A penniless Aristocrat’s defence of life in the leisure class

“The end of labour is to gain leisure”

Aristotle

Vemblen’s theory of conspicuous leisure has always appealed to me. It is the notion that those with the highest social standing, or more usually opulent wealth, advertise their success and their social status through their excessive pursuit of obscene amounts of leisure.  Conspicuous leisure is a statement to the community that you have reached a station in life where you have become so financially successful that you no longer need to work.  In fact you are so wealthy that you can waste extraordinary sums of time and money on trifles and trivialities.

What I particularly like about this is the devoting large amounts of time to idle living. I’ve always entertained a pleasant fantasy that one day I would have a Scrooge McDuck bank vault full of money and plenty of time on my hands. My dream was never about using that money to buy stuff. In my dream there was some uncomfortable swimming in the coin pit, a few painful dives off the high board, a butler catering to my needs and lots of time just hanging out in my mansion with different people just having fun.

Unfortunately conspicuous leisure has always been the privilege of the lords and ladies of the manor. Certainly not the prerogative of us working class folk. For starters you need substantial land holdings and local peasants to toil away to generate the opulent income that is required.

At the halfway point in life our family has neither of these prerequisites. Still it is entirely funny how one’s life can turn out.  I frequently engage in idle leisure pursuits that are not in anyway related to making money.  I don’t hide it. You could say I am very conspicuous in my enjoyment of leisure. Shall I therefore conclude that I am officially a member of the leisure class without having had to take the stringent entry exam?  This notion pleases me much more than being a white collar member of the working class.  Frankly my working class life sucked mittens.

True the primary difference between myself and the lords and ladies is that I don’t have an inordinate amount of wealth, a substantial land holding or many peasants to put to toil.  I have small landholdings that generate a small income.  The only peasant at my disposal is less than a foot tall and possibly a drunkard (he babbles and stumbles a lot and from my limited observation has never yet demonstrated mastery of all of his faculties). Still I have a peasant under my instruct (a 1 year old son that will one day be a useful addition to the family labour force) and so for these reasons I consider myself and Ms Simple to be penniless aristocrats and deserved members of the leisure class. It is far better for our self esteem than grubby urchins or some other unpleasant description of our poverty stricken existence.

Now as a penniless aristocrat I feel it is my duty to attempt to make some defence of our life in the leisure class as others more gifted have more successfully attempted.

To start my impassioned defence I feel that I must point out that most of my American friends are so bottle feed productivity and efficiency from birth that the notion of idle leisure is abhorrent to them. One must never be or be seen to be idle. It is the American way to work endlessly, and juggle many things at once. Proper conduct within this context is to replace freetime with education all while maintaining a part-time job, a full time job, therapy, gym based exercise and charitable activity.

While many other countries place the highest value on recreation and leisure for its citizens, idleness has received a very bad reputation in the US altogether. There are no afternoon siestas. No two hour lunches. No two month holidays at Christmas and almost no nights or weekends not gainfully employed to earn an improved social status. This is because leisure does not generate a dollar and the dollar is the foremost thing which we must have to be considered a mortal success in this world.

So it is my hope to convince all US and other proponents of speed, productivity, efficiency, hardwork, and self development that they are missing out on the romance of life. At the very least I hope that this blog encourages a small few to consider devoting at least a small part of everyday to utter idleness. My view is that idleness is so enjoyable, so beneficial and so constructive for the human spirit that the longest part of everyday should be worshipping idle pleasures. The more idle the better I say and the only way to debunk my thinking is to try this stategem for yourself for an extended period. After which if you think idle living is an utter waste of your life you are perfectly entitled to draw that conclusion. However, I suspect that you will not. The benefits of idle living are self evident.

My first piece of mortar to drop into this battle for leisure is to point out idleness isn’t synonymous with either inertness, laziness or stupidity. While all look similar closer inspection reveals clear differences. An idle fellow can day dream up great inventions and a quick scan of the history of monumental achievement proves this is the case. There are numerous stories where the provocateur is sat idle until suddenly from nowhere they are stuck by the most wondrous idea. Often they then spend the rest of their lives trying to fully describe or deliver the great mechanical or technical creation that they saw in the blink of their idle mind’s eye. The lazy or inert individual, unlike the idler would never make such effort to turn a dream into reality.

The idle gent or lady should then better be described as a thinker. Someone who consciously takes time out to ponder, to consider, and generally mentally wrestle the universe into submission.  I suspect the denigration of idleness and leisure is also partly to do with the avoidance of thinking. It is too apparent that people in our hyperactive world will go to great lengths and do a good deal of far more elaborate activities to avoid having to think. There is a strong preference in our society for physical activity over mental labour.  But why is this so? The idler then is someone that is willing to face the hardest graft while others turn away from the task to find easier work.

I contend then that idleness is an excellent use of time. Idle folk are not lazy or stupid. They are preproductive. Their vita contemplativa is the precursor to great achievement. Idlers are thinkers and all of our greatest achievements are born of ideas.  The conspicuous leisure of the penniless aristocrat should not be scorned for somewhere within it might be the genesis of the next great achievement of humanity. Idleness is a rejection of the trivialities of forced labour. A statement of personal anarchy. A throwing off of the constraints of expected behaviour. Idleness is good. No in fact it is great!

Praise be to leisure and idleness in all their varied disguise!

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9 thoughts on “A penniless Aristocrat’s defence of life in the leisure class

  1. A great reminder – As an American, I have to say that I agree with you completely; idleness and unproductivity is the devil here, and I’ve begun to realize how unhealthy that is. My focus is always on the destination, which takes the fun out of the journey.

    I think the main problem is social class comparison, and America’s emphasis on wealth as the primary form of status. It’s ingrained into my mind that I need to stay focused and driven to succeed, and to a degree that’s true – but when I measure my success by financial wealth and social class, I’m missing out on true success – any philosopher will tell you that (I’m thinking Aristotle’s Eudaimonia and Descartes’ application of dualism in particular)

  2. Your stance on idleness is shared by Leonardo Da Vinci by the way:
    “Men of lofty genius when they are doing the least work are most active.”
    I love that quote.

  3. Brilliant essay! I was unaware just to what extent Americans are obsessed with productivity. There’s certainly a lot of idleness here in Britain and France, the two places where I’ve spent the most time!

    Have you read Bertrand Russell’s ‘In Praise of Idleness’? Although I don’t agree with all of it, your points really reminded me of it.

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