I have in previous posts written about themes like degrowth, downscaling and civil disobedience, and today I intend on going down that road once again – only with a slightly different focus.
I am going to talk about ambitions and productivity, or the lack hereof.
I have recently thought a lot about a story that my mother (who is a retired German teacher) used to tell my brother and me, when we were on our annual summer holiday in Southern Europe. The story or anecdote is called “Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral” (or “Anecdote concerning the Lowering of Productivity”), and it was written by the German Nobel Prize winning author Heinrich Böll (1917-1985) in 1963.
In short, the anecdote describes the encounter between a local fisherman and a tourist in a small, unnamed Southern European village. The tourist is an enterprising businessman of some sort, and one day whilst strolling around the harbour area of the town, he notices the fisherman, who is taking a nap in his fishing boat. Apparently, the fisherman’s napping bothers the tourist, because he approaches the fisherman and asks him why he is napping instead of working?
The fisherman explains that he has already been out fishing that morning, and that he has caught enough for the day. But the businessman still doesn’t understand, how he can be content with just lying around, so he suggests that the fisherman should start catching fish multiple times a day in order to expand his business. He would then soon be able to, says the businessman, buy another boat and then another one, and so on – and within some years he could build up a big business and even expand with a pickling factory.
But the fisherman doesn’t seem too terribly interested; he just asks: “and then what?” The businessman answers that he then, without a worry in the world, he could sit around the harbour and admire the beautiful sea!
“But that is what I am already doing,” replies the fisherman.
Mallorca last winter… Why does napping one’s days away always feel like a sin?
The anecdote always made a great impression on me. It made me rethink things I took for granted; like the “fact” that one has to develop and to be workative, diligent, ambitious, busy and effective. The truth of the fisherman’s point was so obvious to me – and almost too simple. I remember how it really hit me: was that really an option? Could one live like that? Think like that? I remember getting shocked by the ease and straightforwardness of the “truth” that the story presented. It really turned my world upside down momentarily. Was it possible to choose not to be ambitious? Was that a real option? Perhaps even a good and legitimate one? And did it represent my mother’s “truth”? (It seemed far from my hard-working parents’ reality – but perhaps I was wrong?).
However, as I am sitting here; a diligent, ambitious adult, writing my days away, the story suddenly seems two-sided. I am still charmed by the simplicity of the fisherman’s “truth”, but at the same time, I can’t help thinking: there must be more to life than lounging around, napping the days away. The lightness of that sort of being, which I found so intriguing as a child and young teenager, seems to me, suddenly, unbearable. Time is simply too precious for that.
But then again, perhaps that is just my culturally based assumptions speaking.
The stories we tell our children have great impact on their worldview.
This photo is taken in Nelson, Canada in August 2017
Nevertheless, my take on the two-sidedness of the story goes like this: on the one side I am captivated by the “simple living” represented by the fisherman and his careless “mañana-attitude”, but the lack of desire to make a difference in the world or to leave a (non-carbon) footprint, troubles me and seems almost indolent and apathetic. The lack of purpose makes his existence appear indifferent and too light, or much too “immediate pleasure centred”.
Contrariwise, the businessman’s effective productiveness does not seem like the solution to the fisherman’s unbearable lightness of being. I actually feel repelled by his stated need for growth, for profit for the sake of it (and awakening that feeling in me – i.e. the reader or listener of the story – is, I guess, the purpose of the anecdote).
The problem with the businessman’s approach to life is particularly the goal of his efforts. If all he really wants is to earn enough money to laze his days away by the sea, the light “truth” of the fisherman appears obvious.
Why bother with the long bumpy road, if the exact same goal (i.e. lounging by the sea all day) is achievable by downscaling? But still, is that goal fulfilling? Does it make one happy to have relaxation as a sole purpose?
North-West Copenhagen on a foggy autumn day. Sometimes finding your purpose in life can be as hard as defining the contours in this photo.
In “The Nicomachean Ethics” (350 B.C.E), the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) defines the virtues that are essential for attaining happiness as a middle way between too much and too little, often referred to as the golden middle or the golden mean. (As a parenthesis it is worth mentioning that to Aristotle, happiness is the ultimate goal in human life.)
The virtue of courage, for example, is the middle way between cowardliness and recklessness. And, both the exaggeration and the neglect of exercise will be destructive for building up strength. Exaggeration is wrong, but so is deficiency. Human beings must uphold a balance, just like nature.
When it comes to ambition, Aristotle would argue that greed as well as total lack of ambition or sloth is wrong, and neither extremes lead to happiness. If we lack all ambition, we will never accomplish anything and might end up wasting our lives away (as it potentially applies to the fisherman in the “Anecdote concerning the Lowering of Productivity”). On the other hand, if we are too ambitious we might abuse others and act immorally to reach our goals.
Virtuous men and women pursue what Aristotle calls the complete good. This includes making a conscious choice to strive for excellence, i.e. to develop one’s talents and capacities, as well as being a part of providing conditions under which fellow human beings can strive for excellence and happiness.
Now, this approach problematises the (in my perspective, unbearable) lightness of the lounging fisherman’s simple living in more than one manner. Pursuing the complete good is not exactly what the fisherman is doing when limiting his activities and efforts to an absolute minimum in order to relax the majority of the day. He is not meditating or seeking inner peace, but simply napping and dazing. Having no direction in life – and investing no energy in improving one’s skills – is not an Aristotelian recipe for happiness. Leading a fulfilling, virtuous life involves community activities, and the assurance that others too have the opportunity to pursue the complete good.
The problem with the businessman’s viewpoint becomes clear to me as well, when brushing up on Aristotle’s ethics. From Aristotle’s viewpoint many people postpone enjoyment and happiness, often even until it is too late, because they keep pursuing more. It seems that more wants more – i.e. once we start becoming profitable, it becomes hard to stop our chase for profit, even though profit in itself is not the goal for our actions. Imagine that somewhere along the businessman’s suggested long journey towards lounging the days away in the harbour of the unnamed charming little Southern European village as a wealthy man, the fisherman would die of a sudden stroke or get run over by a truck on his way to work. His efforts would then appear totally meaningless.
Living well and happily, according to Aristotle, means doing things so enjoyably that we do them for their own sake, not for the sake of an extrinsic compensation.
According to Aristotle work and leisure (should ideally) merge together. When you do something you love, you are not occupied with defining whether it is work or leisure. You just can’t help doing it. And that is exactly the problem with the outlook of both fisherman and the businessman of the “Anecdote concerning the Lowering of Productivity”; none of them consider their work and their leisure time a unit. They both view their work as a means to leisure, not as leisure and fulfilment.