Exploring Church History

Reflections on History and Theology

The Potential of Boredom

Kierkegaard once wrote that boredom is the root of all evil. No doubt, this proclamation alludes to the biblical proverb that warns of idles hands. The ominous coupling of boredom and idleness is epitomized in the ancient vice of acedia.

However, this longstanding perception of boredom may be a terrible misunderstanding. Once thought an ill, boredom is in fact the cure we need for the modern world. You can hardly find a moment in this rapid-paced society, or space for our attention within the gauntlet of continuous things to keep us busy. In spite of this, boredom is experiencing a renaissance.

Recent years have seen several studies, such as the one conducted by Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman, which show a connection between boredom and creativity. In a New York Times article, Henry Alford reviews seven books on boredom, in what he calls the “boredom boom.” There is even a TED Talk on boredom. Lastly, the latest in travel appears to promote an escape to boredom and not an escape from boredom. The Getaway Company offers vacations to secluded cabins complete with cellphone lockbox and may be the latest travel trend for millennials.

Boredom is what we need to soothe our modern ailments and I suggest we take a look at the “lover of boredom” to reveal its potential. Johann Georg Hamann once proclaimed his love for boredom in his work Socratic Memorabilia. Hamann juxtaposed boredom and Socrates to illustrate the necessity of boredom to gain an accurate understanding of the past and also of the self.

Hamann upholds the merits of boredom against the consuming nature of productivity and progress. The pursuit of industry prioritizes the making of gold as the highest virtue. However, this busyness skews our values and the blinds us to the truth. For instance, Hamann’s memorabilia is, in part, a call to a philosophy of history and a corrective to the Enlightenment’s industriousness and bourgeois virtues. Without boredom, we misread the past and interpret it according to our present values.

More dire still, without boredom we lose sight of ourselves. Hamann warns that in a time of knowing everything but learning nothing, the antithesis of boredom has brought us to a place where we judge everything but never come to the truth. To counteract these perils, Hamann challenges us to “know thyself.”

It is with boredom that we position ourselves in a place in which we can self-introspect. There is no agenda to produce or even to be active, when it comes to boredom. Rather, boredom allows for the “hidden secret” of wisdom to manifest. In boredom, we can begin the questioning that leads to a greater understanding of the self.

Once embarked on the quest in which boredom has commissioned us with, we come to the realization that knowing oneself is knowing that we do not know. The dictum, “I know that I do not know,” is developed out of boredom. In other words, the wisdom of Socratic ignorance is “birthed,” alluding to the midwifery of Socrates’ mother, through the Socratic method, which was initiated from boredom. Boredom’s mission to know oneself ultimately leads to wisdom.

Hamann’s work bore a dual dedication to nobody and to two. The two were Christoph Berens and Immanuel Kant. The nobody referenced the intended purpose for the boredom of the public. From the public, Moses Mendelssohn and Friedrich Nicolai found the work so inspiring that they offered Hamann an editorial job, which Hamann turned down despite his current unemployed. We can only infer that it was in order to stay bored that Hamann refused the offer.

So let us embrace our boredom! There is no need to shun it. If you find yourself bored, do no try to banish it. In this every-changing society, our boredom will probably not last long anyways. Rather, harness the benefits of boredom. Use it as an antidote to the ills of constant production and consider boredom an introspective tool for the self.

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  1. Are there connections between Hamann and Pascal? Pascal speaks to boredom, I recall.

    • That’s an interesting thought. I don’t know of any connection between the two, but Hamann’s wide reading makes it very possible.

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