Sunday, 29 November 2015 03:51

The Importance of Leisure

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The Importance of Leisure

Robert Thornton

Robert Thornton writes from Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.

Not too many years ago, many people, including children, worked long hours just to support themselves in modest comfort. This is not necessary today in our prosperous nation. Why, then, the frantic pace of modern life -- the urge to work harder and longer, to always be doing something "worthwhile" even when on vacation, to use "leisure time" in "productive ways," to always be in a hurry and to always be "in touch"?

Forty years ago, drama critic Walter Kerr answered this question in his The Decline of Pleasure (1962). "While the 20th Century has relieved us of much labor," he wrote, "it has not relieved us of 'conviction that only labor is meaningful.'"

These abnormal pace and work pressures have not been established by some "blind, mindless, mechanized force we are unable to resist." If a time that should be the most leisurely in all history is condemned for being the fastest, who set this pace? Why "the fellow who insisted 'upon maintaining its tempo during all the hours when his office doors are locked.'"

"We feel guilty," wrote Kerr, "when we take our pleasure, because there is so much work we might do. We feel guilty when we work so hard, because our lives may depend upon pausing for pleasure." It is as though we are struggling "to produce a new kind of man -- a man whose sole concern should be his useful work. . . ."

"Guilt" is a strange word to have become associated with the experience of pleasure. It suggests "that we have a deep conviction, of time wasted, of life wasted, of worthwhile opportunities missed whenever we indulge ourselves in a mild flirtation with leisure." We have come to believe that "only useful activity is valuable, meaningful, moral." Activity that is not useful is "worthless, meaningless, immoral." When man does not put his every working hour to useful pursuits, he is socially a poor citizen. Where did this idea come from in an "age that really hopes to make machines to do all the useful work while man enjoyed his freedom?" It came from a philosopher, of course.

Kerr wrote that it was Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) who declared, "value depends entirely on utility." He was not the only philosopher who believed this assertion. So did John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) in a modified way. He had picked up the doctrine from his father and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). But, how many of us today have heard of these three men? Very few, I am confident. In his The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), John Maynard Keynes ended the book by pointing out that:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly believed. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. . . . Soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil."

Leisure has had a bad press. The puritan thinks it is the source of vice and the egalitarian thinks it is a sign of privilege. Marxists think leisure is the "unjust surplus, enjoyed by the few at the expense of many." These criticisms come because we "mistake leisure for idleness, and work for creativity," but work is only creative 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. . . ."

As Roger Kimball put it (The New Criterion, January, 1999), "We live in a world ruled by demands of productivity, the demands of work." Vacations and "breaks" are acknowledged necessities but only as the means to improve the bottom line. He agrees with Max Weber that the world is "increasingly organized to maximize profits and minimize genuine leisure."

One defender of leisure was Joseph Pieper (1904-1997) who in 1948 wrote a little book, Leisure, the Basis of Culture. Pieper offered in a "succinct yet learned argument" all the reasons for thinking that the frenzied need to work, to plan, to change things is nothing but idleness under other names -- "moral, intellectual, and emotional idleness."

"Culture," wrote Pieper, "depends for its very existence on leisure. . . ." Unfortunately, we have not recovered the original meaning of the word and the opposing idea of "work" has taken over the whole realm of human action and human existence. Leisure is not a simple break from work, whether it be for an hour, a day, or a week, or more. "It is something that has been built into the whole working process, a part of the schedule." The "break" is there for the sake of the work. It is supposed to provide "new strength" for "new work" as the word refreshment indicates: "One is refreshed for work through being refreshed from work."

Pieper observes that in our Western world, total labor has vanquished leisure. "Unless we regain the art of silence and insight, the ability for non-activity, unless we substitute true leisure for our hectic amusements, we will destroy our culture -- and ourselves."

So if it is not simple idleness, what is the true meaning of Leisure? Father James V. Schall answers this question in some "wise and delightful essays" published as On The Unseriousness of Human Affairs (2001). He writes that what makes our lives worth living is "not the business of politics or economics but the 'unserious' activities of human life." The highest expression of human culture is in leisure -- "that is, in those things that we do when all work is done." Human flourishing is not found in merely utilitarian activities but in things such as play, art, and contemplation. There are things worth doing for their own sakes. There must be space and time for what is beyond politics because neither business nor politics seems to exhaust what we seek.

The point is made in the fine movie, Teahouse of the August Moon. An American Colonel cannot understand why Okinawans don't show more "get up and go," but instead "waste time" sitting quietly to watch the sunset.


Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Joseph Pieper (1948, 1998).

On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, James V. Schall (2001).

The Decline of Pleasure, Walter Kerr (1962).

"Joseph Pieper, Leisure and Its Discontents," Roger Kimball, The New Criterion, January, 1999.

"Geschaft Within Limits," Albert Jay Nock, The Book of Journeyman (1930). *

"I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it." --Thomas Jefferson

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