Labor and Leisure

 

I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain. ~John Adams

Sometimes I’ll encounter people who will argue that working is morally superior to not working. That by contributing labor to the economy, the price of goods and services are lowered, and that working thus contributes to bettering the lives of my neighbors and future generations. We are all tasked with driving progress forward.

I hear that argument and I’m sympathetic to it in some regards. I do think progress is good. – Not the raison d’ĂȘtre of human life, but a generally positive thing that improves lives and increases overall happiness. Expanding knowledge and understanding the universe seems to me a fundamental good that assists us in a task that brings me great happiness; searching for truth. Whether that be through studying pure logic, atomic theory, or something more ethereal.

But I wonder what the end is of all this labor I’m supposed to be helping with. Why should I make life easier for my neighbors and the next generation? So that they can then make life even easier for their neighbors and the following generation? How easy do things have to get before we can hang up our boots and actually move onto the next step? Why are we even bothering progressing if the purpose of life is just to labor with momentary breaks for rest? Is all this progress simply there so that we can labor ever more efficiently on into the infinite future?

Adams didn’t seem to think so. He worked at politics and war for the sake of his sons so that they might study the far more pleasant mathematics and philosophy. And they, in turn, developed the sciences and technology so that the next generation could study painting, poetry, music and porcelain. – Things done purely for the sake of themselves, for their own inherent beauty.

Adams saw a reason for the progress; so that people could eventually live in peace and comfort with enough resources to while away afternoons playing the piano.

Well here we are. I live in a rare moment in human history. Where the world’s wealth and technology has grown to the point where I am free, after a little cleverness of my own in securing my personal financial health, to spend my days studying the fine arts and arts of free men. Wouldn’t it be a great insult to the hard work of my forefathers to not hold dear their gift of progress?

There’s a shared advancement in our search for knowledge that we all partake in, and the more people who help, the further we get. With our progress, inch by inch, we move forward in our exploration of the universe, infinitely outward. We better understand the sub-atomic world, the outer reaches of space, and push the limits of mathematics. But there’s also a personal, ongoing progress that only the individual gets to enjoy in his search for understanding, infinitely inward. We explore it when we refine our talents, indulge in beauty, and master ourselves.

Human progress is good, but it is not an end in itself. And limiting everyone with the task of contributing to progress, while demanding they limit their own personal leisure to periods of recovery from work and temporary sabbaticals, is to value the progress itself over its ultimate purpose.

Labor is not without its rewards and nobility. But I do wish more people would see that neither is leisure.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Posted April 19, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    well said.

    I always cringe at people who seek to impose their needs and wants on the lives of others.

    As I say here:

    http://jlcollinsnh.wordpress.com/manifesto/

    As individuals we only have one obligation to society: To make sure we, and our children, are not a burden to others.

    The rest is your personal choice. Make your own and make the world a far more interesting place.

  2. falstaff
    Posted July 15, 2012 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Lovely quote by Adams here. And the meat of your post raises some good points and ideas, but I wonder–evidently our mammoth-chasing ancestors weren’t too busy to take time for painting. The notion that my grandfather flew in WWII so that I could kick back and contemplate: it may very well be true, but I don’t know that it dismisses me from all obligation to my fellow humans. We’re all in this together.