Thomas Fleming’s commentary is fantastic:
Only a maniac would have devised the Protestant Work Ethic, and only a fool would try to live his life according to it.
The ancients knew better. If they had any money, they had slaves to do all the heavy lifting, including going over the accounts and taking dictation and reading books aloud. For the Romans, otium—leisure was the desired state, while the opposite word, negotium—non-leisure—is the word we routinely translate as business. (The Italians know the score, and negotium has become negozio, shop or store, a place where people have to a work that is necessary but undesirable. The late Josef Pieper understood the ancient and the Christian mind, and his little essay, Leisure the Basis of Culture is a wholesome antidote to the great American obsession with the supposed virtues of work. What other country could have created such preposterous humbugs as Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, or—the ultimate in humbuggery—Rick Warren, whose very title (The Purpose-Driven Life) gives me the jim-jams. Imagine a country that could produce such a book and, worse, produce enough readers to make Warren a success. My people, my people.
We have demonized the sense of otium, which survives in English as the adjective otiose, used sometimes to mean “indolent” but more typically in the sense of “serving no practical purpose.” When we do celebrate leisure, it is usually in the form of “leisure-time activities,” expensive and time-consuming sports and hobbies that we pursue with the same grim determination we apply to our jobs. A bass fisherman without tens of thousands of dollars of equipment cannot be taken seriously, and golfers—just listen to them talk about their handicaps, the length of their drives, the 78 they shot on the back nine. It’s all a matter of keeping score.
If a golfer did not continue to buy the latest technology or keep score of his accomplishments, he would be simply having a good time that serves “no practical purpose.” It’s not the competition, even in sports and hobbies is not healthy and, for normal men at least, inevitable, but we Americans seem to care less and less about the game itself and more and more about the statistics. Just try watching a game on television some time, as the game-changing triple or strike-out interrupts the play-by-play announcer’s recitation of irrelevant facts about other players in other games.
How do you know you are winning if you are not keeping score? Forty years ago, as I recall, a man in business was supposed to make, at a minimum, as many thousands as he had years. Now, I suppose, it is double that. We have blood pressure scores, weight loss scores, and men know how much weight they can press (Don’t ask, because my answer is sure to embarrass someone.) When we are born, we are assigned an Apgar score; later we are given a Personal Vitality Score. Fortunately, I have never learned what they call the mortality score they assign to dying people.
There is nothing too trivial or too important not to receive a number. We grade women in a bar on a scale of one to ten, and we use the same scale to evaluate decisions. “On a scale of one to ten, how highly do you value access to a beach in your retirement community?” Part of this obsession can be blamed on teachers who think test numbers actually correspond to some reality. But a lot of it is related to our need to be important.
Americans who are anybody are determined to be a somebody, whether it is on Wall Street or the Country Club. St. Paul has that nice phrase about people who say they are something. He was warning his readers about taking themselves too seriously as objects of importance. I do not know what he could have said to modern Americans, who are positively convinced that it is their duty to be somebody.
Most of us fail to become the Donald Trump or Barry Bonds or Michael Jackson we are in our dreams, and when we do we are not content to settle down with the girl next door and lead the normal human life we were made for. Some of us waste our time on schemes to make ourselves rich and famous—Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Cramden is a more tragic and pathetic character than Willy Loman. Or we spend our lives wailing over what might have been. “I coulda had class, I couda been a contender, I couda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
Most of Martin Scorsese’s best characters are driven mad by the desire to be somebody among the hundreds of millions of nobodies that fill up these United States. The Taxi Driver takes on the burden of avenging the sufferings of child prostitutes, and the King of Comedy dreams of being the next Johnny Carson. (Johnny who? That guy before Letterman and Leno?)
Back in my misspent middle age, when I used to read (and occasionally write for) The National Review, I was forever seeing ads for Mr. Buckley’s personal accounts of his own life. In books like Cruising Speed and Overdrive, as I recall from brief extracts, poor Bill never had a moment to himself. It was breakfast with Henry Kissinger, meetings with the secretaries of this and that, rehearsals for a harpsichord concert at Carnegie Hall, a spy thriller chapter banged out, more meetings with more secretaries, and an evening out with some of the Beautiful People. Lord, how I pitied the poor fellow.