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About Free Time

Hugh Hunter wonders if we’re always free in our use of our free time.

I first noticed the problem of free time when I was vacationing at an acquaintance’s cottage by a lake in northern Canada. It was a warm, sunny day, and as we watched, motorboats crisscrossed the lake, even though it was small enough that they could go from one side to the other in less than twenty minutes. But back and forth they went. One fellow was so diligent that he put in almost a full eight hours crisscrossing. It looked like work, I thought. If he had been delivering packages from one end of the lake to the other, it would have been work. And yet it wasn’t work; it was his free time.

The German social philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903-69) had already observed what I was discovering – that, like a shadow, free time points to an absence rather than a presence. Free time is the absence of work. More specifically, it is the absence of work you would prefer not to have to do. Speeding back and forth across a small lake comes to have meaning by reference to what it isn’t: it isn’t bending your will to the will of your employer.

If the economy collapsed tomorrow, would you go back to your office and keep working anyway? If not, then we might say that what you do is not completely aligned with your agency. Free time is about realigning what you do with what you want to do – realigning act with agency.

What bugged Adorno to the point of motivating him to give a lecture on ‘Freizeit’ was people asking him about his hobbies. Adorno was honest enough to understand why most academics don’t have hobbies: they are already doing what they want to be doing. Act and agency already align.

There are a few categories of people who don’t have much use for free time in a similar way. Artists, craftsmen, aristocrats, entrepreneurs, and executives never really stop working. To be good at any of these things requires a belief that what you are doing is worthwhile in itself.

The fortunate few who want to do the work they have to do are more than balanced out by the 37% (in one UK poll) who believe that their jobs don’t “make a meaningful contribution to the world.”

That poll question was pulled out of David Graeber’s cri de coeur, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs (2013). Graeber wrote about what he calls the ‘bullshitization’ of work: the trend toward jobs that no reasonable person would think worth doing. Graeber invites us to imagine the bleak lives of those who believe their careers make no positive difference to the world. If it isn’t you, it’s someone you know. Take the box ticker as representative of the kind. Many of us have to fill out reams of paperwork in pursuit of metrics (and in apparent ignorance of Goodhart’s law on the futility of such metrics). In their turn, many of the people inflicting this paperwork on us realize how pointless it is but are powerless to do anything about it.

The fellow in the boat does not seem so unreasonable if we imagine him as a frustrated box ticker. The physical power of the action of driving at high speed is the shadow of his powerlessness at the office. And yet it does not seem right or fitting to balance one meaningless thing with another. We ask, with W.H. Auden, Is that all the rebellion?

Sailing Away
Sailing Away © Amy Baker 2019. Please visit instagram.com/amy_louisebaker

Time For Freedom

Part of the problem with free time is philosophical. We imagine that what makes us free is having alternatives. This is what philosophers sometimes call the ‘freedom of spontaneity’. It’s the freedom you have at the beginning of a chess game: there are many opening moves, and you can pick whichever one of them you prefer. But let’s say you’ve picked a strategy, and as you put it into action you come to a situation where the only move available is the one you planned. In making that move are you still free? This was the strategy you wanted, and you got it. Does it matter that there are no longer alternatives?

To put the point another way, imagine that you and I are playing chess, but add to this that you are supremely observant, a modern-day Sherlock Holmes. From only a few minutes in my company you can tell what sort of game I’m going to play. Now, even before your first move, your range of openings is narrowed, since there are certain strategies you know it’ll be pointless to deploy against me.

Change the scenario one more time: your mind is now godlike. You know exactly what sort of game I’m going to play. You can now see the very best play to defeat me. So even from the opening move your range of rationally possible games narrows to one. But if it is the case that the smarter you are, the fewer options you have, maybe we shouldn’t put such a high value on freedom of spontaneity. Maybe instead freedom is compatible with being smart enough to recognize that in many situations there is no choice.

Now free time is seen as being all about choice: it’s about choosing pretty much anything to do so long as we choose it and our boss doesn’t. If choice doesn’t really make us free, however, we can start to understand a puzzling phenomenon. A lot of people say that if they won the lottery, they’d be free and would stop working. But most lottery winners don’t leave their jobs. As Shakespeare’s Prince Hal says, “If all the year were playing holidays / To sport would be as tedious as to work.”

Freedom Through Leisure

If we want to get from free time to genuine freedom, the absence of work is not enough. Freedom comes from within – or so thought the Stoic master Epictetus (55-135 AD), who pointed out that most of the world will never be under our control. What we can control are our minds and attitudes. Epictetus considered himself liberated by this principle, and here he could speak with authority. You may be a wage slave, but he was a real slave.

‘Be like Epictetus, and seek only to control your mind and attitude’ is not easy advice to follow. Great philosophers can show us ways of understanding the world, but working through the implications of the understanding can be a lifelong task even for them.

Adorno thought that free time as defined in opposition to work would be swept away by the Marxist revolution that would yield the workers’ paradise. Actual ‘workers’ paradises’ in Russia, China, Cambodia and North Korea don’t exactly inspire confidence… but I’ll admit I’m sympathetic to Adorno’s apocalyptic instinct. We Christians got there first, and I think it’s safe to say that a 100% reduction in bullshit jobs is implicit in the Bible’s prediction of the New Jerusalem. But even if you agree with Adorno’s Marxist vision, or even if you agree with me, paradise isn’t going to solve the problem for us in the short term.

In his introduction to his ‘Free Time’ lecture, Adorno briefly mentions a contrasting term: leisure (Muße). It’s very bourgeois, not at all his speed, and he says very little about it. But to be a man of leisure is, as the Romans thought, to be in the condition of libertas – freedom. And here we may find that the art, or rather, the arts, of freedom, have been right under our noses all along. I mean of course the liberal arts. These are courses of study and lifelong contemplation that promise to make you, not into a second Epictetus, but into Epictetus’ student and companion; and the student of the liberal arts gains all the other great thinkers as further teachers and companions too.

The liberal arts are sometimes called disciplines, and to study them does require a certain self-discipline. This self-disciplined ordering of your mind is the price of admittance to the great conversation about what matters. It’s not just that the conversation contains many answers to questions about how to live. Engaging in the conversation, contemplating the structure of the world, is liberating in that it is a goal that is satisfying in itself, a resting point for the mind which does not require a counterbalance in work. There’s room for freedom here even if you don’t have a lot of free time. Let’s grant that with work and other obligations, the domain of actual human freedom is a tiny, circumscribed plot of land. The liberal arts can be manuals for gardening in those small spaces.

© Hugh Hunter 2019

Hugh Hunter is a philosopher, and can be found at www.jhughhunter.com.

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