Hume and Rousseau on indolence: a backwards glance 1

Indolence and leisure have long been outlier themes in philosophy and the social sciences. And yet, as I hope to show, they are connected by every family tie to the grander themes of reason, progress and culture, as these were articulated among the Enlightenment intellectuals of the eighteenth century.

Let’s start this inquiry with a conference held in 1966 when Marshall Sahlins surveyed the ethnographic evidence concerning the use of time by hunter gatherers, such as the !Kung and Australian aborigines, and used it as evidence for what he called the “original affluence”. Sahlins wrote: “A fair case can be made that hunters often work much less than we do, and rather than a grind the food quest is intermittent, leisure is abundant, and there is more sleep in the daytime per capita than in any other condition of society (1968 – quoted by Winterhalder (1993). Windterhalder’s essay, which advocates a neo-classical framework to explain the “original affluence” thesis instead of Sahlins’ own Zen economics, introduces the problematic with a clever comparison to the myth of the busy bee:

“More than ninety years ago entomologist Professor C.F. Hodge marked individ- ual honey bees to study their activities. He observed that between sunrise and sunset no bee worked more than three and one-half hours (see Hubbell 1988: 78). Compare this observation with the commonly held belief captured in the phrase, 'busy as a bee'. In popular wisdom the honeybee stands for bustling productive effort, its labours those of nearly ceaseless toil. Only the beaver equals its reputation as an icon of industriousness.1 But Hodge is right. Bees spend a lot of time doing nothing or wandering through the hive appearing to do nothing in particular. Only intermittently do they work hard (Seeley 1989). Beavers too are active foragers only a small percentage of the time (Belovsky 1984).”

The bee, the leisurely hunter, and sleep will all figure in one way or another in a backward glance at Hume and Rousseau’s conjectural histories of original man. Neither Hume or Rousseau are ‘typical’ Enlightenment figures, but their different philosophical anthropologies did influence two different lines of thought in the Occident.

Hume’s essays on economics and social theory were written, according to James Buchan, under Hume’s strategic impulse to introduce himself a second time into the world of the learned, or at least the Edinburgh part of that world, after his first foray, A Treatise of Human Nature, fell stillborn from the press – at least in Hume’s own, retrospective account. Hume wrote the essays while living in his mother’s house, Ninewells, outside of the village of Chirnside. Although Hume’s afterlife has been more lively in metaphysics, his essays certainly gave him a fair place in the prehistory of economics and political theory.

One essay in the second volume, On refinement in the arts, takes up the defense of luxury. The Enlightenment inversion of the values of Christendom made a special case of luxury. Denounced by the Church as a vice, and subject to various taxes, luxury was not only praised by Mandeville and the French libertine school, but praised, specifically, for its social utility. Mandeville’s argument (made in The Fable of the Bees, for that insect's folkloric properties can be made to serve enlightened ends) that private vices can be public virtues, gave a radical foundation to the separation of the secular and the sacred: if we grant, as the New Philosophers held, that government exists to promote the happiness of the people, than giving the sacred secular tools to pursue private vice snuffs out the public benefit – the commerce – deriving from them.

By the time that Hume came to write the essays in 1741, Mandeville’s wicked creed had diffused itself into the circles of the advanced thinkers. Myself, I want to look at Hume’s essay not so much for the defense of luxury as for his characterization of the human happiness that is the essence of public virtue, because it is subtended by what one might call a speculative anthropology – a conjectural history – that is more abundantly expressed in the Natural History of Religion. Against one of the powerful but under-recognized themes of that anthropology – the theme of indolence – I’d like to pit Rousseau’s anthropological conjecture in the Discourse on Inequality.

Here, then, is Hume’s analysis of human happiness:

“Human happiness, according to the most received notions, seems to consist in three ingredients; action,
pleasure, and indolence : And though these ingredients ought to be mixed in different proportions, according
to the particular disposition of the person ; yet no one ingredient can be entirely wanting, without destroying,
in some measure, the relish of the whole composition. Indolence or repose, indeed, seems not of itself to contribute much to our enjoyment; but, like sleep, is requisite as an indulgence, to the weakness of human nature, which cannot support an uninterrupted course of business or pleasure. That quick march of the spirits, which takes a man from himself, and chiefly gives satisfaction, does in the end exhaust the mind, and requires some intervals of repose, which, though agreeable for a moment, yet, if prolonged, beget a languor and lethargy, that destroy all enjoyment.”

One should note that, though the structural place of this remark in his essay is directed towards building a case for further sociological observation, in fact, the natural history of the ‘quick march of the spirit’, and the exhaustion attendent upon it that requires leisure and play, has already, in Hume’s Treatise, been given a certain metaphysical, or perhaps I should say, anti-metaphysical, value in a passage highlighted by Buchan:

“But what have I here said, that reflections very refined and metaphysical have little or no influence upon us? This opinion I can scarce forbear retracting, and condemning from my present feeling and experience. The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have, I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.
Most fortunately it happens that, since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”
Play and amusement are ‘cures’ to the tangle of reasoning that has made Hume a monster to himself and – projectively – to others. Hume’s fall into monstrosity is imagined as a sort of foundering on an island –that is, it is a fall away from sociability,into what one might call primitive state of being, a Robinson Crusoe-like solitude. I will come back to that image later.
However, if in the Treatise the relaxation of the mind is a sort of film director’s cut that ends the curious metaphysical narrative, in the Natural History of Religion, relaxation – what I will call indolence – assumes a very different historical shape.