am told that one of the reasons Tolkien was able to write the things he
did, with an attention to Anglo-Saxon linguistics and wordplay
unmatched by any before or since, was because he had a lot of people
handling the daily needs that would have otherwise distracted him. He
had a wife and he had servants at his home and graduate assistants at
his work, which was in Oxford, a place where intellect could be pursued
And that, likewise, the great astronomers and
physicists of the late 1800s and early 1900s had the output they did
because their wives were doing half the work without being credited, and
anyone who tries to match them now winds up doing the work of two
And that, likewise, the great thinkers of Athens had the
ability to chatter as they pleased in the Symposium, to philosophize and
ponder, because their society depended in great part on slave labor, so
that certain people could avoid being distracted by drudgery.
The idea is that those at the top of society can put forth great intellectual and artistic works because they are not busy.
And goodness knows I am able to post as much as I do on my favorite websites because I am
living unemployed and rent-free beneath the roof of my parents. (And my
father cooks, and my mother vacuums, and my sister cleans the litter box
and I don't have to walk the dog all the time; when I am keeping house
alone my attendance to chores and the cat and and the dog takes up a
great portion of the day.) Currently I'm one of those leisurely
intellectual types like Tolkien, until I manage to land a job.
But I think the difference between a leisurely class and the lives of
the poor and ordinary is primarily in output, not in quality. The works
of the poor, when they are made, are often as not of great precision and
craft, despite the daily exhaustion of their makers.
artifacts of the ancient past. Many of these objects are from eras in
which leisure was unknown, either from times when all were nomadic
foragers, busy most of the sunlit day with survival tasks, or perhaps
later at the dawn of agriculture, when the lives of many people became
drudgery at the plow. We can be fairly certain that the majority of
artifacts, artistic and not, were produced by people without the time to
be lazy like an Athenian philosopher. If you believe that those mired
in the exhaustion of drudgery are bound to produce only crude work, then
these artefacts would look universally terrible. And they do not. The
pots of the Corded Ware culture in central Europe (ca. 2500 BCE) are
precisely made, and decorated in a manner not all that different than
what I would come up with.
In the same era, on the other side of
the continent, the Jomon Pottery of Japan frequently has a flamboyant
style not entirely different than what I see in the greatest
spray-painted graffiti of our own time, with a similar attention to
detail and precision in its loops and swirls. The difference between
the painters and the potters is that the poverty of one is born out of
the hardscrabble life of hunter-gatherers and the other is politically
enforced. And the potters were making their wares long, long before
anyone on earth had the chance to consider a leisurely life built on the
backs of miserable laborers. In the Xianren Caves there was found a pot
in fragments, perhaps thirteen thousand, perhaps twenty-three thousand
years old, whose attention to artistic detail belies the busy nature of a forager's life.
Earlier than them the foragers of
Australia, those people collectively called Aborigines, living in a
land far less hospitable to them than Japan was to the Jomon, by all
accounts were forced to spend two-thirds of each day looking for food,
and yet when they had the chance, they not only painted on rocks in the
famous Dreamtime style, they carved INTO the rocks, which, judging by my
own frustrations with wood carving, is no easy feat. And from the
distant past until now they paid the greatest attention to the stories
they told, such that those stories have changed little, if at all, from
the very distant past.
Into Neolithic times the craft and
precision of pottery among the Taisan culture of the Nile valley, one of
the oldest known pre-dynastic cutures in the area, is at a level I can see today in
the trinkets sold at the local art craft store. If these people were
suffering the misery of early agriculture, their pottery does not show
Go back further than that, to the same time as the early
Aborigines, and there are cave paintings in Europe, some of them with
sophisticated attention to realism, some of them painted in sequence as
if they were meant to be animated by firelight.
Go back further than that and the Hohe Hels Venus is a 40K-year old little figurine as stylized as those paintings.
In our own era, where people are forced to work one, two, three jobs,
not a bit different from the ancient misery of foraging, where time and
again I see people begging for money just for the sake of paying their
medical bills or moving apartments, these same people, when they have at
last a little time to spare, produce writings of great insight and
paintings of stunning complexity. I have mentioned the great street
paintings of the cities, which to my judgment is often horribly ugly,
yet this style is clearly deliberate, for it is as precise in its
execution and as creative in its depiction as what I would expect from a
professional – and some of these people are professionals, and some of
them have simply been allowed to do as they please at last, and come up
with work that has clearly been practiced where it had not been
Without the hope of compensation or expectation of
permission, in their spare time that they have, the readers of my own
era have taken the published materials that they know and built stories
upon them, twisting them as they please, choosing prose as they please,
so as to outshine their source material.
They are as busy as the poor and the miserable have ever been, and yet their creativity is not diminished.
And that’s just on the artistic side of things. When it comes to
science, great discoveries have not come from the leisurely class alone
either. Wilson Bentley was a self-educated farmer in Vermont and he came
up with a process for photographing snowflakes not very different than
what people use today. Many of the mechanical developments of the past
came from ordinary people who had some time and some ambition, like the
Wright Brothers, or one of two Pierres (Lallment or Michaux) who took
their mechanical skills and created the basic form of the bicycle.
And somebody bred dogs out of wolves, somebody bred cattle out of
Aurochs, somebody domesticated the Llama, somebody domesticated camels,
somebody turned Junglefowl into Chickens and boars into pigs and wooly
mountain beasts into sheep, without being a philosophizing layabout.
Somebody first told the tale of Cinderella without having access to
writing material. Somebody carved the first flute out of bone without
having any paid gigs. Half the songs I sing are from anonymous people
who came up with them as they pleased, when they could, and how many of
them sound like something an aristocrat would think of?
difference between aristocratic and ordinary artists is that the
aristocrats have more time for more output, so there’s a certain
suvivorship bias towards thinking their stuff is more sophisticated. And
they have more opportunity to make sure their stuff survives. But if they think they're better artists than the masses, the
output that has survived from pot shards and cave paintings says
This is a very roundabout way of saying that if
someone tells you Shakespeare couldn't possibly be such a good
playwright if he was an ordinary man, you can tell them that I said they
should stuff it.