In the ancient argument about he sort of life most conducive to happiness – the active life versus the contemplative life – the contemplative life has taken a back seat over the last five hundred years. The Reformation got rid of the monks and nuns and a new Puritan work ethic emerged. Then came the rise of utilitarianism, clock-time and ruthless efficiency in the factories. Today business, more than ever, is obsessed by data and various types of analytics.
In all the bustle, the more important side of life, the romantic stuff, the useless arts if you like, get lost. A while back I defended poetry on Radio 4 to a hard-headed businessman wearing a gold watch who shouted me down saying: “You can’t eat poetry”, thereby summing up the crudely utility-based approach to life that most of us have been brought up with. It’s not a new problem. Here is Nietzsche making a similar complaint in 1882:
“Even now one is ashamed of resting and prolonged reflection almost gives people a bad conscience. One thinks with a watch in one’s hand even as one eats one’s lunch whilst reading the latest news of the stock market.”
So let’s hear it for poetry and prolonged reflection.
Tom Hodgkinson, The Idler Email