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Redefining Leisure

Gracy Olmstead on the meaning of leisure in the modern age

Our country is obsessed with work.

We take less vacation, work longer days, and retire later than workers in other industrialized countries. A majority of Americans admit to checking email and finishing up work projects when they return home from the office. Many of us would cite “busyness” as a key sculptor of our lives: we always have another task to complete, another box to check, another email to respond to.

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.”

You might even say that Americans spurn leisure and rest and that our favorite virtues are usually associated with diligence, grit, and determination. We treat laziness like the plague.

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 to Binge

It’s ironic, then, to consider the activities we often associate with leisure nowadays: they’re usually associated with indulgences of the flesh, a reprieve from self-control and discipline. Our leisure involves not a harnessing of the will, but an unleashing of the beast within. We “binge-watch” entire seasons of TV online. We waste hours on phone games or social media, “mindlessly” scrolling. We go on vacations during which we play and sleep and eat, and usually attempt to do as little thinking as possible. We go to clubs or restaurants and try to “let go” a little.

Some may try to practice more ancient forms of leisure: to learn an instrument, pick up a book, or write poetry, for instance. But the distractions surrounding us are so pervasive and constant, it can be difficult to focus our minds and souls on these practices. How do we open ourselves up to true rest when temptation is constantly knocking at the door of our brains?

Thinking about these issues has made me question my modern rhythms of rest and also consider the problems inherent in modern work, because the two seem inextricably tied. After all, work is the space in which we usually cultivate habits of virtue and vice. Our occupations train our souls, harnessing and shaping the passions that govern our lives and our selves. They give us the ability to ignore the demands of the flesh—thus freeing us to attune ourselves to proper, more high-minded forms of leisure.

But our work today is driven by the demands of a growing “knowledge economy,” in which more and more Americans sit in cubicles and a decreasing number learn how to practice a trade or work with their hands. Our work may be boring or monotonous at times, but it rarely requires the sort of discipline and patience one may have cultivated working in the fields or even fixing an electrical circuit. Our mental and spiritual selves, meanwhile, are shaped by a culture that focuses on deposited paychecks rather than stewardship, artistry, or strength. Work is a means to money, which in turn is a means to consumptive pleasure. In this sense, modern work feeds our appetites and encourages the idea that we should satiate our desires—not harness them.

what is the meaning of leisure

It’s no wonder, then, that when we finally “rest” from work, we focus on indulgence—not on true leisure. But the more we feed our flesh, the more monstrous its appetites become: no paycheck will fulfill our desires, no amount of time spent at the beach or on Instagram helps us feel truly rested. Both our work and our leisure are increasingly less fulfilling.

Today we’ve largely lost the mental stillness and self-control necessary to enjoy leisure. We’re too distracted by the shadows on the wall of our cave to sink into true contemplation or pursue the sorts of artistic endeavors that characterized the ancients’ conceptions of leisure.

If our society has lost virtue—or at least the virtues associated with contemplation—then leisure becomes a toxic and consumptive, rather than a creative and productive, mode of living. To redeem leisure thus requires a revitalization of work, and the virtues it cultivates in the soul of man. Setting our minds free from distraction and acquiring stillness ironically demands work—but work of a different sort than what we generally encounter during our nine-to-five shifts.

Use Your Hands

In the final chapter of The Art of Loading Brush, Wendell Berry tells the story of an older man, Andy Catlett, who needs to repair his fence. The crew he hires to do the job leaves a shoddy mess in their wake. So Andy calls a neighbor’s son, a college music major, and asks if he can help clean up the disrepair.

As the two work in the field, Andy shows this bright young man how to properly load the brush—passing on lessons he learned from an old farmer when he was a boy. And then Andy says something rather revolutionary to the young musician: “No high culture without low culture, and when low culture is the scarcest it is the highest.” 

Could it be that the manual labor we deride as “blue collar” and drudgery actually contains a hidden artistry? Could it be that, in forsaking the work of our hands, we’ve become less virtuous?

In his book Shop Class as Soul Craft, Matthew Crawford writes,

The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self. A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs. At such a moment, technology is no longer a means by which our mastery of the world is extended, but an affront to our usual self-absorption. Constantly seeking self-affirmation, the narcissist views everything as an extension of his will, and therefore has only a tenuous grasp on the world of objects as something independent. He is prone to magical thinking and delusions of omnipotence.

Compare this to the demeanor necessary for leisure, as defined by Josef Pieper in his book on the subject. Pieper writes that leisure is inextricably tied to an attitude of humility: an acknowledgement of the givenness inherent in our existence and the world around us. “Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality,” he writes. He does not mean silence here in the sense of “‘dumbness’ or ‘noiselessness,’” but rather “that the soul’s power to ‘answer’ to the reality of the world is left undisturbed. … It is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.”

Laborers must subjugate themselves to the laws of nature and accept how little they can control. The fixed car will break down again. The freshly cut grass will need mowing again in a week. The laundry will get dirtied again, almost as soon as it’s washed. We submit ourselves to reality and see ourselves properly in this context.

Manual work does not just teach us humility, however—it also teaches us wonder. It teaches us to truly see. The baker who observes the growth of her sourdough loaf from mere flour, water, and salt cannot help but see something miraculous in the process. The gardener wonders at the growth of a tiny seed into a mountain of leaves and fruit. The electrician creates light from a cacophony of wires and marvels at the mysteries of current and circuitry.

In these instances, work is performed for its own sake, out of a love and delight that parallel the passion we should bring to leisure and contemplation. But they also, by means of their active and hand-busying nature, set the mind and heart free for true thought—and, in their completion, allow us to fully “rest”: mentally, emotionally, and physically. When I knead bread or pull weeds, something wonderful happens. My hands are busy, but my mind is free: free to wander and to wonder, to “contemplate” in a way I rarely can when I’m sitting in front of the computer. The “low art” of craft, in these instances, enables me to enjoy the higher arts: I can listen to music or a book, think through some piece of philosophy or theology that’s been tugging at my mind. Perhaps more powerfully, however, when I step away from these tasks, I find my soul is more still. I am in a posture of rest, having tamed the consumptive beasts that were tearing at my mind some hours before.

Not all of us can or should quit our desk jobs to write and make custom motorcycle parts, like Matthew Crawford did. But we can still seek to fill our lives with the sorts of “low art” that will instill virtue and discipline, humility and wonder—be it gardening or baking, maintenance or carpentry. Kimball suggests that leisure today “lives on in a pale, desiccated form, a shadow of its former self.”

But perhaps our rediscovery of true leisure will come when we reorient ourselves with reality via work—and thus open up our souls, and our selves, to true rest.


Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She's written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.

Photos by Vicente Nunez and Michael Discenza via Unsplash.


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