As Elizabeth Bruenig recently wrote for the Washington Post, “There’s a balance to be struck where it comes to work and rest, but in the United States, values and laws are already slanted drastically in favor of work.” …
But ancient philosophers argued that the good life involved leisure: periods of contemplation and celebration set apart from—or perhaps, more correctly, superseding—“the daily grind.” As Aristotle put it: “The first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end.” It’s hard to imagine someone arguing in America today that leisure is better than work. For the average U.S. worker—even if only on a subconscious level—leisure is seen not as the end of occupation but rather as its drudge: its job is to refresh us just enough to enable our return to work. Rest, in America, facilitates more busyness. And if the ancient philosophers were right, this means we’ve mixed up our means and ends.
It’s important to note, however, that our “work” and “leisure” are both profoundly different than the types of occupation and rest that the ancients would have experienced. Plato did not sit in a cubicle for forty hours a week, responding to emails and attending meetings. Aristotle could not have imagined an era in which people sat on subways and in cars for hours on end to commute to and from their work space. In their time, work was most often manual and headquartered in one’s own home or neighborhood: tradesmen, farmers, and laborers spent their time handling physical tools, creating and selling physical goods, interacting in real time with real people.
In addition, “leisure” as the ancients defined it would never have encompassed today’s consumptive and passive forms of recreation and respite. Whereas we spend our downtime watching Netflix shows or scrolling through our Facebook feeds, the ancients’ word for “leisure” was the Greek word σχολή, from which we get our word “school.” As Roger Kimball writes in his New Criterion article “Josef Pieper: Leisure and Its Discontents,” the ancients’ conception of leisure was “not idleness, but activity undertaken for its own sake: philosophy, aesthetic delectation, and religious worship are models.”
What’s more, true leisure required virtue, according to Aristotle: we are only free to pursue the good life and the bounties of contemplation when we are unshackled from the slavish desires of the flesh. Plato, similarly, compared man’s threefold self—mind, spirit, and flesh—to a man skillfully driving a chariot, keeping his horses in check. If the man cannot tame his inner self, he cannot live virtuously.
Leisure shouldn’t be escapism from the professional world, or from the responsibilities of your everyday life, in other words. It can, rather, be a means of discovering the inner stillness that allows for contemplation, for true togetherness with friends, for the mental or physical or emotional or whatever space necessary to hear the inner voice of conscience that answers deep questions with which one might be wrestling, etc. To the extent that leisure is just frivolity, it makes sense to avoid it and simpler work more. But it can be more than that.