I was browsing the self-help books in Foyles’ on the weekend, more out of a cynical curiosity than the expectation of genuine insight, and I came across a workbook full of exercises to help the reader reach their goals in life. Within this collection of philosophical trivia, there was the expected exercise to assist the reader to find their passion in life. One of the four questions it asked – and the others were so banal that I can’t even remember them – was this:
What would you do, if you didn’t have to do anything?
Now, as these sort of questions go, this isn’t too bad. Most of the things we do are concerned with mere survival: we need to ensure food, shelter, medical care and the like for ourselves, so by deftly putting these things to one side, this question gets quickly to the real stuff of life.
For me, if I could transcend the grubby struggle for survival, I’d travel as much as possible, and I’d learn – something concerned with pure knowledge, say theoretical physics or pure mathematics, perhaps another language or two. Education is now not seen as an intrinsic good, worthwhile for no other sake but its own, but instead as an investment from which we expect a return.
But even this might just be a reaction to my present situation: do I only want to travel because I find it a wonderful escape from the drudgery of work, and only want to learn because my job lacks intellectual stimulation? Tom Hodgkinson, in How To Be Free offers another solution:
And how do you find your vocation, your gift? The answer is simply to do nothing for as long as your possibly can. In the same way that wise gardeners advise that the first step when taking over a new garden is to do nothing for a year, in order to see what grows there and only then to design your own unique, useful and beautiful garden, so I would advise taking a few months off, or even a year, if you can manage it. Most of the time we are too busy to step back and find out what we would like to do. Create some time for yourself and things will gradually become clear. Above all, stop trying. Career is a try-hard notion. The free of spirit have stopped trying and instead let things happen.
I think this offers a practical way forward: as I’ll have to deal anyway with the problem of meeting expenses without wage slavery (if possible), it seems that by dealing with this first, a space will follow naturally in which I can properly and responsibly address the freedom that follows. But even this is tinged with doubt.
It was Hegel, I think, who wrote that the familiar becomes invisible, or something alone those lines, and there is indeed something so familiar in both the above formulations of the same question that it’s invisible: the assumption the person asking it is a free agent, and that the proper object of anyone’s of life is themselves.
This raw individualism has not always been the case; until the reformation, the Catholic Church recognised the ability of the individual to find salvation through good works (or, ahem, through indulgences), and so that became virtuous in such God-fearing times. Here, the object of a person would be God and not themselves. After the reformation, the Calvinists with their notions of predestination didn’t really allow free-will: your fate was determined by God before you were even born, as were your actions, so you may as well work for yourself since your fate after death is already decided. From this, unsurprisingly sprung modern day capitalism.
(This must also be one of the few examples in history of the Catholic Church being more intellectually honest than its enemies.)
Outside of Christianity, there’s the example of Mahatma Gandhi, who said that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”, another statement of purpose casting doubt on the idea that we should concern our lives purely with ourselves. I thus propose a slight modification to my original question, which I think provokes more insightful answers:
What should you do, if you didn’t have to do anything?
I admit I find this difficult to answer, because to do so I must address myself to virtue, rather than desire. Should I seek pleasure as the greatest good, like the Epicureans would advise, or aim instead for the arrogant benevolence of the magnanimous man, as suggested by by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics. Perhaps a more Stoic approach is best, seeking virtue above all (and especially mere material things), or Gandhi’s ethic of service?
I need to think a whole lot more about this.