As work continues to dominate all aspects of our lives, the true value of leisure is only a distant memory
Work comes to us today through thick clouds of eulogy and denunciation. Our attitudes towards it are closely connected to what we learn from all manner of argumentative little huddles: special interest groups, professional bodies, think-tanks, single issue causes, institutes and networks – each one with their erogenous zones and their keywords; each one vying to drop their pennyworth into the public ear.
In fact, work has become so contentious, it is hard to think of subjects that don’t have dedicated organisations in tow. Try it: think of a workplace ‘ishoo’ without a group. I thought I had one with smoking, until a search on the internet unveiled Smokeatwork.org, a campaign to protect workers from passive smoking. Or what about the rights of the overweight in the workplace? Only a matter of time, surely. The US already has the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance.
Work is increasingly colonising our concern. Having done terrible things with time, where even the ideas of ‘rest’ or ‘holiday’ are still devoted to feeding the beast work, it is now pressing home its advantage in the psychological realm. The project of reforming and improving work seems to expand by the week, as it clamours restlessly for more attention. Homo sapien is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of homo economicus.
This is why I think a new campaign is needed – a defiantly non-work one. It shall be called the Campaign for Leisure (CfL).
Instantly, the kind of problems the campaign’s team of slick, energetic spokespeople will have to grapple with spring to mind. First, the term leisure must be distinguished from idleness. In Latin, the word acedia denoted idleness, but it also carried further meanings: an inability to be at peace with oneself, to let things go, a kind of mental weakness.
Work for work’s sake is truly the summit of idleness; leisure is its opposite. Leisure suggests a cheerful affirmation of being alive, but not in a useful or practical way. Leisure is about freedom from the obligation to be useful.
Ah yes, readers may think, more leisure, that would be nice. But isn’t it a bit luxurious? Even a little immoral? Daily life is a struggle to get by, while even simple jobs intensify all the time.
With an air of sadness, CfL spokespeople will point out that such attitudes are symptomatic of the sickness of total work culture. Weirdly, the whole of society seems to have adopted the outlook of the Chancellor of the Exchequer: that involvement in the process of production is the only intrinsically meaningful realisation of human existence. It is an undignified point of view. Yes, work at its best can be fulfilling, demanding, exciting etc, etc. It is not the purpose of CfL to deny such possibilities.
However, it is the purpose of CfL to say that, on the whole, the life of the worker is a limited, parcelled-out one that disappoints more than it delights. Which is why the realm of leisure needs to be defended from hectoring workaday voices.
An article of faith of the campaign is that leisure is an arena that allows for the full expression of talent and personality. As the philosopher Josef Pieper put it: “The total working state needs the spiritually impoverished functionary, while such a person is inclined to see and embrace an ideal of a fulfilled life in the total ‘use’ made of his ‘services’.” Servility and the idealisation of work go hand in hand.”
Occasionally, members of the public may ring the offices – located somewhere quiet like Eastbourne or Todmorden – to ask how they should use their leisure. They will not get an answer. The campaign is not prescriptive: golf, go-karting or the contemplative life – the choice is yours.
What it would be concerned with is the cultural wrong-turn we have taken. Our attitudes to work have been inherited from the Reformation, where industriousness was seen as a virtue and work as a service to God; the worker was the steward of creation. Yet such beliefs were matched by a sense of moderation. It was wrong to be so excessively attached to worldly success that one forgot the Sabbath. God rested on the seventh day – and what was good enough for God…
By the 19th century, the Victorians came to romanticise the worker. “There is a nobleness, and even sacredness, in work,” declared Thomas Carlyle, the essayist and historian. But what had changed was that work was valued for its own sake – not as a glorification of God. The concept of moderation began to fade as the belief that God helped those that helped themselves took hold.
Today, of course, all religious inspiration has gone, yet the conviction that work is intrinsically worthwhile persists stubbornly.
“One does not only work in order to live, but one lives for the sake of one’s work,” wrote Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published as long ago as 1958. A key role of CfL would be to ask, in capital letters: WHY?
CfL will maintain that the rightful place of work in human affairs was first set out by Aristotle: “We work in order to be at leisure.”