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A Mirror for Presidents

Man prizes leisure as the precursor to philosophy, to the accomplishment of artistic passion.

Leisure is defined as the sum of activities and pursuits available when one is not producing, purveying, transmitting, or otherwise using goods for the upkeep of a given social framework. Work, specifically manual work, has made the greatest human achievements possible.  Plato’s Socrates hints at this reality when he contends that the rich potter will be enticed to do more than just work on his craft: “‘In your opinion, will a potter who’s gotten rich still be willing to attend to his art?’ ‘Not at all,’ he said.”  Philosophical leisure is attainable only either once one has become rich or once one dedicates oneself entirely to the discipline, regardless of material possessions.  Socrates did the latter.  Regardless, work and the leisurely world of ideas have long existed in symbiosis.  Workers allow for the luxury of philosophizing while philosophizing makes possible just rule predicated on more than the simple principle of Thrasymachus: “The just is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.”

In a modern democracy, this mindset may seem outdated.  Leisure time has been increased through various means of social intervention.  That said, these strategies only work because they recognize the dichotomy gestured to by Plato’s Socrates.  Limiting the work day, providing for workers’ compensation, and other adjustments do not reject the complementary relationship between work and leisure; they accept it and attempt to reorient it.  As a result, they allow workers more leisure and thus hope to provide for a better contented, and perhaps better-educated, populace.  Karl Marx himself highlights the desirability of an increase in leisure, tacitly recognizing the necessary relationship between manual labor and philosophical activity:

For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

Modern technology, however, has severely complicated this age-old relationship.  On the surface, technology should simply mean more leisure.  Ostensibly, if Marx is right, the introduction of new machines to replace the work formerly done by manual laborers will result in a populace better able to choose its own ends: “wie ich gerade Lust habe.”  When people are thus freed to develop their own ideas and pursue their own interests as opposed to working to acquire basic material security, they can better society.  In this sense, technology is good for the relationship between leisure and labor; it allows the work to be accomplished while giving more people a say in how they are ruled and the ideas responsible for ruling them.

The truth in this idea is that technology does reorient specialization.  Complex machines come to replace complex labor.  The carpenter, the cobbler, and the tailor have different skillsets, each of which requires different techniques.  The woodworking machine, the shoe-making machine, and the clothing-making machine have different internal processes, but ultimately are created and maintained by the same group of technicians with the same basic skills.  These laborers are no longer needed in their previous capacities and so are liberated from the need to do skilled work, at least the skilled work they used to do.  Those who do not become technicians are left to do unskilled work, often in factories.  Even ignoring the alienating conditions of such work, these jobs will likely be replaced by machines with the coming of new technologies.  In time, these workers may be met with the cry of the state chancellor to the librarian in the Twilight Zone: “Obsolete!”

The majority of human skilled work is then, as far as society-at-large is concerned, reduced to programming and engineering.  With the advent of 3D printers, even this distinction may continue to collapse until we are left with most goods being produced by printing while different technicians build the machines that do the printing.  We may even invent machines to build the machines in an infinite regress of sorts.  Regardless, men will be reduced to building and up-keeping the machines that produce the goods formerly crafted through the division of labor.  Any remaining ex-manual workers could become administrators, intermediaries between the machines and the people for whom they produce items.  And even this field is under threat when one considers continuing advancements in robotics.

Supposedly, given this reduction in the division of labor, people will have more time to philosophize and chase other leisurely pursuits.  This conclusion, however, is problematic. Human beings are necessarily different in their congenital skillsets and intellectual capacities.  Some people are more “philosophically” intelligent than others; some people do best as carpenters, others as lawyers, and still others as artists.  Once again, we may turn to Plato’s Socrates, who recognizes that people are inherently different and that their differences are beneficial: “Each of us is naturally not quite like anyone else, but rather differs in his nature; different men are apt for the accomplishment of different jobs.”  Not all men are the same and so they possess different skills and desires.  Some desires may be common, others uncommon. There is necessarily a finite set of skills, but taken altogether, not every man can become a technician for the maintenance of machines or an administrator for the mediation of people.  The division of labor and its emphasis on the completion of different tasks actually nurtures the inherent diversity of human persons.  Technological specialization must, then, produce alienation.

Further, the apprenticeship used to train manual laborers is replaced by years of reading and test-taking.  The foundational careers within society move from those that one can pick up with experience to those that require a specific, technical education.  Alienated and forced into jobs to which they are not naturally drawn, those who would have been workers are denied leisure and instead made to study for years simply in order to be employable.  And even that status cannot guarantee them happiness.  After many years of preparation and alienation, many are likely to find leisure in distracting pursuits, not in forming a philosophical democracy.

Beyond the workers themselves, technology’s effect on the system of education and thus the leaders of society is even more dangerous.  In the past, universities existed to train those who had time for leisure, namely the religious and the rulers.  While specific paradigms clearly dominated individual epochs such as the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, learning had value in itself and a man could be both a statesmen and a scholar.  In the contemporary period, however, society recognizes its need for technicians above almost all else.  Seeing that these technicians require training, the universities come to focus on instructing this new class of laborers in mathematics, computer programming, and the natural sciences.  Over time, these disciplines morph from part of the curriculum into the very paradigm underlying the curriculum; the humanities and other subjects become handmaidens to those disciplines that undergird technological development.  As George Grant writes, “The chief job of the universities within the technological societies is the cultivation of those sciences which issue in the mastery of human and non-human nature.”  Anything else will be either influenced or subsumed by this paradigm, much like theology dominated all other subjects in the medieval world.

If we recall that previously only the leisured classes had major access to education, this reality presents an issue.  Pure majoritarian democracy is impracticable and dangerous; it is open to demagoguery, manipulation by passionate interests, and lack of compromise.  As a result, contemporary democracies tend to use elections in the choosing of leaders.  The people, then, are still not the leading class.  And with a few exceptions men like George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt remain those most likely to gain power, both political and otherwise.  Democracy thus means some form of oligarchy or some form of aristocracy (in the etymological sense).  When the ruling classes receive liberal educations, including but not limited to the materialism of the sciences, they are likely to form some type of aristocracy.  But in the technological society, the materialistic paradigm comes to predominate not because the sciences are intrinsically bad but because they deal solely with material phenomena.  Oligarchy is not far off.  When the elite classes in a state are trained to think in material terms and from only one or two perspectives, there can be little surprise that they primarily value self-interest and material goods.  An engineer who has read Peter Singer does not make a philosopher; an English major trained with the mindset of a sociologist makes at best a “critical critic.”

For all the failings of the medieval university, men were trained to think broadly and actively.  Union with God, understood through theology, was the highest good, but a man who had the leisure to be educated was, if nothing else, exposed to a wide variety of writings, at least from what was known at the time.  This legacy, combined with the writings of other peoples and places, could still train leaders today.  It could show their minds the diversity of paradigms that exist, especially those that do not tend toward pure materialism.  If the world wants well-trained leaders, if it pines after men who will be aristocrats and not oligarchs, then it would do best to expose its future leaders to a diversity of opinions on their own terms and not understood only within a materialistic paradigm. It is one thing to read Plato and throw him on a bookshelf; it is another to sit down at the Symposium.  Political persuasion is largely irrelevant; Lao Tzu, Aquinas, Hume, Hegel, and Wittgenstein are all men who can and should be understood as they were, not reduced to the predominant mindset of the academy.

A return to the Middle Ages is both impossible and unfavorable, but learning from them is not.  Even as technology eliminates the division of labor, it alienates men from their work and their existence, echoing the cries of Kierkegaard and Camus.  Even as technology allows more time for leisure, it does not produce a civilization of reasoned philosophers or even happy people.  And yes, even as technology redefines nature, it fails to provide learned and knowledgeable leaders.  If we as a society value our democracy, we would do best to understand the complex relationship between labor, leisure, and leadership.  Our future, then, depends not just on new gadgets and techniques but on something much deeper and more profound: the indefatigable, and ultimately triumphant, power of the human spirit.


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  • James

    George Grant is always a good quote! Though I have not been able to read his full works, I did opt to buy William Christian’s compilation of Grantian texts. ^_^

    • Chase Padusniak

      He’s wonderful. I highly recommend Christian’s biography of Grant.

      And if you want to read his works (they’re mostly quite short), I highly recommend his first major book “Philosophy in the Mass Age.”

      Happy reading!

  • Stephen Peterson

    Great article. The thing that stuck out the most for me is the way you equated the modern educational focus on technical vocation to the way theology was the premier science in the Middle Ages.
    Would you agree that, just as Medieval society was ordered towards the “economy of salvation” (hence, theology becoming the premier science and all other science being ordered around theology), modern society is ordered towards the “economy of production” (hence, economics becoming the premier science and all other sciences being ordered around maximising both short and long term production)?

    • Chase Padusniak

      Thank you very much for your kind words! I think that terminology could be very useful. I look at it this way. Did the medieval person think “economically?” That’s an impossible question, but I think we can say that he didn’t think in the efficiency-productivity terms we do today. He may have been willing to accept the slowness of something if it meant preserving some greater good.

      The problem is that we assume people have always just wanted to be better, more efficient, and more productive since the dawn of time. While yes people may naturally be inclined toward that, it certainly wasn’t the dominant paradigm until recently. An example I like to use is to say that the Greeks didn’t invent the computer because they couldn’t but because they didn’t want to. It’s a bit extreme, but it gets the point across: different cultures value different things and have different paradigms.

      • Stephen Peterson

        Actually, I think medieval man thought more economically then you’d expect (despite economics not being a science at the time). He just had a much broader view of what economics encompassed and had other goals than profit/productive maximisation. See Richardsons analysis (Gary Richardson, “Craft Guilds and Christianity in Late-Medieval England: A Rational-Choice Perspective”, Rationality and Society 2005, 17:139), which explains the development of guilds out of pious societies. Although written from a modern secular perspective, he explains the importance of salvation to the medieval, and how the economy was geared to this purpose. There is lots of other reading on this topic too (part of an economics research project I’m doing).

        In a sense, there is an underlying truth to the statement that we’ve always wanted to be better. It’s just that, what makes secular/pluralist society to unique, is that common betterment can only be defined in material terms. This is my issue with pluralism – groups with different values vie with each other over common policy, so the only policies that can be agreed upon by everyone as good are inevitably materialistic, therefore materialism drives society (despite the intentions of the majority) because they are out best thought out policies.

        • Chase Padusniak

          I didn’t quite mean that medieval people didn’t have economic concerns; clearly guilds existed, etc. But modern economics is a material social science. That is, it studies material phenomena, not salvation.

          In other words, by saying they were not economically-minded, I simply meant that their primary concerns were not material. Productivity could be made secondary to something more important (e.g. salvation). In that sense, I think we agree.