George Eliot on Leisure and the Seedbed of Our Modern Restlessness
“Even idleness is eager now… Old Leisure was quite a different personage… Life was not a task to him, but a sinecure.”
By Maria Popova
“What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” Bertrand Russell asked in his 1926 treatise on human nature and the good life as humanity straddled the gorge between the Industrial Revolution and the Mad Men era of twentieth-century consumerism. A generation later, the obscure German philosopher Josef Pieper made a beautiful case for leisure as the basis of culture — an endangered “condition of the soul” to which we owe just about every great intellectual and creative achievement. That mode of being, once available to shepherds and sheikhs alike, is now under siege from the unrelenting cult of workaholism and productivity that has only grown in ferocity in the decades since Russell and Pieper.
But perhaps the greatest defense of leisure came nearly a century earlier, not in philosophy but in fiction, from a woman who was yet to make her grand entrance into literature by age forty, then received fan mail from Charles Dickens and went on to become one of our civilization’s most beloved writers.
In her 1859 debut novel Adam Bede (public library), Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot (November 22, 1819–December 22, 1880), speaks with remarkable prescience to how the modern relinquishing of leisure in the service of anxious productivity is squeezing the essential livingness out of life:
Surely all other leisure is hurry compared with a sunny walk through the fields from “afternoon church”… Ingenious philosophers tell you, perhaps, that the great work of the steam-engine is to create leisure for mankind. Do not believe them: it only creates a vacuum for eager thought to rush in. Even idleness is eager now — eager for amusement; prone to excursion-trains, art museums, periodical literature, and exciting novels; prone even to scientific theorizing and cursory peeps through microscopes. Old Leisure was quite a different personage. He only read one newspaper, innocent of leaders, and was free from that periodicity of sensations which we call post-time. He was a contemplative, rather stout gentleman, of excellent digestion; of quiet perceptions, undiseased by hypothesis; happy in his inability to know the causes of things, preferring the things themselves. He lived chiefly in the country, among pleasant seats and homesteads, and was fond of sauntering by the fruit-tree wall and scenting the apricots when they were warmed by the morning sunshine, or of sheltering himself under the orchard boughs at noon, when the summer pears were falling. He knew nothing of weekday services, and thought none the worse of the Sunday sermon if it allowed him to sleep from the text to the blessing; liking the afternoon service best, because the prayers were the shortest, and not ashamed to say so; for he had an easy, jolly conscience, broad-backed like himself, and able to carry a great deal of beer or port-wine, not being made squeamish by doubts and qualms and lofty aspirations. Life was not a task to him, but a sinecure…
Complement with Eliot on the life-cycle of happiness, then revisit Theodor Adorno on how “gadgeteering” and the cult of efficiency limit our joy and Adam Phillips on why a capacity for “fertile solitude” is essential for happiness.
Published May 30, 2016