On Idleness, or How to Have your Coffee

There are two broad philosophies on how to have one's coffee, and two broad philosophies on how to live one's life. Both questions are inextricably linked.
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There are two broad philosophies on how to have one's coffee, and two broad philosophies on how to live one's life. Both questions are inextricably linked.

© 2014-2015 Yara Zgheib All Rights Reserved

One can order one's coffee large, in a leak-proof Styrofoam cup with extra room for hydrogenated cream, syrup, and sugar, to be hastily gulped in between destinations, reminders, and crossed-off checklist items. Coffee on the go, an invention we owe to at least three historical events:

In 1906, a certain George Washington invented mass-produced 'instant' coffee. One year later, a certain Lawrence Luellen invented the first disposable paper cup, and in a much later 1971, a certain Starbucks combined the two into a $70.9 billion industry.

Life on the go was invented much earlier, in 1517, by a certain Martin Luther: theologian, seminal founder of the Protestant Church, and great fan of hard work and frugality. Max Weber applied his ideas to economics, and coined the term "Protestant work ethic" as the driving force behind the rise of capitalism, social success and wealth in northern Europe.

Today, this double-pronged philosophy dominates our society, economy, and personal lives. Much work, much productivity, fueled by much, much more coffee.

But there is another, lesser-known way to have one's coffee.

Monday morning. Quit your job, move to Rome. Tuesday. Find the euro buried deep in your pocket, walk down the street and into the bar on the corner. Step up to the counter, order a caffè. Sip, savor. Be still.

Il dolce far niente.

A life of some work, much pleasure, and rich shots of coffee ristretto, macchiato or lungo. The philosophy of delicious idleness.

The Venetians did not invent the espresso, but they were the first to introduce it to Italy in 1683. The invention of the idle life is more difficult to trace:

Records exist of il dolce far niente being used as early as 1814, though no one knows who coined the phrase first. A certain Frenchman named Henri Beyle, better known to the world under the pseudonym Stendhal, describes it perfectly in a journal of his travels through Italy in 1817:

"Sur cent cinquante actions, importantes ou non, grandes ou petites, dont se compose la journée, le Milanais fait cent vingt fois ce qu'il lui plaît au moment même."

"Of a hundred and fifty actions, important or not, big or small, that constitute a day, a Milanese will do one hundred and twenty times that which gives him pleasure."

A nap after lunch in the cool shade of the terrazzo. A conversation about life, art, or soccer over an apéritivo. Lovemaking on a Thursday morning. The last bite of marinara-soaked bread.

A luscious chocolate or lemon digestivo, followed by an aimless passeggiata around the quieting city. A few lines of poetry on a gelato stained napkin.

© 2014-2015 Yara Zgheib All Rights Reserved

Pleasure as a right, not a reward. Work as necessary, but not sufficient. Value in quality, not quantity. Life in happiness, not productivity.

Coffee at the bar, watching time and the clouds outside pass by.

In 1932, Bertrand Russell wrote a fiery essay "In Praise of Idleness," in which he argued that our society had come to attribute so great a value to work that it had forgotten its right to leisure. He acknowledged that work was good - a noble, democratizing concept that incites all men to produce and to contribute - but it was "emphatically not one of the ends of human life."

The end of human life, is to live. To find a place for pleasure for its own sake. To make time for idleness, and in it, to cultivate happiness through personal growth.

"In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving."
- Bertrand Russel

In that world, writers will write, philosophers will philosophize, and lovers and nappers and wine and coffee drinkers will do so to their hearts' content.

"Sancerre, a novel, a beloved's head in your lap."

There are two ways to have one's coffee, and there are two ways to live one's life.

This post, and others by the same author can be found on her blog: Aristotle at Afternoon Tea.