Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Leisure, Mangled

Originally a comment left at The Chronicle of Higher Education website for the article, In Praise of Leisure, by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky

I can't say I'm persuaded, and not just because of the superabundance of quotes which the authors seem to think fill in the gaps of the argument, or the fact that this is a pale retread of select Plato and Aristotle without the context of their ethics, or the passive swipes at easy targets. Rather their inattention to the essential matter of definition is shockingly sloppy.

First, the authors define "leisure" as "activity without extrinsic end" and then as "spontaneous activity," and I pass over the latter on account of its senselessness (as written.) By "extrinsic" one could mean either "inessential" or "external." Now since they imply leisure is very important I suppose they mean "external," which, let us be honest, they should have written even though it does not sound fancy. (Or they should have qualified what the task was extrinsic to, since it is not extrinsic to the individual.)

Anyway, the authors go on to give examples of a teacher, a musician, and a scientist which are all inappropriate because as you say, sort of, it is the purpose (or lack thereof) that makes a leisure activity. They may be paid, the authors say, but because such people don't do it for the money, it is leisure. They chose these particular crafts because they are respectable and you essentially argue that such activities are by nature leisure activities (although they don't say why.) What they should have said was "anything chosen for its own sake" is a leisure activity, but that doesn't pander to the likely Chronicle readers, I suppose. Too, it could apply to any activity.

Fine, then, we have our definition of leisure. Why is it important? Frankly, that's what the article should have been about. Instead we get a lot of quotes to make us feel smart and elite. Oh, and who fits such a caricature of someone who values money in itself? Scrooge McDuck? Don't most people with money spend it on things? Why not argue that those things are wasteful? Because the authors don't want to offend their target audience by telling them that they should not spend on iPods and trips to the Caribbean and should instead take "stoic vacations" in their minds? Isn't such a rebuke sort of implied by their "limits" on money, since limiting money would limit people to what you think are the essential goods?

Second, the authors define capitalism (kinda sorta) as desiring wealth. Why? I know they want to demean mindless acquisitiveness but why call such "capitalism?" Capitalism has as often been defined as simply or essentially, "absolute property rights."

Speaking of rights, I would mention their "[il]liberality." They write that liberalism is not neutrality but specific values. Fair enough. They also implied (sneaky!) that, like Keynes, Berlin, and Trilling, that the state ought to "uphold civilization" otherwise the people with money will control public taste. Since they let this cat out of the bag. . . a few questions.

They use the word "guardians of capital" to set (just whom anyway?) as the "guardians of culture." Platonic guardians, I take it? So the elite should control, via the state, what is promoted? Or the people, because they elect the state? Would they argue that democracy chooses the good, or defines it? Better than oligarchy? Does money control taste? Does it change or promote it? Has it? Does it more than other means? Why? If so, doesn't that spell doom for a liberal society and property rights?

But wait the authors don't want to ban money, it's just that "the game should be subject to rules and limitations." So I guess they will indeed be the guardians. So just what brand of "liberalism" are they advocating? "State-guided liberty?"

Lastly, don't you think advocating the good life and living it joyfully will promote it better than ivory tower finger-wagging? Or developing a philosophy based on values? No, better to write a quasi-scholarly parade of quotations to sell your book in the hope that it competes with Michael Sandel's equally flatulent book which just beat theirs to press.

I'm willing to believe their book is better than this, but who would buy it after such a poor precis? I would rather re-read Josef Pieper's, "Leisure: The Basis of Culture," which beat their book to press by 64 years and deals systematically with actual concepts and philosophy.

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