Free Time is Holy
Posted on June 30, 2016
The ancient Greek word schole is usually translated as “leisure,” and it is from this word that we get a number of English words. A school is a place where one can spend hours away from work, devoting that time to a study and unhurried reflection that would be impossible when toiling to meet expectations of productivity in the field or the factory. (Or so goes the idea.) A scholar is a person similarly free from productivity quotas, able to devote the majority of their time to thinking and discussing ideas.
Classically, school and scholarship have been the prerogative of a small demographic of wealthy or otherwise socially privileged persons, and this classist history has been well-documented and appropriately critiqued. After all, the liberal arts or artes liberales literally means “arts of free men” (arts that they did not need to be profitable, arts concerned with what is fine and beautiful, such as logic, geometry, astronomy, music, philosophy, etc.) as opposed to artes serviles, “arts of servants” (arts aimed at providing necessities, the mechanical arts such as cooking, farming, carpentry, masonry, tailoring, etc.). The sharp separation of these kinds of work—one taken to be “too low” for the nobility to busy themselves with, the other taken to be “too lofty” for the rabble to appreciate—has carried over into our current age in many ways that other people track better than I could. My main aim here is to point to a social possibility hinted at but unclaimed by this history: provided that our needs could be met in a fair and sufficient way through wise and responsible organization of automation technology, the leisure important for useless but beautiful activity could be the lifestyle of all and not just the luxury of a few. The mechanical arts heretofore denigrated as “necessary evils” could have their artistic potential opened up. When you don’t have to rush to throw something together for dinner after a long day on the job, cooking can be an opportunity for self-expression and fellow feeling, as it should be. Our workaday lives could have the same aura of self-exploration a few of us currently get to feel in the heady days of college. All arts could be fine arts, all arts could be liberal arts—not merely in the negative sense that you are free because others slave away for you, but in the positive sense that these arts set you free and allow you to be free alongside others. It’s for this reason that I prefer to translate schole as “free time,” because this underscores the extent to which a free society cannot exist without a great deal of free time.
What stands in the way of a time of free time? Why do we feel as though we have no time? According to Herbert Marcuse, we feel hurried because we feel harried, beset on all sides by pressure to live up to expectations of productivity, expectations to perform that are so deeply ingrained that we place this pressure on ourselves “to do something useful” even when off the job. (He calls this internalized pressure “the performance principle.”) Despite indisputable advances in time-saving technologies, we work more hours than ever before—or else—and are expected to project a mask of phony cheerfulness about doing so, even when we lack freedom to decide what sort of work we do, how it can be done, how long we do it for, who we do it with, and who we do it for. The language and values of the marketplace are increasingly internalized to the exclusion of alternative ways of thinking: consumer preferences become paradigmatic for self-determination, privatization presents itself as the solution to political problems, professional philosophers debate whether they should “buy” the premises of arguments.
Liberal arts colleges wither under the pressure for the mechanical arts, which are in turn not allowed to blossom into autonomous artistry but become instead arts for maximizing efficiency toward mechanically pre-given ends. Aristotle sounds not only classist but quaint when he says of education that “To be always seeking after the useful does not become free and exalted souls.” Aristotle meant only a small subset of people when he talked about “free souls,” but he was more right than he knew: people of all sexes, races, and backgrounds cannot be free unless they gain free time, in which they do not need to “get something out of” the activities in which they delight. It is this double moment of elitist obfuscation and egalitarian potential that Marcuse finds within “high culture.” In describing the wonders of a transcendent world where soul and Spirit soar free, it justifies the delay of justice in this world, even as this description of the higher world inspires us to imagine and then demand that a better world is possible:
The freedom of the soul was used to excuse the poverty, martyrdom, and bondage of the body. It served the ideological surrender of existence to the economy of capitalism. Correctly understood, however, spiritual freedom does not mean the participation of man in an eternal beyond where everything is righted when the individual can no longer benefit from it. Rather, it anticipates the higher truth that in this world a form of social existence is possible in which the economy does not preempt the entire life of individuals. Man does not live by bread alone; this truth is thoroughly falsified by the interpretation that spiritual nourishment is an adequate substitute for too little bread.
Does the hope for an afterlife negate the pursuit of free time in this life? In the passage above Marcuse tells us the dangers of a false interpretation of Jesus’ reply to Satan’s temptation to transhumanist self-assertion in Luke 4:4 (and by extension, Deuteronomy 8:3), but Marcuse does not clarify what a true interpretation of this passage would be. I wish to pick up on the neglected possibility of liberation latent within the search for what is eternal, such that reverence for the potentially holy character of time is the completion of the attitude that respects the unconditional worth of free time. My hypothesis is this: if there is a connection between liveliness and eternity, between being spirited and being spiritual, then there is something holy about free time. I want to make Marcuse consistent with himself when he says: “Timelessness is the ideal of pleasure.”
I find inspiration for this project in a little book by Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, which argues that anyone who takes seriously the commandment to keep the day of rest holy must, by that very attitude, also be someone who holds free time to be unconditionally and uncompromisingly valuable—so much so, in fact, that they hope free time continues on after death. The Sabbath is not merely useful for getting back to work refreshed, not merely important for community morale, not merely enjoyable for one’s sense of being self-actualized, but in addition to and including all these things, the Sabbath is holy unto God, sacred. Heschel is at pains to show that, caricatures of abstemious dourness notwithstanding, piety is indivisible from pleasure and joy:
Call the Sabbath a delight: a delight to the soul and a delight to the body. Since there are so many acts which one must abstain from doing on the seventh day, ‘you might think I have given you the Sabbath for your displeasure; I have surely given you the Sabbath for your pleasure.’ To sanctify the seventh day does not mean: Thou shalt mortify thyself, but, on the contrary: Thou shalt sanctify it with all thy heart, with all thy soul and all thy senses. ‘Sanctify the Sabbath by choice meals, by beautiful garments; delight your soul with pleasure and I will reward you for this pleasure.’
Here I find an astonishing convergence of Heschel’s call for spirituality with Marcuse’s call for sensuality. The Ancient of Days Heschel knows through his study of sacred scripture, through careful discussion and prayer and searching, is not a god who wants him to be miserable and gloomy, but hale and hearty, sanctifying creation and Creator through the heartfelt act of joy, and becoming blessed for this attentive wholeness (wherein he is seven sevenths of what God has made him to be) by the One Who Makes Whole, the Holy One, the Hale One. This day of rest does not designate lack of activity simpliciter, but the lack of work that is toilsome or degrading, and the presence of a kind of work so different that “work” as we so often mean it is an inappropriate word—liberating art, you might say instead. It is instructive that part of observing the Sabbath is to engage in study of the Torah and to make love. (Read in between the lines about “marital duty” at Exodus 21:10, for example.)
Marcuse likewise considers the power of Eros—the Freudian psychological principle of pleasure-seeking in general, not limited to coitus—not simply as a selfish force of chaos that must be harshly repressed to make “law and order,” but as a source for order of a peaceful and ever more beautiful, more inclusive kind. Instead of Eros meaning rushing headlong into self-destructive dissipation, Eros can “self-sublimate” by delaying gratification so as to yield a future of higher pleasure. It is more pleasurable to slowly mix flour and knead dough, and smell the bread baking over relaxed conversation, than to feel compelled to wolf down something pre-packaged by the constraints of schedules and budgets. The post-scarcity society made possible by modern technology could be devoted to continual refinement and beautification of our social and environmental relationships, allowing us to see life’s chief attribute not as a struggle but as play: “Life as an end is qualitatively different from life as a means.”
When we see living for joy as legitimate—separating it carefully from the selfish and possessive half-pleasure we might call “hedonism,” which delights in minds and bodies only when it fits the performance principle—then we see that all time should be playtime, free time. Marcuse says, “A new basic experience of being would change human existence in its entirety.” Even just existing would be physically and mentally heightened for us, elevated—and we might add along with Heschel, sanctified. Carpe diem—except that our lives should have this fullness all of the time, for all time, not just for one day; our lives should celebrate the Sabbath not just one seventh of the week, but seven sevenths.
 Marcuse, “Progress and Freud’s Theory of Instincts,” Five Lectures, pp. 29-30. For more empirical data confirming Marcuse’s thesis, see Kathi Weeks’ recent book, The Problem with Work.
 Aristotle, Politics VIII.3
 Herbert Marcuse, “The Affirmative Character of Culture,” The Essential Marcuse, p. 218
 Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy V.vi
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 19
 Heschel, pp. 18-19. Heschel’s footnote to this passage reads: “Deuteronomy rabba 3,1; see Midrash Tehillim, chap. 90.”
 Heschel, p. 22. Cp. Giorgio Agamben, postface to The Coming Community: “It is well known that during the Jewish Shabbat one has to abstain from every melakha, from any productive work. This idleness, this primal inoperativity, is for man a sort of another soul, or, if you like, his true soul. An act of pure destruction, however, an activity that has a perfectly destructive or de-creative character, is closer to menucha, the idleness prescribed for Shabbat and, as such, it is not prohibited.”
 Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, pp. 201-202
 Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, p. 17
 Eros and Civilization, p. 158