The Tyranny of the Clock: Examining the Impact of Monotony on the Human Condition
Are we trapped in a cycle of monotony and despair, governed by the clock’s schedule? Or can we break free from ennui and find meaning in our lives?
As the clock ticks, we are trapped in its cycle of monotony and despair. It was once hailed as a revolutionary invention, promising efficiency and productivity. But as the years go by, we are left with a feeling of boredom and restlessness. The masters of language and thought have dubbed this “the tyranny of the clock,” and it prompts us to question the significance of our tireless pursuit of productivity. Is our existence, governed by the clock’s schedule and deadlines, truly meaningful? Or are we simply going through the motions, trapped in a hollow and directionless existence?
The clock continues to tick, reminding us of the fleeting nature of our time on this earth. It is this sense of powerlessness in the face of its never-ending march that drives us to contemplate the pointlessness of our lives. We are caught in a cycle, repeating the same patterns over and over again, never breaking free from the cycle of birth and death that keeps us stuck in a state of stasis. Is there no escape from the clock’s hold on us? Or are we doomed to an existence of despair, trapped in its relentless cycle of monotony?
Ennui, a feeling of despair and emptiness, has been a persistent force in human history. Its origins can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, who described it as a sense of boredom and apathy. Epicurus, a Greek philosopher, saw ennui as a kind of mental illness brought on by a lack of fulfillment in life or an inability to find joy in everyday experiences. Romanticist writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe explored the theme of ennui in their works, examining its impact on human mental and spiritual health. In his poem, “On this Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year,” Lord Byron delves into his own feelings of ennui and the growing discontent with life he experiences as he approaches his fortieth birthday.
Ennui can be viewed as a struggle to understand one’s place in the world, and Byron’s poem serves as a powerful example of how some may cope with this inner turmoil. This internal conflict is deeply personal, representing an individual’s attempt to reconcile the events of their life with their initial expectations and hopes. For Byron, this journey involves the realization that he has not lived up to his own potential as a young man. This personal struggle is something that anyone can relate to in some way, whether it be the end of a lifelong dream, the sudden loss of a loved one, or any other event that shakes the foundations of one’s world.
In his poem, Byron writes, “The sword, the banner, and the field,/Glory and Greece around me see!/The Spartan, borne upon his shield,/Was not more free.” These words become a call to action, as ennui becomes a battle cry for individuals to break free from the self-imposed prisons of their own minds and to embrace the struggles of life with a sense of purpose and victory. But what keeps individuals trapped in these prisons? Byron suggests that it is a combination of the monotony of daily life and a lack of inspiration from those around us. Therefore, he emphasizes the need to seek out sources of passion and excitement in life, whether through creativity, love, or adventure.
Ennui, or a sense of boredom and apathy, has become a widespread feeling in modern times, with many people feeling trapped in mundane and unfulfilling lives. A woman working a nine-to-five job may struggle to find the time and inspiration to pursue her passions, while a man isolated from the outside world may struggle to find anything that excites him. Modern life has become increasingly disconnected and uninspiring, which is why Lord Byron’s advice to seek out something that can reignite passion in life remains relevant today. It is the same advice given by Hesiod thousands of years ago, echoed by philosophers, thinkers, and religious leaders throughout history. Even the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “There is nothing new under the sun,” a jarring but necessary reminder that the same problems have been plaguing us for centuries.
The invention of the modern clock is a prime example of this, as humans have been on a seemingly never-ending quest for increased efficiency, productivity, and speed through the clock-dictated rhythms of modern life. Time, once measured by the rising and setting of the sun, has been re-conceptualized as a valuable commodity in need of conservation, but in doing so, we have neglected Hesiod’s warning and often failed to recognize that the amount of time allocated to a task does not necessarily determine its value. It’s not just about time management, but rather understanding that a task may have little worth regardless of the time invested in it; otherwise, we will continue to repeat the same pattern of trying to capture the elusive nature of time.
Kierkegaard addressed this in Repetitions when he wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards” — a sentiment that Hesiod surely would have agreed with. As one of the first to criticize modern civilization for its emphasis on productivity and output rather than leisure, Kierkegaard spoke out in his influential work, The Present Age, arguing that a man is only as good as the amount of leisure time he allows himself, and suggesting that modern society has gone too far in its efforts to streamline its productivity and efficiency. He wrote, “The danger lies in forgetting that life is essentially not a task but an art, so that the man who strives too eagerly after the former finds at last he has ruined both task and art.” In this way, Kierkegaard suggests that art is the ultimate form of life — and that when one begins to live for an art, the other parts of life will naturally fall into place.
French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described ennui as “a profound malaise that results from the meaninglessness of life.” This feeling is often accompanied by a sense of hopelessness and despair, as if one were trapped in an endless cycle of mediocrity and stagnation. Sartre’s concept of ennui can be seen as a direct reflection of Kierkegaard’s idea that when one focuses on the art of living, tasks and responsibilities become secondary. Sartre argued that when the primary goal of life is simply survival, individuals become unfulfilled and experience a deep, debilitating boredom. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre referred to this condition as a malaise caused by what he called “bad faith"—a self-imposed state in which the individual ignores their inherent freedom and resigns themselves to existential inertia.
Sartre believed that this state of boredom, when taken to its logical conclusion, leads to a kind of spiritual death—an affliction called “ennui.” The resulting exhaustion and alienation from one’s life can lead to feelings of powerlessness and despair that are difficult to escape without making conscious decisions to strive for something more meaningful. Ennui is not just a symptom of bad faith but rather the consequence of it, leaving the individual with a sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction that prevents them from truly connecting with the world and making choices from an authentic place.
But why do so many people experience ennui? One theory is that it is a result of the modern world’s obsession with productivity and efficiency. In a society that values hard work and achievement above all else, it can be easy to feel as though one’s life is meaningless if they are not constantly striving for success. Professor Andrew Sayer suggests that this can lead to a sense of hopelessness and apathy, causing people to lose their passion for life and become disinterested in their daily tasks. This theory offers an interesting insight into why people may experience burnout in the modern world and may explain why people struggle to keep up with the demands of contemporary society.
Think of all the times you have felt unmotivated, bored, or unfulfilled in your life. These feelings may be the result of too much emphasis being placed on ambition and career success. This is what economists call “the rat race,” where people continually strive for advancement but at the same time find themselves running in circles as they try to make progress. It is this cycle of ambition and disappointment that causes so many of us to feel a sense of burnout. It is a Sisyphean task, where the only goal is to make more money and reach a higher status, but in reality, there is no end or real satisfaction. Ennui and despondency become the norm, as it can seem that no matter how hard we work, there is no end or escape from this cycle of striving and disappointment. From a more technical perspective, this cycle of scarcity creates a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain is another person’s loss. Scarcity, in economic terms, is the basic problem of having limited resources to meet unlimited needs and wants. On a psychological level, the impact of scarcity is most evident in a reduced capacity to make rational decisions when faced with limited resources.
Another factor that may contribute to ennui is the proliferation of technology and the accompanying loss of human connection. With social media and other digital platforms replacing face-to-face interactions, it is easier than ever to feel isolated and disconnected from others. This lack of genuine human connection can lead to a feeling of emptiness and a lack of purpose. The distance created by technology can also prevent us from being able to share our joys and sorrows with others, leaving us feeling unfulfilled and unable to share our most meaningful experiences.
Consider the implications of this technology-driven disconnection and the impact it has on our ability to build meaningful relationships and enjoy the support of a community. When a child cannot physically be present to share a birthday celebration with their parents, grandparents, and other family members, they miss out on the intimacy of being surrounded by those who care for and support them. When a husband and wife cannot share a celebratory dinner in the same room, the pleasure of being able to enjoy each other’s company and savor the moment together is lost. When a teacher cannot see a student’s face light up with understanding or delight in sharing knowledge, the connection and care between student and teacher are diminished.
There is something special about being present with those you love in a shared space, and the experience of love, joy, and connection can be lost when those moments are lived virtually. Ennui ensues when joy and connection are not truly shared but instead experienced through screens. This lack of physical presence is pervasive in both our personal and public lives, and it stems from ennui and disconnection. It has the potential to create a society of uninspired and jaded citizens, who may feel apathetic about their political life as it is much easier to express a cynical opinion in the virtual world than it is to actively engage in physical civic life.
This lack of physical presence and human connection can lead to feelings of loneliness and disconnection, which can contribute to a sense of ennui and a lack of meaning in life. It is important to find ways to reconnect with others and to cultivate meaningful relationships, whether it be through face-to-face interactions, hobbies, or shared experiences. It is through these connections that we can find joy, purpose, and a sense of belonging in the world.
Despite its ubiquity, ennui is not an inescapable fate. There are ways to combat this feeling and find meaning and purpose in life. Many people find solace in creative pursuits, such as writing, painting, or music, as a way to channel their emotions and find meaning in their lives. Others find fulfillment in helping others, whether through volunteering or simply being there for a friend in need. These are mere patch jobs for some, but for many, they can be the foundations of a meaningful and fulfilling life.
Just like how the mouth of Moloch can never be satiated, it is often impossible to satisfy the inner thirst of searching for a greater purpose and meaning. Ennui, like what Dante experienced in Purgatory, where he encountered souls stuck in a perpetual cycle of purification and repentance, can often be a recurring theme in our lives when our desires remain unfulfilled, leading us to drift aimlessly in search of something that can only be found within.
I do not believe in the idea of providing a “quick fix” to solve all our problems, as we need to actively pursue our life goals and work hard to reach our own personal definition of success. However, finding the right balance between our ambitions and passions can be the key to unlocking true joy and contentment. Which is why revolutionaries, prophets, and poets have emphasized the need to stay grounded, understand one’s core values, and discover meaning in our lives to break free of this ennui. Imagine if Marx had found a balance between his passion for revolution and the reality of the world around him, or if Milton had been able to better reconcile his spiritual and secular life — how different would their stories have been? It is essential to remember that our lives are driven by both our own ambitions and the world around us, and in finding the right balance between these two forces lies true contentment. Marx and Milton each had their own understanding of this concept, and this served as a reminder to those who came after them that it is possible to live a fulfilled life even if the world around us doesn’t always comply.
Ennui then should be the catapult to change the world around us, so that we can experience contentment without compromise. In its bludgeoning relentlessness, ennui forces us to act in a manner that will both improve our own lives and the lives of those around us, as we begin to understand that contentment comes from within, yet can only be fully realized through collective action. And this serves as a guiding principle for those seeking to overcome their ennui, no matter when or where they may live. For in the end, ennui could potentially be a good indicator of a need for change, both in an individual’s life and in the world at large, serving as a clarion call for action.