We inevitably waste most of each day in eating and drinking, defecating, sleeping, talking and walking about. For the tiny remainder of our time, we do worthless things, speak worthless words, think worthless thoughts. And not only do we pass the moments in this way, but whole days, whole months pass thus — a lifetime. This is supreme folly.

— Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness


The same observation may be transferred to the time allotted us in our present state. When we have deducted all that is absorbed in sleep, all that is inevitably appropriated to the demands of nature, or irresistibly engrossed by the tyranny of custom; all that passes in regulating the superficial decorations of life, or is given up in the reciprocations of civility to the disposal of others; all that is torn from us by the violence of disease, or stolen imperceptibly away by lassitude and languor; we shall find that part of our duration very small of which we can truly call ourselves masters, or which we can spend wholly at our own choice. Many of our hours are lost in a rotation of petty cares, in a constant recurrence of the same employments; many of our provisions for ease or happiness are always exhausted by the present day; and a great part of our existence serves no other purpose, than that of enabling us to enjoy the rest.

— Samuel Johnson, Rambler no. 108


Our greatness and efficiency crumbles away not all at once but continually; the little plants which grow up in and around everything and know how to cling everywhere, it is these which ruin that which is great in us — the everyday, hourly, pitiableness of our environment which we constantly overlook, the thousand tendrils of this or that little, fainthearted sensation which grows out of our neighborhood, out of our job, our social life, out of the way we divide up the day. If we neglect to notice this little weed, we shall ourselves perish of it unnoticed! And if you absolutely must perish, do so all at once and suddenly, then perhaps there may remain of you some sublime ruin! And not, as there is now some reason to fear, a molehill! And grass and weeds upon it, little victors, modest as ever and too pitiable even to celebrate their triumph!

— Nietzsche, Daybreak


Kenko almost sounds like an extraterrestrial entomologist, watching us scurry around under his magnifying glass, describing a life in scientistic terms purged of all subjectivity. Johnson almost seems to be saying that one’s “true” self is what’s left when every single attachment and obligation is severed, leaving nothing but uncaused individual choice; if he’s not careful, some traditionalists are going to hold him up as a cautionary example of unfettered modern liberalism, which would no doubt bemuse him. Nietzsche, well, he’s been drinking some 180-proof Romanticism again, I think. Lord knows we all feel encumbered by chores and responsibilities, with no time left over for fun. “Born to rock, forced to work,” as a musician friend’s Gmail avatar says. But fantasies of significance and omnipotence don’t do anything for me. I find it more awe-inspiring to notice how beauty and meaning can spontaneously germinate from the manure of everyday routine, how infinite space can exist within a humble nutshell.