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Essay

In Praise of Laziness

By November 16, 2017 2 Comments
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By Sarina Gruver Moore

When I teach Milton’s Paradise Lost I am at pains to point out to students that Milton’s Eden is not a place of unmitigated leisure. It’s not some divine all-inclusive resort where Adam and Eve spend their days drinking Mojitos poolside and Instagramming sunset pics.

Milton’s Eden is a place of work, work appointed by God, daily work. Here is Adam, explaining the situation to Eve:

“Man hath his daily work of body or mind
Appointed, which declares his Dignitie,
And the regard of Heav’n on all his waies; 
While other Animals unactive range,
And of thir doings God takes no account.
To morrow ere fresh Morning streak the East
With first approach of light, we must be ris’n,
And at our pleasant labour, to reform 
Yon flourie Arbors, yonder Allies green,
Our walk at noon, with branches overgrown,
That mock our scant manuring and require
More hands then ours to lop thir wanton growth:”

(Book IV, lines 618-629)

There’s a looooooot of gardening to do in Eden, you know? Things grow fast–wantonly! And, he says, until there are some little kiddos running around who can be sent to do the weeding, we need to do everything ourselves. (Anyone who has ever tried to get a 13yo to help weed the vegetables is going to roll her eyes at Adam’s optimism, but Eve doesn’t know any better yet.)

Eve’s a quick study and a hard worker and she sets herself gamely to the task, but by Book IX she’s getting kind of tired of the unending gardening. Lop off some branches at noon one day, and they’ve already grown back the next. What’s a Working Mother of the Human Race to do? Well, duh…she just needs to lean in! Work harder, faster, smarter! Here’s Eve, getting her uber-hausfrau on:

“Adam, well may we labour still to dress 
This Garden, still to tend Plant, Herb and Flour,
Our pleasant task enjoyn’d, but till more hands
Aid us, the work under our labour grows,
Luxurious by restraint; what we by day
Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind, 
One night or two with wanton growth derides
Tending to wilde. Thou therefore now advise
Or hear what to my minde first thoughts present,
Let us divide our labours, thou where choice
Leads thee, or where most needs, whether to wind 
The Woodbine round this Arbour, or direct
The clasping Ivie where to climb, while I
In yonder Spring of Roses intermixt
With Myrtle, find what to redress till Noon:
For while so near each other thus all day 
Our taske we choose, what wonder if so near
Looks intervene and smiles, or object new
Casual discourse draw on, which intermits
Our dayes work brought to little, though begun
Early, and th’ hour of Supper comes unearn’d.”

(Book IX, lines 205-225)

Divide and conquer! You go one way, she says, and I’ll go the other, and we’ll be a lot more productive that way because we won’t distract each other with sweet talk and making dreamy eyes at each other. This Eve, she’s practical. She’s no nonsense. She’s a listmaker. She imagines that if they only worked efficiently enough, they’d get the work done. 

But of course, the work of seeding and cultivating and weeding and manuring is on-going work. It’s work that requires our daily presence and participation. This work–this divinely appointed work that, in some important sense, defines our very humanity–is work that is never finished. So you’d better go slow and take plenty of breaks.

The moment when Eve makes her suggestion marks the beginning of the end of paradise for Adam and Eve. In separating from each other they open themselves up to the temptations and wiles of Milton’s Satan.

So I point this out to my students. Maybe, I say, give yourself the freedom to be a little lazy sometimes. Maybe work more slowly than you think you need to work. Maybe goof off a bit with your friends. Spend time in “casual discourse” while you’re doing your homework. Cultivate your friendships even while you’re cultivating your minds.

My students–these earnest, sincere, anxious, iGen perfectionists–look at me with wonder. Is she really telling us to be…lazy?! I look back at them and wonder, too. Have they ever unplugged enough to get bored, thoroughly bored, hot-summer-day bored? Do they know what slow, cozy, humane laziness feels like? Or do they just know what it feels like to be distracted?

And then I think about my own lists. My own “lean in” tendencies. My own internal German dictator who is never satisfied with how efficiently I’ve answered email, how “productive” I am in my research, how quickly I get the laundry washed, folded, put away.

“Trust the slow work of God,” says Teilhard de Chardin.

Even God, it seems, might be a little lazy.

Sarina Gruver Moore teaches English literature and writing at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. 

 

Sarina Gruver Moore

Sarina Gruver Moore is a writer in western Pennsylvania.

2 Comments

  • Judy Gruver says:

    I have never read this literature, but you make it interesting and understandable.

  • Thank you, Sarina. I think my issue is with Milton, not you. When I read
    While other Animals unactive range,
    And of thir doings God takes no account
    I’m not especially surprised, but maybe disappointed. Seems like yet another example of Christian indifference to creatures and creation. The notion that God takes no account of other animals isn’t especially biblical. Then we wonder why the earth is in such dire condition.

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