For most of human history leisure was a rare luxury. Toiling from dawn to dusk just to survive was the lot of almost all men, women and children up until a few hundred years ago. The English geologist Sir Charles Lyell wrote that in the 1840s America was a “country where all, whether rich or poor, were laboring from morning till night, without ever indulging in a holiday.” (Sir Charles Lyell) With the onset of the Second Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century and the rapid intensification of the division of labour that accompanied it, there occurred a “Leisure Revolution”. Not only did this period of rapid industrial development drive many from the farmlands into large cities in search of work, but the regimented hours associated with industrial work left the masses – for the first time in the modern era – with scheduled free time to direct their own activities.
Well over 100 years have passed since this leisure revolution, and the fruits of civilization have become more plentiful, and leisure, more bountiful. Perhaps more than at any point in the history of civilization, the average individual today is free from the daily struggle for survival. But with this newfound freedom a crucial question confronts each of us: that being, what are we free for? In other words, how are we going to use the time we have that is not devoted to the necessities of life?
Few contemplate this question. Rather, as with many important questions regarding how to live, most people sink into conformity and implicitly assume their free time is best spent resting, relaxing, and passively consuming. And as a result, such lives assume a common mold and follow a course analogous to the one described by the 20th century philosopher Richard Taylor.
Some may argue there is nothing wrong with this type of “normal” existence. Modern life can be high paced and stressful, and with mental health problems on the rise, perhaps what is needed is more time spent resting and relaxing. The prolific 20th century English writer Colin Wilson, however, disagreed with this sentiment. Too much inactivity, rather than promoting mental health, tends to breed unhappiness and a plethora of psychological problems.
Wilson came to this conclusion early in his life. In his autobiography “Dreaming to Some Purpose”, he notes that as an adolescent he struggled with bouts of depression and sympathized with the “wisdom” contained in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Wilson, however, had an astute mind and was intent on discovering why he always felt so gloomy. He began to observe that his bouts of depression were typically preceded by prolonged periods of passivity. When he did not occupy his days with interesting tasks, challenges, and problems to solve, he discovered that depressive moods would soon wash over him, fog his perceptions, and cause him to become a pessimist of the human condition. The idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Or as Wilson writes:
If Wilson’s discovery of the connection between passivity and mental illness has merit, then we are confronted with the following options. We can waste our leisure in idle pursuits, leave our untapped potentials untouched, and render ourselves prone to mental illness. Or we can strive to spend the majority of our free time creating, exploring, learning, doing – challenging our capacities and improving our talents. While the latter option entails perseverance, struggle, and the sacrifice of short-term pleasures and comfort, the pay off – mental health and personal growth – is worth the effort.
But what if Wilson’s discovery of the connection between passivity and depression is not applicable to all, but only to a minority, who like Wilson, possess an unusually strong creative urge? Maybe for some people passivity does not breed the suffering it did for Wilson. Would this mean that the struggle to spend our free time engaged in creative activity is a waste of time and energy?
In his book Restoring Pride Richard Taylor provides a cogent argument for why the struggle to produce and create is always worth the effort, for as he explains, it increases our possibilities of being able to attain the rare state of pride. Taylor defines pride as “the justified love of oneself”, and notes that while many people claim to love themselves, more often than not their “self-love” is not pride but narcissism or an arrogant shield to protect their underlying insecurity and self-hate. To be truly proud, Taylor explains, one must “have the kind of love that is justified by the kind of person you are.” (Richard Taylor, Restoring Pride) That is, you must cultivate an extraordinary skill in a specific domain and thus attain personal excellence of the kind that sets you apart from others.
The idea that some people are superior to others offends the modern taste, for as Taylor points out, many have confused equal rights with equal worth. Just because every individual has natural rights and should be treated equally before the law does not mean that every individual possesses the same worth. For the Ancient Greeks this was self-evident. They recognized that while most dedicate their life to fitting in with the herd, a relative few cultivate an uncommon virtue or skill, produce a work of exceptional worth, or proceed upon a path in the pursuit of personal greatness irrespective of the applause or opinions of others. And as Taylor notes, it is these latter individuals – the superior ones – who alone can love themselves in a manner not based on false pretences.
Therefore, the next time we find ourselves with leisure and the freedom to direct our own activities, rather than reflexively reaching for the remote, engaging in passive activities on the internet, or socializing about superficial subjects, we should ask ourselves if the comfort and pleasure these activities provide is worth the cost. For even if our passivity does not plant within us the seeds of pessimism and depression, then it most certainly is decreasing our worth as a human being, and minimizing our chances of ever being able to achieve the self-love that accompanies genuine pride. Or as Taylor explains:
This is why, in my opinion, there is so much unhappiness among my generation. I think legitimate clinical depression is far more rare than is currently being diagnosed. People have to realize their choices are going to change their lives far more quickly and effectively than downing cocktails of psych pills.