Tom Hodgkinson: We would all like to float around on a cloud of unknowing. But it don't pay the rent

 

Share

Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all. In the West, we are brought up to believe that hard work is the answer to every problem. We must act, we must act now, and we must act decisively. Strivers are praised; skivers are condemned.

When a politician dies, a former enemy will often say something like: "I didn't agree with her, but I admired her tenacity and single-mindedness." But that comment privileges action over morality. You might as well say of Hitler: "I didn't agree with his ideas, but I admired the single-minded way he carried them out."

It would have been better for the world had Hitler stayed in his Viennese garret, painting terrible pictures. The "striving" philosophy is fundamentally flawed because it places form above content: what are you striving for exactly? If you are working hard for evil ends, then the hard work is not a good thing.

Such thoughts are swirling around my brain because we are running a course in Eastern philosophy at the Idler Academy. The teacher is Tim Lott, the novelist and journalist. In the classes, Tim has discussed the nervous breakdown he suffered at 31, and his subsequent recovery, which was when he discovered the work of Alan Watts, the pointy-bearded philosopher who pioneered interest in Buddhism and Taoism in the States.

Watts taught that we should all stop trying so hard. Sometimes you need to just go with the flow. Abandon the ego, and stop minding so much about your desires. They only lead to misery. And don't take things so seriously. Embrace the Tao, the watercourse way, and wu wei, the principle of inaction. Life is taken care of better than you can imagine.

In theory, I am in agreement with the Watts approach to life. After all, we would all like to float around on a cloud of unknowing, benignly chuckling at the folly of the universe. But it don't pay the rent. One wag at Tim's talk tried to use Eastern philosophy to get out of paying, which I thought was a bit much. "It's about ideas, not money," he said. "Our landlord doesn't accept ideas at the end of the month, I'm afraid," I retorted.

I think it's also a mistake to think that Western philosophy is all about action. Tim mentioned the old Greeks as having the opposite mentality to the Buddhists and Taoists. They were all about pinning things down and studying them, he said. They saw the body as a machine driven by the ego.

Yes, but they praised contemplation and retreat as well. Aristotle gets quite Buddhist at some points: he says that the businessman is doomed to being anxious and unhappy, and that you would be more sensible to pursue the vita contemplativa.

Medieval Christianity was also characterised by a love of contemplation, and a merry fatalism quite Oriental in character: "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die." Just think about the contrast between the old-fashioned medieval type of Sir Toby Belch, versus the new humourless striving personality of Malvolio, the Puritan.

However, it is very difficult to be a Taoist, especially when you have just opened a small retail business in the middle of a recession. In the first few months of opening the Idler Academy, I turned from laid-back poet to Basil Fawlty. Instead of reading enigmatic poems about huts in the mountains when I went to bed, I read books about how to succeed in business. I woke at 5am every day, sweating with worry. I shouted at staff and my partner, felt a permanent knot in my stomach – a period of intense stress that ended with a breakdown.

Tim would say that my ego had gone crazy. Bertrand Russell agreed: he said excessive self-importance generally leads to a nervous breakdown. I guess this must be a common problem with small businesses. After all, you have probably taken a financial risk as well as told everyone your plans. You are therefore quite understandably scared of failing. Your ego is at stake. The experience certainly seemed to prove to me that striving makes you depressed. However, I can't really see how it could have been different. If I had stayed in bed all day and done nothing, no one would have got paid. And you can only reach mastery of a skill after much practice and much failure. Creation inevitably involves pain. But we also need to take it easy. That is the dance of life.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: £20000 - £25000 per annum + c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a number ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Sales Consultant - OTE £45,000

£15000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you want to work for an exci...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Turkey conflict: Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk
 

At last! An Education Secretary who thinks teachers should teach

Chris Maume
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food