Thursday, November 10, 2011

We Should All Observe the Sabbath and Keep It Holy

I am reading a wonderfully dense, incredibly complex and difficult book ostensibly on art, but which lays out such a through philosophical world view first that they have yet to get to art per se (by pg. 45, Ch. 3). It is Western Culture at the American Crossroads by Arthur Pontynen and Rod Miller. I will probably write more on this book as I'm reading it (and as soon as I pin down exactly what they are arguing -- they have managed to first make me sure of where they are going, only to then make a statement that makes me no longer sure, a sufficient number of times that I know better than to say what they are saying until I am finished with the book), but I wanted to note something that has particularly struck me for some reason. Consider the following:

culture is the product of leisure and the object of our thoughts.

The Puritan refers to such leisure as the Sabbath, a day not just of rest but of reflection as well. The Sabbath, or leisure, is associated with the rise of culture because it permits us the time to reflect on the world and our place in it. The Puritan thus democratizes participation in the liberal arts, once the privilege of the aristocratic class. Active reflection on the purpose of life makes possible responsible freedom by the exercising of conscious deliberate choice as such it is deemed the finest activity humans can engage in. Such reflection is self-conscious, a realization that we think, we live, we experience death---and perhaps more. Between life and death occur guilt about the past, boredom with the present, and anxiety about the future. Self-conscious reflection has an object: to understand what meaning, what hope and joy, transcends guilt, boredom, anxiety, and even death. That transcendent goal is the ground for the liberal arts, the arts of the Sabbatical mind, and responsible freedom. (26-7)
Several things come to mind. First, their point about the Sabbath democratizing culture -- the arts -- supports my contention that the arts are now a spontaneous order in their own right, since equal access is an essential feature of spontaneous orders. Second, the point about the importance not just of leisure, but of a particular kind of leisure -- one that allows for contemplation -- is very suggestive. How many of us have that kind of leisure? We fill our time with work, "leisure activities," family, friends, noisy protests, social networks, endless chatter. We keep busy, busy, busy, and thus have no time to sit and think. As a culture we no longer have a day of contemplation. Thus, we are moving back toward more elitist culture -- only the elites are in many ways self-selected. It thus becomes aristocratic, but not necessarily in the sense of aristos meaning "the best" (though those with Ph.D.'s in the humanities may think otherwise of themselves). Rather, the ones who rise to the top are the ones best able to parrot what everybody already knows -- thus is true contemplation discouraged, lest one come to different conclusions. Better to fill one's time with endless chatter, avoid contemplation.

Of course, there are different kinds of contemplation. The average person needs time alone to think. No T.V., no radio, nobody talking to him. Someone like me needs time alone to think, with a pen and paper at hand. The scholar should be contemplative in this active sense, writing down the thoughts, thinking those thoughts through, revising thought thoughts, revising revisions. The scientist, the scholar, the artist all need time to contemplate if they are going to do anything other than what has already been done, if they are going to think new thoughts, if they are going to add to the world. And we need to be joined by everyone else. Everyone needs to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy -- in thus contemplating, one will find oneself, improve oneself, and, improving oneself, find the energy and virtue to understand and improve the world.
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