Why Boredom Matters: Education, Leisure, and the Quest for a Meaningful Life
By Kevin Hood Gary.
Cambridge University Press, 2022.
Paperback, 200 pages, $29.99.
Reviewed by Henry T. Edmondson III.
Kevin Hood Gary’s book Why Boredom Matters: Education, Leisure, and the Quest for a Meaningful Life is an important contribution to the Aristotelian tradition, which emphasizes the importance of how human beings use their free time. Gary takes us into this by the back door, so to speak. Rather than begin with a call to a meaningful use of leisure time, he identifies the phenomenon of boredom as both a diagnosis of, and an occasion for, a use of leisure that supports a life of “human flourishing,” or “eudaimonia,” to use Aristotle’s word.
Eudaimonia means something more than happiness, although one hopes it involves happiness; rather, human flourishing depends on excellence of intellectual and moral virtue. It rests upon an assumption that some things are good and some bad, never mind the insistence of intolerant moral relativists and nihilists who label anyone who insists on objective truth as narrow-minded and “ ______-phobic.” (Fill in the blank with the “phobia” du jour.)
In his Metaphysics, Politics, and Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle addresses the connection between leisure time and eudaimonia. In the Politics, he notes that human beings divide their time into work, recreation, and leisure, with leisure the most important because it is there we cultivate the soul. We work so that we might be at leisure and we recreate to provide relief from work. While this tri-fold division is somewhat simplistic, it is nevertheless true and useful. Scholastic philosopher Josef Pieper, in his classic Leisure the Basis of Culture (1952), explains that the health of a society is found in the way that people invest their free time, and the extent to which its citizens are able to differentiate between recreation (or play) and leisure. This also means that they resist the temptation to devote themselves to work until it becomes consuming—leaving no time for the purpose of work, leisure.
A contemporary obstacle to such a life is something we might call an “Amusement Imperative”—that is, our expectation that we should never be without the opportunity for shallow diversion. “Leisure,” Aristotle explains, “unlike mere amusement, involves pleasure, happiness, and living blessedly.” Yet we are fast becoming an “Air Pod Generation.” On any given day, an increasingly large percentage of people go about their business in an alter-universe, digitally cushioned to withstand the intrusions of meaningful reflection, religious considerations, rich conversation, and all other similarly unpleasant experiences. Ask the man or woman on the street or on campus to name their favorite book and they may struggle to name any book at all. Introduce a university class to the sublime “Adagio” of Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” and they are restless to hear frenetic rap. Assign a cerebral film and they complain that there is too little action.
Accordingly, Gary introduces us to the interdisciplinary world of “Boredom Studies,” populated as it is by “Boredom Scholars,” busying themselves in “Boredom Research.” Sound boring? At times Gary’s narrative is indeed tedious, especially when he relies on Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Simone Weil, among others. Out of that tedium, however, come some interesting points, for example, the difference between “situational boredom” (bored at what you do) and “existential boredom” (just bored).
Perhaps the most important contribution of Gary’s book is its insistence that boredom is a moral problem. It is born out of weakness of character and shallow spirituality. Though boredom may not be easy to escape, it can be done with the support of virtue and the exercise of the will. Gary also reminds the reader that it is the purpose of education to teach students how to use their leisure time. This means of course that educators have a proper vision of leisure, which may or may not be true, since it depends on their own upbringing and education. Ask a professor his favorite book and … well, you get the idea.
In its true sense, school, or schole, the Greek word for leisure, is a lifelong habit. Later in his text, Gary seeks to further define leisure by reference to Aquinas’ distinction between ratio and intellectus, and in this he has Pieper in the background. True leisure must sidestep the former and allow space for the latter. Ratio is our reasoning skill, whereas intellectus is our capacity for observance and wonder. Accordingly, leisure is properly experienced when we open ourselves to “mysterious encounters” or personal “epiphanies.” But at this point, Gary should help the reader understand the difference between leisure on the one hand, and mysticism on the other.
One also wishes that Gary might supply some ideas on the practical outworking of leisure. What do I do differently tomorrow? Some will immediately object that leisure is such precisely because it is not utilitarian—it has no practical end. Be that as it may, what does an education for leisure look like? What concrete steps might one take for a better use of free time? Though Pieper does not offer practical steps either, there’s no question that for him, a proper use of leisure rests upon a meaningful education. Perhaps Gary might spend a bit more time helping us to define, or re-define, a meaningful education, because the average man or woman on the street will need such a background to pursue leisure.
A perennial challenge to leisure is that not everyone can enjoy it because they do not have the time or energy to do so. For that reason, leisure is at times interpreted as an elite activity. Gary, then, seeks a way to “democratize” leisure. But this leads him into rather lengthy discussions of the movie Groundhog Day (1993) and The Karate Kid (1984)—both of which seem to trivialize the thesis of the book.
Gary also reports the notable but troubled novelist David Foster Wallace’s account of his luxury sea cruise, which he undertook as academic research into the habits and mentality of a spoiled generation, as he saw it. Wallace finds that everything about the cruise represents our worst tendencies and temptations. But then, after considerable attention to Wallace’s maritime experiment, Gary then concedes that a Caribbean cruise is just what many people need.
The reader also has to wonder if Gary should have relied on Wallace’s thought as much as he does throughout the book, given the latter’s gruesome suicide at the age of 46, the sad end of a life-long existential struggle with pathological depression.
Gary at times seems to want to free leisure from religion, despite his references to St. Augustine and others. For example, he argues that those wishing to properly escape boredom and enjoy leisure need to seek out a mentor—but he avoids the most typical incarnation of that experience, namely a spiritual director. The competent spiritual director is replaced by Mr. Mugabe.
These faults aside, Why Boredom Matters is a significant and welcome book, and one hopes that it will be read and discussed by many in these troubled times. More to the point, and returning to Pieper’s thesis that the health of a society is dependent on its use of leisure, Gary’s book is a critical warning and admonition to contemporary society. As Pieper soberly warns,
“Leisure has been, and always will be, the first foundation of any culture . . . [U]nless we substitute true leisure for our hectic amusements, we will destroy our culture—and ourselves.”
Henry T. Edmondson III is Carl Vinson Professor of Political Science and Public Administration at Georgia College.
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