Sunday, October 12, 2014

On the Vices and Virtues of Convenience and Sloth

In the Twenty-first Century, the Western Man has developed a form and degree of leisure before perhaps inconceivable – at-least to the common.  But is this type of leisure healthy or beneficial?  And what does it mean precisely to ask these two questions?  When we ask if it is healthy the majority will know the majority but not all of what I derive from such a question.  In the sense that they’ll understand that the sedentary life is unhealthy biologically and is a major cause – along with dietary habits and genetics – of obesity and other related health concerns.  What the laymen will not immediately comprehend however is the ramifications that a sedentary life has on the mental and existential portions of the human condition – for these aspects of humanity are largely ignored in our culture and throughout the world to varying degrees.  The Transcendentalists among others such as Nietzsche emphasize the need for physical activities in the health and well-being of the mind.  Of course these lovers of nature will profess a need for the Intellectual to meditate amongst the trees and gurgling brooks and streams, but this however is entirely different from mere exercise which one can do in New York City, Beijing or any place where the air is breathable and it is not over-crowded – by what standards defines overcrowded and toxic in quality of air I’ll leave for the reader to decide.  Now, that is not to say that there are not potential psychological benefits from a temporary commuting or even more long-term communing with nature, but these will be of a different sort than mere physical activity, and is not needed for the health of the body; whether or not the Transcendentalists claim as much I am ignorant of.
But what of the larger question of benefit?  Now, to ask such a question and to have it have any meaningful distinction with health will suppose that all advantages to humans cannot be traced directly (or at-least not solely) to their health.  Things such as happiness, abilities, creativity among numerous other traits are at-play.  In the West we are told, now more than ever, that a happy life, an ideal life, is one of material luxury and social conformity.  Material goods and high esteem in the eyes of others (that one is performing one’s tasks and has achieved the tokens of sociability that are expected after a certain age whether they be property or person) are seen as the main goals of one’s life and therefore as the highest forms of pleasure.  Arthur Schopenhauer however realized that these forms of pleasure are minute and squalid compared to the life of the mind.  He repeats this numerous times in his “The Wisdom of Life” which is along with his pessimistic essays his greatest works (at-least to my knowledge).  How a single human being could write so elegantly and profoundly on the varied and complex nature of human existence, and in such a succinct manner is simply at-times hard to comprehend.  Like I said he voices this sentiment numerous times, but to save the time of the reader I’ll leave him or her one long quote from Schopenhauer that voices this sentiment as well as others that I wish to continue on with:
Look on these two pictures — the life of the masses, one long, dull record of struggle and effort entirely devoted to the petty interests of personal welfare, to misery in all its forms, a life beset by intolerable boredom as soon as ever those aims are satisfied and the man is thrown back upon himself, whence he can be roused again to some sort of movement only by the wild fire of passion. On the other side you have a man endowed with a high degree of mental power, leading an existence rich in thought and full of life and meaning, occupied by worthy and interesting objects as soon as ever he is free to give himself to them, bearing in himself a source of the noblest pleasure.
…Of course, this characteristic of the intellectual man implies that he has one more need than the others, the need of reading, observing, studying, meditating, practising, the need, in short, of undisturbed leisure. For, as Voltaire has very rightly said, there are no real pleasures without real needs; and the need of them is why to such a man pleasures are accessible which are denied to others — the varied beauties of nature and art and literature. To heap these pleasures round people who do not want them and cannot appreciate them, is like expecting gray hairs to fall in love. A man who is privileged in this respect leads two lives, a personal and an intellectual life; and the latter gradually comes to be looked upon as the true one, and the former as merely a means to it. Other people make this shallow, empty and troubled existence an end in itself. To the life of the intellect such a man will give the preference over all his other occupations: by the constant growth of insight and knowledge, this intellectual life, like a slowly-forming work of art, will acquire a consistency, a permanent intensity, a unity which becomes ever more and more complete; compared with which, a life devoted to the attainment of personal comfort, a life that may broaden indeed, but can never be deepened, makes but a poor show: and yet, as I have said, people make this baser sort of existence an end in itself.
He makes quite plain the need for the Intellectual to have times of leisure to enrich his knowledge and understanding of the world through reading, observation and general thought.  However, this is not to say that leisure is in-itself a good.  In the mind of an Intellectual it gives the opportunity for exploration and expansion, but for the dullard it gives only the possibility for base entertainment or boredom.  In this case leisure is almost a new form of poison for the dullard, for the activities he pursues will dull his mind and spirit in ways that long hours of toil could perhaps not aspire to.  I speak namely of alcohol and other vices that destroy the Self in a way that arguably arduous labor could not, though let it also be clear, I am in no way saying that labor isn’t one of the great burdens and curses both upon mankind; physical labor dulls the mind and destroys the time and efforts that one could spend on more worthwhile activities.  That is why in any decent society, automation has occurred to the extent that it physically can, and the individual is left free (after being educated) to pursue their desires after perhaps spending some small integer of time of communal service (that is to say unpleasant physical tasks) that machines are currently incapable of performing.  This will of course be the sacrifice the Intellectual will need to make if all are genetically engineered to be bright and free from muddled thinking and superstition, in any other Anarchist or Socialist society, the Intellectual will perform his tasks of value to humanity and those who are more base and simple in mind will perform either arduous or leisurely physical tasks for monetary compensation – once again to the extent that machines have not replaced such work. 
Therefore (to state the obvious) it must be so that education becomes a matter of culture and broadening of one’s self rather than the regimentation of one’s self into compliant machinery as we see in the societies of State, God and Commerce.  The Individual must be raised to acknowledge what all intellectuals and men of passion already viscerally come-to-terms with:  that they are solely responsible for giving their lives a sense of purpose – not merely utility – by deciding and through action define that purpose and their very lives and that this pursuit is the highest cause a human being can both attain and yet never fully attain and forever strive for.  The alternative will always result in a synthesis of material drudgery, existential self-abnegation and soulless, mindless Hedonism.  And although large amounts of time watching football, playing videogames, or otherwise wasting one’s time and potential is a serious concern in Western culture, this sick obsession with profession and work (particularly in the Conservative demographic) is the main source of consumerism and resulting Hedonism.  For since Man has increasingly become more Secular and in some sense free, he has used such freedom to exercise his most base and sensual or at-least non-intellectual pleasures for he is still not equipped to do so in a profit-pursuing culture where Man is still held strongly in relation to men, particularly in this case to “the Man” or to his boss and the Capitalist system as a whole.  Even if Man has vanquished God (and all forms of superstition) from his heart, he will still be a slave to the extent that Government and Commerce direct his actions and his society.  This perverse obsession with business, this shamefulness to be idle, is portrayed quite well in Nietzsche’s Gay Science.  Here is a rather long passage, but I think it depicts quite well the sickness and shamefulness that I speak of: 
Leisure and Idleness.  There is something of the American Indian, something of the ferocity peculiar to Indian blood, in the American lust for gold - and the breathless haste with which they work - the distinctive vice of the New World - is already beginning to infect Old Europe with its ferocity and is spreading a lack of spirituality like a blanket.  Even now one is ashamed of resting and prolonged reflection almost gives people a bad conscience.  One thinks with a watch in one’s hand even as one eats one’s lunch whilst reading the latest news of the stock market, one lives as one might always "miss out on something".  "Rather do anything rather than nothing" : this principle too is just a noose to throttle all culture and good taste.  Just as all forms are visibly perishing by the haste of the workers, the feeling for form itself, the ear and eye for the melody of movements are also perishing.  The proof of this may be found in the universal demand for gross obviousness in all those situations in which human beings wish to be honest with one another for once - in their associations with friends, women, relatives, children, teachers, pupils, leaders and Princes : One no longer has time or energy for ceremonies, for being obliging in an indirect way, for esprit in conversation, and for otium at all.  Living in a constant chase after gain compels people to expend their spirit to the point of exhaustion in continual pretence and overreaching and anticipating others.  Virtue has come to consist in doing something in a shorter time than another person.  And so there are only rare hours of sincere intercourse permitted: in them, however, people are tired, and would not only like "to let themselves go," but to stretch their legs out wide in awkward style.  The way people write their letters nowadays is quite in keeping with the age; their style and spirit will always be the true "sign of the times."  If there be still enjoyment in society and in art, it is enjoyment such as over worked slaves provide for themselves.  Oh, this moderation in "joy" of our cultured and uncultured classes!  Oh, this increasing suspiciousness of all enjoyment!  Work is winning over more and more the good conscience to its side: the desire for enjoyment already calls itself "need of recreation," and even begins to be ashamed of itself.  "One owes it to one's health," people say, when they are caught at a picnic.  Indeed, it might soon go so far that one could not yield to the desire for the vita contemplative, (that is to say, excursions with thoughts and friends), without self contempt and a bad conscience.  Well!  Formerly it was the very reverse: it was "action" that suffered from a bad conscience.  A man of good family concealed his work when need compelled him to labour.  The slave laboured under the weight of the feeling that he did something contemptible: the "doing" itself was something contemptible.  "Only in otium and bellum is there nobility and honour:" so rang the voice of ancient prejudice!  
Though one will be deemed a snob for saying so, in some sense, it is this mentality of viewing physical labor as squalid and abhorrent that we must return to.  Capitalism and authoritarian propaganda has conditioned us to view labor as some sort of great blessing in giving to us a means of survival and dignity – rather than taking away our true form and degree of self-sufficiency, communal operation with others and dignity in body and mind that one has in a truly free and just society.  We must realize that physical labor is always a means-to-an-end; the only distinction being whether it exists as a means to our continued existence as free and sovereign beings, or the means to our domestication as herd animals laboring continuously for the profits of our owners.  The virtues and vices of leisure must be seen not only from the perspective of the benefits and more specifically health of the organism, but of society en-masse, for just as Plato stated that the good of the whole is the good for one, so the habits of leisure that produce the fruits of science, technology, philosophy and art are mutually beneficial, as are the habits of activism which are what is sorely lacking in America.
It may be argued that political activism and speaking the truth of the world and those who are the most dastardly of culprits in it is a daunting task both of time, efforts and potential dangers – quite so.  But no great task in life is easy and seldom receives universal public support.  As long as hierarchy and superstition exist, to speak on the nature of reality, the nature of injustice, the nature of our earthly toils and suffering and to say that a alternative is not only possible but inevitable if reason was universal and acted upon is not only a sin, but the greatest sin of all.  For is it not the case that in almost every large-scale religion, one of the greatest sins one can commit is that of heresy?  Or in other words, of honesty?  Education is only a stepping stone and fragment of that required to build the ideal leisurer – one who is building one’s self in his hours of idleness.  In an age where true education does not exist, it becomes more-than ever paramount to work arduously towards greater public understanding of social concerns and general philosophic enlightenment about the horrific nature of the world and our moral imperative to change it. 
Social activism is something that by its very nature requires sacrifice, passion and a deep commitment to one’s ideals without compromise.  This is what is lacking in Liberal and quasi-Left pundits such as Bill Maher and Russell Brand.  Such figures have created a political brand for themselves, but have done essentially nothing in putting those political values into practice.  Maher might waste his money donating one million dollars to a Conservative Democrat, but this is far from the social struggles we saw in the early twentieth century in the actions of brave and noble Anarchists and other Socialists of all stripes and variations.  Also here we see the divide between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.  While both realize in their own ways that leisure is healthy and necessary for development, Schopenhauer as a type of Negative Hedonist (though he lived as a Positive Hedonist) is ignorant of and would scuff at the notion that certain types of pain (namely adversity and psychological suffering) are necessary for growth and should not be seen wholly as a negative but partially as a opportunity for advancement.  For Schopenhauer, that the ignoramus does not properly use his time of leisure is undesirable only because he will be thrown into the pains of boredom if he is not properly stimulated, and the stimulation he does received is poor as compared to the life of the mind; that the life of the mind is superior asides from notions of appreciation of life (that is it is superior for reasons of creativity asides from utility and pleasure) is a sentiment that would be likely lost to Schopenhauer.  That Nietzsche sees pain and despair as an opportunity for growth and that greatness not pleasure is the highest good should be common knowledge.
The Fatalist realizes the world is doomed, but he offers his hand to the protestor to the extent that they are organizing effectively and speaking the truth.  It is not his place to chant; in fact I find that chanting is an insipid and meaningless act – only dullards and cowards who require constant reinforcement and external motivation chant.  Instead the true believer in Civil Disobedience is one who with his comrades sins defiantly in silence, letting the action of defiance via worker’s strikes and sit-ins echo its true sound, the sound of understanding that is acted upon, that is far-more loud and conveys more meaning than any other uninspired chant of “Hey hey, ho ho, Monsanto has got to go,” ever could.  Any chanting is a embodiment of Groupthink, and to the extent that it is effective might strengthen the resolve of the weak but in-general will encourage the conformist and weak-minded thinking that encouraged apathy to the status-quo and lack of creativity and individuality in the first place. 
If we are to increase the potential of not only humanity generally, but of ourselves, we must thoroughly examine and be critical of all of our habits.  Abandoning Hedonism whenever possible and acknowledging that if we do not collectively struggle against religion, commerce and the State consciously and with purpose, we will all struggle with these evil systems, and even worse continue conditions where millions likely conform to them and denounce any unique or interesting purpose our lives could have taken.  Therefore public revolt means not only attempt to create material prosperity, but to create the existential material to do something meaningful, that is of any significance and greatness at-all, with said leisure.  Otherwise no matter how free the individual is politically, he will still be enslaved to his base desires and ignorance, and any improvement in his life will be equitable to the improvement of the living conditions of a rodent.

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