Attention and the Moral Life

I’ve continued to think about a question raised by Frank Furedi in an otherwise lackluster essay about distraction and digital devices. Furedi set out to debunk the claim that digital devices are undermining our attention and our memory. I don’t think he succeeded, but he left us with a question worth considering: “The question that is rarely posed by advocates of the distraction thesis is: what are people distracted from?”

In an earlier post, I suggested that this question can be usefully set alongside a mid-20th century observation by Hannah Arendt. Considering the advent of automation, Arendt feared “the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them.” “Surely, nothing could be worse,” she added.

The connection might not have been as clear as I imagined it, so let me explain. Arendt believed that labor is the “only activity left” to the laborer because the glorification of labor in modern society had eclipsed the older ends and goods to which labor had been subordinated and for the sake of which we might have sought freedom from labor.

To put it as directly as I can, Arendt believed that if we indeed found ourselves liberated from the need to labor, we would not know what to do with ourselves. We would not know what to do with ourselves because, in the modern world, laboring had become the ordering principle of our lives.

Recalling Arendt’s fear, I wondered whether we were not in a similar situation with regards to attention. If we were able to successfully challenge the regime of digital distraction, to what would we give the attention that we would have fought so hard to achieve? Would we be like the laborers in Arendt’s analysis, finally free but without anything to do with our freedom? I wondered, as well, if it were not harder to combat distraction, if we were inclined to do so, precisely because we had no telos for the sake of which we might undertake the struggle.

Interestingly, then, while the link between Arendt’s comments about labor and the question about the purpose of attention was initially only suggestive, I soon realized the two were more closely connected. They were connected by the idea of leisure.

We tend to think of leisure merely as an occasional break from work. That is not, however, how leisure was understood in either classical or medieval culture. Josef Pieper, a Catholic philosopher and theologian, was thinking about the cultural ascendency of labor or work and the eclipse of leisure around the same time that Arendt was articulating her fears of a society of laborers without labor. In many respects, their analysis overlaps. (I should note, though, that Arendt distinguishes between labor and work in way that Pieper does not. Work for Pieper is roughly analogous to labor in Arendt’s taxonomy.)

For her part, Arendt believed nothing could be worse than liberating laborers from labor at this stage in our cultural evolution, and this is why:

“The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society.  The fulfillment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfillment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew.”

To say that there is “no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature” is another way of saying that there is no leisured class in the older sense of the word. This older ideal of leisure did not entail freedom from labor for the sake of endless poolside lounging while sipping Coronas. It was freedom from labor for the sake of intellectual, political, moral, or spiritual aims, the achievement of which may very well require arduous discipline. We might say that it was freedom from the work of the body that made it possible for someone to take up the work of the soul or the mind. Thus Pieper can claim that leisure is “a condition of the soul.” But, we should also note, it was not necessarily a solitary endeavor, or, better, it was not an endeavor that had only the good of the individual in mind. It often involved service to the political or spiritual community.

Pieper further defines leisure as “a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still cannot hear.” He makes clear, though, that the stillness he has in mind “is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power, as real, of responding to the real – a co-respondence, eternally established in nature – has not yet descended into words.” Thus, leisure “is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion – in the real.”

Pieper also claims that leisure “is only possible on the assumption that man is not only in harmony with himself, whereas idleness is rooted in the denial of this harmony, but also that he is in agreement with the world and its meaning. Leisure lives on affirmation.” The passing comment on idleness is especially useful to us.

In our view, leisure and idleness are nearly indistinguishable. But on the older view, idleness is not leisure; indeed, it is the enemy of leisure. Idleness, on the older view, may even take the shape of frenzied activity undertaken for the sake of, yes, distracting us from the absence of harmony or agreement with ourselves and the world.

We are now inevitably within the orbit of Blaise Pascal’s analysis of the restlessness of the human condition. Because we are not at peace with ourselves or our world, we crave distraction or what he called diversions. “What people want,” Pascal insists, “is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us.” “Nothing could be more wretched,” Pascal added, “than to be intolerably depressed as soon as one is reduced to introspection with no means of diversion.”

The novelist Walker Percy, a younger contemporary of both Arendt and Pieper, described what we called the “diverted self” as follows: “In a free and affluent society, the self is free to divert itself endlessly from itself.  It works in order to enjoy the diversions that the fruit of one’s labor can purchase.”  For the diverted self, Percy concluded, “The pursuit of happiness becomes the pursuit of diversion.”

If leisure is a condition of the soul as Pieper would have it, then might we also say the same of distraction? Discreet instances of being distracted, of failing to meaningfully direct our attention, would then be symptoms of a deeper disorder. Our digital devices, in this framing of distraction, are both a material cause and an effect. The absence of digital devices would not cure us of the underlying distractedness or aimlessness, but their presence preys upon, exacerbates, and amplifies this inner distractedness.

It is hard, at this point, for me not to feel that I have been speaking in another language or at least another dialect, one whose cadences and lexical peculiarities are foreign to our own idiom and, consequently, to our way of making sense of our experience. Leisure, idleness, contemplative beholding, spiritual and political aristocracies–all of this recalls to mind Alasdair MacIntyre’s observation that we use such words in much the same way that a post-apocalyptic society, picking up the scattered pieces of the modern scientific enterprise would use “neutrino,” “mass,” and “specific gravity”: not entirely without meaning, perhaps, but certainly not as scientists. The language I’ve employed, likewise, is the language of an older moral vision, a moral vision that we have lost.

I’m not suggesting that we ought to seek to recover the fullness of the language or the world that gave it meaning. That would not be possible, of course. But what if we, nonetheless, desired to bring a measure of order to the condition of distraction that we might experience as an affliction? What if we sought some telos to direct and sustain our attention, to at least buffer us from the forces of distraction?

If such is the case, I commend to you Simone Weil’s reflections on attention and will. Believing that the skill of paying attention cultivated in one domain was transferable to another, Weil went so far as to claim that the cultivation of attention was the real goal of education: “Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies.”

It was Weil who wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” A beautiful sentiment grounded in a deeply moral understanding of attention. Attention, for Weil, was not merely an intellectual asset, what we require for the sake of reading long, dense novels. Rather, for Weil, attention appears to be something foundational to the moral life:

“There is something in our soul that loathes true attention much more violently than flesh loathes fatigue. That something is much closer to evil than flesh is. That is why, every time we truly give our attention, we destroy some evil in ourselves.”

Ultimately, Weil understood attention to be a critical component of the religious life as well. “Attention, taken to its highest degree,” Weil wrote, “is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” “If we turn our mind toward the good,” she added, “it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.” And this is because, in her view, “We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.”

So here we have, if we wanted it, something to animate our desire to discipline the distracted self, something at which to direct our attention. Weil’s counsel was echoed closer to our own time by David Foster Wallace, who also located the goal of education in the cultivation of attention.

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think,” Wallace explained in his now famous commencement address at Kenyon College. “It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

“The really important kind of freedom,” Wallace added, “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think.” Each day the truth of this claim impresses itself more and more deeply upon my mind and heart.

Finally, and briefly, we should be wary of imagining the work of cultivating attention as merely a matter of learning how to consciously choose what we will attend to at any given moment. That is part of it to be sure, but Weil and Pieper both knew that attention also involved an openness to what is, a capacity to experience the world as gift. Cultivating our attention in this sense is not a matter of focusing upon an object of attention for our own reasons, however noble those may be. It is also a matter of setting to one side our projects and aspirations that we might be surprised by what is there. “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them,” Weil wrote, “but by waiting for them.” In this way, we prepare for “some dim dazzling trick of grace,” to borrow a felicitous phrase from Walker Percy, that may illumine our minds and enliven our hearts.

It is these considerations, then, that I would offer in response to Furedi’s question, What are we distracted from?