Classical Notions of Boredom

By Esther Kim

Have you been bored lately? A quick Google search shows that the word “bored” peaked between March 22 and April 4 in this past year, right when the world began to enter a global quarantine. Thanks to the current pandemic, people from all walks of life have had to forgo most of their social lives and stay cooped up at home for collective safety, forcing many to come face to face with boredom; a reckoning that stemmed from an unprecedented overabundance of alone time and an apparent shortage of things to do. 

Some decry this boredom as a modern phenomenon, a product of modernization, an amalgamation of the effects of capitalism and the Protestant work ethic, industrialization, and technology. To them, boredom is not an innate, ubiquitous feeling of life, and should not be; rather, boredom is merely a result of humans idealizing work and productivity, and the consequential inability to simply enjoy unpurposeful time. Although it may seem appealing to blame capitalism for our current state of crippling boredom, the expressions of boredom present in classical and ancient literature attest to the fact that boredom has always existed in various forms well before industrialization and modernity. How, then, did people in the past interpret and understand boredom? 

Though the term “boredom” itself was first coined relatively recently by Charles Dickens in his novel Bleak House in 1852 to criticize the hedonistic lifestyle of the British upper class, one of the earliest expressions of boredom in western literature can be traced back to Seneca the Younger around the first century AD. Seneca, in his essay “On Tranquility of Mind,” describes the feeling of boredom as a “[plague of] fickleness,” a state of “inertia” that leads to “dissatisfaction and the vacillation of a mind that nowhere finds rest.” Boredom, according to Seneca, makes people “loathe their own leisure” and complain that they “have nothing to be busy with,” and can be attributed to the sheer banalities of everyday life. Repetition and a lack of “excitement and distraction” seem to be the predominant causes of boredom in Seneca’s day, and this association is also seen as far back the 10th century BC.

Qoheleth, or Solomon, the attributed author of Ecclesiastes, a philosophical book of wisdom in canonical Jewish and Christian literature, begins his work by crying “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” lamenting that everything he does is done in vain and nothing is worth doing. He describes the endless cycle of generations, life after life, and how “the sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.” This imagery of cycles and repetition emphasizes the tediousness of life that manifests in humans as a phenomenon where “the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” Building on this feeling of dissatisfaction, Qoheleth explains how life is inherently vain because there are no novelties within the macroscopic view of life, 

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us.”

Boredom, as described by both classical figures, is thus mostly ascribed to the mundane predictability of life. Both authors concede that life is indeed full of banalities, routines, and tediousness that contribute to the feeling of boredom. Fortunately, neither stop at that rather bleak conclusion, but rather go on to offer their own advice on how to overcome this lethargic, apathetic boredom, albeit with very different approaches.

Seneca offers advice befitting for a Roman statesman. To those suffering from boredom and the question of “how long shall I endure the same things,” Seneca urges that they “occupy oneself with practical matters, the management of public affairs, and the duties of a citizen.” He encourages setting a purpose to make oneself useful for one’s “countrymen and all mortals,” explaining that it would be killing two birds with one stone–not only would that keep them too busy to be bored, but it would be helping society function and therefore be meaningful. Though Seneca’s approach makes sense, his solution seems more of a method that sweeps the problem under the rug rather than addressing it directly. Occupying oneself with “good service to the state” might not seem as appealing as it might have sounded back in Seneca’s day, since this image of constant servitude appears to allude to the earlier notion that boredom occurs when one is not being productive enough for the state or society–a sentiment reminiscent of modern capitalist propaganda.

Qoheleth, on the other hand, seems to take a more romantic approach. In an almost Camusean-absurdity, Qoheleth admits that life is inherently vain and boring, but nevertheless implores one to “go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart,” and “live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity,” because “that is thy portion in this life.” He asserts that by savoring each moment, as boring or mundane as it may seem, one can still experience joy, and implores one not to take even the smallest quotidian leisures for granted.

But perhaps there is an even more compelling voice in Qoheleth’s latter counsel, “live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest,” which one could interpret to mean spending time with a loved one. This notion of pleasure in companionship–various images in classic literature support this idea by presenting situations where two keep boredom away through their companionship. In Homer’s Iliad, when Achilles and the Myrmidons are not fighting in the war, Achilles is not seen being bored or restless sitting around his camp idle, despite war and battle-glory being his main purpose and identity in life. On the contrary, he is specifically seen “delighting his heart” with a lyre and singing to Patroklos, who silently watches him and enjoys his company. In another case, Adam, in Milton’s Paradise Lost, tells Eve that “to prune these growing plants, and tend these flow’rs” every day in Paradise (as that is his charge in life) would be “toilsome, yet with thee were sweet.”

The first story depicts someone who is able to enjoy a seemingly unpurposeful moment of pure leisure taking a break from a 10-year-long war, and the second illustrates someone who is able to overcome the Senecan “tedium” of routine labor by simply enjoying their lover’s company. In both cases, rather than experiencing boredom due to an absence of novelty, there is a distinct absence of boredom thanks to an active appreciation of their loved one’s companionship. Achilles is able to enjoy himself in spite of the fact that he is not doing anything war-related and purposeful, and Adam too is able to enjoy himself even while doing the banal work of gardening. Perhaps classical literature can provide us with the insight today that boredom might have less to do with modern notions of a lack of purpose or novelty, but more of a lack of good companionship that can make any activity, whether tedious or unpurposeful, a “sweet” and “delightful” time that one can enjoy. 

References 

O’Brien, Wendell. “Boredom: A History of Western Philosophical Perspectives.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, iep.utm.edu/boredom/. 

Ecclesiastes. KJV. The Holy Bible.

Green, Peter. The Iliad: A New Translation by Peter Green. 1st ed., University of California Press, 2015. 

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. 2nd ed,. Norton & Company, 1998.

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