How to be Idle with Dignity
In this course you will learn why stillness and idleness are at the heart of the meaning of existence. You will learn how to be idle with dignity. Intended for all who look for meaning in our age. For true leisure is the basis of all civilisation.
The course addresses the question of the dignified idle life. In an epoch of total work where work defines our identity many look for an escape. There are in the history of ideas dozens of examples of the dignified idle life and the importance of leisure for civilisation. The overall argument is that stillness and idleness are at the heart of it all. We must assume them as a stance if we are to find meaning in our lives.
In this course we will consider the Ancient thinkers Cicero, Plato and Aristotle. Thinkers from the modern period devoted to this question include Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Bertrand Russell and Josef Pieper.
Lecture 1: Cicero on Otium Cum Dignitate. It is from this principle that the course takes its inspiration. Cicero describes the distinct possibility of idleness with dignity. This lecture sets out the direction for the rest of the course. Rather than looking at social, political, anthropological questions we are here concerned with a deeper philosophical point which is that “otium” – idleness – is the beginning.
Primary readings: Cicero On Living and Dying Well
Lecture 2: Plato and Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle both emphasise the importance of schole, the Ancient Greek word for idleness. We learn that Plato argues that a well-ordered city can only be maintained if it is built on schole. From Aristotle we learn that philosophy requires idleness as a necessary condition and that all of life strives towards schole.
Primary readings: Plato Kritias. Aristotle Nichomachean Ethics.
Lecture 3: Wilhelm von Humboldt’s University Ideal. Humboldt envisioned the ideal university to be a place entirely free from bureaucratic constraints. A place devoted entirely to otium cum dignitate, to the strenuous, but disinterested pursuit of learning and self-cultivation purely for its own sake.
Primary readings: Wilhelm von Humboldt On the Sphere and Duties of Government
Lecture 4: Nietzsche on Idleness and Nihilism. To Nietzsche the acceleration of time in modernity was itself a symptom of the increasing nihilism. Becoming a sovereign individual is for Nietzsche the way out from the slave morality of the worker.
Primary reading: Nietzsche The Gay Science
Lecture 5: Bertrand Russell In Praise of Idleness. Russell’s seminal essay deals with the possibility of a technical utopia where idleness would be once more at the basis of civilisation. There is, however, also something peculiarly dangerous about Russell’s argument.
Primary reading: Bertrand Russell In Praise of Idleness
Lecture 6: Heidegger on Releasement. For Heidegger giving up on the will is the right way to respond to the crisis of modernity. By being idle in this way we begin to see the beauty of the world. The beauty, for example, of a useless tree.
Primary reading: Heidegger “Releasement”
Lecture 7: Josef Pieper on Total Work. For Pieper something fundamental has been lost in modernity. The sense that leisure is the basis of culture. Instead we succumb to total work.
Primary reading: Josef Pieper Leisure the Basis of Culture
"It was an inspiring seminar. It was like different views of the original concept are woven together, as Terry Eagleton put in one of his books about a good life, it should be a jazz band playing a common melody with individual musicians expressing their individuality through solos. It was an evocative experience." - Baris A.
"I'm really enjoying the Idleness with Dignity course. It's really good to engage with the original sources and to hang out and discuss them with everyone. It's a really stimulating but at the same time relaxing way to spend my Saturday evening. Like a pub with great conversation. I thought I might attend a few of the seminars here and there, but I can't resist, I'm hooked." - James S.