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The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen - 1899

Chapter III

Conspicuous Leisure
If its working were not disturbed by other economic forces
or other features of the emulative process, the immediate effect
of such a pecuniary struggle as has just been described in
outline would be to make men industrious and frugal. This result
actually follows, in some measure, so far as regards the lower
classes, whose ordinary means of acquiring goods is productive
labour. This is more especially true of the labouring classes in
a sedentary community which is at an agricultural stage of
industry, in which there is a considerable subdivision of
industry, and whose laws and customs secure to these classes a
more or less definite share of the product of their industry.
These lower classes can in any case not avoid labour, and the
imputation of labour is therefore not greatly derogatory to them,
at least not within their class. Rather, since labour is their
recognised and accepted mode of life, they take some emulative
pride in a reputation for efficiency in their work, this being
often the only line of emulation that is open to them. For those
for whom acquisition and emulation is possible only within the
field of productive efficiency and thrift, the struggle for
pecuniary reputability will in some measure work out in an
increase of diligence and parsimony. But certain secondary
features of the emulative process, yet to be spoken of, come in
to very materially circumscribe and modify emulation in these
directions among the pecuniary inferior classes as well as among
the superior class.
But it is otherwise with the superior pecuniary class, with
which we are here immediately concerned. For this class also the
incentive to diligence and thrift is not absent; but its action
is so greatly qualified by the secondary demands of pecuniary
emulation, that any inclination in this direction is practically
overborne and any incentive to diligence tends to be of no
effect. The most imperative of these secondary demands of
emulation, as well as the one of widest scope, is the requirement
of abstention from productive work. This is true in an especial
degree for the barbarian stage of culture. During the predatory
culture labour comes to be associated in men's habits of thought
with weakness and subjection to a master. It is therefore a mark
of inferiority, and therefore comes to be accounted unworthy of
man in his best estate. By virtue of this tradition labour is
felt to be debasing, and this tradition has never died out. On
the contrary, with the advance of social differentiation it has
acquired the axiomatic force due to ancient and unquestioned
In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it is not
sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence.
And not only does the evidence of wealth serve to impress one's
importance on others and to keep their sense of his importance
alive and alert, but it is of scarcely less use in building up
and preserving one's self-complacency. In all but the lowest
stages of culture the normally constituted man is comforted and
upheld in his self-respect by "decent surroundings" and by
exemption from "menial offices". Enforced departure from his
habitual standard of decency, either in the paraphernalia of life
or in the kind and amount of his everyday activity, is felt to be
a slight upon his human dignity, even apart from all conscious
consideration of the approval or disapproval of his fellows.
The archaic theoretical distinction between the base and
the honourable in the manner of a man's life retains very much of
its ancient force even today. So much so that there are few of
the better class who are no possessed of an instinctive
repugnance for the vulgar forms of labour. We have a realising
sense of ceremonial uncleanness attaching in an especial degree
to the occupations which are associated in our habits of thought
with menial service. It is felt by all persons of refined taste
that a spiritual contamination is inseparable from certain
offices that are conventionally required of servants. Vulgar
surroundings, mean (that is to say, inexpensive) habitations, and
vulgarly productive occupations are unhesitatingly condemned and avoided. They are incompatible with life on a satisfactory
spiritual plane __ with "high thinking". From the days of the
Greek philosophers to the present, a degree of leisure and of
exemption from contact with such industrial processes as serve
the immediate everyday purposes of human life has ever been
recognised by thoughtful men as a prerequisite to a worthy or
beautiful, or even a blameless, human life. In itself and in its
consequences the life of leisure is beautiful and ennobling in
all civilised men's eyes.
This direct, subjective value of leisure and of other
evidences of wealth is no doubt in great part secondary and
derivative. It is in part a reflex of the utility of leisure as a
means of gaining the respect of others, and in part it is the
result of a mental substitution. The performance of labour has
been accepted as a conventional evidence of inferior force;
therefore it comes itself, by a mental short-cut, to be regarded
as intrinsically base.
During the predatory stage proper, and especially during
the earlier stages of the quasi-peaceable development of industry
that follows the predatory stage, a life of leisure is the
readiest and most conclusive evidence of pecuniary strength, and
therefore of superior force; provided always that the gentleman
of leisure can live in manifest ease and comfort. At this stage
wealth consists chiefly of slaves, and the benefits accruing from
the possession of riches and power take the form chiefly of
personal service and the immediate products of personal service.
Conspicuous abstention from labour therefore becomes the
conventional mark of superior pecuniary achievement and the
conventional index of reputability; and conversely, since
application to productive labour is a mark of poverty and
subjection, it becomes inconsistent with a reputable standing in
the community. Habits of industry and thrift, therefore, are not
uniformly furthered by a prevailing pecuniary emulation. On the
contrary, this kind of emulation indirectly discountenances
participation in productive labour. Labour would unavoidably
become dishonourable, as being an evidence indecorous under the
ancient tradition handed down from an earlier cultural stage. The
ancient tradition of the predatory culture is that productive
effort is to be shunned as being unworthy of able-bodied men. and
this tradition is reinforced rather than set aside in the passage
from the predatory to the quasi-peaceable manner of life.
Even if the institution of a leisure class had not come in
with the first emergence of individual ownership, by force of the
dishonour attaching to productive employment, it would in any
case have come in as one of the early consequences of ownership.
And it is to be remarked that while the leisure class existed in
theory from the beginning of predatory culture, the institution
takes on a new and fuller meaning with the transition from the
predatory to the next succeeding pecuniary stage of culture. It
is from this time forth a "leisure class" in fact as well as in
theory. From this point dates the institution of the leisure
class in its consummate form.
During the predatory stage proper the distinction between
the leisure and the labouring class is in some degree a
ceremonial distinction only. The able bodied men jealously stand
aloof from whatever is in their apprehension, menial drudgery;
but their activity in fact contributes appreciably to the
sustenance of the group. The subsequent stage of quasi-peaceable
industry is usually characterised by an established chattel
slavery, herds of cattle, and a servile class of herdsmen and
shepherds; industry has advanced so far that the community is no
longer dependent for its livelihood on the chase or on any other
form of activity that can fairly be classed as exploit. From this
point on, the characteristic feature of leisure class life is a
conspicuous exemption from all useful employment.
The normal and characteristic occupations of the class in
this mature phase of its life history are in form very much the
same as in its earlier days. These occupations are government,
war, sports, and devout observances. Persons unduly given to
difficult theoretical niceties may hold that these occupations
are still incidentally and indirectly "productive"; but it is to
be noted as decisive of the question in hand that the ordinary
and ostensible motive of the leisure class in engaging in these
occupations is assuredly not an increase of wealth by productive
effort. At this as at any other cultural stage, government and
war are, at least in part, carried on for the pecuniary gain of
those who engage in them; but it is gain obtained by the
honourable method of seizure and conversion. These occupations
are of the nature of predatory, not of productive, employment.
Something similar may be said of the chase, but with a
difference. As the community passes out of the hunting stage
proper, hunting gradually becomes differentiated into two
distinct employments. On the one hand it is a trade, carried on
chiefly for gain; and from this the element of exploit is
virtually absent, or it is at any rate not present in a
sufficient degree to clear the pursuit of the imputation of
gainful industry. On the other hand, the chase is also a sport
-ªan exercise of the predatory impulse simply. As such it does
not afford any appreciable pecuniary incentive, but it contains a
more or less obvious element of exploit. It is this latter
development of the chase -- purged of all imputation of
handicraft -- that alone is meritorious and fairly belongs in the
scheme of life of the developed leisure class.
Abstention from labour is not only a honorific or
meritorious act, but it presently comes to be a requisite of
decency. The insistence on property as the basis of reputability
is very naive and very imperious during the early stages of the
accumulation of wealth. Abstention from labour is the convenient
evidence of wealth and is therefore the conventional mark of
social standing; and this insistence on the meritoriousness of
wealth leads to a more strenuous insistence on leisure. Nota
notae est nota rei ipsius. According to well established laws of
human nature, prescription presently seizes upon this
conventional evidence of wealth and fixes it in men's habits of
thought as something that is in itself substantially meritorious
and ennobling; while productive labour at the same time and by a
like process becomes in a double sense intrinsically unworthy.
Prescription ends by making labour not only disreputable in the
eyes of the community, but morally impossible to the noble,
freeborn man, and incompatible with a worthy life.
This tabu on labour has a further consequence in the
industrial differentiation of classes. As the population
increases in density and the predatory group grows into a settled
industrial community, the constituted authorities and the customs
governing ownership gain in scope and consistency. It then
presently becomes impracticable to accumulate wealth by simple
seizure, and, in logical consistency, acquisition by industry is
equally impossible for high minded and impecunious men. The
alternative open to them is beggary or privation. Wherever the
canon of conspicuous leisure has a chance undisturbed to work out its tendency, there will therefore emerge a secondary, and in a
sense spurious, leisure class -- abjectly poor and living in a
precarious life of want and discomfort, but morally unable to
stoop to gainful pursuits. The decayed gentleman and the lady who has seen better days are by no means unfamiliar phenomena even now. This pervading sense of the indignity of the slightest
manual labour is familiar to all civilized peoples, as well as to
peoples of a less advanced pecuniary culture. In persons of a
delicate sensibility who have long been habituated to gentle
manners, the sense of the shamefulness of manual labour may
become so strong that, at a critical juncture, it will even set
aside the instinct of self-preservation. So, for instance, we are
told of certain Polynesian chiefs, who, under the stress of good
form, preferred to starve rather than carry their food to their
mouths with their own hands. It is true, this conduct may have
been due, at least in part, to an excessive sanctity or tabu
attaching to the chief's person. The tabu would have been
communicated by the contact of his hands, and so would have made anything touched by him unfit for human food. But the tabu is itself a derivative of the unworthiness or moral incompatibility
of labour; so that even when construed in this sense the conduct
of the Polynesian chiefs is truer to the canon of honorific
leisure than would at first appear. A better illustration, or at
least a more unmistakable one, is afforded by a certain king of
France, who is said to have lost his life through an excess of
moral stamina in the observance of good form. In the absence of
the functionary whose office it was to shift his master's seat,
the king sat uncomplaining before the fire and suffered his royal
person to be toasted beyond recovery. But in so doing he saved
his Most Christian Majesty from menial contamination. Summum
crede nefas animam praeferre pudori, Et propter vitam vivendi
perdere causas.
It has already been remarked that the term "leisure", as
here used, does not connote indolence or quiescence. What it
connotes is non-productive consumption of time. Time is consumed non-productively (1) from a sense of the unworthiness of
productive work, and (2) as an evidence of pecuniary ability to
afford a life of idleness. But the whole of the life of the
gentleman of leisure is not spent before the eyes of the
spectators who are to be impressed with that spectacle of
honorific leisure which in the ideal scheme makes up his life.
For some part of the time his life is perforce withdrawn from the
public eye, and of this portion which is spent in private the
gentleman of leisure should, for the sake of his good name, be
able to give a convincing account. He should find some means of
putting in evidence the leisure that is not spent in the sight of
the spectators. This can be done only indirectly, through the
exhibition of some tangible, lasting results of the leisure so
spent -- in a manner analogous to the familiar exhibition of
tangible, lasting products of the labour performed for the
gentleman of leisure by handicraftsmen and servants in his
The lasting evidence of productive labour is its material
product -- commonly some article of consumption. In the case of
exploit it is similarly possible and usual to procure some
tangible result that may serve for exhibition in the way of
trophy or booty. at a later phase of the development it is
customary to assume some badge of insignia of honour that will
serve as a conventionally accepted mark of exploit, and which at
the same time indicates the quantity or degree of exploit of
which it is the symbol. As the population increases in density,
and as human relations grow more complex and numerous, all the
details of life undergo a process of elaboration and selection;
and in this process of elaboration the use of trophies develops
into a system of rank, titles, degrees and insignia, typical
examples of which are heraldic devices, medals, and honorary
As seen from the economic point of view, leisure,
considered as an employment, is closely allied in kind with the
life of exploit; and the achievements which characterise a life
of leisure, and which remain as its decorous criteria, have much
in common with the trophies of exploit. But leisure in the
narrower sense, as distinct from exploit and from any ostensibly
productive employment of effort on objects which are of no
intrinsic use, does not commonly leave a material product. The
criteria of a past performance of leisure therefore commonly take
the form of "immaterial" goods. Such immaterial evidences of past
leisure are quasi-scholarly or quasi-artistic accomplishments and
a knowledge of processes and incidents which do not conduce
directly to the furtherance of human life. So, for instance, in
our time there is the knowledge of the dead languages and the
occult sciences; of correct spelling; of syntax and prosody; of
the various forms of domestic music and other household art; of
the latest properties of dress, furniture, and equipage; of
games, sports, and fancy-bred animals, such as dogs and
race-horses. In all these branches of knowledge the initial
motive from which their acquisition proceeded at the outset, and
through which they first came into vogue, may have been something
quite different from the wish to show that one's time had not
been spent in industrial employment; but unless these
accomplishments had approved themselves as serviceable evidence
of an unproductive expenditure of time, they would not have
survived and held their place as conventional accomplishments of
the leisure class.
These accomplishments may, in some sense, be classed as
branches of learning. Beside and beyond these there is a further
range of social facts which shade off from the region of learning
into that of physical habit and dexterity. Such are what is known
as manners and breeding, polite usage, decorum, and formal and
ceremonial observances generally. This class of facts are even
more immediately and obtrusively presented to the observation,
and they therefore more widely and more imperatively insisted on
as required evidences of a reputable degree of leisure. It is
worth while to remark that all that class of ceremonial
observances which are classed under the general head of manners
hold a more important place in the esteem of men during the stage
of culture at which conspicuous leisure has the greatest vogue as
a mark of reputability, than at later stages of the cultural
development. The barbarian of the quasi-peaceable stage of
industry is notoriously a more high-bred gentleman, in all that
concerns decorum, than any but the very exquisite among the men
of a later age. Indeed, it is well known, or at least it is
currently believed, that manners have progressively deteriorated
as society has receded from the patriarchal stage. Many a
gentleman of the old school has been provoked to remark
regretfully upon the under-bred manners and bearing of even the
better classes in the modern industrial communities; and the
decay of the ceremonial code -- or as it is otherwise called, the
vulgarisation of life -- among the industrial classes proper has
become one of the chief enormities of latter-day civilisation in
the eyes of all persons of delicate sensibilities. The decay
which the code has suffered at the hands of a busy people
testifies -- all depreciation apart -- to the fact that decorum
is a product and an exponent of leisure class life and thrives in
full measure only under a regime of status.
The origin, or better the derivation, of manners is no
doubt, to be sought elsewhere than in a conscious effort on the
part of the well-mannered to show that much time has been spent
in acquiring them. The proximate end of innovation and
elaboration has been the higher effectiveness of the new
departure in point of beauty or of expressiveness. In great part
the ceremonial code of decorous usages owes its beginning and its
growth to the desire to conciliate or to show goodwill, as
anthropologists and sociologists are in the habit of assuming,
and this initial motive is rarely if ever absent from the conduct
of well-mannered persons at any stage of the later development.
Manners, we are told, are in part an elaboration of gesture, and
in part they are symbolical and conventionalised survivals
representing former acts of dominance or of personal service or
of personal contact. In large part they are an expression of the
relation of status, -- a symbolic pantomime of mastery on the one
hand and of subservience on the other. Wherever at the present
time the predatory habit of mind, and the consequent attitude of
mastery and of subservience, gives its character to the
accredited scheme of life, there the importance of all punctilios
of conduct is extreme, and the assiduity with which the
ceremonial observance of rank and titles is attended to
approaches closely to the ideal set by the barbarian of the
quasi-peaceable nomadic culture. Some of the Continental
countries afford good illustrations of this spiritual survival.
In these communities the archaic ideal is similarly approached as
regards the esteem accorded to manners as a fact of intrinsic
Decorum set out with being symbol and pantomime and with
having utility only as an exponent of the facts and qualities
symbolised; but it presently suffered the transmutation which
commonly passes over symbolical facts in human intercourse.
Manners presently came, in popular apprehension, to be possessed
of a substantial utility in themselves; they acquired a
sacramental character, in great measure independent of the facts
which they originally prefigured. Deviations from the code of
decorum have become intrinsically odious to all men, and good
breeding is, in everyday apprehension, not simply an adventitious
mark of human excellence, but an integral feature of the worthy
human soul. There are few things that so touch us with
instinctive revulsion as a breach of decorum; and so far have we
progressed in the direction of imputing intrinsic utility to the
ceremonial observances of etiquette that few of us, if any, can
dissociate an offence against etiquette from a sense of the
substantial unworthiness of the offender. A breach of faith may
be condoned, but a breach of decorum can not. "Manners maketh
None the less, while manners have this intrinsic utility,
in the apprehension of the performer and the beholder alike, this
sense of the intrinsic rightness of decorum is only the proximate
ground of the vogue of manners and breeding. Their ulterior,
economic ground is to be sought in the honorific character of
that leisure or non-productive employment of time and effort
without which good manners are not acquired. The knowledge and
habit of good form come only by long-continued use. Refined
tastes, manners, habits of life are a useful evidence of
gentility, because good breeding requires time, application and
expense, and can therefore not be compassed by those whose time
and energy are taken up with work. A knowledge of good form is
prima facie evidence that that portion of the well-bred person's
life which is not spent under the observation of the spectator
has been worthily spent in acquiring accomplishments that are of
no lucrative effect. In the last analysis the value of manners
lies in the fact that they are the voucher of a life of leisure.
Therefore, conversely, since leisure is the conventional means of
pecuniary repute, the acquisition of some proficiency in decorum
is incumbent on all who aspire to a modicum of pecuniary decency.
So much of the honourable life of leisure as is not spent
in the sight of spectators can serve the purposes of reputability
only in so far as it leaves a tangible, visible result that can
be put in evidence and can be measured and compared with products
of the same class exhibited by competing aspirants for repute.
Some such effect, in the way of leisurely manners and carriage,
etc., follows from simple persistent abstention from work, even
where the subject does not take thought of the matter and
studiously acquire an air of leisurely opulence and mastery.
Especially does it seem to be true that a life of leisure in this
way persisted in through several generations will leave a
persistent, ascertainable effect in the conformation of the
person, and still more in his habitual bearing and demeanour. But
all the suggestions of a cumulative life of leisure, and all the
proficiency in decorum that comes by the way of passive
habituation, may be further improved upon by taking thought and
assiduously acquiring the marks of honourable leisure, and then
carrying the exhibition of these adventitious marks of exemption
from employment out in a strenuous and systematic discipline.
Plainly, this is a point at which a diligent application of
effort and expenditure may materially further the attainment of a
decent proficiency in the leisure-class properties. Conversely,
the greater the degree of proficiency and the more patent the
evidence of a high degree of habituation to observances which
serve no lucrative or other directly useful purpose, the greater
the consumption of time and substance impliedly involved in their
acquisition, and the greater the resultant good repute. Hence
under the competitive struggle for proficiency in good manners,
it comes about that much pains in taken with the cultivation of
habits of decorum; and hence the details of decorum develop into
a comprehensive discipline, conformity to which is required of
all who would be held blameless in point of repute. And hence, on
the other hand, this conspicuous leisure of which decorum is a
ramification grows gradually into a laborious drill in deportment
and an education in taste and discrimination as to what articles
of consumption are decorous and what are the decorous methods of
consuming them.
In this connection it is worthy of notice that the
possibility of producing pathological and other idiosyncrasies of
person and manner by shrewd mimicry and a systematic drill have
been turned to account in the deliberate production of a cultured
class -- often with a very happy effect. In this way, by the
process vulgarly known as snobbery, a syncopated evolution of
gentle birth and breeding is achieved in the case of a goodly
number of families and lines of descent. This syncopated gentle
birth gives results which, in point of serviceability as a
leisure-class factor in the population, are in no wise
substantially inferior to others who may have had a longer but
less arduous training in the pecuniary properties.
There are, moreover, measureable degrees of conformity to
the latest accredited code of the punctilios as regards decorous
means and methods of consumption. Differences between one person
and another in the degree of conformity to the ideal in these
respects can be compared, and persons may be graded and scheduled
with some accuracy and effect according to a progressive scale of
manners and breeding. The award of reputability in this regard is
commonly made in good faith, on the ground of conformity to
accepted canons of taste in the matters concerned, and without
conscious regard to the pecuniary standing or the degree of
leisure practised by any given candidate for reputability; but
the canons of taste according to which the award is made are
constantly under the surveillance of the law of conspicuous
leisure, and are indeed constantly undergoing change and revision
to bring them into closer conformity with its requirements. So
that while the proximate ground of discrimination may be of
another kind, still the pervading principle and abiding test of
good breeding is the requirement of a substantial and patent
waste of time. There may be some considerable range of variation
in detail within the scope of this principle, but they are
variations of form and expression, not of substance.
Much of the courtesy of everyday intercourse is of course a
direct expression of consideration and kindly good-will, and this
element of conduct has for the most part no need of being traced
back to any underlying ground of reputability to explain either
its presence or the approval with which it is regarded; but the
same is not true of the code of properties. These latter are
expressions of status. It is of course sufficiently plain, to any
one who cares to see, that our bearing towards menials and other
pecuniary dependent inferiors is the bearing of the superior
member in a relation of status, though its manifestation is often
greatly modified and softened from the original expression of
crude dominance. Similarly, our bearing towards superiors, and in
great measure towards equals, expresses a more or less
conventionalised attitude of subservience. Witness the masterful
presence of the high-minded gentleman or lady, which testifies to
so much of dominance and independence of economic circumstances,
and which at the same time appeals with such convincing force to
our sense of what is right and gracious. It is among this highest
leisure class, who have no superiors and few peers, that decorum
finds its fullest and maturest expression; and it is this highest
class also that gives decorum that definite formulation which
serves as a canon of conduct for the classes beneath. And there
also the code is most obviously a code of status and shows most
plainly its incompatibility with all vulgarly productive work. A
divine assurance and an imperious complaisance, as of one
habituated to require subservience and to take no thought for the
morrow, is the birthright and the criterion of the gentleman at
his best; and it is in popular apprehension even more than that,
for this demeanour is accepted as an intrinsic attribute of
superior worth, before which the base-born commoner delights to
stoop and yield.
As has been indicated in an earlier chapter, there is
reason to believe that the institution of ownership has begun
with the ownership of persons, primarily women. The incentives to
acquiring such property have apparently been: (1) a propensity
for dominance and coercion; (2) the utility of these persons as
evidence of the prowess of the owner; (3) the utility of their
Personal service holds a peculiar place in the economic
development. During the stage of quasi-peaceable industry, and
especially during the earlier development of industry within the
limits of this general stage, the utility of their services seems
commonly to be the dominant motive to the acquisition of property
in persons. Servants are valued for their services. But the
dominance of this motive is not due to a decline in the absolute
importance of the other two utilities possessed by servants. It
is rather that the altered circumstance of life accentuate the
utility of servants for this last-named purpose. Women and other
slaves are highly valued, both as an evidence of wealth and as a
means of accumulating wealth. Together with cattle, if the tribe
is a pastoral one, they are the usual form of investment for a
profit. To such an extent may female slavery give its character
to the economic life under the quasi-peaceable culture that the
women even comes to serve as a unit of value among peoples
occupying this cultural stage -- as for instance in Homeric
times. Where this is the case there need be little question but
that the basis of the industrial system is chattel slavery and
that the women are commonly slaves. The great, pervading human
relation in such a system is that of master and servant. The
accepted evidence of wealth is the possession of many women, and
presently also of other slaves engaged in attendance on their
master's person and in producing goods for him.
A division of labour presently sets in, whereby personal
service and attendance on the master becomes the special office
of a portion of the servants, while those who are wholly employed
in industrial occupations proper are removed more and more from
all immediate relation to the person of their owner. At the same
time those servants whose office is personal service, including
domestic duties, come gradually to be exempted from productive
industry carried on for gain.
This process of progressive exemption from the common run
of industrial employment will commonly begin with the exemption
of the wife, or the chief wife. After the community has advanced
to settled habits of life, wife-capture from hostile tribes
becomes impracticable as a customary source of supply. Where this
cultural advance has been achieved, the chief wife is ordinarily
of gentle blood, and the fact of her being so will hasten her
exemption from vulgar employment. The manner in which the concept of gentle blood originates, as well as the place which it
occupies in the development of marriage, cannot be discussed in
this place. For the purpose in hand it will be sufficient to say
that gentle blood is blood which has been ennobled by protracted
contact with accumulated wealth or unbroken prerogative. The
women with these antecedents is preferred in marriage, both for
the sake of a resulting alliance with her powerful relatives and
because a superior worth is felt to inhere in blood which has
been associated with many goods and great power. She will still
be her husband's chattel, as she was her father's chattel before
her purchase, but she is at the same time of her father's gentle
blood; and hence there is a moral incongruity in her occupying
herself with the debasing employments of her fellow-servants.
However completely she may be subject to her master, and however
inferior to the male members of the social stratum in which her
birth has placed her, the principle that gentility is
transmissible will act to place her above the common slave; and
so soon as this principle has acquired a prescriptive authority
it will act to invest her in some measure with that prerogative
of leisure which is the chief mark of gentility. Furthered by
this principle of transmissible gentility the wife's exemption
gains in scope, if the wealth of her owner permits it, until it
includes exemption from debasing menial service as well as from
handicraft. As the industrial development goes on and property
becomes massed in relatively fewer hands, the conventional
standard of wealth of the upper class rises. The same tendency to
exemption from handicraft, and in the course of time from menial
domestic employments, will then assert itself as regards the
other wives, if such there are, and also as regards other
servants in immediate attendance upon the person of their master.
The exemption comes more tardily the remoter the relation in
which the servant stands to the person of the master.
If the pecuniary situation of the master permits it, the
development of a special class of personal or body servants is
also furthered by the very grave importance which comes to attach
to this personal service. The master's person, being the
embodiment of worth and honour, is of the most serious
consequence. Both for his reputable standing in the community and
for his self-respect, it is a matter of moment that he should
have at his call efficient specialised servants, whose attendance
upon his person is not diverted from this their chief office by
any by-occupation. These specialised servants are useful more for
show than for service actually performed. In so far as they are
not kept for exhibition simply, they afford gratification to
their master chiefly in allowing scope to his propensity for
dominance. It is true, the care of the continually increasing
household apparatus may require added labour; but since the
apparatus is commonly increased in order to serve as a means of
good repute rather than as a means of comfort, this qualification
is not of great weight. All these lines of utility are better
served by a larger number of more highly specialised servants.
There results, therefore, a constantly increasing differentiation
and multiplication of domestic and body servants, along with a
concomitant progressive exemption of such servants from
productive labour. By virtue of their serving as evidence of
ability to pay, the office of such domestics regularly tends to
include continually fewer duties, and their service tends in the
end to become nominal only. This is especially true of those
servants who are in most immediate and obvious attendance upon
their master. So that the utility of these comes to consist, in
great part, in their conspicuous exemption from productive labour
and in the evidence which this exemption affords of their
master's wealth and power.
After some considerable advance has been made in the
practice of employing a special corps of servants for the
performance of a conspicuous leisure in this manner, men begin to
be preferred above women for services that bring them obtrusively
into view. Men, especially lusty, personable fellows, such as
footmen and other menials should be, are obviously more powerful
and more expensive than women. They are better fitted for this
work, as showing a larger waste of time and of human energy.
Hence it comes about that in the economy of the leisure class the
busy housewife of the early patriarchal days, with her retinue of
hard-working handmaidens, presently gives place to the lady and
the lackey.
In all grades and walks of life, and at any stage of the
economic development, the leisure of the lady and of the lackey
differs from the leisure of the gentleman in his own right in
that it is an occupation of an ostensibly laborious kind. It
takes the form, in large measure, of a painstaking attention to
the service of the master, or to the maintenance and elaboration
of the household paraphernalia; so that it is leisure only in the
sense that little or no productive work is performed by this
class, not in the sense that all appearance of labour is avoided
by them. The duties performed by the lady, or by the household or
domestic servants, are frequently arduous enough, and they are
also frequently directed to ends which are considered extremely
necessary to the comfort of the entire household. So far as these
services conduce to the physical efficiency or comfort of the
master or the rest of the household, they are to be accounted
productive work. Only the residue of employment left after
deduction of this effective work is to be classed as a
performance of leisure.
But much of the services classed as household cares in
modern everyday life, and many of the "utilities" required for a
comfortable existence by civilised man, are of a ceremonial
character. They are, therefore, properly to be classed as a
performance of leisure in the sense in which the term is here
used. They may be none the less imperatively necessary from the
point of view of decent existence: they may be none the less
requisite for personal comfort even, although they may be chiefly
or wholly of a ceremonial character. But in so far as they
partake of this character they are imperative and requisite
because we have been taught to require them under pain of
ceremonial uncleanness or unworthiness. We feel discomfort in
their absence, but not because their absence results directly in
physical discomfort; nor would a taste not trained to
discriminate between the conventionally good and the
conventionally bad take offence at their omission. In so far as
this is true the labour spent in these services is to be classed
as leisure; and when performed by others than the economically
free and self-directed head of the establishment, they are to be
classed as vicarious leisure.
The vicarious leisure performed by housewives and menials,
under the head of household cares, may frequently develop into
drudgery, especially where the competition for reputability is
close and strenuous. This is frequently the case in modern life.
Where this happens, the domestic service which comprises the
duties of this servant class might aptly be designated as wasted
effort, rather than as vicarious leisure. But the latter term has
the advantage of indicating the line of derivation of these
domestic offices, as well as of neatly suggesting the substantial
economic ground of their utility; for these occupations are
chiefly useful as a method of imputing pecuniary reputability to
the master or to the household on the ground that a given amount
of time and effort is conspicuously wasted in that behalf.
In this way, then, there arises a subsidiary or derivative
leisure class, whose office is the performance of a vicarious
leisure for the behoof of the reputability of the primary or
legitimate leisure class. This vicarious leisure class is
distinguished from the leisure class proper by a characteristic
feature of its habitual mode of life. The leisure of the master
class is, at least ostensibly, an indulgence of a proclivity for
the avoidance of labour and is presumed to enhance the master's
own well-being and fulness of life; but the leisure of the
servant class exempt from productive labour is in some sort a
performance exacted from them, and is not normally or primarily
directed to their own comfort. The leisure of the servant is not
his own leisure. So far as he is a servant in the full sense, and
not at the same time a member of a lower order of the leisure
class proper, his leisure normally passes under the guise of
specialised service directed to the furtherance of his master's
fulness of life. Evidence of this relation of subservience is
obviously present in the servant's carriage and manner of life.
The like is often true of the wife throughout the protracted
economic stage during which she is still primarily a servant --
that is to say, so long as the household with a male head remains
in force. In order to satisfy the requirements of the leisure
class scheme of life, the servant should show not only an
attitude of subservience, but also the effects of special
training and practice in subservience. The servant or wife should
not only perform certain offices and show a servile disposition,
but it is quite as imperative that they should show an acquired
facility in the tactics of subservience -- a trained conformity
to the canons of effectual and conspicuous subservience. Even
today it is this aptitude and acquired skill in the formal
manifestation of the servile relation that constitutes the chief
element of utility in our highly paid servants, as well as one of
the chief ornaments of the well-bred housewife.
The first requisite of a good servant is that he should
conspicuously know his place. It is not enough that he knows how
to effect certain desired mechanical results; he must above all,
know how to effect these results in due form. Domestic service
might be said to be a spiritual rather than a mechanical
function. Gradually there grows up an elaborate system of good
form, specifically regulating the manner in which this vicarious
leisure of the servant class is to be performed. Any departure
from these canons of form is to be depreciated, not so much
because it evinces a shortcoming in mechanical efficiency, or
even that it shows an absence of the servile attitude and
temperament, but because, in the last analysis, it shows the
absence of special training. Special training in personal service
costs time and effort, and where it is obviously present in a
high degree, it argues that the servant who possesses it, neither
is nor has been habitually engaged in any productive occupation.
It is prima facie evidence of a vicarious leisure extending far
back in the past. So that trained service has utility, not only
as gratifying the master's instinctive liking for good and
skilful workmanship and his propensity for conspicuous dominance
over those whose lives are subservient to his own, but it has
utility also as putting in evidence a much larger consumption of
human service than would be shown by the mere present conspicuous
leisure performed by an untrained person. It is a serious
grievance if a gentleman's butler or footman performs his duties
about his master's table or carriage in such unformed style as to
suggest that his habitual occupation may be ploughing or
sheepherding. Such bungling work would imply inability on the
master's part to procure the service of specially trained
servants; that is to say, it would imply inability to pay for the
consumption of time, effort, and instruction required to fit a
trained servant for special service under the exacting code of
forms. If the performance of the servant argues lack of means on
the part of his master, it defeats its chief substantial end; for
the chief use of servants is the evidence they afford of the
master's ability to pay.
What has just been said might be taken to imply that the
offence of an under-trained servant lies in a direct suggestion
of inexpensiveness or of usefulness. Such, of course, is not the
case. The connection is much less immediate. What happens here is
what happens generally. Whatever approves itself to us on any
ground at the outset, presently comes to appeal to us as a
gratifying thing in itself; it comes to rest in our habits of
though as substantially right. But in order that any specific
canon of deportment shall maintain itself in favour, it must
continue to have the support of, or at least not be incompatible
with, the habit or aptitude which constitutes the norm of its
development. The need of vicarious leisure, or conspicuous
consumption of service, is a dominant incentive to the keeping of
servants. So long as this remains true it may be set down without
much discussion that any such departure from accepted usage as
would suggest an abridged apprenticeship in service would
presently be found insufferable. The requirement of an expensive
vicarious leisure acts indirectly, selectively, by guiding the
formation of our taste, -- of our sense of what is right in these
matters, -- and so weeds out unconformable departures by
withholding approval of them.
As the standard of wealth recognized by common consent
advances, the possession and exploitation of servants as a means
of showing superfluity undergoes a refinement. The possession and
maintenance of slaves employed in the production of goods argues
wealth and prowess, but the maintenance of servants who produce
nothing argues still higher wealth and position. Under this
principle there arises a class of servants, the more numerous the
better, whose sole office is fatuously to wait upon the person of
their owner, and so to put in evidence his ability unproductively
to consume a large amount of service. There supervenes a division
of labour among the servants or dependents whose life is spent in
maintaining the honour of the gentleman of leisure. So that,
while one group produces goods for him, another group, usually
headed by the wife, or chief, consumes for him in conspicuous
leisure; thereby putting in evidence his ability to sustain large
pecuniary damage without impairing his superior opulence.
This somewhat idealized and diagrammatic outline of the
development and nature of domestic service comes nearest being
true for that cultural stage which was here been named the
"quasi-peaceable" stage of industry. At this stage personal
service first rises to the position of an economic institution,
and it is at this stage that it occupies the largest place in the
community's scheme of life. In the cultural sequence, the
quasiªpeaceable stage follows the predatory stage proper, the two
being successive phases of barbarian life. Its characteristic
feature is a formal observance of peace and order, at the same
time that life at this stage still has too much of coercion and
class antagonism to be called peaceable in the full sense of the
word. For many purposes, and from another point of view than the
economic one, it might as well be named the stage of status. The
method of human relation during this stage, and the spiritual
attitude of men at this level of culture, is well summed up under
the term. But as a descriptive term to characterise the
prevailing methods of industry, as well as to indicate the trend
of industrial development at this point in economic evolution,
the term "quasi-peaceable" seems preferable. So far as concerns
the communities of the Western culture, this phase of economic
development probably lies in the past; except for a numerically
small though very conspicuous fraction of the community in whom
the habits of thought peculiar to the barbarian culture have
suffered but a relatively slight disintegration.
Personal service is still an element of great economic
importance, especially as regards the distribution and
consumption of goods; but its relative importance even in this
direction is no doubt less than it once was. The best development
of this vicarious leisure lies in the past rather than in the
present; and its best expression in the present is to be found in
the scheme of life of the upper leisure class. To this class the
modern culture owes much in the way of the conservation of
traditions, usages, and habits of thought which belong on a more
archaic cultural plane, so far as regards their widest acceptance
and their most effective development.
In the modern industrial communities the mechanical
contrivances available for the comfort and convenience of
everyday life are highly developed. So much so that body
servants, or, indeed, domestic servants of any kind, would now
scarcely be employed by anybody except on the ground of a canon
of reputability carried over by tradition from earlier usage. The
only exception would be servants employed to attend on the
persons of the infirm and the feeble-minded. But such servants
properly come under the head of trained nurses rather than under
that of domestic servants, and they are, therefore, an apparent
rather than a real exception to the rule.
The proximate reason for keeping domestic servants, for
instance, in the moderately well-to-do household of to-day, is
(ostensibly) that the members of the household are unable without
discomfort to compass the work required by such a modern
establishment. And the reason for their being unable to
accomplish it is (1) that they have too many "social duties", and
(2) that the work to be done is too severe and that there is too
much of it. These two reasons may be restated as follows: (1)
Under the mandatory code of decency, the time and effort of the
members of such a household are required to be ostensibly all
spent in a performance of conspicuous leisure, in the way of
calls, drives, clubs, sewing-circles, sports, charity
organisations, and other like social functions. Those persons
whose time and energy are employed in these matters privately
avow that all these observances, as well as the incidental
attention to dress and other conspicuous consumption, are very
irksome but altogether unavoidable. (2) Under the requirement of
conspicuous consumption of goods, the apparatus of living has
grown so elaborate and cumbrous, in the way of dwellings,
furniture, bric-a-brac, wardrobe and meals, that the consumers of
these things cannot make way with them in the required manner
without help. Personal contact with the hired persons whose aid
is called in to fulfil the routine of decency is commonly
distasteful to the occupants of the house, but their presence is
endured and paid for, in order to delegate to them a share in
this onerous consumption of household goods. The presence of
domestic servants, and of the special class of body servants in
an eminent degree, is a concession of physical comfort to the
moral need of pecuniary decency.
The largest manifestation of vicarious leisure in modern
life is made up of what are called domestic duties. These duties
are fast becoming a species of services performed, not so much
for the individual behoof of the head of the household as for the
reputability of the household taken as a corporate unit -- a
group of which the housewife is a member on a footing of
ostensible equality. As fast as the household for which they are
performed departs from its archaic basis of ownership-marriage,
these household duties of course tend to fall out of the category
of vicarious leisure in the original sense; except so far as they
are performed by hired servants. That is to say, since vicarious
leisure is possible only on a basis of status or of hired
service, the disappearance of the relation of status from human
intercourse at any point carries with it the disappearance of
vicarious leisure so far as regards that much of life. But it is
to be added, in qualification of this qualification, that so long
as the household subsists, even with a divided head, this class
of non-productive labour performed for the sake of the household
reputability must still be classed as vicarious leisure, although
in a slightly altered sense. It is now leisure performed for the
quasi-personal corporate household, instead of, as formerly, for
the proprietary head of the household.