Agnes Repplier


“Zounds! how has he the leisure to be sick?”

A visitor strolling through the noble woods of Ferney complimented Voltaire on the splendid growth of his trees. “Ay,” replied the great wit, half in scorn and half, perhaps, in envy, “they have nothing else to do;” and walked on, deigning no further word of approbation.

Has it been more than a hundred years since this distinctly modern sentiment was uttered, more than a hundred years since the spreading chestnut boughs bent kindly over the lean, strenuous, caustic, disappointed man of genius who always had so much to do, and who found in the doing of it a mingled bliss and bitterness that scorched him like fever pain? How is it that, while Dr. Johnson’s sledge-hammer repartees sound like the sonorous echoes of a past age, Voltaire’s remarks always appear to have beer spoken the day before yesterday? They are the kind of witticisms which we do not say for ourselves, simply because we are not witty; but they illustrate with biting accuracy the spirit of restlessness, of disquiet, of intellectual vanity and keen contention which is the brand of our vehement and over-zealous generation.

“The Gospel of Work”—that is the phrase woven insistently into every homily, every appeal made to the conscience or the intelligence of a people who are now straining their youthful energy to its utmost speed. “Blessed be Drudgery!” that is the text deliberately chosen for a discourse which has enjoyed such amazing popularity that sixty thousand printed copies have been found all inadequate to sup ply the ravenous demand. Readers of Dickens if any one has the time to read Dickens nowadays may remember Miss Monflather’s inspired amendment of that familiar poem concerning the Busy Bee:

In work, work, work. In work always,
Let my first years be past.

And when our first years are past, the same programme is considered adequate and satisfactory to the end. “A whole lifetime of horrid industry,” to quote Mr. Bagehot’s uninspired words, this is the prize dangled alluringly before our tired eyes; and if we are disposed to look askance upon the booty, then vanity is subtly pricked to give zest to faltering resolution. “Our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not;” they would be laggards in the field if our faults did not sometimes spur them to action. It is the paean of self-glorification that wells up perpetually from press and pulpit, from public orators, and from what is courteously called literature, that keeps our courage screwed to the sticking place, and veils the occasional bare ness of the result with a charitable vesture of self-delusion.

Work is good. No one seriously doubts this truth. Adam may have doubted it when he first took spade in hand, and Eve when she scoured her first pots and kettles; but in the course of a few thousand years we have learned to know and value this honest, troublesome, faithful, and extremely exacting friend. But work is not the only good thing in the world; it is not a fetich to be adored; neither is it to be judged, like a sum in addition, by its outward and immediate results. The god of labor does not abide exclusively in the rolling-mill, the law courts, or the corn field. He has a twin sister whose name is leisure, and in her society he lingers now and then to the lasting gain of both.

Sainte-Beuve, writing of Mme. de Sévigné and her time, says that we, “with our habits of positive occupation, can scarcely form a just conception of that life of leisure and chit-chat.” “Conversations were infinite,” admits Mme. de Sévigné herself, recalling the long summer afternoons when she and her guests walked in the charming woods of Les Rochers until the shadows of twilight fell. The whole duty of life seemed to be concentrated in the pleasant task of entertaining your friends when they were with you, or writing them admirable letters when they were absent. Occasionally there came, even to this tranquil and finely poised French woman, a haunting consciousness that there might be other and harder work for human hands to do. “Nothing is accomplished day by day,” she writes, doubtfully; “and life is made up of days, and we grow old and die.” This troubled her a little, when she was all the while doing work that was to last for generations, work that was to give pleasure to men and women whose great-grandfathers were then unborn. Not that we have the time now to read Mme. de Sévigné! Why, there are big volumes of these delightful letters, and who can afford to read big volumes of anything, merely for the sake of the enjoyment to be extracted there from? It was all very well for Sainte-Beuve to say Lisonstout Mme. de Sévigné, when the question arose how should some long idle days in a country-house be profitably employed. It was all very well for Sainte-Beuve to plead, with touching confidence in the intellectual pas times of his contemporaries, “Let us treat Mme. de Sévigné as we treat Clarissa Harlowe, when we have a fortnight of leisure and rainy weather in the country.” A fort night of leisure and rainy weather in the country! The words would be antiquated even for Dr. Johnson. Rain may fall or rain may cease, but leisure comes not so lightly to our calling. Nay, Sainte-Beuve’s wistful amazement at the polished and cultivated inactivity which alone could produce such a correspondence as Mme. de Sévigné’s is not greater than our wistful amazement at the critic’s conception of possible idleness in bad weather. In one respect at least we follow his good counsel. We do treat Mme. de Sévigné precisely as we treat Clarissa Harlowe; that is, we leave them both severely alone, as being utterly beyond the reach of what we are pleased to call our time.

And what of the leisure of Montaigne, who, taking his life in his two hands, disposed of it as he thought fit, with no restless self-accusations on the score of indolence. In the world and of the world, yet always able to meet and greet the happy solitude of Gascony; toiling with no thought of toil, but rather “to entertain my spirit as it best pleased,” this man wrought out of time a coin which passes current over the reading world. And what of Horace, who enjoyed an industrious idleness, the bare description of which sets our hearts aching with desire! “The picture which Horace draws of himself in his country home,” says an envious English critic, “affords us a delightful glimpse of such literary leisure as is only possible in the golden days of good Haroun-Al-Kaschid. Horace goes to bed and gets up when he likes; there is no one to drag him down to the law courts the first thing in the morning, to remind him of an important engagement with his brother scribes, to solicit his interest with Maecenas, or to tease him about public affairs and the latest news from abroad. He can bury him self in his Greek authors, or ramble through the woody glens which lie at the foot of Mount Ustica, without a thought of business or a feeling that he ought to be otherwise engaged.”

“Swim smoothly in the stream of thy nature, and live but one man,” counsels Sir Thomas Browne; and it may be this gentle current will bear us as bravely through life as if we buffeted our strength away in the restless ocean of endeavor.

Leisure has a value of its own. It is not a mere handmaid of labor; it is something we should know how to cultivate, to use, and to enjoy. It has a distinct and honorable place wherever nations are released from the pressure of their first rude needs, their first homely toil, and rise to happier levels of grace and intellectual repose. “Civilization, in its final outcome,” says the keen young author of The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani, “is heavily in the debt of leisure; and the success of any society worth considering is to be estimated largely by the use to which its fortunati put their spare moments.” Here is a sentiment so relentlessly true that nobody wants to believe it. We prefer uttering agreeable platitudes concerning the blessedness of drudgery and the iniquity of eating bread earned by another’s hands. Yet the creation of an artistic and intellectual atmosphere in which workers can work, the expansion of a noble sympathy with all that is finest and most beautiful, the jealous guardianship of what ever makes the glory and distinction of a nation; this is achievement enough for the fortunati of any land, and this is the debt they owe. It can hardly be denied that the lack of scholarship, of classical scholarship especially, at our universities is due primarily to the labor-worship which is the prevalent superstition of our day, and which, like all superstitions, has gradually degraded its god into an idol, and lost sight of the higher powers and attributes beyond. The student who is pleased to think a knowledge of German “more useful” than a knowledge of Greek; the parent who deliberately declares that his boys have “no time to waste” over Homer; the man who closes the doors of his mind to everything that does not bear directly on mathematics, or chemistry, or engineering, or whatever he calls “work;” all these plead in excuse the exigencies of life, the absolute and imperative necessity of labor.

It would appear, then, that we have no fortunati, that we are not yet rich enough to afford the greatest of all luxuries leisure to cultivate and enjoy “the best that has been known and thought in the world.” This is a pity, because there seems to be money in plenty for so many less valuable things. The yearly taxes of the United States sound to innocent ears like the fabled wealth of the Orient; the yearly expenditures of the people are on no rigid scale; yet we are too poor to harbor the priceless literature of the past because it is not a paying investment, because it will not put bread in our mouths nor clothes on our shivering nakedness. “Poverty is a most odious calling,” sighed Burton many years ago, and we have good cause to echo his lament. Until We are able to believe, with that enthusiastic Greek scholar, Mr. Butcher, that “intellectual training is an end in itself, and not a mere preparation for a trade or a profession;” until we begin to understand that there is a leisure which does not mean an easy sauntering through life, but a special form of activity, employing all our faculties, and training us to the adequate reception of whatever is most valuable in literature and art; until we learn to estimate the fruits of self-culture at their proper worth, we are still far from reaping the harvest of three centuries of toil and struggle; we are still as remote as ever from the serenity of intellectual accomplishment.

There is a strange pleasure in work wedded to leisure, in work which has grown beautiful because its rude necessities are softened and humanized by sentiment and the subtle grace of association. A little paragraph from the journal of Eugenie de Guerin illustrates with charming simplicity the gilding of common toil by the delicate touch of a cultivated and sympathetic intelligence:

A day spent in spreading out a large wash leaves little to say, and yet it is rather pretty, too, to lay the white linen on the grass, or to see it float on lines. One may fancy one’s self Homer’s Nausicaa, or one of those Biblical princesses who washed their brother’s tunics. We have a basin at Moulinasse that you have never seen, sufficiently large, and full to the brim of water. It embellishes the hollow, and attracts the birds who like a cool place to sing in.

In the same spirit, Maurice de Guerin confesses frankly the pleasure he takes in gathering fagots for the winter fire, “that little task of the woodcutter which brings us close to nature,” and which was also a favorite occupation of M. de Lamennais. The fagot gathering, indeed, can hardly be said to have assumed the proportions of real toil; it was rather a pastime where play was thinly disguised by a pretty semblance of drudgery. “Idleness,” admits de Guerin, “but idleness full of thought, and alive to every impression.” Eugenie’s labors, however, had other aspects and bore different fruit. There is nothing intrinsically charming in stitching seams, hanging out clothes, or scorching one’s fingers over a kitchen fire; yet every page in the journal of this nobly born French girl reveals to us the nearness of work, work made sacred by the prompt fulfillment of visible duties, and what is more rare made beautiful by that distinction of mind which was the result of alternating hours of finely cultivated leisure. A very ordinary and estimable young woman might have spread her wash upon the grass with honest pride at the whiteness of her linen; but it needed the solitude of Le Cayla, the few books, well read and well worth reading, the life of patriarchal simplicity, and the habit of sustained and delicate thought, to awaken in the worker’s mind the graceful association of ideas, the pretty picture of Nausicaa and her maidens cleansing their finely woven webs in the cool, rippling tide.

For it is self-culture that warms the chilly earth wherein no good seed can mature; it is self-culture that distinguishes between the work which has inherent and lasting value and the work which represents conscientious activity and no more. And for the training of one’s self, leisure is requisite; leisure and that rare modesty which turns a man’s thoughts back to his own shortcomings and requirements, and extinguishes in him the burning desire to enlighten his fellow-beings. “We might make ourselves spiritual by detaching ourselves from action, and become perfect by the rejection of energy,” says Mr. Oscar Wilde, who delights in scandalizing his patient readers, and who lapses unconsciously into something resembling animation over the wrongs inflicted by the solemn preceptors of mankind. The notion that it is worth while to learn a thing only if you intend to impart it to others is widespread and exceedingly popular. I have myself heard an excellent and anxious aunt say to her young niece, then working hard at college, “But, my dear, why do you give so much of your time to Greek? You don t expect to teach it, do you?” as if there were no other use to be gained, no other pleasure to be won from that noble language, in which lies hidden the hoarded treasure of centuries. To study Greek in order to read and enjoy it, and thereby make life better worth the living, is a possibility that seldom enters the practical modern mind.

Yet this restless desire to give out information, like alms, is at best a questionable bounty; this determination to share one’s wisdom with one’s unwilling fellow-creatures is a noble impulse provocative of general discontent. When Southey, writing to James Murray about a dialogue which he proposes to publish in the “Quarterly,” says, with characteristic complacency: “I have very little doubt that it will excite considerable attention, and lead many persons into a wholesome train of thought,” we feel at once how absolutely familiar is the sentiment, and how absolutely hopeless is literature approached in this spirit. The same principle, working under different conditions today, entangles us in a network of lectures, which have become the chosen field for every educational novelty, and the diversion of the mentally unemployed.

Charles Lamb has recorded distinctly his veneration for the old-fashioned schoolmaster who taught his Greek and Latin in leisurely fashion day after day, with no thought wasted upon more superficial or practical acquirements, and who “came to his task as to a sport.” He has made equally plain his aversion for the new fangled pedagogue new in his time, at least who could not “relish a beggar or a gypsy” without seeking to collect or to impart some statistical information on the subject. A gentleman of this calibre, his fellow-traveler in a coach, once asked him if he had ever made “any calculation as to the value of the rental of all the retail shops in London?” and the magnitude of the question so overwhelmed Lamb that he could not even stammer out a confession of his ignorance. “To go preach to the first passer-by, to become tutor to the ignorance of the first thing I meet, is a task I abhor,” observes Montaigne, who must certainly have been the most acceptable companion of his day.

Dr. Johnson, too, had scant sympathy with insistent and arrogant industry. He could work hard enough when circumstances demanded it; but he “always felt an inclination to do nothing,” and not infrequently gratified his desires. “No man, sir, is obliged to do as much as he can. A man should have part of his life to himself,” was the good doctor’s soundly heterodox view, advanced upon many occasions. He hated to hear people boast of their assiduity, and nipped such vain pretensions in the bud with frosty scorn. When he and Boswell journeyed together in the Harwich stage-coach, “a fat, elderly gentle-woman,” who had been talking freely of her own affairs, wound up by saying that she never permitted any of her children to be for a moment idle. “I wish, madam,” said Dr. Johnson testily,” that you would educate me too, for I have been an idle fellow all my life.” “I am sure, sir,” protested the woman with dismayed politeness, “you have not been idle.” “Madam,” was the retort, “it is true! And that gentleman there,” pointing to poor young Boswell, “has been idle also. He was idle in Edinburgh. His father sent him to Glasgow, where he continued to be idle. He came to London, where he has been very idle. And now he is going to Utrecht, where he will be as idle as ever.”

That there was a background of truth in these spirited assertions we have every reason to be grateful. Dr. Johnson’s value today does not depend on the number of essays, reviews, or dedications he wrote in a year, —some years he wrote nothing, but on his own sturdy and splendid personality; “the real primate, the soul’s teacher of all England,” says Carlyle; a great embodiment of uncompromising goodness and sense. Every generation needs such a man, not to compile dictionaries, but to preserve the balance of sanity, and few generations are blest enough to possess him. As for Boswell, he might have toiled in the law courts until he was gray without benefiting or amusing anybody. It was in the nights he spent drinking port wine at the Mitre, and in the days he spent trotting, like a terrier, at his master’s heels, that the seed was sown which was to give the world a masterpiece of literature, the most delightful biography that has ever enriched mankind. It is to leisure that we owe the “Life of Johnson,” and a heavy debt we must, in all integrity, acknowledge it to be.

Mr. Shortreed said truly of Sir Walter Scott that he was “making himself in the busy, idle pleasures of his youth;” in those long rambles by hill and dale, those whimsical adventures in farmhouses, those merry, purposeless journeys in which the eager lad tasted the flavor of life. At home such unauthorized amusements were regarded with emphatic disapprobation. “I greatly doubt, sir,” said his father to him one day, “that you were born for nae better than a gangrel scrape-gut!” and one half pities the grave clerk to the Signet, whose own life had been so decorously dull, and who regarded with affectionate so licitude his lovable and incomprehensible son. In later years Sir Walter recognized keenly that his wasted school hours entailed on him a lasting loss, a loss he was determined his sons should never know. It is to be forever regretted that “the most Homeric of modern men could not read Homer.” But every day he stole from the town to give to the country, every hour he stole from law to give to literature, every minute he stole from work to give to pleasure, counted in the end as gain. It is in his pleasures that a man really lives, it is from his leisure that he constructs the true fabric of self. Perhaps Charles Lamb’s fellow- clerks thought that because his days were spent at a desk in the East India House, his life was spent there too. His life was far remote from that routine of labor; built up of golden moments of respite, enriched with joys, chastened by sorrows, vivified by impulses that had no filiation with his daily toil. “For the time that a man may call his own,” he writes to Wordsworth, “that is his life.” The Lamb who worked in the India House, and who had “no skill in figures,” has passed away, and is today but a shadow and a name. The Lamb of the “Essays” and the “Letters” lives for us now, and adds each year his generous share to the innocent gayety of the world. This is the Lamb who said, “Riches are chiefly good because they give us time,” and who sighed for a little son that he might christen him Nothing-to-do, and permit him to do nothing.


MLA Citation

Repplier, Agnes. “Leisure.” 1893. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 10 Apr 2007. 18 Jul 2024 <>.

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