Kieran Setiya: Idleness as Flourishing

This article was originally published by Public Books and is reprinted here with permission.

It is hard work to write a book, so there is unavoidable irony in fashioning a volume on the value of being idle. There is a paradox, too: to praise idleness is to suggest that there is some point to it, that wasting time is not a waste of time. Paradox infuses the experience of being idle. Rapturous relaxation can be difficult to distinguish from melancholy. When the academic year comes to an end, I find myself sprawled on the couch, re-watching old episodes of British comedy panel shows on a loop. I cannot tell if I am depressed or taking an indulgent break. As Samuel Johnson wrote: “Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.”[1.Samuel Johnson, The Idler, no. 1, April 15, 1758; reprinted in The Idler and The Adventurer, edited by W. J. Bate, John M. Bullitt, and L. F. Powell (Yale University Press, 1963), pp. 3–4.] As he also wrote: “There are … miseries in idleness, which the Idler only can conceive.”[2.Johnson, The Idler, no. 3, April 29, 1758; in The Idler and The Adventurer, p. 11.]

This year brings three new books in praise of wasting time: a manifesto by MIT professor Alan Lightman; a critical history by philosopher Brian O’Connor; and a memoir by essayist Patricia Hampl. Each author finds a way to write in the spirit of idleness. Yet none of them quite resolves our double vision. Even as they bring its value into focus, they never shake a shadow image of the shame in being idle.

Why idleness now? Because we are too busy, too frantic; because of the felt acceleration of time. Lightman supplies a measure. “Throughout history,” he writes, “the pace of life has always been fueled by the speed of communication.”

When the telegraph was invented in the nineteenth century, information could be transmitted at the rate of about four bits per second. By 1985, near the beginnings of the public Internet, the rate was about a thousand bits per second. Today, the rate is about one billion bits per second.

We are in principle accessible anywhere, at any time; we can be texted, emailed, tagged: “The world today is faster, more scheduled, more fragmented, less patient, louder, more wired, more public.” There is not enough downtime. So Lightman argues in his brisk, persuasive essay. His snapshots of the relevant social science portray the grim effects of over-connection in our digital age: young people are more stressed, more prone to depression, less creative, more lonely but never really alone. Our time is ruthlessly graphed into efficient units. The walking speed of pedestrians in 32 cities increased by 10 percent from 1995 to 2005.

With its brief chapters and bright illustrations, Lightman’s book is itself well-designed for the attention deficits of the internet era, perfect for the postliterate teenager or the busy executive with only an hour to spare. It makes an elegant case for downtime: unstructured and undistracted, time to experiment and introspect. For Lightman, this is the kind of time-wasting that is not a waste of time. It augments creativity, which draws on undirected or “divergent” thinking. It replenishes and repairs us. And it gives us space in which to find ourselves.

Lightman’s definition of “wasting time” as undirected introspection is deliberately tendentious. The phrase could just as well describe the smartphone addict playing Angry Birds. Ironically, one of the most intriguing studies in Lightman’s book concerns the positive impact of trivial games. Asked to come up with new business ideas, people who were forced to procrastinate with Minesweeper or Solitaire for several minutes were “noticeably more creative.” Lightman does not pause to ask whether this effect can be scaled up. (I pushed it pretty far myself in graduate school, with mixed results.) But he offers a suggestive catalog of artists and scientists whose best ideas arrived when they were staring at a wall.

Lightman ends with concrete, practical prescriptions: 10-minute silences during school days, “introspective” college courses that give students more time to reflect, electronics-free rooms at work, unplugged hours at home. The changes are not radical and leave intact the media ecology in which we are to live. “It is within the power of each of us as individuals,” Lightman writes, “to make changes in our way of living to restore our inner lives. … With a little determination, each of us can find a half hour a day to waste time.”

Perhaps it is modesty, or realism, that prevents Lightman from seeking social remedies for a social problem. In the short term, he suggests, we have to work on ourselves: a conservative therapy for what ails us. Lightman’s apology for wasting time is conservative in other ways, too. He celebrates not downtime itself but its instrumental value, its usefulness as a means to integrity and achievement. Lightman cites psychologist Abraham Maslow on two forms of creativity: the kind that involves an artistic escape from stress and the kind that fuels “‘self-actualization,’ the desire to become the best we can be.” For Lightman,

there is a kind of necessary homeostasis of the mind: not a static equilibrium but a dynamic equilibrium in which we are constantly examining, testing, and replenishing our mental system, constantly securing the mental membrane between ourselves and the external world, constantly reorganizing and affirming ourselves.

If this is wasting time, who has the energy for it?

Not Brian O’Connor, who makes bolder, larger claims on behalf of being idle. Idleness flouts the prevailing social order and the conception of autonomy as arduous self-fashioning that Lightman and Maslow share. O’Connor traces the exhausting project of self-constitution to Kant and Hegel, through Karl Marx. What Lightman depicts as the ultimate purpose of wasting time, O’Connor sees as an alien imposition, an order issued without authority. Modern philosophy instructs us to make something of ourselves, but it has no right to tell us what to do, and its edicts are appropriated by societies that make exorbitant demands for work, tie recognition to material success, and exalt the individual at the cost of real community. For O’Connor, idleness is indifference to productive work and social prestige; it rejects the need for guiding purpose or self-formation. He adds to the acknowledged benefits of downtime its value as social critique.

Although O’Connor’s book has a guiding purpose, it nonetheless stays true to the ethos of idling. For the most part, O’Connor is content to answer the case against idleness made by its philosophical critics, not to argue for idleness itself. The burden of proof is placed on the opponents of being idle, who must work to convince the idler he is wrong. The idler’s objections are appropriately laconic.

O’Connor’s principal antagonist is Kant, who argues that we must make every choice as if we were legislating for all, and that we have a consequent duty to develop our talents. Scholars may query O’Connor’s interpretation of Kant as drawing on “that special feeling of worthiness” that comes from being useful to society. But even if he is wrong about this, O’Connor is right to find in Kant a vision of freedom as responsibility, of autonomy as work: the daunting project of determining how to be. For Kant, freedom requires one to live by principles one can will as laws for every rational being. One must bring this severe ambition to everything one does; only then is one entitled to be happy. “It is,” O’Connor writes, “a profound theoretical justification of an idea that has now become commonplace: that a life worth living is one marked by effort and achievement.” The idea that a good life calls for onerous self-creation fuels Nietzsche’s injunction to “become who you are” and Sartre’s existentialism.

Marx is a more difficult customer, since his emphasis on the alienation of labor under capitalism could easily be read as a critique of work. In fact, it is a call for the transformation of work into new, authentic forms. Marx’s idea of alienation was developed by Herbert Marcuse, the closest O’Connor gets to an intellectual ally. For Marcuse, alienation involves the internalization of goals that have nothing to do with what we really want. In order to function, contemporary society requires its members to be alienated in this way. What O’Connor finds suspicious in both Marx and Marcuse is the desire to solve the problems of alienation by changing the nature of work, rather than putting it in its place. Describing the conditions of work under communism, Marx writes: “What appears as a sacrifice of rest may also be called a sacrifice of idleness, of unfreedom, of unhappiness.” Marcuse strives instead for a synthesis of work and play.

O’Connor sees no hope of reconciling labor with leisure. Where Marx wants to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner,” O’Connor wonders why he can’t just take a nap.[3.Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, translated from the German by Salo Ryazanskaya, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, 2nd ed., edited by David McClellan (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 185.] Work needs to be transformed, but even after its transformation, it should not be our model of meaning in life and it cannot subsume the value of being idle. Idleness is freedom not just from alienated labor, but from the pressures of autonomy and authenticity. It is another mode of flourishing, against which the lure of striving and success should seem, at best, a lifestyle choice.

What O’Connor’s provocations miss is that for Kant, and for Sartre, the responsibility for oneself that defines autonomy is at the same time a responsibility to others. It is one thing to slack off when I could develop my talents; that is no one’s problem but my own. It is another to be idle in the face of urgent need, and so to be indifferent to suffering. John Berger wrote: “On this earth there is no happiness without a longing for justice.”[4.John Berger, Hold Everything Dear (Verso, 2007), p. 102.] It has been an aspiration of philosophers since Plato to show that this is true. An adequate defense of idleness would have to address that aspiration, to assuage the idler’s guilt. I may not owe it to myself to strain and struggle, but don’t I owe it to you?

Ironically, the work that most directly confronts the tension between idleness and ethical responsibility is neither a manifesto nor a monograph, but an essay in the spirit of Montaigne. Like Montaigne, Patricia Hampl is moved to reflect by grief and writes in conversation with someone she has lost. Like Montaigne, she rates description over narrative. And like Montaigne, she is willing to meander. Framed by a pilgrimage to Montaigne’s tower near Bordeaux, Hampl’s book does not arrive at his estate for more than two hundred pages and stops at its destination for a perfunctory eight. On the way, it pays visits to the homes of authors, saints, and scientists who embraced idleness by retiring from the world.

The most memorable are two Anglo-Irish women, Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler, who eloped together unsuccessfully, disguised as men, in 1778. Returned to their homes, they wore their families down and were permitted to leave together two months later, setting up a cottage in Llangollen, Wales, where they lived on their limited family income, reading books, writing letters, and tending their garden, “famous for wishing to be left alone.” They were visited by celebrities from Shelley and Byron to the Duke of Wellington and Sir Walter Scott.

What the Ladies of Llangollen have in common with Montaigne is a strategy of “[retreat] during ages of political mayhem,” in their case the French Revolution, in his the Reformation. Today, many of us may also feel tempted to retreat. The way of life the Ladies called “our System,” with its monastic regularity and disdain for social expectations, is subversively attractive. Like Montaigne’s essays, it assures us that “the littleness of personhood is somewhere alive, taking its notes,” that it is okay to “enjoy yourself in the littleness of the moment” when the narrative of history goes awry. Withdrawal is not defeat. And if it is irresponsible to withdraw completely, doing so has a point. The limit cases of Montaigne or Ponsonby and Butler, whose idleness did not serve some further goal, show that wasting time is worthwhile in itself. This is what we see in the model their lives present even if, in the face of our obligations to others, it is not a model for us.

It may not even be a model for them. At the end of her book, Hampl quotes a passage from Montaigne: “We say; ‘I have done nothing today.’ What, have you not lived? That is not only the fundamental but the most illustrious of your occupations … He says this in his Essai titled—what else?—‘On Idleness.’” Except he doesn’t. The quotation is from the sprawling essay “Of Experience,” with which the Essays close. “Of Idleness” is an earlier piece, a distillation of self-doubt in which Montaigne indicts his enterprise: “The soul that has no fixed goal loses itself.” If he commits his extravagances to paper, he writes, it is in order “to make my mind ashamed of itself.”[5.Michel de Montaigne, “On Idleness,” The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated from the French by Donald M. Frame (Stanford University Press, 1958), p. 21.]

Like Montaigne, who played a diffident but competent role in politics—he was mayor of Bordeaux—most of us forge a rotten compromise between idleness and industry. What else can we do? We see the flourishing of life in the little moments, as we see the scale of its shirked responsibilities. To manage our ambivalence is necessary work.

Kieran Setiya is professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, Reasons without Rationalism (Princeton) and Knowing Right from Wrong. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with his wife and son.

Idleness: A Philosophical Essay by Brian O’Connor is available here.