Remembering a prominent ISI alumnus
Leisure, the Basis of Summer Break
Classes have ended, or soon will, with final papers and exams to follow them into the hazy fog of memory. The term is over, and summer is (almost) here.
For some of you, this is a transition to a career, while others look forward to internships, a summer job, or summer classes—in other words, work. For many of you, summer brings travel, family, baseball games, and grilling—a reprieve, even idleness. That’s all fine and well, and certainly a good life includes tubing down rivers or dangling legs off docks.
But whatever you do, don’t waste the idle time you have.
Don’t waste idle time—what could that mean? Isn’t idling, by definition, to waste time, to idle time away, to do nothing?
This is often the case, to be sure, but there’s another way to think of it, for buried in the various meanings of idle is the sense of “pointless” or “groundless,” as in “idle chatter” or “idle threat.” Now, I’ll admit it’s difficult to rehabilitate the meaning of idle by appealing to pointlessness, but I’m going to try.
Imagine telling your aunt that your major is pointless and thus you are idling away your years at university. A hard conversation, I suspect, especially if she’s supporting you financially. But we know that to engage in an action for some reason (a point) is to do it for something other than itself. If I do x for the sake of y, then x has its grounding in y; only because of y does x have a point. For example, if I hate running and receive no pleasure from it, but run for my health, then the point of running is health. Running is pointless in and of itself. (One could imagine a different scenario if I enjoyed running, which I do not.) Given that scenario, if running did not lead to health, I would no longer run.
But consider health for a moment. I run in order to be healthy, and running has a point because of health, but why do I seek health? Try as I might, no ready answer comes to mind. I seek health for no real reason other than itself. I want to be healthy because health is, well, good. Health has no point beyond itself; it serves no purpose. Health is pointless.
When we idle, we use time without having a point, and so idling is pointless. But pointless like health, or pointless like running? Is idling a waste or good in and of itself?
Consider my statement again: Don’t waste idle time. The prohibition against wasting time suggests that I’m not encouraging you to spend your summer doing nothing. Instead, I’m recommending that you spend at least part of your summer seeking things that, like health, are good in and of themselves. Things without a point, even though worthwhile.
Josef Pieper explains this well in his little book on feasting (which is fantastic):
To celebrate a festival means to do something which is in no way tied to other goals, which has been removed from all “so that” and “in order to.” True festivity cannot be imagined as residing anywhere but in the realm of activity that is meaningful in itself.
To celebrate a festival, then, is to engage in an activity that serves no point. It is, like health, pointless because meaningful in itself, and thus not a waste of time.
As I explain in Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire, it isn’t easy to become the sort of person who engages in activity meaningful in itself. We are all trained to evaluate everything in terms of its usefulness, and so have a difficult time comprehending what it even means to do something for its own sake. As Pieper notes, it’s hard to find people who know how to feast, for it requires a certain kind of existential richness, a depth of vision and understanding to see the point.
We are used to thinking that nothing is meaningful in itself. But that means that everything is pointless, and in the bad way. Oddly, unless we have some pointless things—in the sense of being meaningful in themselves—then nothing has a point. This is a kind of nihilism, thinking that nothing matters, that all of life is idle, worthless, without value.
Learning to see the worth of the world takes some training, actually; if we are not existentially rich enough to understand what matters in and of itself, we’ll most likely reduce everything to the useful, including those things that shouldn’t be used but preserved and cherished as having their own purpose. Things like friendship, religion, play, study, sex, or literature.
Summer, more than the benefits of any part-time job or internship or road trip, exists as a training in sight, as a chance to become existentially rich enough to see and love the goodness in things. After a (very) long series of finals, many of which, in all honesty, were done not for their own sake, we need to remember this truth: the most important things don’t have a point; they are lovely in themselves.
Don’t waste idle time. Don’t waste your summer. Learn to see again, perhaps through some well-conceived, and utterly delightful, idling.
R. J. Snell is visiting lecturer at Princeton University and directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute.
Complement with R. J. Snell on what a successful college career looks like, Russell Kirk on the purpose of the liberal arts, and Jane Clark Scharl on how reading Josef Pieper get help you get over FOMO.
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