you can make art that has no extrinsic end is if you are a pure hack, someone who does not care about the quality of your work, a poser, a pretender or a poetaster.

Of course, nothing obliges you to think of yourself as an artist. You might be a craftsman.

If you are, you will work hard at your craft, you will take pride in your work and you will want some level of recognition from others.

It is not the same satisfaction that an artist gains when he sells his work in the market, but the principle remains the same.

No one gains satisfaction from a job poorly done, regardless of whether or not he is being paid for it.

A musician struggling with a score is, by definition, working at it. Some believe, wrongly, that creativity is mostly inspiration, but any real artist will tell you that it is mostly work.

If you do not work at your art or your craft you will do it poorly, you will be defeated by the struggle, and end up believing that you have wasted your time and energy. You will end up depressed and dispirited.

The activities that Sidelsky and Sidelsky claim not to have extrinsic ends certainly do have them.

More often than not, Posner explains, aristocratic leisure comprised a number of decadent, wasteful and expensive habits.

The British aristocracy, like aristocracies the world over, financed their decadent habits with the work of other people. They clipped coupons or collected rents.

Those who collect money for doing nothing have had the good fortune of being born into the right families.

Ask yourself this: would you rather live in a nation where people are rewarded mostly for their work or mostly for the accident of their birth.

Obviously, even in meritocratic America people are often rewarded for the accident of their birth, but our culture has always looked askance at young people whose sole purpose in life is to spend their parents’ money.

The Protestant work ethic does not confiscate earned wealth, but it insists that heirs add value to what they have inherited. Otherwise they are seen as lesser human beings.

Sidelsky and Sidelsky try to redeem their definition of leisure by reducing it to recreation.

Posner explains:

… there is a suggestion that a good leisure activity is letting one’s mind wander “freely and aimlessly,” and a list of three recreations — “playing football in the park, making and decorating one’s own furniture, strumming the guitar with friends” — offered to refute any contention that the authors’ conception of leisure is “narrowly highbrow.”

Again, this is an exercise in sloppy thinking.

Football is a competitive sport, even when you play it in the park. People who do it belong to teams and leagues; they follow an intricate set of rules; they work at what they are doing; they gain satisfaction when they win.

Saying that football embodies free and aimless leisure is ridiculous.

People who make and decorate furniture are working. They might not be selling their furniture at the local flea market, but, if they are good enough they might.

By making their own furniture they are freeing up their disposable income for something other than buying new furniture.

If you make furniture freely and aimlessly you will end up with a pile of sticks.

Finally, “strumming the guitar with friends” gets closer to what we might consider to be purely purposeless recreational activity.

And yet, if you are strumming the guitar without playing music on it, you are going to irritate your friends. If you have not put in the time and effort to learn how to play the instrument your friends will quickly tire of your self-indulgent pretension and leave to you own private folly.

1 comment:

Dennis said...

At best talent is about ten percent and the other ninety percent is work. An idea does not reach its fulfillment without the work that makes it possible.
One continually works at the skills that make being a musician, artists or for that matter almost anything one wants to do well. As a musician if one is not playing one is not staying. It is a constant battle to keep developing good habits that become so ingrained that one does not have to think about the technical aspects of performance.
It is not only about recognition, it is the times that everything happens as one has ideated, imagined and believed possible. It is one of the greatest highs one can have to create.