I had a curious conversation with a friend of mine who had to walk on egg shells not to offend me. He was talking about the dignity of work and—knowing me to be “unemployed”—he made sure to make it clear that he was not looking down on me. This wasn’t the first time I had encountered both caution and condemnation for my “peculiar” lifestyle. Some of the more caustic remarks from other people include, “for those of us with full time jobs…” all the way to, “other people your age are already working hard.” Strangely, it was more as if other people rather than myself were the ones offended.
When I introduce myself to acquaintances as someone who spends most of his days eating, going to the gym, thinking, reading, writing, playing games, meeting friends or going to dinner parties to discuss existence, going to mass, and going on vacations, I am often asked if I don’t feel a sense of “shame” to be under the parents’ allowance. It didn’t matter to them that my thrifty lifestyle wasn’t a strain on their budgets, but more that they were comparing my activities to some “American ideal” of independence, hard work, financial security, and middle class living. “Comfort,” “security,” and “the good life,” was always the trinitarian formula being invoked in these kinds of questions to me as if my very presence was akin to some sinner that required one to cross themselves profusely in order to keep at bay. “Unemployed” might as well mean “unclean!” And yet, as with most modern ideas, this is a completely erroneous inversion.
I was happy to have heard the news recently that Roger Scruton would be knighted. Despite not being a British subject myself, I was greatly influenced by the BBC documentary that he had written about the necessity of Beauty. Interestingly, in 1998, he had also written an introduction to the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper’s book Leisure – The Basis of Culture. In his introduction, as he reflected on Pieper’s words, he says:
For here, in a succinct yet learned argument, are all the reasons for thinking that the frenzied need to work, to plan, and to change things is nothing but idleness under other names—moral, intellectual, and emotional idleness. In order to defend itself from self-knowledge, this agitated idleness is busy smashing all the mirrors in the house.i
These words might seem to be completely alien to a modern audience and may seem like naive justifications for defying the omnipotent altar of Productivity. “Morality is just so that we can have a safe, productive society” or “you can be happy once you have a house and car,” might seem like common rebuffs if they weren’t so politely held behind the veil of genial condescension. How many times has my degree in literature been compared to the structural engineer who graduated from Stanford as if the latter would be so much more beneficial to mankind. Indeed, non-material pursuits are clearly secondary to the modern ethos—a “luxury” to be experienced after one has “paid their dues” to the workplace and society. It is a small allowance after one has completed their sacrifices in the name of the president, the CEO, and the Gross Domestic Product. In fact, one can easily imagine that the modern worker may concede the importance of such things as morality, intellect, and emotion, but would never condone sacrificing one’s whole existence to these pursuits. “I wouldn’t quit my day job,” is an expression which has become part of the modern lexicon.ii Scruton continues saying:
Leisure has had a bad press. For the puritan it is the source of vice; for the egalitarian a sign of privilege. The Marxist regards leisure as the unjust surplus, enjoyed by the few at the expense of the many. Nobody in a democracy is at ease with leisure, and almost every person, however little use he may have for his time, will say that he works hard for a living—curious expression, when the real thing to work for is dying.iii
Scruton points out the subtle image of inversion that has taken place in the modern, democratic world. This oxymoronic link between “working” and “living” is also demonstrated in the popularity of the expression “I live for the weekends” implying that one works hard for the moments of reprieve after the work week. It also has the curious implication of a “deadened” state when performing labour. However, I should be clear that working has its own dignity. St. John Paul II speaks in his encyclical Laborem Exercens that, “the Church finds in the very first pages of the Book of Genesis the source of her conviction that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth […] Man has to subdue the earth and dominate it.”iv However, even here, he makes a distinction:
God’s fundamental and original intention with regard to man […] was not withdrawn or canceled out even when man, having broken the original covenant with God, heard the words: ‘In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread’ (Gen 3:19). These words refer to the sometimes heavy toil that from then onwards has accompanied human workv
In other words, there is a distinction between “toil” and “work” in the vocabulary St. John Paul II uses where “toil” is an effect of the fall while “work” was the original dignity associated with man’s labour in subjugating the earth. The question of whether or not work and toil can be distinguished in most modern professions is a tricky topic considering that it is often tied with the emotional concepts of the preservation of one’s livelihood and family with metaphysical concerns put aside. Evola had an interesting insight into this when he states how (with my emphases added):
As paradoxical as it may first appear in the context of those civilizations that largely employed the institution of slavery, it was work that characterized the condition of a slave, and not vice versa. In other words: when the activity in the lower strata of the social hierarchy was no longer supported by a spiritual meaning, and when instead of an “action” there was only “work,” then the material criterion was destined to take over and those activities related to matter and connected to the material needs of life were destined to appear as degrading and as unworthy of any free human being. Therefore “work” (ponos) came to be seen as something that only a slave would engage in, and it became almost a sentence; likewise, the only dharma possible for a slave was work […] Labor as ponos, an obscure effort strictly dictated by need, was the opposite of action, the former representing the material, heavy, dark pole, the latter the free pole of human possibilities detached from need. Free men and slaves, after all, represented the social crystallization of those two ways of performing an action—either according to matter, or ritually […] In such a world, speculative action, asceticism, contemplation (sometimes even “play” and war) characterized the pole of action vis-a-vis the servile pole of work.vi
What Evola refers to here as “work” or “ponos” can easily be understood as the same type of thing St. John Paul II refers to as “toil.” It is interesting to think of the idea of such “toil” associated with slavery as it also entered the world, according to St. John Paul II, during the age where man enslaved himself to sin. In these contexts, one can more easily see that the modern preference to associate the material benefits of “toil” as superior to the invisible benefits of leisure as an inversion of the traditional hierarchy of matter and spirit. Evola even goes so far as to say that:
Let us set aside the fact that Europeans reintroduced and maintained slavery up to the nineteenth century in their overseas colonies in such heinous forms as to be rarely found in the ancient world; what should be emphasized is that if there ever was a civilization of slaves on a grand scale, the one in which we are living is it. No traditional civilization ever saw such great masses of people condemned to perform shallow, impersonal, automatic jobs; in the contemporary slave system the counterparts of figures such as lords or enlightened rulers are nowhere to be found. This slavery is imposed subtly through the tyranny of the economic factor and through the absurd structures of a more or less collectivized society. And since the modern view of life in its materialism has taken away from the single individual any possibility of bestowing on his destiny a transfiguring element and seeing in it a sign and a symbol, contemporary “slavery” should therefore be reckoned as one of the gloomiest and most desperate kinds of all times.”vii
Modern jobs, therefore, can be seen as a degree worse than slavery whereas the original work that maintains the dignity which St. John Paul II refers to, can be more easily seen as the “active” principle of worldly domination—something which has its character in the pre-fall transcendence that gave all action a ritualistic dimension that bespoke of the origin of the sacraments as outward signs of internal super-realities. This is partly why we find such great dignity in the artisan or the simple cobbler who has honed his craft to the level of art. Unfortunately, to find that same resonance between form and essence in the material workplace of today is very rare pushed out as they are by the mechanized efficiency of lower-priced, mass-produced products or sensationally priced and empty designer brands. Paul Veyne also points out that:
“Since Marx and Proudhon, labour has been universally accepted as a positive social value and a philosophical concept. As a result, the ancients’ contempt for labour, their undisguised scorn for those who work with their hands, their exaltation of leisure as the sine qua non of a “liberal” life, the only life worthy of a man, shocks us deeply.”viii
Perhaps, then, it is no surprise to find so many individuals scandalized by my decision to enter a more contemplative lifestyle as it represents a judgment against what they might already perceive to be the “necessary toil” they must undertake to survive in a world of slave masters. Nonetheless, there are plenty of individuals who, even despite the worst conditions, find great fulfillment in the accomplishment of their “dharma” as Evola might put it. I have nothing against such individuals. Indeed, the present misunderstanding is the egalitarian idea that I must be like everyone else; that there can be no men living now who should be set aside for contemplative endeavors. Finally, modernity also says that there is no longer a value associated with such invisible tasks preoccupied as it is with “security,” “comfort,” and “the good life.”
It would be too much in this tiny post to go over Pieper’s masterpiece concerning leisure. Not only is it embedded with tidbits of erudition such as the origin of the word “school” literally being the Greek word for “leisure”ix indicating the pedagogical nature of contemplation, but it also has deeply profound insights into the seemingly “idle” activities of a leisurely lifestyle. He makes one such observation when he notes how “the act of eating by a human being is something different from that of the animal (even apart from the fact that the human realm includes the ‘meal,’ something thoroughly spiritual!).”x This elevation of the act of eating to “meal” is antithetical to the popular diets and fast, instagram concepts of food of the modern world—a world which is only accessed through “toiling” to acquire those items rather than contemplating a meal. Needless to say, one can find in the pages of Pieper ample defense for the importance of such a life to the soul of the free human person and for a human society to have culture of any value. And, in the end, that is what I have decided to be convicted about: I do not feel ashamed to live as free as I am able to at this time. Nor should anyone who has the benefit of parents who are willing to patronize their philosophical pursuits feel any compunction to give in to a modern society that has turned its back on the traditional hierarchy. While I begrudge no one for their exemplary dedication to their family and friends by working for their benefit, I work for the spiritual benefit of mankind by spending time thinking about and studying the soul of our human race.
That is not to say that I am unwilling to do what is necessary if my physical survival becomes an issue nor would I be adverse to finding employment that amplifies rather than suppresses my contemplative leanings, but, as I stated before, those instances are rare. Whatever writing, literature, or teaching is profitable these days is also, many times, an exercise in catering to the masses. Unlike the patronage system of the past where a whole estate of single individuals recognized the importance of materially maintaining thinkers, the modern world implicitly encourages entertainment and sensation out of its writers and philosophers making material survival dependent on a strata of society that has little appreciation for higher pursuits. Even scientists are many times “legitimized” only through the corollary that, somewhere down the line, their discoveries have material benefits.
When I was first explaining to my father, who is a certified Chess Master in the United States, of how I view my present lot in life, I told him that it was analogous to his penchant for using the Queen’s Gambit. In essence, it is a sacrifice of a material to gain situational advantage. After all, the point of chess is not to see how many pawns one can promote to Queens, but how elegantly one can checkmate the enemy King. For the uninitiated, to see the player sacrifice a piece so blatantly may seem like utter foolishness, but the opponents who have any respectable ability in the game are wary enough that to decline the gambit has become an orthodox response.
Lastly, to bring it back to Scruton, he once noted in his documentary that Oscar Wilde said that “all art is useless,” implying that art has a value greater than utility. My resistance to the modern world is rooted in this resistance to utility and aspiration for that which is higher. If I am to be branded as “useless,” I can be proud of that since I have no wish to be used by anyone else. I wish to be a free man.
iLeisure – The Basis of Culture, Josef Piper. Saint Augustine’s Press, 1998. pp. 13.
iiIt might also be interesting to investigate how these trends coincide with a massive decline in vocations to the so called “Religious Life” in Catholic circles.
iiiLeisure – The Basis of Culture, Josef Piper. Saint Augustine’s Press, 1998. pp. 13-14
ivLaborem Exercens §4
vLaborem Exercens §9
viRevolt Against the Modern World, Julius Evola, 107-108
viiiA History of Private Life, vol. 1, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, Paul Veyne, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, (Cambridge, Mass. 1987), 118-19.
ixLeisure – The Basis of Culture, Josef Piper. Saint Augustine’s Press, 1998. pp. 25
xIbid. pp. 111.