Leisure: The Basis of College
By Ian Tuttle
“I just had an appointment with my best friend at seven this morning,” says one of the sadder specimens in David Brooks’s fascinating Atlantic essay “The Organization Kid.” “Or else you lose touch.”
Much has changed since Brooks’s essay appeared in the spring of 2001—few college students these days are as confident as his interviewees about postgraduation job prospects—but the pace of undergraduate life has not: for many it is grueling, and for the rest it still feels that way. How far we have fallen from the ancients, for whom “school” was not toil and to-do lists but the Greek skhole “leisure.”
In his magnificent little book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, philosopher Josef Pieper tries to get at that elusive idea, “leisure.” It’s not “free time” or “relaxation,” which is how we typically understand it. Rather, it is an attitude.
Pieper argues that Immanuel Kant initiated a decisively German period in which work was hard. With him began the idea of the “intellectual worker”—brow knitted, grimacing, straining mind and body to squeeze every drop of meaning from every sentence and every word. To look at him you might think the book was fighting back.
Pieper suggests another method: leisure.
“To have leisure” is to open oneself up; it is akin to what Aristotle identifies as the contemplative life, the highest life, and it is a supreme good recognized by Socrates and Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas. The highest things are accessible only when we suspend our attempts to wrestle the meaning from the moment and, instead, slow down so that the meaning can reveal itself to us.
Which means that leisure requires time. But we students can be “leisurely,” the way Pieper understands the term, even in our busy lives through active discipline against the compulsive Twittering life. Here are a few ways you can bring leisure to your day:
Eat breakfast—not a Pop-Tart while dashing to class; eggs and toast, seated.
Take your time in the shower; Einstein did his best thinking there.
Walk, don’t run; walking has a rhythm.
Have conversations that are not bookended by rehearsals, practices, meetings, or study sessions; conversations unfold in their unique patterns of sound and silence, but we’re often so busy we can’t stick around for the revelation.
When your homework is done, ignore your technology. Replace the hours spent on Tumblr with quiet reflection and face-to-face conversation.
Keep a journal, and write daily. Writing down thoughts, poems, prayers, or just what happened during the day recalls to mind those parts of life that do not lend themselves to a to-do list.
Leisure—like conservatism—is a disposition, a posture toward reality. Ultimately, the promise of leisure is, like its practice, simple: life, slower and better.
Ian Tuttle is a senior at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and is a 2013–14 ISI Honors Fellow.