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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Busyness-Idleness Conundrum


Julien Dupre 1880


In his Works of Love, arguably his greatest ethical text, Kierkegaard uses an agricultural metaphor to describe busyness:

''…the busy people sow and harvest and again sow and harvest (busyness harvests over and over again), […] the busy people store the barns full of what they harvested and rest upon their gains—alas, […] the person who truly wills the good in the same span of time does not see even the smallest fruit of his labors and he becomes the object of ridicule as someone who does not know how to sow, as someone who labors in vain and is merely shadowboxing…''

This passage can be read in light of Kierkegaard’s account of boredom. Like the bored person who rotates their crops, the busy person is described by way of an agricultural metaphor: sowing and harvesting and sowing again. And the bored person and busy person’s similarities do not stop there. The busy person is also experiencing something indeterminate, and is, like the bored person, worse off for doing so.

For Kierkegaard, busy people are experiencing something indeterminate because their activities are not directed towards some particular good. The busy person may seem busy with some specific activity. In the case of the agricultural example in the passage above, the busy person appears busy with sowing and harvesting. The busy person sows and harvests and rests upon these gains. But what is the purpose of this rest? Only to begin once more, for “busyness harvests over and over again.” There is nothing gained by the cycle other than rest from the labor it requires.

Read it all here.


Is there value in idleness? From a psychological standpoint there is, if the idle time is used for reflection. Yet this too is a kind of labor. Further, reflection often leads to productivity and fruition of something latent. For some, physical labor in a field stimulates personal reflection. I know this was true for me while cutting and staking tobacco in Kentucky. 

It appears that we have a conundrum. What are your thoughts on this?

Alice C. Linsley




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