Our modern economy has instilled a fetish of busyness. According to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works more than a standard 40-hour workweek. Moreover, studies prove that we are terrible at taking time off: one report found that more than half of Americans (54 percent) ended 2016 with unused vacation time.
When we’re not busy working long hours, we spend our time consuming social media. But while there is virtue in working hard, and social media can provide communal and professional benefits, our society, through its hustle and bustle, has lost the classical understanding of “leisure.”
Leisure is a concept best understood by ancient Greeks and medieval Europeans, and is wonderfully articulated by German philosopher Josef Pieper in his 1948 book, “Leisure, The Basis of Culture.” In it, Pieper extends the classical understanding of leisure to cultures living amidst rapid advancements in science and technology. In light of the additional technological developments that have occurred since its publication, his observations are even more relevant today.
Towards a Better Understanding of Leisure
The classical conception of leisure originates from Aristotle’s moral philosophy. He described leisure (schole in ancient Greek and school in English) as the pursuit, knowledge, and expression of virtue. In antiquity, schools were considered the center of leisure and contemplation. Of all the virtuous acts, philosophical contemplation was considered one of the most sublime. The classical view on leisure later informed the Christian concept of the “contemplative life,” a way of living that is especially oriented toward reflection on divine truth.
Aristotle understood leisure as an act enjoyed for its own sake and a means by which to pursue happiness and a good life—the end goal for which man ought to strive. Aristotelian leisure thus includes music, art, physical exercise, civic engagement, and above all, contemplation. Through such activities, one can participate in the finer things in life, while learning and gaining knowledge.
For much of humanity, however, and certainly during Aristotle’s lifetime, leisure was a privilege for the affluent class. Only through the development of labor-reducing technologies has it become possible for other rungs of our social ladder to have the opportunity to participate in leisure. But while people in developed nations have more “free time” and “vacation,” they do not necessarily exercise leisure in its fullest sense. Thus, there is a responsibility for those privileged with free time to practice what Aristotle called “noble leisure.”
Leisure Is a Condition of the Soul
Pieper’s theory of leisure is not so much an activity, but an attitude of mind and a condition of the soul. He writes:
Leisure is a form of that stillness that is necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. Such stillness is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power, as real, of responding to the real—a correspondence, eternally established in nature—has not yet descended into words. Leisure is the disposition of perceptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion—in the real.
If leisure is a condition of the soul, something desirable in itself that addresses the full human being and helps it to achieve a good life, then each act of leisure is an application of virtue. As Pieper points out, leisure was vital to the moral, religious, and social code of life in the Middle Ages. Then, the metaphysical understanding of leisure meant that man is ultimately in cheerful agreement with the existence of God, the world, and himself. Behind all his daily activity, man finds meaning while seeking eudaimonia (the “supreme good”), which ultimately leads to happiness and human flourishing.
Leisure is not only a virtuous act, but it also helps nurture a mindset and disposition conducive to inculcating additional virtues. It’s about letting go of our daily distractions and simply looking and experiencing the magic of life’s ordinary moments. It’s about watching the autumn leaves as they tumble to the ground, or gazing at the face of a sleeping child, or pondering a divine mystery. It’s about letting the mind wander to contemplate emotions, memories, and insights that might be easily missed in today’s technologically saturated world.
This is why our best thoughts sometimes come when we are not focusing on anything in particular, like when we lay in bed waiting to fall asleep. In such moments, the mind clears, crystallizing fresh ideas, and providing, as Pieper puts it, the most blessed insights.
Leisure Is Not Amusement or Idleness
Still, it is important to make the distinction between leisure, and say, boredom or idleness. I would argue that the term “boredom,” which implies restlessness in work, is different than leisure. Unlike boredom, leisure requires intentionality, and it doesn’t always come easy. It is purposeful contemplation, and thus superior to recreation or mere rest from hard work. In the introduction to the 1998 edition of Pieper’s book, philosopher Roger Scruton writes:
Leisure has had a bad press. For the puritan it is the source of vice; for the egalitarian a sign of privilege. The Marxist regards leisure as the unjust surplus, enjoyed by the few as the expense of the many. Nobody in a democracy is at ease with leisure, and almost every person, however little use he may have for his time, will say that he works hard for a living-curious expression, when the real work of living is for dying. We mistake leisure for idleness, and work for creativity. Of course, work may be creative. But only when informed by leisure. Work is the means of life; leisure the end. Without the end, work is meaningless—a means to a means to a means…and so on forever, like Wall Street or Capitol Hill. Leisure is not the cessation of work, but work of another kind, work restored to its human meaning, as a celebration and a festival.
Thus, if properly exercised, leisure is a type of work performed with a jubilant spirit of the heart, mind, and soul. It restores one with health of mind and soul and heals boredom and idleness with grace. Unfortunately, we’ve neglected the art of leisure and rarely allow ourselves enough stillness to really wonder what makes our lives meaningful. As adults, we often worry about our work and finances, and try to maintain our never-ending to-do lists. We join the cycle of doing and consuming, often forgetting to stop, breathe, and rest.
Our digital age makes this even more difficult, as it diverts our attention to media and entertainment. We carry an omnipresent distraction in our pocket everywhere we go, falling prey to the attention-sucking power of digital technology and social media. As columnist David Brooks points out in the New York Times, our modern social network is “driven by what the industry executives call ‘captology.’ The apps generate small habitual behaviors, like swiping right or liking a post, that generate ephemeral dopamine bursts.”
This is made worse by our fear of missing out, which trains us to check Facebook and Instagram constantly. We check our Twitter feeds while we stand in line at the grocery store and our Snapchat stories while sitting at the airport. We scroll through Pinterest to kill time as we wait for a friend outside a coffee shop. Some of us may even develop an internal filtration system that views our experiences through the lens of social media, always looking to capture that Instagram-worthy moment.
In these moments we do quite the opposite of leisure. In leisure, we are quiet observers, developing a gentle self-awareness. But when we consume social media, we identify the people we see, what they’re doing, and what they’re saying. We instinctively become judgers and labelers, and in these moments, the soul undergoes turmoil and fatigue—a feeling of being in and of the world.
Leisure Is the Art of Independence
Of course, there’s certainly nothing wrong with using social media. Many of us use it to stay connected with family and friends who live far away, and some of us use it for our jobs. But one can easily substitute frivolous time spent on Facebook or Instagram with the sweeter moments of life—and that’s ultimately freeing. This is because leisure, of all the virtuous acts, is the one most focused on the art of contemplation, connecting one with his freedom and independence.
There’s something powerful, and increasingly rare, about stepping away from work, to-do lists, and social media to bring stillness into our lives. It’s that feeling you get when you sit quietly beside a river, or when you go to a park, close your eyes, and smell the grass—that feeling of experiencing life as it playfully unfolds.
We need to create more time for what Pieper calls meaningful “non-activity.” We need to add pockets of leisure in our family lives, so we can fall more deeply in love with our world and each other. We need to protect our Sabbaths, our nights off, and our holidays. While the demands of work and technology seek to exert their dominance over our lives, we must also make a concerted effort to abide by the divine command: be still.