“And happiness is thought to depend on leisure; for we are busy that we may have leisure…”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
Most of us can benefit from taking some time to think about the nature of leisure and its place in our lives. Let us begin with a distinction to help us think more clearly about this.
Two Meanings of ‘Leisure:’
1. Leisure activities (broad sense, common usage): activities we do when free from the demands of work or other obligations. Today this often takes the form of what Aristotle would call ‘amusement’—various activities we do because they are enjoyable or fun. Examples can include simply relaxing, watching a movie, playing a game, eating-out, or a whole set of things coming under the name of ‘entertainment.’
2. Leisure activities (more proper usage, such as in Aristotle): activities pursued primarily as meaningful in themselves as opposed to for their products or results. For Aristotle, this is the primary kind of activity to be contrasted with ‘work,’ and it is richer and more fulfilling than amusement. These activities might not be those that today we associate with free time, and they might even be hard for us to conceive or picture. Main examples are activities that are ‘contemplative’ in nature, exercising our higher faculties, and they can be done alone or as a powerful way of being present with those we love.
Now two assertions:
1. While most people regularly have and enjoy leisure in the broad sense, leisure in the proper sense is surprisingly rare and requires intentional cultivation.
2. Leisure in the proper sense, which is cultivated through study, discipline, and practice, is a key to friendships, home life, and more generally to happiness. It is this leisure that Josef Pieper famously called ‘the basis of culture.’
It is my purpose here and in several forthcoming reflections on leisure to give a foundation for examining how we spend our ‘free time’—including what we might do to spend it better. According to Aristotle, it is in such time especially that we develop and express the fullness of our humanity.
This is the first in a series of Wednesday Quotes on leisure.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. The Nicomachean Ethics is his major ethical work.
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