The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article recently (18 June 2012) titled In Praise of Leisure, by father and son duo Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, emeritus professor of political economy and lecturer on political philosophy, respectively, which asks: “”Let us imagine that everyone has enough to lead a good life. What is the good life? And what is it not? And what changes in our moral and economic system are needed to realise it?”
Their main thrust is that
Making money cannot be an end in itself — at least for anyone not suffering from acute mental disorder. To say that my purpose in life is to make more and more money is like saying that my aim in eating is to get fatter and fatter. And what is true of individuals is also true of societies. Making money cannot be the permanent business of humanity, for the simple reason that there is nothing to do with money except spend it. And we cannot just go on spending.
Their secondary point is that leisure — that “good life” we’d have more time for if we weren’t working for money all the time — is not the same as idleness; in fact, it’s quite the opposite, as Bertrand Russell delineates:
It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the 24. Insofar as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for lightheartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. … The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.”
The Skidelskys take as a model the economist John Maynard Keynes’ vision, c. 1930, of a society that no longer needs much in the way of work or growth:
Imagine a world in which most people worked only 15 hours a week. They would be paid as much as, or even more than, they now are, because the fruits of their labor would be distributed more evenly across society. Leisure would occupy far more of their waking hours than work. It was exactly this prospect that John Maynard Keynes conjured up in a little essay published in 1930 called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.”
They note that,
despite the surprising accuracy of his growth forecasts … most of us, almost 100 years on, [are] still working about as hard as we were when he wrote his futuristic essay. The answer is that a free-market economy both gives employers the power to dictate hours and terms of work and inflames our innate tendency toward competitive, status-driven consumption.
In short, “the material conditions of the good life already exist, at least in the affluent parts of the world, but the blind pursuit of growth puts the good life continually out of reach.”
I’m reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, and though the phrase “the good life” might not show up in a digital search of it (or it might! I don’t have a Kindle), it’s woven throughout the narrative of how Lucretius’s poem, On the Nature of Things, which is full of Epicurus’s ideas about many things but significantly his proposal that the pursuit of happiness is the highest good in life, was rediscovered in 1417, centuries after it was written. For Epicurus, Lucretius and many other ancients and moderns, a life devoted to the pleasures of discovery, curiosity, wonder, learning, friendships, the arts, and sensual goods like sex, food and wine (in moderation) was obviously better than a life driven by fear — whether it was fear of being condemned to a horrible afterlife, or, as we moderns seem to have, a fear of scarcity …. or perhaps a fear of leisure?