The Greeks have something to teach us about the importance of being idle

BUSINESS and leisure seem like opposites. Ambition’s drive to succeed and achieve has little truck with the pleasures of idleness. With 135 graduates fighting for every opening at investment banks and fund managers, who can afford to be caught with their feet up? Yet leisure is essential, even for the driven. It’s a chance to stand back and train for your next engagement with the enemy. The ancient Greeks understood this, which is why they called leisure skhole – the origin of our English word school – meaning both time held back from the demands of work and a lecture or discussion.

The sort of intense leisure associated with studying at a business school has become familiar enough, but perhaps there are more lessons we could be taking from the Greeks. That is the suggestion of the Idler Academy, which is launching a course for business people based on the trivium, the core of the ancient Greek liberal arts curriculum. The trivium is a threefold curriculum of the language arts considered essential to exact thought and expression: grammar, logic and rhetoric.

This is one kind of idleness the business world should get behind. As Michael Gove reshapes the national curriculum on more traditional lines, a little classical inspiration may prove a wise investment for those of us shortchanged by the old system.

Indeed, there seems to be something of a movement afoot in reviving the old ways of learning. Gove’s initiatives and the new Idler course have emerged alongside Toby Young’s West London Free School, with its vision of a classical liberal education for all, an Academy summer school at the Institute of Ideas, now entering its second year, and even a dedicated London liberal arts college called Benedictus. A new book by Martin Robinson called Trivium 21c is out this summer, making a bold case for the contemporary relevance of this ancient mode of instruction.

I’m pleased to have some personal involvement in the last two on this list – you’ll find a quote from me on the back of Robinson’s book. Liberal education is a personal passion: I wrote a book in its defence called The School of Freedom back in 2009.

I also believe that the Idler Academy is on to something when it says that business needs to join the growing trend. Exact language, logical thought and persuasive communication should underpin any business case. Instead, business too often relies on jargon, management fads and stilted PR. It is long past time to scrape the barnacles off the intellectual hull of corporate life.

The liberal arts curriculum is wider than the trivium: it demands high levels of numeracy and strength of character, both traits invaluable to a business career. It teaches appreciation of the great works of our culture, producing graduates engaged beyond their narrow specialisms, inspired to the heights of achievement by being conversant with works of true genius.

The ancient philosophers, ironically, were often opposed to commerce – although Thales of Miletus made his fortune trading olive oil futures. Yet today the courses of leisure they pioneered remain well suited to anyone whose working week is spent doing battle in the boardroom.

First published: City A.M., 12/7/12

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Filed under Finance, Freedom, History, Human nature, Liberal education

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