Amsterdam, Netherlands. Do not say this to a philosopher but we have more time now than ever before. One would think that since modern men—and modern women too—have more time, they would think less of it. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The same applies to health and money. We are healthier and wealthier than ever, and these facts have neither calmed our fears nor added peace to our souls. Actually, we seem more anxious than ever about how we spend our time.
This newly-won time, occurring on weekends, evenings, and during paid vacations, is called “free time,” and it is a byproduct of industrialization. Delayed marriage and fewer children may have also helped. The majority waste their free time without a second thought, egged on by television, video games, and personal billboards (a.k.a. social networking sites), which they may or may not feel vaguely guilty about. But there is another group—perhaps fifteen percent of Americans—that busies itself with doing and getting and self-betterment. This cadre of overachievers has the opposite problem: it is terrible at wasting time. And even worse at wasting it well. Their days are planned, their evenings booked, futures fixed. From this group comes our leaders, teachers, businessmen, and preachers. Thus, if the likes of YouTube and the proverbial bear pit fill their lists of time wasters, it is commendable. The problem is that they consider leisure to be a waste of time as well. What Joseph Pieper called the basis of culture , leisure—activity outside the field of servile work, the retreat from the world to study it (scholé), reflect on it, worship its source, and return refreshed to serve it—is considered to be wasting time. In recent memory, even the everyday connotation of the word has changed to “doing nothing.”
Since the value of work is set so high, it is unlikely that this group of go-getters would soon perceive leisure as a good use of time. Therefore, I will not try to turn the tide, but rather go about it the other way around. What if wasting time were not all that bad? If leisure is the basis of culture, as Joseph Pieper argues, and if we have before us a group of time-conscious (future) leaders that considers leisure a waste of time, then to save the culture of our civilization we should first teach them to waste time. And then how to waste it profoundly.
Descending from pragmatism
I’ll admit it: I belong to the second group. I cannot comfortably “waste” an evening. I must justify it as rest or recuperation or vacation, as if normal life were supposed to be a sixteen hour a day, goal-directed commotion, and only for the limits of the body should I pause. But my mind must remain active whenever possible, even in sleep, as some self-help books tell me it can. Monks invented modern time-keeping devices in the Middle Ages. They wanted to sanctify time more efficiently. Because of them my cell phone has a clock, as does my computer. I look around and see time everywhere (I hear it too). In fact, I had to stop wearing a watch so that I could escape it.
A friend of mine with a penchant for self-effacement said “There’s just not enough time to get the work done and procrastinate.” It is not that he only works well under pressure, he only works under pressure. He reads voraciously in history and poetry when neglecting his dissertation, and (to be honest) drinks too many gins and tonic over good conversation. In our modern age his habits fall under the general category of wasting time, along with, well, just about everything not productive or immediately relating to a “useful” end.
During college, as an act of rebellion against such utility, I often told people that I studied philosophy, which happened to be true. This resulted either in silence (that I could only describe as pitying) or in the standard barrage of questions about how it related to my career goals, prospects, and desire to flip burgers. Now, to avoid telling people that I still study philosophy, I say “I study gynecology. It was my mother’s idea,” and the conversation is done. Both my procrastinating friend and I resist a culture with specific ideas about time (he better than I), its uses and abuses—in other words, a culture of snooty pragmatism. We are certainly in the culture but we try hard not to be of it.
Under the pragmatic reign of the democratic man so many activities and things that were once valued in themselves have become “a waste of time,” and fight for their very existence . For middle-class Americans (and most Americans self-identify as such), much of the better bourgeois culture of recent memory has become a waste of time—including grooming, cooking, wit, sartorial concerns, pleasantries, pleasure reading, letter writing, cocktail parties, strolling, light conversation, romance, dining (rather than merely eating), “useless” friendships and acquaintances. Time, like money, could be better “spent” on other, more useful, things.
What is time to us?
These anecdotes and observations should make us wonder what it is that we are so unwilling to waste. Two peculiar aspects about our culture’s understanding of time are noteworthy. First, for us time is a thing, just as oil and paper are things. It can be measured, valued, quantified, lost, won, given, burned, taken, ruined, found, and bought. The common expressions you use regarding time are more than mere metaphors. Second, because it is a certain kind of thing, other things can waste it, or as we say, each can be “a waste of time.” This implies a valuation. Time can be valued in the same way that money can in relation to something else—“Is it worth my time?,” or “Is it worth my money?” This value fluctuates based on the situation and person concerned; nevertheless, the valuation always affects how it is used. For those who cherish it, the calculation is: I value time highly. X is a waste of time. Therefore, I do not do X. Like money, time is finite. However, money may be regained when lost. Proust’s search for lost time was futile.
In some ways time has always been valued. The predicament here is not that we value time, but how we do it. Douglas Adams said “I like deadlines, the sound they make as they whoosh by” . This is an effacement to the almighty deadline, the mini-apocalypse of the due date. Besides the play on words, the reason that his statement is funny is because of its gall. Nearly no one actually likes missing a deadline, probably not even the author himself. Simone de Beauvoir, in one of the many bits of wisdom in her otherwise tiresome tome The Second Sex, said that men’s time is paid and therefore more valuable to them than it otherwise would be (and more valuable to them than women’s time to themselves). Thus, they have trouble sitting still, doing nothing, or doing menial tasks that are thought to be below their “worth.” Should I iron this myself, or pay for it to be pressed? Depends on what my time is worth. Of course, if market-thinking invades how I value time so that every quarter hour could be thought of as billable, then each wasted minute is a lost dollar. Alas, time is not really valued like money, “Time is money.”
Time is money. However, it is more finite than regular money, and we are led to believe that time is much more finite than it. Two dominant ideas do the leading. They could be personified as the Revolutionary and the Seducer. The Revolutionary urges action: We know all we need to know, now we must act. The seducer calls for no further delay: We have already waited too long. “The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,/ The higher he’s a-getting” we are told in that great poem of seduction, which begins with the warning “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” . Both the Revolutionary and the Seducer have the truth on their side: time is fleeting and we must act. Yet, they urge action without delay. The Seducer urges it because he knows that reflection kills lust and quaffs urges. He accuses time of stealing beauty, because time gives time for knowledge of the other, which quells unwarranted desire, and allows the appreciation of what beauty remains. Such urgency about time compels us to relate to it in an even more desperate manner. The spirit of our age speaks as the Revolutionary saying “Change the world!,” and as the Seducer saying “The time is almost up.” Hearing them, we consider our non-renewable resource of time, and then become all the more inclined to put aside reflection, and acquiesce to decisive action: “It’s now or never.”
“Young man, act before you think!”
“Change the world!” we hear. Change it all? Is it all a mistake? Knowing what should be changed takes reflection, as does knowing what could be changed, and how. Acting without knowledge can do great harm. Thus, sometimes it may even be better not to act. There is no virtue in action per se. Imagine if the great thugs of history had simply left a few things undone. Think of Hitler relaxing at the beach, Stalin playing volleyball, or Ghengis Khan in a polo match with his generals. Chairman Mao boxing. Now imagine the legion of petty peccadilloes and mistakes that each of us makes, and with the best intentions, since we cannot do good without also risking harm. We should thus be more cautious about trying to do good, more thoughtful.
That’s the rub. In our age, there is a covert moral position on the side of action. The belief that I am responsible not to waste time is tied up with the belief that my work can always be beneficial to myself or those around me or those who are affected, so long as my intentions are good and I try hard enough. There is so much trust in the beneficence of the work of human hands, especially in an age addicted to realizing unrealized potential, where each Sue, Emma, Bart or Tommy is an Einstein or Obama in the making, would she only have the time to work at it. The limits of human actions are not recognized. Human nature is skewed. Personal inadequacy is ignored. The call to know the world, to know the self, to have as much knowledge and wisdom as possible before acting—the classical fruits of leisure—fall on ears made deaf by self-help podcasts and on minds rendered inaccessible to formation by self-esteem.
In children’s education these aspects of our culture’s relation to time come together in the disappearance of recess and the structuring of every minute of the school day. Here they are coupled with an article of faith about human anthropology. Thomas Sowell has published on the constrained and unconstrained visions of man’s potential . The hatred of wasted time can arise from an unconstrained vision. Since the potential of our children is limitless (unconstrained), and time is limited, we must use every second for achieving potential. If an activity or subject is not didactic—that is, if it does not have a direct answer to the question of its point—then it does not belong in the curriculum. Naturally, “the point” is job-readiness, preparing the next generation of workers. You thought Homo faber was only a Marxist ideal, but it is a democratic one too. The materialism shared by Marx and the democratic man is evident in their faber-ian pedagogies. All the more are his utilitarian ideas re-presented by his acts: casual, rugged clothing is the concomitant sign of such notions. Marxism may have failed as an economic system but has succeeded universally in fashion, where everyone now wears blue jeans and shirtsleeves, the clothes of the former proletariat—always ready for work, able to be employed in any context.
Humbug. Humbug. Humbug.
Time is not as valuable as it seems, and it is less scarce than ever. Time is certainly not money, or I (along with every adolescent in America) would be rich. And there is no telling what kind of trouble one may cause with good intentions and plentiful time. We do not own time. Thinking time is ours is hubris on the order of Prometheus—he stole fire from the Gods, and we took time. Since possession is nine tenths of the law, we now think that it is ours.
Civilization can be defined as that which a people cannot live without, as what have become necessities of life. Our culture is changing so that it values only material things or what helps you get material things. As the intellectual and spiritual are removed from the realm of what is necessary, we are losing our civilization by atrophy.
Philosophy, theology, poetry, ethics, the natural sciences, foreign languages, music, worship, novels, the civilizations of Greece and Rome, art, mathematics, cosmology, political theory, if all these are considered wastes of time for non-professionals, then by Jove I urge you to waste time. Waste it with panache. Waste years if necessary. These are bound up with what makes and sustains culture, and are part and parcel of active leisure. I know that already some of you are wasting time well. But in our age of transparency, I would encourage you to come out of the closet—or out from behind the bookshelf, as it were—as a time-waster. Join up with others and waste it like there is no tomorrow. Because if you don’t waste it well, there may not be a tomorrow, at least not one you would recognize.
Jonathan David Price is a writer living and working in Amsterdam. A frequent contributor to Dutch and European media, he is also the Editor-in-Chief of the Clarion Review (www.clarionreview.com)
This piece was originally published in the First Principles Journal.
Joseph Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (Faber and Faber, 1952).
Cf., Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Ross, W.D., trans. The Works of Aristotle Translated into English. Oxford, 1928). “…evidently happiness must be placed among those desirable in themselves, not among those desirable for the sake of something else […] Now those activities are desirable in themselves from which nothing is sought beyond the activity” (1076 b1-8, Book 10, paragraph 6 ).
Douglass Adams, unknown publication, but quoted frequently, including a BBC report on his death, available online, “So long, and thanks for all the books” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/1326695.stm, 12 May, 2001, 15:59 GMT).
Robert Herrick, “To the Virgins, to make much of Time” (1648).
Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (William Morrow & Company, 1987). A good summary of Sowell’s thesis is the Publsher’s Weekly mini-review: “the constrained vision, which views man as unchanged, limited and dependent on evolved social processes (market economies, constitutional law, etc.); and the unconstrained vision, which argues for man’s potential and perfectibility, and the possibility of rational planning for social solutions.”