Making the Case for Wasting Time

Montaigne, Whitman, and Thoreau saw loafing as time well spent. 

HUMANITIES, Summer 2018, Volume 39, Number 3

The passing of Labor Day heralds the unofficial end of another American summer, a season celebrated as a time to embrace the joy of doing less.

But in The Art of the Wasted Day, a new book that got a good bit of attention this summer from readers and critics alike, author Patricia Hampl argues that doing less is an ideal we should embrace throughout the year.

Hampl laments that she’s often too busy minding her to-do list to think about what she’s living for. “I sense I’m not alone,” she tells readers. “Fretful, earnest, ambitious strivers—we take no comfort in existence unfurling easefully. . . . For the worker bee, life is given over to the grim satisfaction of striking a firm line through a task accomplished.”

As an alternative, Hampl points to the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), who famously “retired” from his public life as an important government official to sit in the tower of his estate, read, and think. His Essays, acclaimed the world over and never out of print since it first appeared centuries ago, was the result.

But even Montaigne, revered as an icon of cheerful repose, had trouble sitting still, as one of his early essays, “On Idleness,” makes clear:

(I)t seemed to me then that the greatest favour I could  do for my mind was to leave it in total idleness, caring for itself, concerned only with itself, calmly thinking of itself. . . . But I find . . . that on the contrary it bolted off like a runaway horse, taking far more trouble over itself than it ever did over anyone else; it gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, one after another, without order or fitness, that, so as to contemplate at my ease their oddness and their strangeness, I began to keep a record of them, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.

In Montaigne: A Life, a mammoth biography published in an American edition last year, author Philippe Desan stresses that Montaigne’s temporary retreat from public affairs wasn’t just a blithe exercise in dropping out—that it wasn’t, in the true sense, a retirementat all. By putting the world at arm’s length for a while, Montaigne gained the perspective he needed to reengage as a leader and grow as a writer. Seen this way, time off the clock isn’t a rejection of an active, accomplished life, but a complement to it.

That ideal informs the work of several other writers.

The eccentric career of Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), which included sporadic stints as a surveyor to support his meditative two years at Walden Pond and his extended observations of the natural world, prompted some of his fellow residents of Concord, Massachusetts, to suspect him of laziness. But Thoreau’s voluminous writing and intensely documented records of local flora and fauna underscored the depth of his ambition. “Most men, even in this comparatively free country,” Thoreau complained, “through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.” Like Montaigne, Thoreau used time away from conventional work not to escape life but to embrace it.

Poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892), whom Thoreau admired, was also suspected of being a slacker. When he was fired from the Aurora, a New York newspaper, the management publicly accused him of laziness. During his days as a newspaperman, Whitman was fond of long walks in the middle of the day, something generally not welcome in most offices. It’s safe to say that he didn’t think of leisure as a dirty word. One of Whitman’s journal entries, published as part of his prose work Specimen Days, is called “Loafing in the Woods.” Whitman’s mental and physical perambulations, although not easily summarized as items on a resume, nurtured the imagination behind Leaves of Grass, the book-length poem that stands as the ultimate legacy of a man still widely hailed as one of America’s best poets. In that epic work, Whitman famously declares, “I loaf and invite my soul.”

Despite chronic health problems throughout much of his life, Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894) roamed widely, producing books of travelog and essays, along with children’s fiction and classic novels such as Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He succeeded, Stevenson suggested, by working hard while remembering not to work too hard. In one of his best essays, “An Apology for Idlers,” Stevenson observed that the ability to occasionally forgo constant activity is the sign of a healthy imagination:

Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation. . . . It is no good speaking to such folk: they cannot be idle, their nature is not generous enough; and they pass those hours in a sort of coma, which are not dedicated to furious moiling in the gold-mill.   

In one of his journal entries, a passage called “The Sky—Days and Nights—Happiness,” Whitman takes time to lose himself in a little cloud-gazing—a respite so sublime that he wonders if life can get any better: “What is happiness, anyhow? Is this one of its hours, or the like of it?—so impalpable, a mere breath, an evanescent tinge? I am not sure—so let me give myself the benefit of the doubt.”

The entry is from October 20, 1876—comforting proof that mental breaks can work wonders long after summer has passed. The only trick, as another summer recedes, is to make time for them.