Having learned from Josef Pieper that the heart of true leisure lies in a joyful and effortless affirmation of reality, I paused, the other day, when I read Glenn Tinder's description of it as "an opportunity for the cultivation of personal excellence." Doesn't that formulation turn leisure into a mere self-help tool, something we pursue for the sake of self-improvement? And isn't that almost the exact opposite of what Pieper means by it? Just take this passage from Leisure, the Basis of Culture:
Above all, one cannot simply "make" it happen for some ulterior purpose. There are certain things which one cannot do "in order to…" do something else. One either does not do them at all or one does them because they are meaningful in themselves. Certainly the doctors are correct in saying that lack of leisure makes one ill. But at the same time, it is impossible to be truly at leisure merely for the sake of health.
I understand and agree with what Pieper says here. And yet, I cannot deny that pursuing genuine leisure, as opposed to opting for mere entertainment, is often hard. It is something I need to work at. Moreover, I work at it partly in order to deepen and cultivate my inner life. Tinder's formulation, therefore, captures an important truth of my relationship to leisure. I view it, not merely, but also, and importantly, as a "cultivation of personal excellence." I want to be the sort of person who enjoys and is nourished by high values. The goal is effortlessness, but it takes an effort to get there.
There is something else in my experience of leisure that is confirmed by Tinder: that it is easier in a communal setting. When I am alone, for instance, I am more likely to watch an easy, entertaining movie, than when I am watching with others. A cynic might think this is simply because of peer-pressure. I don't want others to know I prefer James Bond to Babette's Feast. But the cynic would be wrong. Somehow the burden of watching a more demanding movie is made lighter, the appreciation of it deeper, and the enjoyment fuller, by doing it together with others. For another example, take the celebration of Christian feasts like Easter, Pentacost or Christmas. It is much easier to live them well in a like-minded community. Not because the others make us pretend to be more pious than we really are, but because they help us enter and celebrate the mysteries. A real celebration is something we do together.
The social disintegration, then, from which we all suffer nowadays, is a major reason why leisure has become so arduous. In ancient times, Tinder writes, leisure "was achieved through participation" and so "release from work did not tend, as it does today, to throw man back on the solitary self."
Combine this social disintegration with the increased amount of free time we enjoy today, and it becomes clear
why recreation has become so conspicuous a feature of modern society. Recreation is not leisure because it is devoted to pleasure and not to the excellence of self. Thus it offers a way of accepting liberation from the routines and pressures of work without falling into the abyss of leisure.
The abyss of leisure! What an expressive phrase. I wish we could find a way to make it less applicable.