In a marvellous short portrait of Conrad, Bertrand Russell said of him, “I felt… that he thought of civilized and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths.” Because he saw life in such terms, Conrad emphasized the place and importance of work in life. There was, he believed, a particular kind of dignity in the sober exercise of one’s duty in the service of one’s work, precisely because life is such a perilous affair. Conrad had spent the first part of his life as a merchant seaman, and the kind of work he had in mind was largely active, physical work. In some respects he resembled Wittgenstein, who felt that there was something profoundly unhealthy about life as an academic philosopher and who himself gave up philosophy at various points in his life to work as a gardener. There was for Wittgenstein something honest about the kind of labour characteristic of work in a garden. This honesty derived from the sense that the external rhythm of nature, to which the gardener has to be responsive, helps to provide a kind of order to the inner world of the mind. It was also a matter of the fact that gardening provides a focus for the mind’s energy, helping it to avoid consuming itself in its own anxious self-questionings.
— Christopher Hamilton, Middle Age
I don’t like being pressed for time, but I have to admit I do love being absorbed in work, whether paid labor, routine chores, or even exercise. I remember a busy day recently that extended well into the evening, and rather than feeling exhausted or grumpy afterward from the amount of work that had to be done, I felt a rather meditative calm, in addition to the pride of accomplishment. By contrast, I often feel restless on days with no pressing duties. It’s like being spoiled for choice. I can only read for a couple hours before I want to get up and do something else, which is why I prefer to save it for the time before bed. I suppose Aristotle would shake his head and dismiss me as a born beast of burden unsuited for the philosophical life. Well, at least Wittgenstein would have my back.
Interestingly, Nietzsche had also wanted to be a professional gardener after resigning his professorship, telling his mother in a letter, “There is no other cure for my health. I need real work, which takes time and induces tiredness without mental strain.” His physical limitations forced him to abandon the fantasy after three weeks, but he retained a fondness for horticultural metaphors in his writing. I recall that Phil Oliver was working on a book about philosophers and writers who loved walking; I wonder if anyone has ever done the same for those who favored gardening?