Among the forces that have shaped human behavior boredom is one of the most insistent and universal. Although scarcely as measurable a factor in history as war, disease, economic depression, famine, and revolution, it is far from invisible in either the present or the past. A stream of chronicles, diaries, memoirs, and biog raphies yields much information on attacks of boredom and their consequences as well as on antidotes or preventives. Suetonius, Petronius Arbiter, Robert Burton, Saint-Simon at the Court of Louis XIV, and the Marquis de Sade are among those who left observations, reflections, and analyses of boredom. The range of cures or terminations of boredom is a wide one: migration, desertion, war, revolution, murder, calculated cruelty to others, suicide, pornography, alcohol, narcotics. Whether it is Tiberius relishing those he tortured, or Sherlock Holmes taking to the needle, the pains and the results of boredom are everywhere to be seen, and nowhere more epidemically than in Western society at the present time.

Man is apparently unique in his capacity for boredom. We share with all forms of life periodic apathy, but apathy and boredom are different. Apathy is a depressed immobility that can come upon the organism, whether amoeba or man, when the environment can no longer be adequately assimilated by the nervous system, when the normal signals are either too faint or too conflicting. It is a kind of withdrawal from the consciousness. Once sunk in apathy, the organism is inert and remains so until external stimulus jars it loose or else death ensues.

Boredom is much farther up the scale of afflictions than is apathy, and it is probable that only a nervous system as highly developed as man’s is even capable of boredom. And within the human species, a level of mentality at least “normal” appears to be a requirement. The moron may know apathy but not boredom. Work of the mindlessly repetitive kind, which is perfectly acceptable to the moron, all else being equal, quickly induces boredom in the normally intelligent worker.

Work, more or less properly attuned to the worker’s aptitudes, is undoubtedly the best defense against boredom. As Denis Gabor emphasized, work is the only visible activity to which man may be safely left. Keynes observed: “If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose. Will this be a benefit? If one believes at all in the real values of life, the prospect at least opens up the possibility of benefit. Yet I think with dread of the readjustment of habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades.”

There have been workless strata before in the history of society. Think only of the half-million in imperial Rome on bread and circuses out of a total of two million people. The results were unsalutary, to say the least, and Toynbee gave this “internal proletariat,” with its bored restlessness, its unproductivity, and its rising resentment of the government that fed it, credit for being, along with the “external proletariat” or invading barbarians, one of the two key causes of the eventual collapse of the Western Roman empire. In the modern day, chronic joblessness, especially among youth but in other strata as well, not overlooking the retired elderly, produces its baneful results, ranging from the mindless violence of youth on the streets to the millions of elderly who, jobless and also function-less, lapse into boredom which all too often becomes apathy and depression.

As Gabor further observed, man’s central nervous system evolved over millions of years, during which alertness, vigilance, and aggressiveness were necessary to survival. Being necessary, these traits were bound to enter the very essence of man’s nervous system. If, as is widely assumed by biologists, few if any significant organic changes have taken place during the past five thousand years, there is certain to be something of a traumatic effect on most people from enforced idleness, unwonted leisure, security from predators, or relative abundance of food. Boredom is in sum a response of the human brain to conditions alien to its long formation.



Satiety is doubtless a key element in boredom. Someone has written that the only thing worse in life than not getting any of what one has struggled for is to get all of it. Boredom is almost certainly the secret canker in utopias, as Schopenhauer warned. B. F. Skinner seemed to think that positive reinforcement would ward off all social ills, but he forgot about boredom with perfect freedom and virtue. Orwell did not forget, and his people stay content and passive only through endless gin. Aldous Huxley, for all his utopians’ built-in, genetically formed safeguards, nevertheless provided them with abundant supplies of the drug Soma to raise the spirits of the depressed or bored. In sum, utopians too can lead “lives of quiet desperation.”

Boredom resembles authority in one respect. The closer and more confined the setting, the greater the pain to the victim. The worst of tyrannies exist within the intimacies of life, and the same holds for life’s boredoms. The very closeness of the relationship gives added poignancy to the individual sentiments or emotions aroused. If one had to choose between absolute despotism in a large country or a small, the former is to be preferred. Its very size makes possible interstices in the net of power which are unlikely in a small tyranny. Similarly, nothing bores like the small group, the intimate relation from which one has become in some degree estranged yet to which one is still bound and confined. There is a large literature on the intolerable boredom generated by small towns where public opinion has a thousand eyes and ears, or by jobs whose monotony leads to mental breakdown, drugs, and drunkenness. One shudders at the thought of the boredom induced on the farms of America in the 19th century, especially on the endless flat plains of the Middle West. Cabin fever, as boredom is known colloquially, comes from being pent up for long winters without recreation or even work.

Of all the primary relationships, marriage is probably the most fertile in its yield of boredom, to wife perhaps more than to husband if only because, prior to recent times, her opportunities to forestall or relieve boredom were fewer. There is another side to this, however, and the recent evolution of the Western family is pertinent. In very large degree, as a result of the industrial revolution and the transfer of economic functions once embedded in the family alone to other institutions, the family has largely ceased to be the micro-economy it once was, with each member holding occupational as well as kinship role. By loss of its ancient economic foundations the family has become almost entirely a purely personal relationship. In marriage, this can and does make for closer, more intimate personal relationships of love than were perhaps possible in a domestic economy. But such intimacy of personal relationship, unrelieved by economic functions, by prescribed and necessary roles of provider and homemaker, can also—and it plainly does—multiply the sources of tension, of conflict, and of the onset of paralyzing boredom of mate with mate. Again, work or division of work, mandatory work, can be salutary when personal bliss has been succeeded by personal tension and ennui. Quite possibly God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden and into the perilous unknown as a way of warding off the boredom that might have come with marriage-in-utopia and perhaps fruitlessness.

Being educated, being an intellectual, does not insulate one from feelings of monotony, tedium, and satiety. Doubtless Hamlet, “sicklied o’er by the pale cast of thought” and finding “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable . . . all the uses of this world,” is the heroic example of this. The Marquis de Sade considered himself an intellectual, a philosophe committed to revolution, and he has left some respectable writings on political and social matters. But he is nevertheless the source of the word sadism, and his vignettes of the exercise of sustained torment and cruelty, saturated by sexual perversion, are unmatched in modern times. Those vignettes are his recipes for release from satiety and the torment of tedium.



Although the net effects of boredom in history are probably malign, good has also been served by this state of mind. Many an evil dogma, doctrine, or other intellectual continuity has in the end been undone, not by assault, but by boredom on the part of its victims. A secret weapon against the Soviet Union and the Marxist-Leninist creed is the stupefying boredom that this creed induces in the minds of the second and third generations brought up under it. In all probability boredom was what ended the dreadful witchcraft craze in the 17th century. Certainly the leading lights of the day, most of whom believed as ardently as any peasant in the witches and in the necessity of their destruction, did little if anything to stop the practice. It was not, in short, legal, moral, or religious argument but sheer boredom with the spectacle that won out. “When you’ve seen one burn, you’ve seen them all” might well have become in time the saving thought. It is boredom above anything else that brings literary continuities to a welcome end. The public is grateful for Milton, but deplores the Miltonians. So it is with the ascendancy of political parties: the more powerful a party-in-office becomes, the greater the boredom it produces in the public mind.

The sense of emptiness of life is pronounced in almost any onset of boredom. Samuel Johnson, for all his prodigious expenditures of energy, was in almost constant dread of what he called the “vacuity of life.” Second only to his fear of the disease of envy was his fear of the psychic affliction under which one sees everything as meaningless, futile, or superfluous. In Rasselas the pyramids of Egypt are described as monuments of royal boredom, constructed from the torment of thousands of workers over protracted periods for the purpose of relieving the pharaonic burden of satiety.

Enforced separation from a cherished vocation is a sure recipe for boredom. Much damage was done upon the public weal in ancient Rome when the legionaries were temporarily out of war, chafing to get back to work, making the civil population feel their enforced idleness cum boredom. The knights of the Middle Ages were more dangerous to society when they were not in combat, for the onset of boredom at home could be formidable, its toll commencing with the knight’s own wife and children. Ghastly though the American Civil War became in its unending slaughter and epidemic disease, there was no end to the lines of young men fleeing the deadly monotony of farm and village for enlistment under one banner or the other. Boredom even within combat circumstances can drive field soldiers as well as officers into tactics or individual acts bound to yield a heavy harvest of fatalities. Stupidity should not be taken away from the generals of World War I, on both sides, for their appalling movements of vast armies over a few hundred yards of terrain; but neither should one forget the inevitable, galling tedium of trench existence. In sum, war can engender as well as give release from boredom.



There is a history as well as a sociology of boredom. It must surely have been first felt by man when he made the transition some twenty thousand years ago from a hunting or pastoral existence to village life and the tyrannies of soil and season. It is one thing to be mobile, in constant search for security and food. It was something else to face the sheer drudgery of tilling and harvesting and the monotony of life in the village. The word paradise comes from the Persian, where originally it meant “wilderness,” and there is no doubt a lesson there.

Very probably play came into existence as an anodyne to the tedium of life. Homo ludens spelled homo faber. The principal function of ritual in primitive society, it has been suggested by anthropologists, is to prevent boredom. Ritual punctuates the long and dreary sameness of life. Calendars began, indeed, in the listing and timing of rites and feast-days. Through history and among all peoples religion generally has been a major antidote to what would otherwise be the sense of world-weariness, of passive indifference to life, in a great many minds. The religious “awakenings” which fill the history of religion in the West since the late Middle Ages have their roots, in some degree at least, in the desire for ecstatic release from tedium. Life on the agricultural frontier in the United States could be grim indeed in its relentless tedium, and along with religious enthusiasm, a desperate desire to escape this tedium lay behind the innumerable revivalist camp meetings of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of these meetings could be orgiastic on occasion, and a special kind of forgiveness went to those in the backwoods and on the prairies whose occasional evangelical writhings sometimes included unpremeditated copulation in the environs of the revival tent. The very word revival suggests that psychological as well as religious inspiration was sought and given.

As for the future of boredom, Harlow Shapley ranked boredom third in a list of possible causes of the destruction of civilization, a list that included nuclear war, natural catastrophe, and pandemic disease. Bertrand Russell concluded: “If life is to be saved from boredom relieved only by disaster, means must be found of restoring individual initiative not only in things that are trivial but in the things that really matter.” One may agree with Russell, but without real hope that such restoration is likely in contemporary society. The modern state through its centralization of power has destroyed or eroded away too many of the historic social contexts of initiative in “things that really matter.” Modern technology and industry, for all their benefits to mankind, by their very nature leave more and more people as spectators and mere consumers. Even the demographic foundations of America promise an increase in boredom, for the aging of the population is, short of catastrophe, assured for a long time to come, and old age is a natural prey of boredom, all the folksy retirement centers and organized tours notwithstanding. Durkheim, Freud, and a few others in the late 19th century saw unhappiness as positively correlated with the advance of civilization, and their visions of the future were generally pessimistic. Boredom may become Western man’s greatest source of unhappiness. Catastrophe alone would appear to be the surest and, in today’s world, the most likely of liberations from boredom. If catastrophe has a runner-up in the probability tables, it is a worldwide religious awakening of vast proportions. Faint signs of this exist at the present moment.

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