What the Ladies of Llangollen have in common with Montaigne is a strategy of “[retreat] during ages of political mayhem,” in their case the French Revolution, in his the Reformation. Today, many of us may also feel tempted to retreat. The way of life the Ladies called “our System,” with its monastic regularity and disdain for social expectations, is subversively attractive. Like Montaigne’s essays, it assures us that “the littleness of personhood is somewhere alive, taking its notes,” that it is okay to “enjoy yourself in the littleness of the moment” when the narrative of history goes awry. Withdrawal is not defeat. And if it is irresponsible to withdraw completely, doing so has a point. The limit cases of Montaigne or Ponsonby and Butler, whose idleness did not serve some further goal, show that wasting time is worthwhile in itself.
All too often, essays about idleness present it in contrast to frantic busy-ness. Are you engaged or disaffected? Do you choose the personal or the political? However, another overlooked possibility is that many of us simply choose to use our energy wisely within our humble limits rather than dissipate it through “action” or “awareness” which accomplishes precisely nothing. Work when you must, relax when you need to. A nation of 330 million is not a tiny polis. The majority of us could easily afford to mind our own business and tend our own gardens without the machinery of state seizing up and sputtering out. The real time-wasters are the ones trying to press-gang the rest of us into their silly political cosplay.