In Praise of Leisure: A Summer Symposium

— The “symposium” is the fashion of the hour. Each magazine strives to attract the public by a gathering together of distinguished names, belonging to persons diametrically opposed to each other on the point under discussion; or it obtains what is fondly called a “ consensus ” of opinion on a topic upon which there is supposed to be more or less agreement, among men who differ widely on other points. Now, I am not aware that The Atlantic has yet, had a symposium. But, as holiday time has come, let us of the Contributors’ Club provide one, since the editor has neglected to do so. With his permission, I propose for the subject under consideration, Leisure; and for writers thereupon, a King (since crowned heads have taken to writing for the magazines), a Poet, a Romancer, and a Philosopher.

For the opinion of the crowned head in question, I am sorry to say that I have been referred to his (English) publishers, instead of receiving any fresh contribution from himself : “ I considered all travail and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbour. . . . Better is a handful of herbs with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.”“ This,” they write, “ is the passage to which His Majesty alludes. In spite of the fate of the latest Copyright Bill, we prefer that you should not use it.” I have accordingly condensed it, as the “ stars ” do show.

Mr. Browning stated through a friend that “ he had never known what it was to have to do a certain thing to-day, and not to-morrow ; he thought this had led to a superabundance of production, since, on looking back, he could see that he had often been afraid to be idle.” But this has been the case with writers, before, and indeed of, Mr. Browning’s period ; and in the latter case with less happy results. It was possibly the sentiment of Sir Thomas Browne, when he devoted considerable leisure to that agreeable work entitled The Garden of Cyrus : or, The Quincuncial Lozenge, or, Network Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered ; and also the feeling of a less known — I may say a deservedly less known — author, one Thoms by name, who, in the forty-eighth year of the nineteenth century, devoted xxxix + 398 pages octavo to Part First of a work on The Number and Names of the Apocalyptic Beasts.

Having heard from a poet among kings —certain Societies are at liberty to complete the antithesis — and Mr. Browning, I felt that, as a good American, I ought not to neglect home industries. Accordingly I endeavored to extract opinions from Mr. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mr. Thoreau, at one time fellow-townsmen. It was intended that another portion of our country should be represented, but I am told that, as yet, so little leisure is to be found in the West that any attempt to procure an account of it would cause a delay fatal to my symposium. But to continue : Mr. Hawthorne tacitly insinuated that long residence in another and leisure-loving country had perhaps unfitted him for accurate judgment of opportunities of leisure in America ; but he long ago not only felt, but said, that “it is the iron rule in our day to require an object and a purpose in life. No life now wanders like an unfettered stream; there is a mill-wheel for the tiniest rivulet to turn. We go all wrong, by too strenuous a resolution to go all right.”

As for Mr. Thoreau, he is perhaps more diffuse than Solomon himself. “ It would be glorious,” he writes, “ to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work. I cannot easily buy a blank-book to write thoughts in ; they are commonly ruled for dollars and cents. An Irishman, seeing me make a minute in the fields, took it for granted that I was calculating my wages. If a man was tossed out of a window when an infant and made a cripple for life, or scared out of his wits by the Indians, it is regretted chiefly because he was thus incapacitated for — business! I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business. . . . If a man walk in the woods, for love of them, half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making Earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.”

In one of his essays, Mr. Lowell mentions a book, to which, he says, “ we are indebted for the invention of the Man of Leisure.” And it occurred to me to address myself to the author of that volume for a final opinion upon the subject under discussion. He writes most fully, and there is so much that is charmingly put, full of allusion and delightfully excursive, — a little in the manner of Montaigne, — that I should like to quote more fully than space permits me to do. His ideas about leisure are summed up, however, in one classically phrased sentence : " The wisdom of a learned man cometh by opportunity of leisure, and he that hath little business shall become wise.” How much truth is contained in these lines those know best who wish for wider leisure for pursuits which they feel would make their minds quicker, more flexible, and more serviceable to themselves and to others ; and who, without it, feel the cobwebs of the brain growing thicker and dustier year by year. But, lest I reach too severe a strain for a midsummer discussion, let me add, in passing, that it is a pity that the works of the writer just quoted — who, although his name is shrewdly suspected, still prefers to give his work to the world unacknowledged — should be so little read. The demand for his books is so small that they are relegated almost entirely to cheap reprints. Nor can I remember, in fact, ever to have seen a first edition of Ecclesiasticus in really good condition.

And so, since summer holidays have come, let us take our ease in our inn, with a light heart and a good conscience, feeling that leisure may be made the best of investments. Let us remember that comparatively few uncomfortable proverbs originated with Solomon. They came in with Benjamin Franklin, who, knowing when not to put them into practice, became thereby an eminently successful man. Do not listen to all his busy maxims, but, supported by H. M. King Solomon, Messrs. Browning, Hawthorne, and Thoreau, and our anonymous contributor, enjoy your leisure all you can. And if you would know what leisure is, and what the so-called ineffective life may be, read the letters of the late Edward Fitzgerald, the most shining example of the man of leisure that our times have known. One can say of him as Mr. Lowell said of Edmund Quincy : —

“ Much did he, and much well; yet most of all
I prized his skill in leisure, and the ease
Of a life flowing full, without a plan;
For most are idly busy.”

Indeed, it is not by shirking our plain duties that we should gain this leisure; nor need we adopt Charles Lamb’s maxim of leaving a day’s work early, to make up for undertaking it late. Leisure must be fairly come by. But we hear so much of the duty of honest toil that it is time to hear something of the duty of honest leisure, and to have a care to ask ourselves whether (as some one has well put it), if we spend our lives in getting our living, we are living our lives at all!