Wilde, Augustine, and the Political Theology of Leisure (Benjamin Wood)

Essays

In a recent video (Humans Need Not Apply) CGP Grey challenges us to imagine a future in which the majority of human work will be performed by ever-more finely-calibrated machines (coordinated by ever-more complex software). Lest we doubt it, he suggests that the seeds of this future are already with us.

In a recent video (Humans Need Not Apply) CGP Grey challenges us to imagine a future in which the majority of human work will be performed by ever-more finely-calibrated machines (coordinated by ever-more complex software). Lest we doubt it, he suggests that the seeds of this future are already with us. In the post-industrial economies we are seeing a rapid decrease of administrative jobs and the slow computerisation of skilled professions like legal services and medicine. Humans are slowly being replaced. Grey concludes his video by suggesting that nothing is safe from this process; not even the much vaunted  domain of ‘human creativity’. And yet, if Grey is right, we have yet to grapple with the full social and economic implications of this process. Yet, if our policy-makers are manifestly ill-prepared for this seismic shift in human civilization, so are political theologians. For those working in a liberationist tradition in particular the challenge of a post-work society is particularly glaring. For decades ‘work’ and its manifold alienations have been a central part of its ethical critique. Undoubtedly, liberationists still speak intelligibly and powerfully to cultures where the process of industrialisation has erected conditions of semi-slavery. In this context Christ’s offer of life lived “abundantly” (Jn. 10:10) is plainly articulated in material terms; as the extension of welfare measures, healthcare and safer working conditions. Yet, it is less clear what Christ’s call of abundance might mean in societies traditional disciplines of the workplace are fast becoming obsolete.Our difficult task in the West is to move from a productions model of human emancipation and towards a vision of life and politics of joy and carnival.

What resources might there be for assisting political theologians in confronting this new situation? Doubtless there are many useful sign-posts, yet for Christians who are particularly disturbed by the post-work thesis, I would recommend Oscar Wilde’s essay Soul of Man under Socialism (1891). In this profound and prophetic little text, Wilde paints for us his image of a cultured Utopia in which the material burdens of life are borne, not by frail human beings, but by the sturdy engine of modern science.  This will leave people free from the toils of work and accumulation and provide time for culture, ease and friendship. As Wilde cheerily exclaims: ‘when scientific men are no longer called upon to go down to a depressing East End and distribute bad cocoa and worse blankets to starving people, they will have delightful leisure in which to devise wonderful and marvellous things for their own joy and the joy of everyone else’.[i]  Yet, for Wilde, this profusion of ‘free time’ is more than an endorsement of the kind of shopping-economy supported by today’s neo-liberals. It is in fact a call of liberation from mindless acquisition; a call which is as humane as it is Christ-like. For Wilde, the goal of the automated economy should be a move away from a harmful focus on what people ‘possess’ towards what they can produce in the realm of mental beauty, virtue and character. Just as Jesus extolled the effortless beauty of the flowers of the field (Matt 6:28) Wilde is enchanted by a personality, unfolding in simplicity and grace, unspoilt by the corruptions of wealth or power.  As Wilde puts it:

[He] who would lead a Christlike life is he who is perfectly and absolutely himself. He may be a great poet, or a great man of science; or a young student at a University, or one who watches sheep upon a moor; or a maker of dramas, like Shakespeare, or a thinker about God, like Spinoza; or a child who plays in a garden, or a fisherman who throws his net into the sea. It does not matter what he is, as long as he realises the perfection of the soul that is within him.… There is no one type for man. There are as many perfections as there are imperfect men.[ii]

As romantic this formulation seems in our cynical age, Wilde’s desire for a deeply religious (and teleological) conception of leisure touches the very heart of the matter. Our most urgent task in an age of increasing automation is not merely to ‘humanise work’ (as John Paul II might have said) but realize the true spiritual possibilities of relaxation. Our struggle must be directed not merely against the avoidable scarcities which still pervade late Capitalism but also towards dismantling those practices and attitudes which cheapen and demean love, creativity and friendship; for only these qualities will ready us for a society of Sabbath. Such a sabbatical lens is central in unlocking what Wilde has to offer political theologians. What is being sketched in Soul of Man under Socialism is not a world divided between the poor workless and the idle rich (an exaggeration of the world in which we already live) but one in which Christ’s wedding feast is able to break into the iron cages of labour and Capital.

By helping us imagine a world beyond the repeated demands of work, Wilde’s socialist Utopia has more in common with the Ciceronian pleasures of the young Augustine of Hippo than the market-hedonism which dominates our culture. Readers of Augustine will remember his pre-baptismal flight to the villa at Cassiciacum (Confessions 10.3.5) where he lazed in ‘the meadow’ and ‘the bathing hall’[iii] with his companions, composed letters[iv] and devoted many hours reading Virgil.[v] Yet as Augustine makes clear, these were not hours misspent. Indeed, it was in the midst of these seemingly indolent days that Augustine tells us heard the voice of God whispering to his soul concerning the love of Christ. Here leisure is transformed into liturgy, while taking with friends becomes a Eucharistic act.  The spiritual depth of Augustine’s epicurean restfulness teaches us a value insight; that our free time (our loves, friendships, even books) can become a backdrop for the activity of God’s grace. Yet as Wilde would have point out, Augustine’s experiment in Christian tranquillity was a failure because it was built on the back of slavery and an unjust accumulation of private property. The economic and as well as religious challenge, said Wilde, is to create conditions which were truly Christ-like; where a logic of gift and abundance overrides the forces of conflict and scarcity which stand in the way of the logic of the Sabbath.

Technology may provide us with the means, but only a willingness to break the idols of greed and acquisition can it be brought about. Without such repudiation it is easy to imagine how the next century will unfold. The owners of these fine machines will extract every more ‘social rent’ enriching them exponentially, at the expense of citizens and their governments. Or else these wonders will be the stuff of gated-communities, sat behind barbed-wire and glass. We can avoid such a grim future, but only if we decouple leisure from the idea of something ‘worked for’, ‘earned’ or otherwise ‘deserved’, but something belonging to our first-order nature; a gift from a bountiful God.  This, it seems to me, should be the mission of the Church in the midst of post-industrial affluence.  In an epoch when Wilde’s Utopia appears nearer than ever, the Church should be the champion not of dignified labour, but of a society of loving connection, delight and repose. Christians are already agitating for such a culture-change through the increasing involvement in Citizens Income campaigns. In these stirs of protest against an inhumane system of work and enforcement unemployment, we discern a new vision of human flourishing beginning to be born; one in which labour does not take centre stage.

Dr Benjamin J. Wood is a Research Associate at the Lincoln Theological Institute, University of Manchester.  His current research interests include the theological validity of political liberalism, the Christian foundations of secularity and Augustinian theology in relation to individualism.

 

[i]Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Other Writings, (Ware: Wordsworth, 1999), p.261

[ii]Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Other Writings, (Ware: Wordsworth, 1999), p. 257-258

[iii]Augustine, Against the Academicians, The Teacher,trans. Peter King (Cambridge; Hackett Publishing, 1995), p.52

[iv]Ibid. p. 48

[v]Ibid.p.34

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