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Monday, September 28, 2020

Is There Profit in Boredom?


Renoir's La Tasse de Chocolat

Alice C. Linsley

My father often said, "It is a sin to bore people." 

He was an attorney who quickly tired of long-winded stories and explanations. He was a pastor who heard too many boring sermons. He also was an author who set aside boring books and articles.

The reader may have the impression that my father was arrogant, aloof, and overly critical. In fact, he was down-to-earth, enjoyed people, and was mostly critical of himself. 

He loved adventure and traveled widely. I have a photo of him standing beside the diminutive figure of a head-hunting chief in the mountains of Luzon.

At age 16, to the distress of his mother, he hitchhiked from Portland Oregon to Portland Maine.

My father thought life is precious and too full of potential to be squandered in boredom. 

During these months of Covid-19 isolation and restrictions, some are complaining of boredom. A young Isaac Newton did some of his best work while home at Woolsthrope during the Great Plague in London. He continued to work on mathematical problems he had begun at Cambridge; the papers he wrote on this became early calculus. He experimented with prisms. And outside his bedroom window there was an apple tree to ponder.

I wonder how my father would handle life during this pandemic. He died more than 20 years ago, but were he alive today I believe he would find even this tiresome situation exciting. Like Newton, he never lacked for imagination and energy.

The nearby Whittier hills were still relatively free of buildings and he explored them as often as possible. As a teen he made extra money harvesting lemons in a neighbor's citrus grove. 

He rode a bike, hiked, helped around the house, and played fetch with his dog Toby. His family members were avid Scrabble players and he enjoyed the occasional victory against his formidable polyglot mother

My father's family of origin was not wealthy. There were days when the meals consisted of bread, butter, and tea. Fortunately, his father had planted avocado trees in the backyard of their Whittier California home. The avocados provided sustenance as well as some productive labor.

While at times financially needy, boredom did not seem to be a problem in the Linsley family. That suggests that a link between boredom and economic injustice requires a deeper look. My father appreciated what he had. He was thankful for even scarce provisions.

Boredom is more complex than lack of resources. It involves multiple emotional and cognitive factors. 

Philosophers tend to view boredom as an existential condition. Moral theologians have called it a sin (ennui or acedia), but for psychologists who study boredom the pandemic has been a boom. Researchers are conducting experiments to discover the potential benefits of boredom.

Wijnand A.P. van Tilburg, a psychologist and boredom scholar (University of Essex) considers it an emotion that is neither good nor bad. He wants to understand how it functions. 

It seems apparent that for some people boredom is something to be overcome, not endured. 

Friday, September 4, 2020

Sex, Human Rights, and Natural Law


In the news is the feud between the French philosopher Jean-Paul Enthoven (age 71) and his son Raphaël Enthoven after Raphaël's 500-page autobiographical novel was published.

Jean-Paul reacted angrily to the publication of Le Temps gagné (Time Saved), claiming it has left him “heartbroken” and loved ones “drowning in a sea of ingratitude”.

Jean-Paul dated the model Carla Bruni who later married his son, Raphaël (age 44). Raphaël fathered a child with Bruni in 2001. Both men had been married before.

Raphaël and Bruni separated in 2007. One year later, Bruni later married French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

However, the Enthovens’ clash has nothing to do with Bruni. It is about Raphaël's fictional tell-all in which he portrays family and friends in a bad light.

French philosopher Pierre Manent (Wikimedia Commons)

In a stark contrast to the lives of the Enthoven's, the French philosopher Pierre Manent recently discussed the harms of the human rights ideology and called for a restoration of natural law within Western societies. 

He says, "Alexis de Tocqueville often said that democracy was threatened by a despotism from the majority, and today we see in our regimes that there is a tyranny of minorities, of individuals, who are the most minoritarian minority. We don’t realize that we grant illimited power to a right that cannot be formulated and which has no reason to be, apart from feelings. But a feeling is nothing but an affect which can also be very unstable and changing."

In his recent book Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason (University of Notre Dame Press), Manent shows how modern civilization progressively made human will the ultimate source of law within societies, denying that nations can be governed by universal principles that should be acknowledged and preserved rather than constantly reinvented.

Manent taught political philosophy at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris for many years and is now visiting professor at the Boston College Department of Political Science. He is the author of a number of books about the history of political thought and the relationship between politics and religion, including Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic and A World Beyond Politics?: A Defense of the Nation-State.

In this interview with the Register, Manent warns against the excesses of the modern human-rights doctrine and discusses the importance of natural law for civilization's sustainability.