Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 3.: Rest - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
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CHAPTER 3.: Rest - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1 
The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). Vol. 1.
Part of: The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols.
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205. Though the ethically enjoined limitation of life-sustaining activities, specified towards the close of the last chapter, apparently implies that rest is ethically enjoined, and in a large measure does so, yet this corollary must be definitely stated and enlarged on for severnl reasons.
The first is that there are various activities, not of a life-sustaining kind, which may be entered on when the activities devoted to sustentation of life are ended; and hence the conclusion drawn in the last chapter does not involve insistence upon absolute rest.
Further, we have to observe the several kinds of rest, which, if not complete, are approximately so; and the need for each of these kinds must be pointed out.
Something has to be said under each of the several heads–rest at intervals during work; nightly rest; rest of a day after a series of days; and occasional long rest at long intervals.
206. Rhythm, shown throughout the organic functions as elsewhere, has for its concomitant the alternation of waste and repair. Every contraction of the heart, every inflation of the lungs, is followed by a momentary relaxation of the muscles employed. In the process of alimentation, we have the short rhythms constituting the peristaltic motion, compounded with the longer rhythms implied by the periodicity of meals. Far deeper, indeed, than at first appears, is the conformity to this law; for some organic actions which appear continuous are in truth discontinuous. A muscle which maintains for a time a persistent contraction, and seems in a uniform state, is made up of multitudinous units which are severally alternating between action and rest–these relaxing while those are contracting; and so keeping up a constant strain of the whole muscle by the inconstant strains of its competent fibres.
The law thus displayed in each organ and part of an organ, from moment to moment, is displayed throughout the longer and larger cooperations of parts. Combined muscular strains which tax the powers of the system in any considerable degree, cannot with impunity be continually repeated without cessation, even during the period devoted to activity. Waste in such cases overruns repair to a considerable extent, and makes needful a cessation during which arrears may be in some measure made up–an interval for “taking breath,” as the expression is. Long unbroken persistence, even in moderate efforts, is injurious; and though such unresting action when occasional does no permanent harm, if it recurs daily loss of power is the final result. Scriveners’ palsy illustrates a local form of this evil; as do also various atrophies of overused muscles.
Nor is this true of bodily actions only. It is true of mental actions also. A concentrated attention which is too continuous produces, after a time, nervous disturbance and inability. Daily occupation for many hours in even so simple a thing as removing the small defects in machine made lace, not unfrequently brings on chronic brain disorder. Some single-line railways in the United States, the movements of trains on which are regulated by telegraph from a central office, furnish a striking instance in the fact that the men who have thus to conduct the traffic, and cannot for a moment relax under penalty of causing accidents, never last for more than a few years; they become permanently incapable.
These unduly persistent strains, bodily and mental, are always indicated more or less clearly by the painful feelings accompanying them. The sensations protest, and their protests cannot with impunity be ignored.
207. Insistence on the need for that complete rest which we call sleep, is not called for; but something may fitly be said concerning its duration–now too small, now too great.
Current criticisms on the habits of those around, imply the erroneous belief that for persons of the same sex and age, the same amount of sleep is required–a professed belief which is, nevertheless, continually traversed by remarks on the unlike numbers of hours of repose which different persons can do with. The truth is that the required amount of sleep depends on the constitution. According as the vigor is small or great, there may be taken many hours to little purpose or few hours to great purpose. To understand what are the vital requirements, and, by implication, the habits which, from our present standpoint, we regard as having ethical sanction, we must pause a moment to look at the physiology of the matter.
The difference between waking and sleeping is that in the one waste gets ahead of repair, while in the other repair gets ahead of waste. Proof that repair is always going on, but that it varies in rate, is furnished by what are known as photogenes. During early life, while the blood is rich and the circulation good, the destruction of nerve tissue produced by each impression the eye receives, is made up for instantaneously so that the eye is at once ready to appreciate perfectly a new impression; but in later life diminished vigor is shown by the greater time required for restoring the sensitiveness of the retinal elements; and connected nerves, after each visual impression–a time which is quite appreciable when the impression has been strong. The result is that a new image received is to some extent confused by the persistence of the preceding image, presented in its complementary colors.
Now these differences in the rates of repair at different stages in the life of the same individual, are paralleled by differences in the rates of repair in different individuals; and hence the unlike amounts of sleep required. There is a double cause for the unlikeness. In the vigorous person repair during the waking state is relatively so rapid as not to fall very far in arrear of the waste caused by action; the consequence being that at the end of the day less repair is required. And then, from the same cause, it results that during sleep such repair as has to be made is more rapidly made. Conversely in the individual with low nutrition and slow circulation, action is sooner followed by exhaustion, and the parts wasted by action take a longer rest to make them fit for action.
But while the implication is that not unfrequently one who is condemned as a sluggard is taking no more absolute rest than is required by him, and is rightly prompted to take it by his sensations, we must not infer that there is no such thing as sleep in excess. There is a very general tendency to take not only more than is needful but more than is beneficial. Passing a certain limit, the state of entire quiescence does not invigorate but prostrates. Lacking their stimuli the vital organs flag, and when the quiescence is continued after repairs have been effected, a further fall in their activities disables them from carrying on the repairs needed during working life at the ordinary rate: a sense of weariness being the consequence. Probably for those whose systems are so far in a normal state that they sleep soundly, the first complete waking marks the proper limit to the night’s rest. Some times a day after sleep thus limited is a day of unusual vivacity.
Here we have to recognize a seeming exception to the general law that for maintenance of bodily welfare the sensations are adequate guides. This lack of adjustment is most likely associated with our transitional state, during which the average life is so uninteresting, and often so wearisome, that the prospective renewal of it on waking does not serve as a stimulus to get up, but rather the contrary; for everyone has found that when the forthcoming day promises an enjoyment, say an excursion, there is no difficulty in rising early. It may be, therefore, that greater adaptation to the social state and its needful occupations, will render easy that normal abridgment of sleep which is now difficult. But for a long time to come, it will be an implication of relative ethics that guidance by the sensations must here be supplemented by judgments based on experience.
208. Civilized mankind have fallen into the habit of taking a further periodical rest–a weekly rest; and without accepting their reasons given for taking it, we may admit the propriety of taking it for other reasons.
Monotony, no matter of what kind, is unfavorable to life. Not only does there need some discontinuity in the activities carried on during the waking state, and not only must the activities be made discontinuous by intervals of sleep, but that continuity of activities which consists in repetition of days similarly occupied, also seems to require breaking by days of rest. There is a cumulative weariness which is not met by the periodical cessations which nights bring: there require larger periodical cessations at longer intervals. The persistent strain of daily occupations is in all cases a strain falling on some parts of the system more than on others; and that daily repair which suffices to bring the system at large into working order again, appears not to suffice for bringing into working order again parts that have been specially taxed. So that a recurring day of rest has, if not a religious sanction, still an ethical sanction.
We may too, agree with the Sabbatarians so far as to admit that a periodical cessation of daily business is requisite as a means to mental health. Even as it is, most people largely fail to emancipate themselves from those prosaic conceptions of the world and life which mechanical routine tends to produce; and they would fail utterly were all their days passed in work. There require intervals of passivity during which the vast process of things amid which we live may be contemplated, and receptivity of the appropriate thoughts and feelings fostered.
209. I need not insist on the physical and mental benefits gained from those longer intermissions of labor which now commonly recur annually. Not to dwell on the positive pleasures obtained by them (which, however, must be counted as effects to be deliberately sought), it suffices to recall the reinvigoration and increased fitness for work which they usually produce, to show that they are ethically sanctioned, or rather, where circumstances permit, ethically enjoined.
Without further elaboration I pass to the altruistic reasons which justify rest, and show the taking of it in due amount to be obligatory. The claims of dependents and the claims of fellow citizens with whom engagements have been made, alike forbid excess of work: energy must not be so wastefully expended as to jeopardize fulfillment of them. A sane judgment has to balance between the demand for such efforts as are required to make these claims, and the demand for such rest as will prevent exhaustion and incapacity. Duty to others forbids overtax of self.
But strong as is the interdict hence arising, there is a still stronger interdict–peremptory, if not for all, yet for those who are likely to have offspring. As pointed out emphatically in the preliminary chapter, preservation of a sound body as well as of a sound mind, is a duty to posterity. Deterioration of physique must result from persistence in undue activity. To suppose that whether a life which is physically normal has been led by a parent, or one which is physically abnormal, matters not to children, is absurd. If there has been habitual deficiency of rest and consequent deficiency of repair, the abnormality produced must, like every other, leave its trace in descendants–not always conspicuously since each child, besides inheriting from two parents, inherits from many lines of ancestors; but, nevertheless, in due degree somewhere.