Written by a father and son team – Robert and Edward Skidelsky – this book is about imagining a better future. How do we do that? By asking ourselves what makes a for a good life – and acting on the answers.
The book starts with a massive mistake made by John Maynard Keynes in 1930. Looking forward he thought that our work would be so efficient that we would by now by working 15 hours per week and devoting the rest of our lives to more worthwhile activities. He was wrong – our desire has shown no sign of being sated, and so we go on and on working harder and harder pursuing ever more and more growth.
‘Growth’ however is a concept desperately in need of a teleology – a purpose or ‘end’. More than that, it is in need of a ‘means’ that is congruent with the intended ‘end’. The Skidelskys’ answer that neither wealth and the pursuit of wealth, nor happiness and the pursuit of happiness, are good enough. The good life for them is a complex business involving seven components.
Health – having a body in good working order and a reasonable life-expectancy.
Security – living in an accustomed way undisturbed by war, violence, crime etc.
Respect – having your views and choices regarded and taken seriously.
Personality – this is ‘Kantian autonomy’ with a bit of spontaneity and spirited individualism thrown in.
Harmony with Nature – a sense of kinship with plants, animals and landscape.
Friendship – enjoying robust affectionate relationships with others.
Leisure – being able to do things for their own sake and not because they are means to an end.
It is Skidelskys concept of leisure which interests me most. They are at pains to point out this is not the same as the normal concept of leisure.
It’s whatever we do just because it is worth doing it. It is the pursuit of the intrinsically worthwhile. It is like the nishkama karma that I discovered in Gurcharan Das’ very different book https://stephencherry.wordpress.com/tag/gurcharan-das/
One of the important things to say about such ‘leisure’ is that it can sometimes be your work – if you are fortunate enough to be in a job which can properly be called a ‘vocation’. All worthwhile volunteering is also ‘leisure’ in this sense – even if it is hard work. It also follows that many of the things we do when we have time off are not leisure at all; cleaning gutters springs to mind, unless you find it intrinsically rewarding and would do it whether or not it had the consequence of letting the water flow freely to the drain, rather than backing-up and leaking thought the roof.
There is much more to this carefully researched, clearly expressed essay, but two things stay with me. First, that we should no longer have any doubt that human desires are insatiable and that unless we wise up to that we will be in very big trouble indeed. The second is that the list of seven components of the good life offers a solid basis for the re-moralising of politics. How good it would be to see them guiding policy over the coming decade.
We need a new politics and maybe it will begin to emerge if we can begin to share a subtle yet practical vision of the good life. Certainly we owe our children and grandchildren a better explanation of their inheritance than the excuse that we were so demoralised by adverts that we were mindlessly pursuing growth and happiness – without thinking much about what they really are.