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”:
Ugh. Darwin had inherited wealth and a domestic slave (aka “Victorian wife”), among many other labor advantages. Don’t tout him as a model.
— Luis Villa (@luis_in_140) June 18, 2017
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.
I don’t talk about the ancient Greeks and their ideals of leisure in Rest, because those lives rested on a hard bedrock of slavery. I think there’s plenty in Greek and Roman philosophy worth thinking about, but the biographies of ancient philosophers don’t offer a lot of guidance for modern times. I was pretty ambivalent about quoting Thomas Jefferson for the same reason: as brilliant as he was, his leisure– and that of the rest of the Southern gentleman planter class– owed a lot to the labor of people he owned.
Generally, I think it’s important to be aware of the fact that for much of history, leisure existed only for a small class of people, and that leisure came directly at the expense of others. That’s always worth remembering in our own pursuit of more time.
So: Does Darwin’s inheritance and status in Victorian society disallow him as a model? Here’s my argument against treating him either as a too rich to be a useful model, or dismissing him on the grounds that his privilege makes him complicit in a system that an ethically-minded person would avoid.
For those who don’t know, Charles came from a pretty well-off family, and Emma came from an even wealthier line in the Darwin-Wedgwood clan (they were first cousins). As a result, together they inherited enough so that, so long as they were thoughtful about their expenses, Charles didn’t have to work for a living. (Charles had a shop-keeper’s mentality about money, watched the books carefully, and neither he nor Emma had really extravagant tastes; plus they invested pretty well, which helped.) In Silicon Valley terms, he’s not Steve Jobs or Larry Ellison rich; he’s more like someone who’s made enough to pay off the house in Palo Alto and pay the kids’ tuition, drives a nice Honda, goes to Tahoe once a year, and will be fine so long as nothing dramatic happens.
So yes, the Darwins had enough money to support themselves, to educate the children, and to free Charles to devote himself to science full-time. However, I think he’s still worth including, for a couple reasons.
First, there are lots of people, in many countries and fields, whose working lives follow a daily pattern similar to Darwin’s, despite growing up and living with fewer advantages. One of the points of the Nautilus piece is that you can find mathematicians, music students, writers, and scientists who work like this, across the last couple centuries. Darwin’s schedule looks like Ray Bradbury’s when he was struggling to sell his first stories, and like Stephen King’s at the height of King’s success. Some of them have to really fight to get the time to follow their craft (Shirley Jackson, for example); others achieve freedom after a while (J. K. Rowling has more resources after the first Harry Potter book, obviously). But I think Darwin’s financial independence doesn’t make his daily schedule exceptional.
Second, I think we can learn plenty from people whose lives are very different from our own, even as we’re thoughtful about those differences. Every interview I read with James Baldwin makes me think more seriously about the craft of writing, literature, and creativity, despite the obvious differences between us. Conversely, with other figures, elements of their personal life are a source of difference. That doesn’t mean I can’t learn something from them, or consider parts of their life them worth studying, even as I dislike others. I’m a big fan of Hemingway’s morning writing routine, but that doesn’t mean I like his afternoon drinking routine– not to mention his terrible treatment of women, or his capacity for casual cruelty. I learn a lot from The Double Helix, even though I know James Watson’s portrait of Rosalind Franklin is utterly shameful– and the more I learn about Franklin, the worse Watson’s treatment of her looks.
Treating someone as a model for how to work doesn’t imply an endorsement of other elements of their life, or of the social and moral norms of the times they lived in. If you can display the same combination of empathy and discernment to historical examples that you apply to real people, you can figure out what parts of people’s lives are worth using as a model for creating our own. Of course, as the poststructuralist have taught us, every decoding is another encoding, so there’s nothing to stop an especially energetic reader from interpreting the piece as an endorsement of Victorian social class and gender norms. But that’s not the argument that I’m trying to make.
Third, I think that you can learn a lot about craft from people whose lives are quite different from yours, if they took their craft seriously. I’ll never play tennis as well as Serena Williams, or be as fit as Jerry Rice, but I can still learn things about sports from both of them; Tim Gunn will always dress better than me, but I can still learn about fashion from him. I’ll also probably never be as accomplished a writer as– well, any of the authors I talk about in Rest— but I still benefit from reading what they have to say about how they work. Likewise, even if you’re not as wealthy as J. K. Rowling or Stephen King, there are still things you can learn from them about the craft of writing.
Now, let’s get a bit closer to the question of whether Darwin’s privilege constitutes a sort of complicity in institutions or structures that we reject today.
First, if you’re going to choose an example of someone who managed to do incredible work without being a total asshole, without neglecting his kids or abusing his wife or being a jerk to his friends, you’d have a hard time finding a better example than Darwin. As I get older, and as the idea that it’s okay to not show up for your family so long as you’re Living The Startup Dream or Whatever becomes the default in today’s workplace, this part of Darwin’s life impresses me more and more. The documentary evidence suggests that Emma and Charles had a remarkably solid, happy marriage; that both of them saw Emma as playing an important role in Charles’ life and his work; that she saw herself as having made an excellent match; and that he was more conscientious and involved a husband and father than was the norm for his time.
This leads me to add a brief word about Emma Wedgwood, and the description of her as a “domestic slave.” To be super-pedantic for a second, anyone who knows about the history of Victorian domestic life knows that a family like the Darwins had plenty of domestic staff. As Ruth Schwartz Cowan points out, before the mechanization of cleaning, cooking, etc., middle-class women were more like managers than servants, and it was appearance of the washing machine, dishwasher, vacuum cleaner, and other supposedly labor-saving technologies that converted housewives into domestic drudges. More seriously, Darwin was an ardent abolitionist, and Emma grew up among women who poured lots of their own money into abolition campaigns. So given that history, describing Emma as a “domestic slave” suggests a lack of agency on Emma’s part that I suspect she would have disputed, and a comfort with the institution that both would have found insulting.
Now, Does the life of someone who’s better off than us offer any practical model for the rest of us?
I’ve kind of already answered the question. But with regard to Darwin, I’d note a couple things.
First, an awful lot of the daily household work that used to be done by people is now done by machines (or in some cases, is outsourced back to people). Middle-class people have access to a level of home automation that would have made Victorians green with jealousy. The fact that we often spend that leisure time watching television, or spend it on activities made attractive by increasingly sophisticated behavioral hooks, is tragic; but if well-spent, we have more leisure time than we realize. Likewise, studies of the costs of multitasking, distraction, meetings, and other marginally productive activities suggest that between two and four hours of each working day are more or less wasted. That means there’s a lot of slack in the work day that can could be gathered up– and if we do so, our working days can be shortened, without loss of productivity or company profitability.
The point is, for plenty of professionals and people in creative industries, I think the problem isn’t that our lives are less comfortable or poorer than those of well-off Victorians. I think the building-blocks of a more leisurely, comfortable life are available; but they need to be assembled.
As for the question, Does Darwin’s life offer useful lessons to people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from? It doesn’t. But other than the Buddha and Jesus, I’m hard-pressed to think of a life that can be said to speak to everyone. But the argument that “your book doesn’t help people in really difficult circumstances” can unintentionally divert attention from the structural forces that create or exacerbate those circumstances. In interviews, I often get the question, “What about a single mother with a career who wants more time to rest? What does she do?” What I’ve finally realized is, my book doesn’t have very much to offer her. What she really needs is a society that doesn’t place career advancement and parenthood at odds, and doesn’t assume that you should work as if you don’t have children, and attend to your children as if you don’t have a job. In other words, she needs structural changes, and assuming that the burden of resolving these issues should naturally rest entirely with her absolves companies and economies of their role in creating these problems.
But the lives in Rest, including Charles Darwin’s, do offer useful lessons to people who live in some basic measure of comfort and stability, who have the freedom to think about what want to do with their lives, or do worth that affords them both lofty goals and a measure of daily autonomy.
So yes, Darwin was lucky enough to inherit, and to have married into money; he also benefitted from his status as minor gentry in a time when that really mattered. But I argue that despite that, the magnitude of his achievements, the fact that his working style is not unusual, and his ability to take his work and family life seriously, make him a useful model. Not someone you would copy— there’s no life you can just copy and paste; but I think studying his choices can help us improve ours.
Finally, there’s a question of whether Darwin didn’t work hard because he was chronically ill, or had breakdowns because of overwork. Two answers to that.
First, historians have argued vigorously over whether Darwin contracted some chronic ailment during his Beagle travels, had some other illness, or whether his ailments were mainly psychological. I come down with Adrian Desmond and James Moore on the side that they were at least exacerbated by psychological issues, particularly his anxiety about his theory and its consequences; I find their correlation of the timing of his illnesses to professional events to be pretty convincing.
Further, while he did feel himself afflicted by something, his daily routine of long morning and afternoon walks, and his family vacations to the seaside, don’t suggest someone who was so weakened as to be able to only work a couple hours a day.
Lastly, does he break down because of overwork? There are a few specific times when he complains of overwork and expresses the need for some time off– in the aftermath of working through the final edits of his books, for example– but these are not annual episodes. And Darwin sees himself as handling the pressure better than some of his friends. Thomas Huxley, for example, so overworks himself Darwin raises money to send him on a vacation in Switzerland, and sends one of their mutual friends along to make sure Huxley doesn’t sneak any work in while he’s supposed to climbing mountains.
Now, can someone look at the same evidence and conclude that Darwin really was living with a debilitating illness that kept him from working the long hours he would have preferred, and that his regimen was really punctuated by more episodes of overwork? Of course. But I think my interpretation makes more sense.