“As I must repeat again, the first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end.” — Aristotle, Politics VIII (1337b30)
“Now to exert oneself and work for the sake of amusement seems silly and utterly childish. But to amuse oneself in order that one may exert oneself, as Anacharsis puts it, seems right; for amusement is a sort of relaxation, and we need relaxation because we cannot work continuously. Relaxation, then, is not an end; for it is taken for the sake of activity.” — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics X (1176b30)
Josef Pieper famously argues that leisure is the basis of culture. If it is to be the basis of culture, it must first be the basis of home life.
But how should we conceive of home life? We can divide the major kinds of activities in human life into three: work, play, and leisure, for leisure too is fundamentally something that we do.
Work is directed to some product outside the activity itself, and so generally it is not done for its own sake. Play or amusement is aimed at pleasant diversion, and in some sense is done for its own sake. Leisure in the proper sense names activities that are done for their own sake because they are intrinsically worth doing. Meditation and a conversation with a friend about higher realities, for example, are especially meaningful activities, and in themselves they constitute a significant enactment of human life.
There is much at stake in being clear on several points: the importance of leisure, the distinction between amusement and leisure, and the relation between these three kinds of actions.
The meaning of human life
The notion of leisure implies an insight into the meaning of human life. Certain human actions contain great significance in their very enactment. While some actions have their ends outside the action, other actions are ends in themselves. Why does one measure and cut wood? Not for its own sake, but for the sake of whatever is being made. Why does one go to work every day? Not for its own sake, but for the sake of making a living. Why does one gaze upon the face of one’s beloved? For its own sake—for the sake of gazing upon the face of the beloved.
A person can of course deny that there are such intrinsically meaningful actions. But this denial will make it difficult for him to find any meaning in human life. If every action that we perform is at root about some outside product, or some other action, then human life will be a series of promises that cannot achieve completion. For life to have meaning there must be certain actions that are worth doing for their own sake. And it is these actions that Aristotle called leisure.
Amusement is not leisure. People have often failed to see the difference, since these two kinds of activity are both simply enjoyable in themselves. We usually do not ask someone engaged in either kind of activity: Why are you doing that? We would not walk into a room of people playing pool and ask: “Hey, why are you all doing this?” We do not search for a reason that a lover looks upon his beloved. It would make more sense to ask people in an office building: Why do you all come here to do these things?
But there is a difference between gazing on the beloved and playing pool. The difference is perhaps best captured by Aristotle’s common sense observation quoted above: it would be silly to work hard in life simply so that we can amuse ourselves. This is not to say that many have not lived as though amusement is the point of it all.
Aristotle’s view is that amusement should be sought for the sake of work. Though it is enjoyable in itself, amusement ultimately derives its meaning from something it serves. Its primary importance is as a relaxation that refreshes, empowering us to return to the more serious activities of work.
Not so with gazing on the beloved. Amusement serves work, but work serves leisure. It would be silly to live for amusement. It would likewise be silly to live for work. Something other than these provides the reason for it all.
So Aristotle has pointed out a hierarchy, holding that all activities find their ultimate purpose in the activities of leisure. If he is right, how are we to think in terms of doing leisure, of making leisure happen? Just what are these precious activities that lend meaning to the rest of life?
Leisure begins in the home
I have already suggested that leisure begins in the home. It is there that our elusive prey can best be imagined, and captured.
I love to tell the story of my trying to teach my six-year-old son about heaven. Struggling to convey to him how wonderful a place it is, I pointed to different features I thought would appeal to his young imagination: beautiful surroundings, exciting things to do, etc. When I was finished, he replied with a child-like simplicity: “All I know is that if you and Mommy are there, I’ll be happy.”
The simple insight of a child helps us grasp a key truth: life is ultimately about presence.
There are of course different ways of being present together. Experience makes clear that people can be together bodily without really being present to one another. Speaking of the need of one friend for another, in the Nicomachean Ethics (IX.9) Aristotle writes:
He needs, therefore, to be conscious of his friend as well, and this will be realized in their living together and sharing in discussion and thought; for this is what living together would seem to mean in the case of man, and not, as in the case of cattle, feeding in the same place.
Real human living-together requires more than just being and eating in the same place. A key feature of leisure activities is that they are the deepest ways of being together as humans. Aristotle offers here a great example: “sharing in discussion and thought.” Real human presence is an affair of persons, who are rational and volitional, and thus it must be enacted in specifically rational ways.
This puts special focus on how we “live leisure” in our homes. The home is the primordial place of human presence. It is here that children discover their own rationality as a way of taking in the world around them, with confidence and joy. They learn to listen, and to respect the thoughts of people older and wiser. They also learn that they themselves have something to say that will be heard and respected, even if also honed or corrected.
Most of all they experience rationality as a way of being together with those they love, through conversation punctuated and nourished by silence. In a frenetically paced world, the privileged contexts for such activities must be carved out and set aside: lingering at table after meals, sitting in the living room or on the porch, story-telling or story-reading, group prayer.
Work and play
The importance of such leisure activities does not, however, imply their predominance from the perspective of time spent doing them. Amusement and especially work, under which we can include academic studies, will each have its own place. In view of the primacy of leisure, these other activities should be judged in terms of how well they enhance or dispose us toward leisure. More specifically, we should ask whether these activities tend to enhance our humanity, our rationality, and our ability to be present to others.
As E. F. Schumacher eloquently pointed out, good work both cultivates the power of reason and aids us to overcome selfishness. In other words, good work in the home is itself a seedbed that nourishes leisure. The traditional home arts come to mind: gardening, cooking, carpentry, sewing, etc. Wendell Berry once suggested we should not be surprised that the fine arts are languishing when the basic home arts are languishing. (For a further treatment of the importance of work in the home see my A Father’s Presence in the Home.)
Similarly, it is clear that while some forms of amusement dispose toward or are at least consonant with leisure activity, other forms actually deaden the senses, subvert the imagination, and cloud the intellect. Perhaps the greatest danger here is that now common technologies make the latter forms of entertainment inexpensive, easy, and attractive. To avoid these, and to engage in more positive forms of amusement—such as cards, board games, sing-alongs, sketching—takes concerted effort.
Leisure in the Aristotelian sense is not only the basis of culture; it is where a culture is most alive. And that life must begin in, and always lead back to, the home: the place of daily human life.
It is here that children should experience, at first unconsciously but nonetheless powerfully, that some kinds of actions are worthy in themselves. In these especially they will learn what it means to ‘belong,’ to be alive, and to be happy.
I have suggested that we would do well to reexamine the activities of our household, asking whether we put a premium on leisure and use it as a prism through which to examine all our activities. For it is in these (the activities in our home) that all of us—not only children—should uniquely experience what it means to be human.
Dr. John Cuddeback is professor of philosophy at Christendom College and author of the blog Bacon from Acorns, devoted to the oft-neglected “philosophy of household.” Every Wednesday the blog offers a brief reflection applying the wisdom of the ancients to the issues facing families today. The author of True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness, his writings have appeared in Nova et Vetera, The Thomist, and The Review of Metaphysics, as well as in several volumes published by the American Maritain Association. He is also a member of Aleteia’s board of experts.