Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Sleep, Virtuous Behavior, and the Adage

In a Newsweek article called "Sleep in!" (June 4 & 11, 2012, page 19), Trevor Butterworth gleefully debunks the myth that getting up early is somehow virtuous. In fact, he quotes sleep researcher Till Roenneberg, who says "We need to get rid of the old rule that the early bird catches the worm." But how old is this rule--and what are the sneaky links between early rising and moral standing, from a historical perspective?

"Early to bed, early to rise,/ Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." Current in the eighteenth century, this saying links not only intelligence but also wealth to sleeping habits--presumably because those who rise "early" do so in order to work at some form of remunerative labor. Less well known--but no less morally laced--is this early modern adage, quoted by A. Roger Ekirch in At Day's Close (265): "Nature requires five [hours of sleep], custom takes seven, laziness nine, and wickedness, eleven." From a historical standpoint, then, not only the time of rising, but the length of sleep itself reflected a person's inherent moral character.

It's quite interesting, then, to realize that Butterworth's article is calling for a sea change in the way that we ascribe morality to sleep practices. Instead of judging those who sleep late, Butterworth claims, we should view them as victims of "social jet lag"--which "happens when your internal body clock wants you to stay asleep but your external social clock wants you to wake up" (19). Here, the terms of the debate seem to have switched: a sleeper's body is now framed as the correct (or, at least, legitimate) arbiter of waking and sleeping times, and society stands as the cruel taskmaster, forcing the body into routines that can lead to obesity and exhaustion. I'm not quite sure what to make of this shift--but I'm very interested in the way that it tries to decouple sleep from morality, despite hundreds of years of proverbial linkages. 

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