Friday, July 14, 2023

"Toward a Leisure Ethic: How people spend their time is a fundamental mark of civilization."

From The Hedgehog Review, Spring 2023 edition:

The wisdom of a learned man cometh by opportunity of leisure: and he that hath little business shall become wise.

—Ecclesiasticus 38:24

When nineteenth-century Western colonists and researchers encountered supposedly “primitive” societies like the Samoans in southwest Polynesia, they marveled at how much free time the people seemed to have. “Time is plentiful in the South Seas, and cares are few,” wrote the American ethnologist William Churchill. “Life has no engagement so important that the islander will not cancel it at once on the plea of sport.”1

This preference for leisure over work was hardly unique to Pacific Islanders. Urban and rural artisans in preindustrial England also took it as a given that more free time was better than work, even when more work promised greater monetary returns. When the prices they could command for their goods rose, they saw it as an opportunity not to amass wealth but to work less.2

In this limited respect, they were much like the elites of antiquity and the Middle Ages. In the Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the idea of working beyond what was necessary was abhorrent. Likewise for the Roman elites, though their precise views on leisure differed from those of the Greeks. In both cultures, the word for leisure seems to have come first, with work and business framed as nonleisurescholé versus aschole in Greek, otium versus negotium in Latin.

Similarly, in later centuries, following the rise of Christendom, religious thinkers generally favored leisure over work (vita contemplativa as opposed to vita activa), because that was how one drew closer to God. Work, after all, was punishment for humankind’s original sin. “The obligations of charity make us undertake righteous business [negotium],” wrote Augustine, but “if no one lays the burden upon us, we should give ourselves up to leisure [otium], to the perception and contemplation of truth.”3

All were expressing a leisure ethic: a worldview in which a preference for free time and intrinsically motivated pursuits is accompanied by an understanding of how time can best be spent.

To most people today, the notion of a leisure ethic will sound foreign, paradoxical, and indeed subversive, even though leisure is still commonly associated with the good life. More than any other society in the past, ours certainly has the technology and the wealth to furnish more people with greater freedom over more of their time. Yet because we lack a shared leisure ethic, we have not availed ourselves of that option. Nor does it occur to us even to demand or strive for such a dispensation.

One reason for this is that the values and culture that created our current abundance may be incompatible with actually enjoying it. Sparta had the same problem. After mastering the art of war and achieving supreme domination, it could no longer preserve itself, because its citizens didn’t know what to do with the leisure they had won.4 In today’s economic parlance, they had been deskilled in the area that ultimately mattered most.

Moreover, free time, like money, is not equally distributed. Only the very rich can fully orient their lives toward leisure. The rest of us are left with only scraps of time (“weekends”) to devote to the efforts that real leisure—as opposed to idle entertainment—requires. Cultivating a rich appreciation of the art of filmmaking yields satisfactions that simply watching movies does not, but who has time for the former?

Earlier societies had a more clearly articulated understanding of how leisure ought to structure one’s life—it being the crucial space for character building, civic participation, worship, and so forth, depending on the historical context. By contrast, we today must find a glide path in what is otherwise an existentialist free fall. At least when we face the demands of work or other nondiscretionary time commitments, we don’t have to bother with the daunting question of what we should do with ourselves. Although the finitude of life ought to inspire an eagerness to seize the day, freedom, in this open-ended sense, can be agonizing, terrifying, overwhelming. Better to “keep busy,” to “have something to do,” and not to think about the fable of the horse that, growing tired of its freedom, allowed itself to be saddled, and was ridden to death.5

Most of us are also risk averse, and so will seek meaning from culturally established, socially accepted, reliable sources. “Bringing home a paycheck” ticks all those boxes. It may not be ideal, but at least it is something. To find meaning without such structure requires more of what the philosopher Martin Hägglund calls “secular faith”: the belief that what you yourself have chosen to do with your limited lifespan matters.6 Thinking through this process can be unnerving. We are skeptical, or perhaps even frightened, of what we will find once we have stopped going through the motions of everyday life and begun to imagine a realm of freedom that is less circumscribed than that which we have always known. While technology eventually could liberate us in such a fashion, there seems to be at least some part of us that does not want it to.

A return to the leisure ethic might show us what we are missing. By developing such an ethos, we might find new vistas of human potential and value while fostering a more harmonious relationship with nature and each other along the way.

The Effluent Society

How people spend their time is a fundamental mark of civilization, but it is a category that tends to be lost beneath a society’s scientific, technological, military, and material attainments. Rarely do we notice that, temporally speaking, the scope of human freedom is as circumscribed as it ever was—and in some respects, much more so. In the rich societies of the twenty-first century, most people spend their prime years locked in meaningless, unessential, work punctuated by meaningless entertainment....


That is the current confounding contradiction in class and age, that at a time and age when many Westerners could best explore leisure, most can't afford to. If we may extend the observation attributed to George Bernard Shaw that "Youth is wasted on the young", it is also wasted on the poor. Or at least not exploited fully by those without means.

By the way, the notes are not footnotes but rather in-line popups, handy if one forgets where one left off to traipse after the note (ahem...)