Friday, February 12, 2010

"A continuity of labour deadens the soul," or, Thoughts for a Friday night

{Photo by rocketlass.}

At the end of what has, for me at least, been a long and busy week, tonight I offer you some thoughts on the importance of leisure, from an entry titled "Amusements of the Learned" in Isaac D'Israeli's inexhaustible Curiosities of Literature (1791):
Among the Jesuits it was a standing rule of the order, that after an application to study for two hours, the mind of the student should be unbent by some relaxation, however trifling. When Petavius was employed in his Dogmata Theologica, a work of the most profound and extensive erudition, the great recreation of the learned father was, at the end of every second hour, to twirl his chair for five minutes. After protracted studies Spinosa would mix with the family-party where he lodged, and join in the most trivial conversations, or unbend his mind by setting spiders to fight each other; he observed their combats with so much interest, that he was often seized with immoderate fits of laughter. A continuity of labour deadens the soul, observes Seneca, in closing his treatise on "The Tranquillity of the Soul," and the mind must unbend itself by certain amusements. Socrates did not blush to play with children. Cato, over his bottle, found an alleviation from the fatigues of government; a circumstance, Seneca says in his manner, which rather gives honour to this defect, than the defect dishonours Cato.
Seneca's take on Cato reminds me of the quip attributed to today's birthday boy, Abraham Lincoln, when people were nattering at him about Ulysses Grant's drinking:
I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.
D'Israeli, as is his wont, continues in that vein for a couple of pages, laying example after entertaining example before the reader, and thereby demonstrating the very pleasures of leisure he describes. One other account that's worth pointing out, if only because it presents such a striking contrast to the stern, dangerous character established for the ages by Dumas in The Three Musketeers, is this picture of Cardinal Richelieu unbending a bit:
Cardinal de Richelieu, amongst all his great occupations, found a recreation in violent exercises; and he was once discovered jumping with his servant, to try who could reach the highest side of a wall.
And the very next sentence, too, is worth sharing, for it offers a reminder that we must ever be aware that even as we're playing, we can be sure that someone is working:
De Grammont, observing the cardinal to be jealous of his powers, offered to jump with him; and, in the true spirit of a courtier, having made some efforts which nearly reached the cardinal's, confessed the cardinal surpassed him This was jumping like a politician; and by this means he is said to have ingratiated himself with the minister.
But it is Friday night, and while we may have left the office behind for another brief spell, and leisure may thus appropriately beckon I'll let Seneca have the last word--a reminder that our jobs don't represent the only work to which we should attend, or its paycheck the only rewards on offer:
Seneca concludes admirably, "whatever be the amusements you choose, return not slowly from those of the body to the mind; exercise the latter night and day. The mind is nourished at a cheap rate; neither cold nor heat, nor age itself, can interrupt this exercise; give therefore all your cares to a possession which ameliorates even in its old age!"
And with that, I'll take Seneca's advice--halfway, that is--and twirl in my chair for a while with a book . . . and a martini.

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