There is not much to be said on the recreation of men belonging to the upper classes. That most objectionable of creatures, the gentleman at large without occupation, has a free choice before him of every amusement that the world has to give; but one thing he is hopelessly denied – the keen enjoyment of recreation. Living from year to year in a round of varied pastimes, he becomes slowly incapacitated for forming habits of work, while at the same time he is slowly sapping all the enjoyment from play. For although variety of amusement may please for a time, it is notorious that it cannot do so indefinitely. The intellectual changes which are involved in changes of amusement are not sufficiently pronounced to re-create even the faculties on which the sense of amusement depends; the mind, therefore, becomes surfeited with amusement of all kinds, just as it may become surfeited with a tune too constantly played – even though the tune be played in frequently changing keys. For such men, if past middle life, I have no advice to give. They have placed themselves beyond the possibility of finding recreation, and their only use in the world is to show the doom of idleness. They, more even than paupers, are the parasites of the social organism; and we can scarcely regret that their lumpish life, being one of stagnation self-induced, should be one of miserable failure, to the wretchedness of which we can extend no hope.
George John Romanes, ‘Recreation’ (1879).
Winslow Homer, Croquet, 1864
True, for most of us, the pitfalls of idle wealth are – and shall remain – an unknown sin. But GJR can scarcely have imagined a time when leisure would have become so thoroughly democratised as it is for us. To all intents and purposes, the average man now lives like the aristocrat of yore, and therein lies a danger. For if work is simply a place to which you travel on a daily basis, a chore to endure for the requisite period while planning your next binge, then you are – it grieves me to say – already incapacitated for forming habits of work, real work, and are in fact in a state of self-induced stagnation. If you do not work, so much as merely turn up; if your occupation is utterly meaningless and valueless for you; if you have ceased to ‘save it up’ for Friday night, but rather spend it on a daily basis; if you contribute nothing to the common good, i.e. you fail to create – then how can you hope to recreate? Your leisure is reduced to consumption; fun equates to a superficial routine, much like your idle day job.
Unlike Romanes, I do not abandon all hope. For, unlike the idle aristocrat whose birth came replete with the indelible imprint of status, the leisured classes of the twenty-first century can change course. Most of us must work; but all of us should desire it. This probably entails a reorientation of life goals: Who am I? What do I want? Of what am I capable? What can I give? The answers aren’t prescribed, but it is striking that most people do jobs they don’t like while fantasising about jobs they would like. The people who actually do those jobs don’t like them, and so on. A thorough reshuffling is in order. Whether you choose to work with your back or your brain, your gut or your graces, at least make sure you actively choose. The purpose with which you will thusly endow your life will give greater meaning to the pleasures you seek, which in turn will fit you better to fulfil your purpose. If, my dear readers, any of you have recognised yourselves in these descriptions, I exhort you: take your life in your hands, before the wretchedness of indolence consumes you!