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Too Busy to Think

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“One feels very lonely in this country; this has to do in particular with the fact that everyone is very busy and that for most people the need for leisure simply ceases to exist after a certain amount of time.”

– Hannah Arendt to Gershom Scholem, November 4, 1943

Hannah Arendt had lived for a year and a half in the United States when she noted in a letter to her friend Gershom Scholem: “One feels very lonely in this country; this has to do in particular with the fact that everyone is very busy and that for most people the need for leisure simply ceases to exist after a certain amount of time.”

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This entails, Arendt continues, a certain attitude of “permanent absence (by which I mean ‘absent-mindedness’), rendering human contact between people to be very difficult.” Scholem, who received Arendt’s letter from New York in Jerusalem, was familiar with this phenomenon. “All my friends in the U.S. are muted by this ‘public isolation’,” hence communicating with them became very difficult, he writes in December 1943, “unfortunately you are not an exception in that regard.”

Scholem’s response is noteworthy, for he addresses the political implication of Arendt’s (self-) observation. In general, being busy and leading a public life is not a contradiction. “One can be occupied by his daily work, and when this period of work in the private realm of a factory or an office space has ended, one can enter the public sphere by being a citizen – or a friend” (Jerome Kohn). Arendt had a political understanding of friendship; for her, friendship consists of the world that appears between friends who are diverse and embody plurality rather than an imagined or imposed ‘unity’. In a state of “absent-mindedness” though, one cannot be in public, nor political, nor with friends in a meaningful way.

The problem starts with the absent need for “leisure,” Arendt states. In her letter to Scholem she uses a particular (untranslatable) German term for leisure: “Musse,” which is the German version of the Latin concept of otium. It denotes the free time I have for contemplation when I’m not busy (opposed to neg-otium, the time when I’m not free for contemplation, i.e. when I’m busy).

The term “Musse” that Arendt uses also appears in the title “Musse und Müssiggang” (Leisure and Idleness) of section no. 329 in Nietzsche’s Gay Science. Nietzsche, who is not known for having great interest in the New World, in this very passage talks explicitly about America, and in particular about the Americans’ “distinctive vice”: “the breathless haste with which they work,” so that “one no longer has time or energy […] for otium at all.” Arendt read this passage thoroughly: her private (German) copy of Nietzsche’s Gay Science has marked up not only this sentence, but shows underlinings and marginalia throughout the entire entry on “Leisure and Idleness.”

One would think with a watch in one’s hand, Nietzsche continues in his depiction of America’s oblivious take on “Musse,” and the common principle “Rather do anything rather than nothing,” would throttle all culture and good taste. In effect, all forms and “the feeling for form itself, the ear and eye for the melody of movements” were visibly perishing because of the haste of the busy people. Before the takeover of the protestant work ethic, it actually was ‘busy action’ that suffered from a bad consciousness, Nietzsche recalls, and Arendt underlined the related sentence: “the desire for enjoyment already calls itself ‘need of recreation,’ and even begins to be ashamed of itself.”

Arendt’s underlining, with regard to her letter to Scholem, outlines – at a very early stage – her larger political and theoretical project: the modern problem of world-alienation and its threat to the human faculty of judgment.

Thinking needs solitude, according to Arendt, not loneliness or isolation (another distinction inspired by Nietzsche).

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World-alienated loneliness or isolation precludes the thinker from the common world; yet, out of the state of solitude he can reenter it once he has ended his act of thinking. Judging relates abstract thoughts back to the world by giving them a concrete form perceivable and disputable in public, in company with others. Absent-mindedness is oblivious of this company. That’s why the perished “feeling for form itself,” deriving from a common lack of “Musse,” may entail a crisis of political judgment: in other words, a disconnection between vita contemplative and the public sphere. Nietzsche, in the passage intensely marked by Arendt, offers a form of counteracting this disconnect: “to take a stroll with thoughts and friends.”

-Thomas Wild

Posted on 28 May 2013 | 11:22 am

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