Paul Johnson

And Another Thing | 13 August 2008

A leisure class can accommodate the workaholics of wisdom

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One of the great paradoxes, for most of us, is the hatred of work, and the need for it to fill what Dr Johnson called ‘the great vacancies of life’. We sigh for leisure, then don’t know how to handle it when it comes in abundance. Occupation is wearisome, but essential, and retirement is longed-for but disappointing. A typical example was Charles Lamb. During the 33 years he worked at the East India House he perpetually grumbled about the way his work gobbled up the best hours of each day and left him tired and listless, with virtually nothing for himself and his pleasures. Once retired, on a generous pension, he grumbled about lack of occupation — see his essays ‘The Superannuated Man’ and ‘Popular Fallacies; That We Should Rise with the Lark’. As his most devoted biographer, E.V. Lucas wrote, the history of his life, between retirement in 1825 and his death in 1834, ‘makes sad reading’. Often he was alone, lacking any fixed purpose, sick and dejected.

I have been looking at some American statistics about the growth of leisure, not only in retirement but throughout working life. Their experience usually adumbrates ours, by a few years, so it is a common transatlantic problem. In 1870 Americans (on average) started work at 13 and had 30.5 years of it. Since life expectancy was only 43.5 years, they had no retirement period. So 61 per cent of their waking life was spent working. All the same, in a lifetime they had 99,016 hours of waking leisure, more than the 93,604 hours they spent on the job. In 2007 the average figures tell a startlingly different story. The age for starting work is 20, life expectancy is 78, the retirement age on average is 62.5 and the years spent on the job 42.5. All the same, the average number of hours spent working is only 65,068 in total, and the number of hours spent at home on household chores etc has shrunk from 61,594 to 58,800, despite a much longer life span, an extra 34.5 years. Meanwhile the number of hours available for waking leisure has jumped to the enormous total of 329,452. This is more than the entire lifetime of most people 100 years ago. We need to redefine the term ‘leisure class’. Moreover, Americans, compared to most Western societies, tend to work longish hours and have short paid holidays. Their economy functions well — it has been in recession only 16 months in the last quarter-century. So present trends will continue, most likely, and become more pronounced. Where will that leave us, say, by 2050? And will we be happier, or less so?

The truth is, happiness comes from usefulness, and the knowledge we are useful. Leisure promotes happiness only if we turn it to a purpose, making it into another kind of work. The Bible promotes a theory of a leisure class, but one in which free time promotes understanding. It is put succinctly in Ecclesiasticus (38:24). ‘The wisdom of a learned man cometh by opportunity of leisure: and he that hath little business shall become wise.’ But the acquisition of wisdom is the hardest work of all, because continual, concentrated and never-ending. One of the wisest of men, perhaps the wisest man who ever lived, Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish sage, was also the hardest working. We know a lot about him because in the genizat, or storeroom for outdated sacred books and documents mentioning God’s name, attached to the synagogue at Fostat in Old Cairo, the very dry air of Egypt has permitted the survival of 200,000 manuscript fragments, some of which contain information and letters concerning Maimonides, who lived there for many years. Following the ancient Jewish custom in which the cleverest male member of the family sought wisdom, and was supported by brothers who engaged in trade, Maimonides studied law and theology and medicine, and many other sciences. He not only worked but overworked, so he scarcely had time to eat and sleep, tending the Sultan as his doctor, running a general practice and clinic for the poor, writing theology, inventing psychiatry 700 years before Freud, giving judgment and counsel and magistry and, in general, radiating the kind of commonsensical wisdom most in need in the world. Hard to think of a more useful life, epitomised in the title of his most famous work, Guide of the Perplexed, aimed especially at those who sought to combine sacred and secular learning.

Much of the civilisation we enjoy is the work of leisured men and women who put their time to good account. Plato came from the Athenian leisure class, and though he taught for 40 years in the grove of Academe, this was not work as commonly understood, then or now; unpaid too. Among his pupils was Aristotle, a leisured son of a successful doctor, and always nattily dressed. He was not paid, strictly speaking, for acting as tutor to Alexander the Great, and the 800 talents Alexander later gave him was for his scientific and manuscript collection and museum.

Among those who never had to earn their own living were Darwin and Gibbon. Kant and Hegel enjoyed the leisure to establish themselves as philosophers before they accepted academic posts. Goethe’s father was a rich lawyer (his grandfather, it is true, was a tailor), and the young poet and flâneur was a Bertie Wooster type until he acquired the wisdom to get down to serious scientific and literary work.

It may not be true, as Dr Johnson insisted, that ‘all intellectual improvement arises from leisure’, but he had a point that knowledge often advances when clever men have the time to discuss things thoroughly together. His complaint about Wesley, whom he otherwise much admired, was that ‘he is never at leisure. He is always obliged to go at a certain hour. This is very disagreeable to a man who loves to fold his legs and have out his talk, as I do.’ Disraeli once declared in a public speech, ‘Increased means and increased leisure are the two civilisers of men.’ I think this is generally true, but it is the opposite of socialism, of course, and particularly the bastardised version practised by the New Labour party, which judges the effectiveness of Parliament by the number of new laws it enacts (over 20,000 since 1997). It is a fact that Parliament was more effective, and the country better governed, when it was dominated by a leisure class, more keen on pursuing wisdom than enacting laws.

But we can’t all be wise, and for the rest work is the best course: ‘Whether we consider the manual industry of the poor, or the intellectual exercise of the superior classes, we shall find that diligent occupation... is at once the instrument of virtue and the secret of happiness.’ The writer was the evangelical bluestocking Hannah More; and before we sneer, let us remember that her collected writings sold more copies even than Sir Walter Scott’s, one of her books topping two million in four years, and a novel going into 19 editions in her lifetime. Wisdom is to be found even in bestsellers, alas (or perhaps I should say, fortunately).