Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: History (page 1 of 7)

The history of rest, from ancient times to the present

“the first step to the investigation of the creative mind is the historical approach”

From the opening page of Rosamund E. M. Harding’s The Anatomy of Inspiration:

We venture to suggest, therefore, that the first step to the investigation of the creative mind is the historical approach…. Such historical research should be regarded as scientific and of psychological value and not merely read to pass amusingly an idle half-hour.

I’m definitely going to enjoy this!

Using science in history: the case of spontaneous thinking

Within the discipline of history, the effort to use theories from the human and natural sciences– e.g., psychology, psychoanalysis, biology, and other fields– to explain historical change is one that’s yielded, at best, mixed results. “Psychohistory” has come and gone; ecological history has fared somewhat better; and efforts to find a biological explanations for the Salem witch trials or other examples of mass hysteria have been met with pretty healthy skepticism.

At the same time, I think it’s worth thinking through how we can at least use insights from other disciplines, perhaps not as overarching theories for explaining how history moves forward, but more like probes or sensors that help us be more attentive to phenomena that we might otherwise overlook. Of course, Rest is one long argument for paying attention to something we usually ignore in explaining why some people are more creative than others. I have an article in the Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought: Mind-Wandering, Creativity, and Daydreaming on “Spontaneous Thinking in Creative Lives: Building Connections Between Science and History” that explores how else we could use the neuroscience of mind-wandering and creativity to deepen the history of ideas and science.

Here’s the abstract:

Scientists have only recently begun to explore spontaneous thinking. It might appear that as elusive a phenomenon as it is in the laboratory, it would be impossible to detect in the historical record. This essay argues that it is possible to make space for accounts of spontaneous thinking in historical accounts of creativity and discovery. It argues that historians can use scientific work on daydreaming, mind-wandering, and other forms of spontaneous thought to illuminate the history of ideas. It explains how historical research informed by science could generate new insights in the history of writing and thinking, the history of attitudes towards reason and inspiration, the daily practices of creative thinkers, and even elusive phenomena like sensory perception and sleep. With diligence and imagination, it will be possible to reconstruct the place of spontaneous thinking in the history of ideas.

Wealth, inequality, populism, and the end of the Roman Republic

This Lawfare podcast with Mike Duncan, author of The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Late Republic, is well worth a listen if you’re interested in how even a very powerful state can be undermined by growing inequality, populism, and political violence.

What caught me was the fact that the competition between the poor— whose formerly stable lives were being upended by land seizures and other changes— were in competition with a growing population of slaves, and that politicians tried to buy off the poor with something that sounds a bit like a combination of universal basic income and distracting entertainment. The parallel between that period and today— when a growing number of us worry about losing our jobs to automation, and when UBI schemes are discussed in both left-wing and right-wing circles— is not perfect, of course, but still worth exploring.

How good a model is Darwin (or Jefferson, or Hemingway)?

Every now and then a reader suggests that some of the people I talk about in REST aren’t good role models because they were either bad people, or tainted by their wealth and privilege. For example, Luis Villa tweeted this response to my Nautilus piece, “Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too”:

And Villa’s objection that isn’t just about the practicality of learning from people who have the freedom to spend their time the way they want, nor is it just a moral objection:

(I include screenshots here because I can’t get the embeds to work.)

I thought a fair amount when writing Rest about the question of the utility of past lives as models for our own, and this was a more pressing question when talking about the importance about rest because there are plenty of examples of people whose opportunities to rest depend on appropriating the labor of others.

This is not to say that I always made the right call, or one that can’t be challenged; but it is to say that I did think seriously about it. Here’s my reasoning.
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Children’s drawings on the Origin of Species manuscript

I’ve written about my admiration of Charles Darwin as a husband and father, and the way he defied stereotypes of both Romantic Genius (which holds that really talented men are almost obliged by their devotion to work to be terrible spouses and parents) and the Victorian stereotype of the distant father. There’s lots of hagiography around Darwin, but there’s also plenty of documentary evidence that gives us a picture of him as a Good Dad.

Another data-point that came to my attention recently, via Open Culture: drawings by his kids on manuscript pages of his books and articles, now online thanks to the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin Manuscript Project.


via Fish With Legs, via Open Culture

As writer Ted Mills notes in Open Culture, “the drawings show a Darwin who was a family man and not a reclusive scientist.”

As the AMNH Web site explains,

Darwin’s young children sometimes painted pictures and wrote stories on the back of draft manuscripts for Darwin’s books & notes. These drawings & stories were precious to the Darwin family. So it was thanks to the fortunate meeting of the children’s play with their father’s science that these extremely rare manuscripts of the Origin of Species (4 pages), Origin Portfolios type notes (2 notes), Cirripedia (9 pages), Orchids (1 page) were preserved. Otherwise, these items, precious to scholars, would have most likely been destroyed. Moreover, the four Origin pages are part of the only 45 Origin pages (plus 9 insert slips) that are extant–out of the original c. 600 page draft. The 9 surviving Cirripedia pages (8 fragments and 1 full page) are the sole survivors of that massive work. However, most often the children simply used their father’s writing paper–without his writing–to produce their pictures and their tales. We present here the totality of 111 images, which includes 94 images produced by the children and 17 images with drafts or notes in Darwin’s handwriting.

The New Yorker also had a short piece about the drawings:

What may seem like sacrilege now—turning the only handwritten copy of a seminal work of science into scratch paper—appears to have been normal then. Once Darwin had sent a fair copy of the manuscript off to his publisher, John Murray, he made the rest of his changes to the book directly on the galley proofs, and evidently he wasn’t precious about the originals. Paper being a hot commodity, the children co-opted the pages for themselves. Kohn doesn’t know for certain which kids were the artists, but he guesses that at least three were involved: Francis, who became a botanist; George, who became an astronomer and mathematician; and Horace, who became an engineer. The drawings are lively and full of color, made in pencil, ink, and watercolor, depicting real and imagined worlds, always with a Darwinian eye for detail. Part of the joy of these images, of course, is what they imply about Darwin—not the stereotype of a tortured, isolated great thinker but the abettor of scientific curiosity in others as much as in himself. Indeed, he often put his children to work on his research. “The kids were used as volunteers—to collect butterflies, insects, and moths, and to make observations on plants in the fields around town,” Kohn said.

New article on the history of spontaneous thought

Later this year Oxford University Press is publishing The Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought, edited by Kieran Fox and Kalina Christoff. I have a chapter on the history of spontaneous thought– or really, an argument about the possibility of writing the history of something that seems completely ephemeral and unrecoverable, and a description of some works that could help guide such a history.

I’ve put the near-final draft up as a PDF on Google Drive.

“This interest should be so absorbing that when he is thus engaged, business is banished from mind”

Walter Dill Scott, in his 1914 book Increasing Human Efficiency in Business (available on the Internet Archive), advises workers on the need for hobbies:

Upon entering business every young man should select some form of endeavor or activity apart from business to which he shall devote a part of his attention. This interest should be so absorbing that when he is thus engaged, business is banished from mind. This interest may be a home and a family ; it may be some form of athletics ; it may be club life ; it may be art, literature, philanthropy, or religion. It must be something which appeals to the individual and is adapted to his capabilities. Some men find it advisable to have more than a single interest for the hours of recreation. Some form of athletics or of agriculture is often combined with an interest in art, literature, religion, or other intellectual form of recreation. Thus Gladstone is depicted as a woodchopper and as an author of Greek works. Carnegie is described as an enthusiast in golf and in philanthropy. Rockefeller is believed to be interested in golf and philanthropy, but his philanthropy takes the form of education through endowed schools. Carnegie’s philanthropy is in building libraries.

If the lives of the great business men are studied it will be found that there is a great diversity in the type of recreation chosen; but philanthropy, religion, and athletics are very prominent — perhaps the most popular of the outside interests. These interests cannot be suddenly acquired. Many a man who has reached the years of maturity has found to his sorrow that he is without interests in the world except his specialty or business. With each succeeding year he finds new interests more difficult to acquire. Hence young men should in their youth choose wisely some interests to which they may devote themselves with perfect abandon at more or less regular intervals throughout life.

The more noble and the more worthy the interest, the better will be the results when considered from any point of view. Indeed, the interests which we call the highest are properly so designated, because in the history of mankind they have proved themselves to be the most beneficial to all.

It would be interesting to know if Scott himself practiced what he preached. He had quite an interesting life: he was part of the generation of young American scientists who in the late 1800s absorbed the latest research techniques from Germany (he was a student of William Wundt at Leipzig), brought psychology to advertising and human resources (he helped create the performance evaluation!), and in 1920 became president of Northwestern University. (Perhaps when I’m next in Chicago I’ll check out his personal papers, and see what I can learn about him.)

Seneca on busyness as idleness

If you ask people how they’re doing, you’ll often get some variation of “I’m so busy!”

I Am Very Busy

Many people make the mistake of confusing busyness with productivity; in fact, they’re not at all the same thing, and it’s important that we recognize the difference.

Busyness is essentially an emotion, an attitude, a face we put on for the world. It’s how we experience time, how we think about the things we have to do. And it’s easy to treat the feeling of rushing about, of always having no time, as a signal that we’re getting stuff done. But for a very long time, really smart people have been warning us that this is not the case. Indeed, it’s backwards.

For example, William James wrote more than a century ago (my emphasis):

We say that so many of our fellow-countrymen collapse, and have to be sent abroad to rest their nerves, because they work so hard. I suspect that this is an immense mistake. I suspect that neither the nature nor the amount of our work is accountable for the frequency and severity of our breakdowns, but that their cause lies rather in those absurd feelings of hurry and having no time, in that breathlessness and tension, that anxiety of feature and that solicitude for results, that lack of inner harmony and ease, in short, by which with us the work is so apt to be accompanied, and from which a European who should do the same work would nine times out of ten be free. These perfectly wanton and unnecessary tricks of inner attitude and outer mariner in us, caught from the social atmosphere, kept up by tradition, and idealized by many as the admirable way of life, are the last straws that break the American camel’s back, the final overflowers of our measure of wear and tear and fatigue.

The voice, for example, in a surprisingly large number of us has a tired and plaintive sound. Some of us are really tired (for I do not mean absolutely to deny that our climate has a tiring quality); but far more of us are not tired at all, or would not be tired at all unless we had got into a wretched trick of feeling tired, by following the prevalent habits of vocalization and expression. And if talking high and tired, and living excitedly and hurriedly, would only enable us to do more by the way, even while breaking us down in the end, it would be different. There would be some compensation, some excuse, for going on so. But the exact reverse is the case. It is your relaxed and easy worker, who is in no hurry, and quite thoughtless most of the while of consequences, who is your efficient worker; and tension and anxiety, and present and future, all mixed up together in our mind at once, are the surest drags upon steady progress and hindrances to our success.

In his great book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper noted that medieval thinkers regarded overwork as a kind of idleness, as it took time and attention away from spiritual matters and contemplation.

Today, in an essay on his writings about idleness (Anna Lydia Motto and John R. Clark, “‘Hic Situs Est’: Seneca on the Deadliness of Idleness,” The Classical World 72:4 (December 1978), 207-215), I read this about Seneca’s attitude toward busyness:

In his philosophic writings Seneca seeks to distinguish sharply between otium (leisure) and ignavia (idleness or sloth). He vividly contrasts the life of leisure (vita otiosa) with the idle life (occupatio desidiosa), stressing the immense difference between the two. The vita ignava is detestable; it causes man to hate his life; it is a deadly punishment. The Philosopher urges his fellow-men to avoid indolent or idle inaction that is comparable to a living death.

Moreover, he likewise emphasizes the futility and absurdity of a life devoted to busy idleness. Those who are “out of breath for no purpose, always busy about nothing” do not have leisure but idle occupation– “Non habent isti otium, sed iners negotium.” Their way of life may be compared to the aimless meanderings of ants. They crawl about frantically with no fixed goal, consuming their time in meaningless diversions which weary them to no purpose. Seneca picturesquely portrays these human beings breathlessly absorbed in the manifold activities they happen to stumble upon. [210, my emphasis]

Seneca has always urged his readers not to descend into a life that is deadly, one that is moribund. With vehement zeal, the Philosopher claims that man can, either in his early years or late in life, revivify himself, study the art of living (i.e., philosophy), and practice it in the world of leisure.58 However, such withdrawal will never be wasted in fruitless vacuity and morbid idleness, but consecrated to a lively, contemplative leisure. Assuredly, the vita contemplativa is by no means devoid of action, for it continuously entails a strenuous, quickened commitment to studies, to meditation, and to thought. Through such leisure, man can benefit his fellow-men-more than in any other way. [214]

So the idea that busyness isn’t really productive, but is a form of distraction, turns out to be really old.

The culture of overwork is not a new problem: American writers were describing rest as a “Forgotten Art” in 1876

Every now and then I come across some old essay that’s worth preserving and sharing. Recently I came across this 1876 piece by a Scottish-born American physician, Alexander J. C. Skene, called  “Rest: The Forgotten Art of Repose.” It appeared in the New York Times, and I’ve copied out some of the more interesting passages below.

For me, the essay is interesting as a data-point illustrating that the problem of overwork is hardly new: Skene is warning bout its dangers almost 150 years ago. It also illustrates that the idea that the best rest is active rather than passive also has a long history, even if it’s never been terribly popular or the conventional wisdom. And finally, it’s a well-written piece. Enjoy!

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“why so liberal and impartial a benefactor as sleep, should meet with so few historians”

I’m working on a short ebook on my early morning practice and how it illustrates the way I combine work and rest, and (via Roger Ekirch’s classic work on biphasic sleep in early modern England) came across Samuel Johnson’s 1732 Adventurer Essay No. 39, “On Sleep.” Johnson wonders “why so liberal and impartial a benefactor as sleep, should meet with so few historians or panegyrists:”

Writers are so totally absorbed by the business of the day, as never to turn their attention to that power, whose officious hand so seasonably suspends the burden of life; and without whose interposition man would not be able to endure the fatigue of labour, however rewarded, or the struggle with opposition, however successful.

I hear you, Johnson. I hear you!

After discussing the role of sleep in the lives of peasants, princes, and poets, he then connects restorative sleep to virtue and hard work:

Sleep, therefore, as the chief of all earthly blessings, is justly appropriated to industry and temperance; the refreshing rest, and the peaceful night, are the portion only of him who lies down weary with honest labour, and free from the fumes of indigested luxury; it is the just doom of laziness and gluttony, to be inactive without ease, and drowsy without tranquillity.

Once again, we see a connection between depth of work and value of rest: just as I argue in my book, Johnson is arguing that we should see the quality of rest and work as connected, each reinforcing and supporting the other.

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