The Incomprehensible Pleasure of Solitude

Aristotle claims that “the first principle of all action is leisure.” Many modern people would be tempted to agree with Aristotle, thinking that we work so that we may have things we like and do things that bring us enjoyment. Yet, if modern people knew what Aristotle had in mind by “leisure,” it is unlikely that they would endorse such a view. Today, leisure, is synonymous with “amusement” or “entertainment.” A search online for “leisure activities” is likely to return such things as amusement parks, sporting events, or any number of outdoor activities or vacation spots. Yet Aristotle would hardly reckon these among proper “leisure activities.” In fact, these activities are quite un-leisurely.

What, then, does he have in mind? For the Greeks, the word leisure is σχολή (scholē), from which we derive the word “school” (a fact that never ceases to confound students), and meant both “time free from labor” or “spare time,” and also the content of that spare time. It was defined negatively as “time not working” and suggested the proper activities that a human being should be about while not working. Furthermore, the negation of scholē, a-scholē, meant “busy,” connoting “busy at work.” The word scholē was translated in Latin as otium and likewise denoted “time free from labor” and like the Greeks, the Romans negated this work to suggest “business:” neg-otium, from which we derive the English word “negotiation.” In the case of both scholē and otium, the time for “not working” connoted time spent in learning, thinking, contemplation, reading, writing, etc. In essence, it was time set aside for the mind, not the body, to work. This, as Aristotle indicates, is the primary function of the human being. Similarly, Isocrates argues that “it is acknowledged that the nature of man is compounded of two parts, the physical and the mental, and no one would deny that of these two the mind comes first and is of greater worth; for it is the function of the mind to decide both on personal and on public questions, and of the body to be servant to the judgements of the mind” (Isocrates, Antidosis)

Leisure activities thusly understood mean simply cultivating and using the innate, universal human faculties in the discovery and performance of truth. They are activities distinguished from “amusement” in that “amusement” is aimed only at pleasure. Leisure, on the other hand, is precisely the time for “musing” or thinking, not “a-musing” or not-thinking. Leisure activities are anything but idleness, for they involve a great deal of effort by the mind. An effort that is fundamental to the very nature of humanity, yet one so difficult that people would rather abandon the endeavor altogether (and consequently their humanity) than to take the time to pursue truly noble ends. And “leisure,” says James V. Schall, “is the noblest name of all” (Schall, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, 102). It is the noblest because it is what makes humans, human. Furthermore, these activities are ends in themselves, and not means to other ends, as is work. As Mortimer J. Adler points out, “Leisure activities, in sharp distinction from labor or work, consist of those things that men do because they are desirable for their own sake. They are self-rewarding, not externally compensated, and they are freely engaged in” (Mortimer J. Adler, Reforming Education, 100).

220px-Blaise_pascalThe inability to use free time for leisure is symptomatic of our inability to be human, and consequently to be happy. As Aristotle points out, we work that we may be at leisure, that is, that we may do those activities which truly become a human. As Adler says, “The good life depends on labor, but it consists of leisure … Leisure activities constitute not mere living but living well” (Ibid.). According to Blaise Pascal, that people cannot use their leisure time properly is what leads them to create a multitude of distractions and evils: “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town.” (Pensées, 136) He continues,

That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle; that is why prison is such a fearful punishment; that is why the pleasures of solitude are so incomprehensible. That, in fact, is the main joy of being king, because people are continually trying to divert him and provide him every kind of pleasure. A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself. (Ibid.)

That quiet and solitude are “incomprehensible” for many people demonstrates their inability to use that part of them which is the highest, the mind. A person who cannot sit quietly with their own thoughts shows that he is at odds with himself, he cannot stand to be with himself. Certainly humans are not just their minds, but they are certainly nothing less. This incomprehensible solitude is essential for a flourishing human life, for the cultivation of the essentially human faculties can only be accomplished through leisure activities. Therefore, a recovery of leisure and leisure activities as something other than amusement is necessary for human happiness.

Why Study History? Part IIIb: History Is the Key to Current Affairs & Disciplines

Note: This is the fifth post in the series: “Why Study History?”

In my previous post I argued that history provides the foundations for knowledge.

Beyond the foundations of knowledge, history also functions as possibly the only way students can understand the current world in which they live. For no one lives in a vacuum. A society’s current state of affairs is the result of a long process of changes and influences. Not to know the history of a society, is not to know the society. To understand ourselves, our cultures, our political structures, our way of acting, our way of thinking, etc. depends on the history of those things. As Aristotle pointed out, “we do not know a truth without its cause” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 993b23). “Cause” here includes, but is certainly not limited to, past persons and events. Even the great champion of progressive education, John Dewey, noted that without a study of history, we cannot understand ourselves or our present condition:

But the achievements of the past provide the only means at command for understanding the present. Just as the individual has to draw in memory upon his own past to understand the conditions in which he individually finds himself, so the issues and problems of present social life are in such intimate and direct connection with the past that students cannot be prepared to understand either these problems or the best way of dealing with them without delving into their roots in the past.(John Dewey, Experience and Education)

fatherofhistory03bFor example, Herodotus seems quite conscious of the goal of using history to explain the current state of affairs in Greece and elsewhere. “The ancient feud between the Eginetans and Athenians arose out of the following circumstances…” (Herodotus, The History of Herodotus) These and numerous other such statements are found throughout Herodotus as he attempts to narrate the events which result in current political affairs. Similarly, Augustine’s City of God may be seen as an attempt to place the current decline of Rome into the cosmic history of mankind. Augustine’s defense against the charge that Christianity was responsible for the miseries of his own day, was to recount the historical processes and causes that led to Rome’s decline. That is, to understand the way things were at that time, it was necessary to understand how they arrived at those state of affairs.

Furthermore, the principle that “history enables one to understand the present” can be seen throughout the Old Testament. Again and again, the Israelites are called “to remember” what God has done in order to live correctly in the present. (Cf. Deut. 6:20-25; 7:6-19; 16:1-12; Joshua 24:1-27; I Samuel 12; Nehemiah 9; Jeremiah 2; Ezekiel 20) That is, apart from a “memory” or a “history” of God’s activities in the past, their present actions are meaningless: “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand…’” (Deut. 6:20-22 ESV). In the Old Testament, moral imperatives are always connected with historical indicatives. Without first understanding God’s role and relationship to the history of Israel, His commands might be seen as arbitrary or capricious.

Beyond an understanding of culture and current states of affairs, history, as pointed about above, can enable one to better understand specific disciplines. Blaise Pascal pointed out that the scientific research of his own day had shown too much deference to historical scientists, particularly Aristotle, and that this deference had slowed scientific progress. However, unlike other philosophers of his time (like Descartes), Pascal did not advocate ignoring the ancients in conducting new fields of research. Instead, says Pascal, “Since their [the ancient scientists] perfection depends upon time and effort, it is evident that even if our effort and time had gained us less than the labors of the ancients, separated from ours, the two together nevertheless must have more effect than either alone” (Blaise Pascal, Scientific Treatises). That is, if the scientist is going to advance any field of science, he must know the history of how the current understanding of his field developed. This was precisely what Pascal himself did in developing his theories and proving the existence of vacuums. The kind of “chronological snobbery” that has become prevalent today, arguing that because such-and-such a philosopher / scientist worked prior to a certain time they may therefore be ignored, is flatly rejected by Pascal. “The ancients should be admired for the consequences they drew correctly from the little stock of principles they had, and they should be excused for those in which they lacked the advantage of experiment rather than force of reason” (Ibid.)

As Pascal argues for a history of science, so too does Kant argue for a history of philosophy. In his Preface to the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant traces the relative progress of science versus philosophy going all the way back to the earliest Greeks. The purpose of this historical narrative is to discover why science had been able to make certain advances, but philosophy had not. That is, Kant conducts an historical analysis of philosophy in order to learn the nature of, current understanding of, and the way of progress in philosophy. As Kant saw things, without such knowledge of the history of philosophy, no philosophical progress would be possible.

So we see the educative value of knowing history in order to know the current state of affairs of a society, and of advancing knowledge in various disciplines. Without such historical knowledge the student is attempting to live in a vacuum of time and space that is disconnected from the reality in which he lives.


Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction
Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”
Part IIb: The Definition of “History”
Part IIIa: History Provides the Content of Basic Knowledge


What matters matter?

I am often struck by how useless some parts of our knowledge are; which otherwise we think of great importance. For example, if tomorrow I discovered that Mars was not exactly where we thought it was, but was actually a few million miles further out, what difference would that make?

Or take this a step further, what if tomorrow I found out that the sun goes around the earth and not the earth around the sun? Would it matter? As far as I can tell, not much. I wouldn’t do or not do something depending on this bit of trivia.

So, what does matter? Whether I love and am loved. Whether God is present. Whether I am accountable to someone for my actions. Whether my actions have significance beyond the immediate. Whether there is an afterlife.

These are things that matter, and I like to focus my attention on matters that matter. The rest is just idle curiosity.

I agree that Copernicus’ opinion need not be more closely examined. But this: It affects our whole life to know whether the soul is mortal or immortal.
~Blaise Pascal (Pensées, 164)

Is It Always Good to Know?

I’ve always thought that “knowledge” was an intrinsic good. That is, good, in and of itself—not for some end or purpose, not for what it can or cannot do, nor for whether it will ever be used or not.

Recently, I’ve begun to question this. Not the part of it that would allow students to say, “I’ll never use this, why do I need to know it?” No, knowledge is still good in spite of whether you will “use” it in an extrinsic sense.

My doubts relate more to the relationship of “knowledge” to the “will.” The question I have is: “Is knowledge a good when it is united to a corrupt will?” Many people often complain that if God really existed, He would make His existence manifestly known. And consequently, that by this knowledge, they would believe (have faith, be converted). This is a question which turns on the theological notion of the deus absconditus.

Not surprisingly, Christian theologians have offered different response to this challenge (what they haven’t done is ignored it—what most people who state the challenge fail ever to do is look for a possible answer).

Blaise Pascal argues that if God did not remain hidden, terrible consequence would follow (hence, He stays hidden).

God wishes to move the will rather than the mind. Perfect clarity would help the mind and harm the will. Humble their pride. (Pensées, 234)

What Pascal means here is that perfect knowledge would do nothing to convert our wills. Though we would know the truth, we would not want it (or love it).

In 1945, at the Nuremburg Trials, the top Nazis defendents were given IQ tests, here are the results:

Hermann Wilhelm Goering (138)
Rudolf Hess (120)
Joachim von Ribbentrop (129)
Wilhelm Keitel (129)
Ernst Kaltenbrunner (113)
Alfred Rosenberg (127)
Hans Frank (130)
Wilhelm Frick (130)
Julius Streicher (106)
Walter Funk (124)
Hjalmar Schacht (143)
Karl Doenitz (138)
Erich Raeder (134)
Baldur von Schirach (130)
Fritz Sauckel (118)
Alfred Jodl (127)
Franz von Papen (134)
Arthur Seyss-Inquart (141)
Albert Speer (128)
Constantin von Neurath (125)
Hans Fritzsche (130)

All of them were above average in intelligence, some at levels of “genius.” Was their knowledge and intelligence a good thing? This is where the tension lives. Is it an intrinsic good to know how to kill effectively millions of people?

It seems that perfect knowledge without perfected wills only enables us to be more creative with our evil. It does not entail that we will do what we ought.

As St. Paul says,

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  (Romans 7:15)

We are divided in our very nature.

So I wonder, is it always better to know?

Driven to Distraction Versus Driving to Distraction

How do we make sense of our world? Does reality even make sense? What does it even mean for something to “make sense”? Blaise Pascal, one of my favorite philosophers, asks these same questions and muses on our miserable state in light of reality—it’s uncertainties, it’s difficulties, our finitude in the face of infinite space and time.

We desire truth, and find within ourselves only uncertainty.
We seek happiness, and find only misery and death.
We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness. (Pensées, 401)

Given our unhappiness and uncertainty there are two popular paths that people follow: indifference and distraction. Life is so daunting and our death is ever approaching so that many or perhaps most people choose the path of least resistance.

Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition. (Pensées, 434)

The last act is bloody, however fine the rest of the play. They throw earth over your head and it is finished forever. (Pensées, 165)

We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it. (Pensées, 166)

I often return to these ideas, these concerns—and even more so given my recent schedule. I’ve been unusually busy with responsibilities as of late. As a result, I’ve had no time to think, to reflect—to pray. I long for these times—these times of leisure. Many people seek out distractions of schedule, work, and general “busyness” for very purpose of avoiding such times. The idea that one would sit and think is anathema to people.

I had originally written “anathema to the modern mind,” but I was immediately reminded that this is not a condition unique to modernity. What is unique to modernity is the creativity, diversity, and scale that goes into creating distractions. In a world where every technological advance purports to “save time”—we find we never have enough! How can this be?

The answer is that we don’t want the time. We don’t want to have to think. We don’t want leisure. Leisure means coming face to face with what matters most of all in the world. And this is the contradiction: the very truths that matter most to our existence are the very truths that we do everything to avoid!

Pascal is right when he laments:

…Men cannot be too much occupied and distracted, and that is why, when they have been given so many things to do, if they have some time off they are advised to spend it on diversion and sport, and always to keep themselves full occupied. How hollow and foul is the heart of man! (Pensées, 139)

Distraction has its time and place—but it’s not to be our lives. This is why I pity those people whose lives are consumed by “professional” sports. How little difference could the outcome of sport make on my eternal fate? I enjoy a good ball-game; it is not what matters to me.