“I have time when I am not conscious of time which presses in upon me in its empty quality, as lifeless time. He who has leisure thereby disposes of boundless time; he lives in the fullness of time, be he active or at rest.”
Friedrich Juenger, The Failure of Technology
I find these lines stunning. Indeed, they scare me. Reading them was one of those difficult moments, when with a combination of excitement and fear I get short of breath. Convinced there is an insight here we have simply lost—and one that makes a great difference in life—I struggle to reckon with it.
The experience is heightened by its immediate connection for me with another line that lives in my memory and haunts me. It is one of the closing lines in Hilaire Belloc’s great essay ‘The Mowing of a Field.’ There he describes a day laborer who helped him ‘mow,’ i.e., by hand with a scythe, his field:
He went off with a slow and steady progress, as all our peasants do, making their walking a part of the easy but continual labor of their lives.
Somehow that sentence has always signaled for me something I crave in my life, yet something elusive and difficult to identify or put into words. And much more, to seek and actualize.
To heighten the drama, the quoted words from Juenger come in the context of his explaining the effects of mechanized technology. Just prior to the above quotation, he asserts, “[Technology] has brought about a situation where man no longer has time, where he is destitute of time, where he is hungry for time.” And, “To the extent to which lifeless time can be exploited mechanically, it begins to encroach upon man’s life time and to hem it in from all sides.”
Here we are swimming in deep waters; waters, again, in which I struggle to get a breath. This much I know: I have a problem with how I live in time. I often experience myself as trapped, and indeed as hemmed in on all sides—sides that can seem to close in on me.
How to move toward a solution? First, I resolve to take a closer look at this issue of time, both as a universal phenomenon of our age and as a challenge in my particular life circumstances. (And I plan to share here the fruits of my reflections, whatever they might be.) Second, Juenger has already fingered for us the philosophical heart of the solution. In brilliant Aristotelian fashion, he turns to the centrality of leisure, and its inseparable tie to the daily work of life.
To get time right, we must get leisure right. Leisure is always the first principle. Leisure in its true sense transcends time. And for this very reason, it alone is what makes time come alive, bringing it to its fruition—even when we are at work.
Looking at my own life I realize that my consistent experience of being short on time means at least this: I am failing in living the primacy of leisure, the leisure that “disposes of boundless time!”
Finally, I realize that I must reflect more on the notion of lifeless time versus living time, and how this relates to technology. Juenger emphasizes a connection between the place of technology in our lives—our home, work, and broader economy—and our experience of time. He challenges us to recognize the strong influence of technology on the contexts that in turn either conduce to or undermine the abundant life we so crave. And he was writing in 1939.
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To pursue leisure further… several short videos clarify the concepts of leisure, work, and amusement. Start with the Concepts Made Clear video below, and especially be sure to see What Leisure Has to Do with the Meaning of Life.
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