Dante and Drucker on Awareness of How One is Spending One's Time

In yesterday's post, I wrote about Peter Drucker's book, The Effective Executive. I argued that it's a book that everyone can learn from, even without being an official, card-carrying, title-holding "executive."

Here's another book that I think everyone can learn from, even if they're not disposed to think of it as a book that has something to teach them: Dante's Commedia. (The first time I read it, I read the Dorothy Sayers version.)

You're not a Catholic? You're not medieval? You're not a liberal-artsy type?

So what?

Just as Drucker does, Dante has some things you need to think about and, perhaps, act on.

Dante and Drucker on the Importance of Time

The association of Drucker and Dante in my mind happened because I realized that both writers take time very seriously.

And I'm not talking about an abstract time-versus-eternity dichotomy. I'm talking about how you actually spend your months, days, hours, and minutes. What are you doing with them? 

Both Dante and Drucker think you should care about your actual, concrete expenditure of time.

Drucker on Time:

The second chapter of The Effective Executive is called "Know Thy Time." Drucker lists the special qualities of the thing called time:

  • Scarce: Time is the scarcest resource — and therefore the limiting factor — in the process we call "accomplishment."
  • Unique: Time is unique. "One cannot rent, hire, buy, or otherwise obtain more time."
  • Inelastic: The supply of time is inelastic. The demand for it does not affect its supply. You can't get more of it, no matter what you're willing to spend on it.
  • Perishable: Time is perishable. You can't store it, and once it's gone, it's gone forever.
  • Irreplaceable: Time is irreplaceable. It has not substitutes. Copper can often replace aluminum, brawn can sometimes serve in the place of brains. But nothing takes the place of time.
  • Universal: Time is universal. Everything in human life requires time. Every "work" takes and uses time.

Because time is so special, Drucker points out that time should be tracked. Anything as precious and transitory as time needs to be accounted for, so that it's not wasted or lost.

Drucker therefore recommends that people record how they're spending their time as they are spending it. (He's emphatic that you can't try to recall later with any precision how you spent it earlier. Memory tends to distort your sense of how you spent your time. Only one hour on Netflix?)

Dante on Time:

Dante is writing in a different century, for a different audience, in another genre. Granted.

But in both Dante and Drucker, there's a similar stress on the gravity of how the minutes pass by in human life. There's an awareness that time can be wasted and that it shouldn't be.

I'm thinking in particular of a scene from the Purgatorio (I'm quoting below from Esolen's edition):

Dante and Virgil have arrived on the beach at the foot of the purgatorial mountain. After they get an orientation from Cato (Roman, reverend, severe), Dante recognizes a dear friend — the poet Casella.

The reunion is a lovely moment, and Casella ends up singing one of Dante's own compositions about love, which draws a crowd of souls:

"The Love that pleads its reason in my mind,"
so sweetly did he then begin to sing,
I can still hear the sweetness of his sound.
And so my Teacher and that throng of souls
and I stood listening so contentedly
it seemed our minds were touched by nothing else
but the notes of his song; we all held still,
when, look! the honorable old man cried,
"What's this, you sluggish souls! Get to the hill!
What lingering, what carelessness down here!
Hurry to scrape away the scales which keep
the Lord from being manifest to you!"
As when a flock of pigeons in a field,
quietly pecking for the tasty seeds,
without their usual strut to show their pride,
If something should appear which scares 'em, they
all of a sudden leave their feed behind,
for they're assailed by more important care —
So did I see that newly gathered flock
scatter as men who go they don't know where,
leaving the song and fleeing to the rock —
Nor with less haste did we depart from there.

I remember reading this years ago and thinking: "Here are some points in a lesson on Catholic time management."

Here is some of what I have in mind:

  • Without being bad, a good thing may nonetheless be distracting — i.e., keep you from spending your time in the best possible way. The singing of the love song is not something that's bad in itself. A sign of that: even Virgil  ("my Teacher") is listening attentively to the song. And Dante, writing in retrospect, "can still hear the sweetness of his sound."
  • A good thing distracts you when you're not spending time on working toward a more-distant, greater good. For Dante and the souls in need of purging, listening to the song has become a distraction. Cato's shout reminds the crowd that they have a loftier purpose to work on: moving up the mountain and toward God.
  • Everyone is liable to getting distracted at some point on the journey. It's easy to be distracted, especially when the distractions are things good in themselves. Even Virgil — Dante's no-nonsense guide through Hell — gets momentarily distracted from the ultimate purpose of the journey by the beauty of the verses being sung.
  • Distractions can be especially alluring when they're similar to the thing you're ultimately seeking. In this scene, the thing that is so distracting is a thing quite similar to the ultimate goal. Casella is singing a song (something beautiful and orderly) about love and the mind (noble things). Cato reminds them of the goal: "The Lord . . . being manifest to you." A song about love and the human mind is an analogous manifestation of the Divine beauty that's the principal object of the quest.