Liberty and Leisure – George Herbert, “otium” and lessons for our age

This is the text of an editorial I wrote for the 2013 edition of Camden, Westminster School’s liberal arts magazine meditating on the old clash of “otium” (leisure) and “negotium” (business) in the context of education and modern life. The original text and the whole magazine are available online here:

Liberty and Leisure 

One way in which the 17th-century Old Westminster poet George Herbert shows the modernity of his mindset is a thoroughly uncomfortable relationship with free time.

In one of his poems, Heaven, he ponders what delights one might find in the hereafter. The first two, he discovers, are “Light” and “joy”. However, the third and greatest is “leisure”. It is a quality which he feels does not ultimately belong to the human condition. In another poem, The Pulley, he suggests that this lack is part of God’s plan. During the creation, God endowed mankind with every blessing except rest. Man could have “beauty… wisdom, honour, pleasure” but had to keep them with “repining restlessness”. “Let him be rich and weary,” said God, “that at least,/ If goodness lead him not, yet weariness/ May toss him to my breast.” Herbert loves the idea of leisure, but fears that its actual possession in this life could easily lead man astray.

By expressing these ideas, Herbert was contributing to a debate which had started in the ancient world. The Romans put it as a contest between otium and negotium – “leisure” and “business”. 

It was the virtue of a Roman to take part in the public sphere. He should be busying himself in the courts, military service, and political office. Here, he might win glory for himself and his family. A failure to do so was seen as indolence, offensive to the state. A Roman who refused to take part in negotium could hardly be said to be Roman at all.

This is not to say that otium was out of bounds. The case for otium was best put by Cicero, who had been forced out of public life in the 50s BC by his rival Caesar into a long spell of otium. Although Cicero was not at ease with his own otium, he turned it to good account. During this period he worked incessantly, producing a slew of books on philosophy and statecraft, many of which had the merit of bringing great tranches of Greek thought into the Roman world. Cicero argued that otium, when used for literary and intellectual pursuits, was of as much benefit to the state as negotium. By acquainting oneself with the works of great writers and philosophers and conveying them to a wider public, one not only became a better statesman, but also improved the people at large. By this token, his otium had nothing of desidia (“idleness”) but was actually otium negotiosum – “busy leisure”.

The debate was one which carried on through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. For St Augustine, otium gave one the opportunity to philosophise and contemplate higher things. St Thomas Aquinas, taking up the Roman debate, held that the Contemplative Life was better than the Active Life, but that the Active Life was still a prerequisite to contemplation. Quoting Gregory the Great, he observes that labour can sometimes be necessary to put one in a fit state for contemplation: “…there be some so restless that when they are free from labour they labour all the more, because the more leisure they have for thought, the worse interior turmoil they have to bear”.

Many Renaissance scholars similarly saw such a need for balance. They lauded the liberty otium gave for religious contemplation, self-examination, and the production of art and poetry, but at the same time recognised the need to engage in public life.

Hence, a number of thinkers observed that there were many dangers in too much negotium. Petrarch, for example, suggested that leisure and withdrawal were an antidote to worldly vanity; a necessary path for those who desire true knowledge. There is a slothful ease in being busy. By losing oneself in overwork, one may be easily distracted from the difficulty and discomfort of genuine hard thought and confronting real problems. The idea is well expressed by another 17th-century poet, Mildmay Fane, 2nd Earl of Westmoreland, “Our Senses are bewitch’d, and seem to grow/ So to the Creature, and on things below,/ That all our busied Fancy can devise,/ Serves more to sink them, than to make them rise…”

This old debate has much to tell the modern world. We are in an age where otium is being crowded out. To use the old cliché, we are cash rich (if we are lucky) and time poor. The persistent demands of the internet, mobile communications, and 24-hour news seize our intellectual appetite like over-salted peanuts. In the political world, the Sisyphean whirl of spin and instant reaction leaves little room for governments to think deeply about the difficult problems of globalisation, overpopulation and the environment. Financial service workers, engrossed by the Blackberry and long hours, give little thought to the wider consequences of their actions. In the media, the difficult and complex is always eschewed for the simplified and bite-sized, for audiences are thought too distracted to concentrate on anything hard. Likewise, in many public institutions, more effort is expended on fine showings in league tables, leaving the strange and original endeavour – in which the genuine strength of society often lies – to perish for want of space.

The word “school” is derived from the Greek σχολή, meaning “leisure”. Now more than ever is it imperative to remember this fact. The Liberal Education for which Westminster School was founded is none other than Cicero’s otium negotiosum: free thought, enquiry and creativity dependent on free time and freedom from cares. As Hobbes said, “leisure is the mother of philosophy”. The best way to achieve the promises of the Liberal Education is to try to achieve less, thus standing against the prevailing imbalance towards negotium in modern society. Herbert’s paradise of leisure is not so difficult to win, and it is not something that we should approach with any fear.