“We work in order to have leisure,” says Aristotle. By this statement, he does not wish to undermine the importance of the workplace and of accomplishing great things there. All the practical necessities of our lives depend upon responsible people working hard to satisfy the basic needs of society: food, shelter, clothing, etc. Christianity confirms the moral relevance of such concerns by labeling them the corporal works of mercy and says that to help the widow, feed the orphan, etc., is Christianity pure and undefiled.
However, what Aristotle is insisting on—and it is good to be aware of it in today’s world with its tendency to view all things, even people, in a merely utilitarian way—is that there is a more important dimension to human life, a higher dimension compared to utilitarian and practical concerns. In what does this new level consist?
A first meaning, elaborated by Josef Pieper in his Leisure, the Basis of Culture, is the pursuit of truth as an end in itself, i.e., study or school. The Greek word for “leisure” goes back to a root meaning “school.” To study a topic simply for the sake of learning the truth about it is to study it “liberally,” i.e., free from any limiting perspective. To study a topic “practically” is to look at it from a particular useful slant. Both are good, but the first is more comprehensive, e.g., the way a pure researcher in a University laboratory might study an amoeba from multiple perspectives, compared to the way a researcher at Shell Oil studies that same amoeba, perhaps only interested in whether it eats oil slicks. Much of modern education is geared increasingly toward the practical, but Aristotle thinks pursuing truth for its own sake, especially in pursuit of wisdom (knowing how to live), is more important, a higher level of endeavor. This is the heart of genuine education and a great gift to be able to pursue.
A second meaning of leisure has to do with prayer or worship of God. This is indeed the beginning of the idea that there is something “higher” than everyday practical concerns (as important as those are). Every religious tradition has its sacred times and places wherein things are “reserved” for God rather than for practical gain. Christianity celebrates Sunday as such a day of rest from the utilitarian for the sake of something higher, Judaism Saturday, Islam Friday. Thus we are recalled to our depth, challenged not to forget the transcendent, not to forget God, in the midst of the everyday.
A third component of true leisure would be contemplative moments in life, e.g., gazing into the eyes of the girl you love for a half an hour—surely a “waste of time” from the point of view of mere practicality. Or, being touched by the beauty of a landscape, a painting, a sunset, a piece of music, etc., and pausing to let it fill you and lift you up. The attitude that work alone is “serious” would again discount the importance of such moments, but this would tragically limit man’s experience and truncate his happiness. It is the difference between a workaholic and the man who acknowledges the importance of his love relationships—to spouse, family, friends, etc., and recognizes just how deep and (joyfully) serious these relationships are.
A fourth meaning of leisure is simply the notion of play or genuine recreation—as an end in itself and not as merely a preparation for more work. Pieper notes that there is something joyful about “being” itself, a celebration aspect, in the fact that play is so important for us. It is absolutely essential for the development of children that they have “free,” creative playtime (not just rigidly structured by adults). St. Benedict, strict father of western monasticism whose motto is “to pray and to work,” nonetheless prescribes one hour of recreation each day wherein intense prayer and intense work are forbidden. Animals also “play” (think of dogs, otters, cats), which gives a further dimension to the joyfulness of existence in this world. It is not all toil and trouble. Naturally, we cannot let “playtime” so dominate our leisure that it impinges on worship, study, love, and beauty in our lives, but play is indeed necessary.
The danger in our society is that work alone is considered “serious,” and then intense, thrilling distraction is regarded as a “right” after putting in such hard days at work. But, if we reduce our lives to work-plus-distraction we impoverish our soul. There is no room for God, spouse, family, friends, love, beauty, peace, and recollection.
Unfortunately, this is the kind of world depicted in my earlier article “On the Unbearable Lightness of Sex on TV.” One is expected to have great virtues in the pursuit of one’s job, e.g., as a JAG, and NCIS agent, a CSI—be willing to sacrifice, make a commitment even unto death, be faithful, work hard, make whatever effort is required, etc., but none of these virtues are required in relation to God (who is rarely acknowledged), spouse (long-term, committed marriage is often depicted as an impossible dream, not worth the effort), or higher dimensions of one’s free time (drunkenness, strip joints, and porn are often casually accepted references in these shows—even the best of them).
This worldview is a threat to our happiness. The more we imbibe it—by osmosis if not by clear and conscious acceptance—from mass media, the more we will be frustrated and unfulfilled. Our lives must be anchored in and revolve around the higher things. “We work in order to have leisure.”