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Chapter 5: culture: Leisure

On Stars

It’s strange to see there are so many of them; though in some detached part of our brains we know there are trillions of trillions of them. But we forget to look. We keep meaning to, but it might only be once or twice a year we find ourselves looking up on a dark night at our own sliver of the universe.

When we do, we feel ourselves pleasantly diminished by the majesty of what we contemplate. As we renew our connection with immensity we’re humbled without being humiliated. It’s not just us, personally and individually who are diminished in comparison. The things that trouble and bother us seem smaller as well.

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The sight of the stars – perhaps glimpsed above a suburban railway station coming home late after an extended crisis in the office, or from a bedroom window on a sleepless night – presents us with a direct, sensory impression of the magnitude of the cosmos. Without knowing the exact details we’re powerfully aware that their light has been beaming down changelessly through recorded history, that our great grandparents must have from time to time looked on just the same pattern of tiny lights. They look so densely packed and yet we grasp that they are in fact separated by astonishing gulfs of empty nothingness; that around them circle unknown worlds – lifeless maybe or perhaps teeming with alien vitality and harbouring dramas of incomprehensible splendour and tragedy about which we will never know anything. Though perhaps in a hundred or a thousand generations our descendants will be at home even there. It is sublime because we are drawn entirely out of the normal course of our daily concerns and our thoughts are directed to matters in which we have no personal stake whatever. Our private lives fall into the background, which is a contrastive relief to the normal state of anxious preoccupation with the local and the immediate.

We’re taught that interest in the stars is scientific, but it should be humanistic. If a child gets excited by the stars, parents feel that they should undertake a visit to a planetarium and make a stab at explaining thermonuclear fusion, gravity, the speed of light, red giants, white dwarfs and black holes. The presiding assumption is that an interest in the stars must be directed towards knowledge of astrophysics.

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But very few of us will become science professionals. We can afford to be impressionistic because it never will really matter whether we can remember much of the detail. We’re amateurs and we need something else. The stars matter in our lives because they offer a consoling encounter with grandeur, because they invite a helpful perspective on the brevity and littleness of human existence.

Why don’t we make more of this natural resource and plug ourselves more frequently into the milky way and renew this helpful pleasure?  

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It’s an issue that crops up so often around small pleasures. There’s an accidental randomness to our encounters with them. We leave it to chance. Ideally we’d schedule more appointments. We’d put it in the diary: meeting with the stars, Tuesday (a moonless night, cloud cover predicted to be 20%) 9:15pm – a walk after dinner.

Our collective model of a good life tends to focus on career progress and financial management. We don’t typically weigh up whether a person went to the fish shop a lot, paid a lot of attention to islands or looked very much at the stars. Yet, in fact, the regular appreciation of these and related small pleasures makes a major contribution to the elusive but crucially important notion of the quality of existence. Such pleasures can be termed small because they don’t usually have big, immediate dramatic consequences. We don’t crave them; they come to us fairly quietly and are easily missed against a background of distractions and preoccupations. We don’t have to do anything about them. And so, lovely though they are, they easily slip out of view.

One of the big tasks of civilisation is to teach us how to better enjoy life. The Romantic assumption is that we know intuitively and all we need is greater freedom to follow our instincts. The Classical picture is that a pleasant life is, in fact, a deliberate accomplishment. It’s a rational achievement that builds on careful examination of experience and involves deliberate strategies to guide us more reliably to the things that truly please us.

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