In praise of otium

One afternoon, I got up from my chair on the beach and started jogging. About a hundred yards on, I began to feel uncomfortable, and not just physically.

Why was I doing this? I was content in my chair, lulled by the sedative sea, my mind ready to welcome whatever came or to acquiesce if nothing did. With that, I came to appreciate the ingenuity with which we hide from our true selves.

I've read that all understanding begins with a question. Why did I move from that state of purposelessness to one of purposeful activity? Well, running is good for you, right? And doesn't the word "purposelessness" suggest a state of mind one is better off without? One might think so. Yet there is a purpose to purposelessness that may be necessary to a level of health beyond the physical.

I have spent much of my life professing contempt for the busy bees of the world who anguish over time wasted, the obsessive self-improvers. Smug I was, happy not being one of them. Suddenly, I was uncertain.

There is an archaic idea hardly ever discussed these days. The Romans had a word for it: otium, defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as "the aristocratic mode of leisure. Thinking," or "dignified leisure," "the otium of literary pursuits."

Over the centuries otium failed to defend its integrity and positive coloration. What remains are derivatives: otient, meaning "indolent," or otiose, "unattended by action ... having no productive result; unfruitful, nugatory, futile." Time has warped the idea inherent in the Latin word, that of contemplative and regenerative inactivity, into something close to its opposite.

What little I understand of this I took from a book encountered 30 years ago, though the word otium is not in it. It was one of my "pillow books:" It helped me understand what makes people happy; it convinced me that too many of us are consumed with practical matters, trapped by notions of relevance, handcuffed by lists, shot full of guilt for failing to live up to our own aspirations.

The book's title is, "The Decline of Pleasure," by Walter Kerr, a former drama critic on The New York Herald Tribune. Mr. Kerr sought to explain the cause of what he perceived as a malaise that lurks behind the optimism of American life. Americans, he wrote, are inept at cultivating pleasure: We have mortified ourselves by excluding it from our lives; in a sense, we are starving ourselves.

The cause of this condition was no mystery to Kerr. We are infected by an intellectualism that stole across the sea from England in the 19th century, a seed sprung from the minds of Jeremy Bentham, William Stanley Jevons, and their followers, apostles of utilitarianism.

This doctrine, Kerr wrote, constrains the human spirit everywhere it obtains. He paraphrases its uncompromising dictates: "Only useful activity is valuable, meaningful, moral.... Activity that is not clearly, concretely useful to oneself or to others is worthless, meaningless, immoral."

Literature, philosophy, and art were dismissed by the strict utilitarians. Why? Because one cannot draw a measurable profit from them. They are immoral because time spent indulging them is wasted, and wasting time is immoral.

"The loss of the habit of 'unprofitable' pleasure was gradual during the latter half of the 19th century," Kerr wrote, "causing some men a vague unease, in some artists a blind and flailing rebellion...."

If you ever wonder where the impulse comes from for inaccessible art – "Three Bricks in a Row," say – this explains it.

Rejection cuts both ways: The people reject art; artists reject the people. The philosophy of the utilitarians has shaped the thinking of the United States for more than a century now, and still holds us in its grip, though not nearly so tightly as it once did.

The stern, righteous thinking it encouraged, the "identification of the worthwhile with the practically profitable," utterly denigrated the value of leisure. Weekends were for washing the car, not reading in a hammock. Guilt pursued us to every corner of life.

"By the time the 20th century had begun to realize that its productive machinery might also produce leisure, its conscience had been formed in a manner calculated to make leisure meaningless." We had spawned the workaholic. Which goes back to my realization on the beach, that I was doing precisely what Kerr had discouraged.

I had abandoned a state of mind some people strive for. I had abandoned my proximity to Nirvana, and for what? To punish myself almost like a flagellant? To live a little longer? To look better on the beach? (Hah!)

It was more than uncomfortable to learn I was not who I thought I was.

• Richard O'Mara is a former editor at The Baltimore Sun.

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