I’ve been toying for the past few days with a new twist to Idle Theory. In Idle Theory there are two states – busy and idle – which all living things (humans included) alternate between.
And in Idle Theory economic growth is growth in idleness, A society may start out in one era with 8% idleness, and then thanks to their skill and inventiveness and organisation they eventually get to be 91% idle.
And I think that’s this is roughly what has happened with Western civilisation over the past few thousand years (yes, I know some people will disagree, and say that we actually lived easier lives in the past than we do today).
And the new twist I thought up was that constrained, busy, working people are always being kept inside the real world. The guy with the spade is digging in some field or garden or road, and he’s got a defined task to perform. He’s got to collect potatoes or parsnips or onions. And when he’s finished that task he’ll have to wash them and weight them and put them in a sack and take them to a market to sell them. And he can do these tasks badly. He might do it too slowly. He could accidentally smash up the potatoes with his spade. Or he could drop them or lose lots of potatoes. And he might end up with nothing to sell. Or end up with something that nobody wants to buy. His is a moral universe, in which some things are the right thing to do, some the wrong thing.
But the idle guy lounging on his chair with a beer and a cigarette doesn’t have any task to perform. There’s nothing he has to do. He could sit all day drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. And if instead he reads a book or watches a movie or goes for a walk, that’s just as good a thing to do as sitting drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. There’s no right or wrong about doing more or less anything.
Busy people live in a moral universe. There are definite right things and wrong things to do: like don’t smash the potatoes. But idle people inhabit an amoral universe from which right and wrong have largely vanished.
And that’s the conundrum that comes with living an idle era: it’s no longer obvious what you should do, because you have lost the constraints that kept you in place. Maybe you’ve even lost the constraint of gravity to keep your feet on the ground. And as you lose moral constraints, you’re likely to become demoralised. Or you’re likely to be easily carried off by the slightest breeze of fashion. And you might even go mad.
Vincent van Gogh was arguably a man who lived an idle life. And in the end he went mad and shot himself. As an artist, he was supported by his brother Theo.
Theodorus “Theo” van Gogh was a Dutch art dealer. He was the younger brother of Vincent van Gogh, and Theo’s unfailing financial and emotional support allowed his brother to devote himself entirely to painting.
Vincent van Gogh painted about 850 pictures, but he only ever sold just one. And in his paintings he’s arguably gradually, and visibly, losing touch with reality. His paintings become suffused with currents that flow through them like eddies in a river.Vincent van Gogh entered into an unreal reality. Looking at the same scene, anyone else would have seen a few olive trees. But he saw something else in it.
Other impressionist artists were doing the same thing. Here’s another unreal reality, painted by Cezanne.
Within a few years abstract artists had completely lost touch with reality. Like Mondrian below.
And if Vincent van Gogh is now a celebrated artist, and his paintings sell for millions, it’s because a great many people now live unconstrained, idle lives, and they can see in van Gogh one of their forerunners. And the entirety of Western civilisation has been quietly going mad for the past few centuries as more and more people slip into ever more unreal realities.
One might even include philosophers like Karl Marx in among the artists and musicians. Rather like Vincent van Gogh, he was supported by his patron Engels throughout much of his life. He didn’t paint pictures, but he wrote voluminous tomes in which people now perceive another unreal reality, rather like those in van Gogh’s paintings.
These people were the Marco Polos and Livingstones and Amundsens of their time, only they were exploring an intellectual world rather than a physical one. But they also very often got lost, and many of them died out there.
I’ve begun to think of the Sixties (through which I lived) as a time of collective madness when people didn’t go off their rockers individually like van Gogh or Marx, but collectively en masse. They saw the world through different, often drug-fueled eyes. I was a student back then, and us students lived pretty idle lives. Universities are sleepy, idle places. And that’s probably why students are often the first to explore new ideas, new ways of seeing, and go a bit crazy. It’s also why their professors very often follow them. And if you live in a sunshine state like California, it’s probably pretty easy to live an idle life, and slowly lose your mind.
We’re living, I think, in a new time of collective madness. Some of us see the world completely differently than others. It’s something that was visible in Donald Trump’s State Of The Union address a day or two back: half the listeners would stand up and loudly applaud what he was saying, while the other half sat sullenly silent. One bunch of people saw (and heard) one thing in Donald Trump, and the other bunch saw (and heard) something completely different, just like van Gogh and Cezanne saw something else in the landscapes in front of them.
It’s the same with the antismokers in Tobacco Control: they also have entered an unreal reality in which tobacco smoke has become highly poisonous – rather like their companions in climate science have entered an unreal reality in which carbon dioxide is going to fry the whole planet. And the ‘dream’ of the EU is yet another unreal reality: the ‘project’ is going crazy, as it imports millions of Muslims into an historically Christian culture.
Back in the 60s it was mostly young people – mostly students – who got caught up in the prevailing madness. But now it’s much worse. These days the madness afflicts entire professions (like the batshit-crazy “healthist” medical profession), and much of the mainstream media, and the political class and the civil service. In the 1870s there were only a few Vincent van Goghs, and in the 60s there weren’t that many many more crazy hippies: but now the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
But my point is that this was all perhaps rather inevitable. It was inevitable, as Western society filled up with more and more idle people – students, people on welfare, immigrants – that they’d all gradually enter into new, unreal realities – just like Vincent van Gogh. Because they had the time in which to put together new pictures of the world, new depictions of it that were as detailed as any painting by Cezanne or van Gogh. Or they could get easily carried away by one fashionable new idea or other.
Most likely, and almost inevitably, we’re going to find ourselves coming back to earth with a bang one day. And reality – the real reality of digging potatoes – will overtake us again.