John Stuart Mill on Having a Day of Rest and Recreation

It is not surprising that John Stuart Mill argues against the imposition of one’s religious strictures on other people–including one’s beliefs about a day of rest from regular work. What I find surprising is that he has so much sympathy for some sort of social rules to encourage people to take a day of rest. He does recommend that people not all synchronize their day of rest, since recreation often requires the help of someone doing herhis job. In On Liberty, Chapter IV, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual” paragraphs 20, he writes:

Another important example of illegitimate interference with the rightful liberty of the individual, not simply threatened, but long since carried into triumphant effect, is Sabbatarian legislation. Without doubt, abstinence on one day in the week, so far as the exigencies of life permit, from the usual daily occupation, though in no respect religiously binding on any except Jews, is a highly beneficial custom. And inasmuch as this custom cannot be observed without a general consent to that effect among the industrious classes, therefore, in so far as some persons by working may impose the same necessity on others, it may be allowable and right that the law should guarantee to each the observance by others of the custom, by suspending the greater operations of industry on a particular day. But this justification, grounded on the direct interest which others have in each individual’s observance of the practice, does not apply to the self-chosen occupations in which a person may think fit to employ his leisure; nor does it hold good, in the smallest degree, for legal restrictions on amusements. It is true that the amusement of some is the day’s work of others; but the pleasure, not to say the useful recreation, of many, is worth the labour of a few, provided the occupation is freely chosen, and can be freely resigned. The operatives are perfectly right in thinking that if all worked on Sunday, seven days’ work would have to be given for six days’ wages: but so long as the great mass of employments are suspended, the small number who for the enjoyment of others must still work, obtain a proportional increase of earnings; and they are not obliged to follow those occupations, if they prefer leisure to emolument. If a further remedy is sought, it might be found in the establishment by custom of a holiday on some other day of the week for those particular classes of persons. The only ground, therefore, on which restrictions on Sunday amusements can be defended, must be that they are religiously wrong; a motive of legislation which never can be too earnestly protested against. “Deorum injuriæ Diis curæ.” It remains to be proved that society or any of its officers holds a commission from on high to avenge any supposed offence to Omnipotence, which is not also a wrong to our fellow creatures. The notion that it is one man’s duty that another should be religious, was the foundation of all the religious persecutions ever perpetrated, and if admitted, would fully justify them. Though the feeling which breaks out in the repeated attempts to stop railway travelling on Sunday, in the resistance to the opening of Museums, and the like, has not the cruelty of the old persecutors, the state of mind indicated by it is fundamentally the same. It is a determination not to tolerate others in doing what is permitted by their religion, because it is not permitted by the persecutor’s religion. It is a belief that God not only abominates the act of the misbeliever, but will not hold us guiltless if we leave him unmolested.

I heartily agree with John Stuart Mill that “abstinence on one day in the week, so far as the exigencies of life permit, from the usual daily occupation, … is a highly beneficial custom.” It can be a hard custom to maintain for those of us who feel ourselves to be in some kind of contest (or what economists often call a “tournament”) against others whom we imagine as not taking any time off. For some of us in competitions we feel to be tight, even sleep seems like a luxury that is hard to afford. (I was glad to host the guest post “Dan Miller: Sleep as a Strategic Resource,” but look at the gainsaying comment to see how negative the attitude toward sleep can be among competitive types.)

Perhaps the best way we could shift the culture toward giving highly competitive folks like many of us a bit of a break would be to make our ability to keep up with everything despite taking time off something to brag about. I am thinking about something like the story I told in “How the Idea that Intelligence is Genetic Distorted My Life—Even Though I Worked Hard Trying to Get Smarter Anyway:

Once I actually got to college, with many other smart competitors, I knew I would have to work hard in ways more directly related to classes. But the desire to impress my classmates with the appearance of little input for high performance was still there. I still get a frisson of joy remembering the time one of my classmates expressed awe that I managed to survive in college despite not studying on Sunday.

In that vein, one of the things I have always been impressed with about William F. Buckley is that he managed to do everything he did to change the world while still pursuing his favorite recreations (such as sailing) vigorously. 

The following story is told about Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism:

That Joseph Smith liked to pull sticks, wrestle, play baseball, swim, and hunt is generally well known. William Allred, who played ball with Joseph many times, recalled an instance when someone criticized the Prophet for indulging in play. To answer the criticism Joseph told a parable about a prophet and a hunter—clearly explaining his own philosophy about the relationship of play to work. As the story goes, a certain prophet sat under a tree “amusing himself in some way.” Along came a hunter and reproved him. The prophet asked the hunter if he always kept his hunting bow strung up.
 “Oh no,” said he.
“Why not?”
“Because it would lose its elasticity.”
“It is just so with my mind,” stated the prophet; “I do not want it strung up all the time.”5

Except in genuine emergencies (which are frequent enough), let us try not to act like workaholics, especially since it tilts things toward everyone else feeling they need to act like a workaholic. There is plenty of trouble in the world, and a lot to do to save it. But maybe a little fun (and sleep) along the way will improve our productivity enough that it won’t put us too far behind in that endeavor.

And in fact, thinking only about "productivity” dramatically understates the benefit of taking some time off now and then. There is always a big danger of finding that one has worked very hard to take the world in the wrong direction. A balanced life gives one a fighting chance to gain the extra perspective needed to lessen that danger.