It’s interesting how one word can conjure radically different meanings. One of those words is leisure. We may think the word is universally understood, but at least two famous thinkers had entirely different views of it.
Prior to the 20th Century, leisure was nothing more than a fantasy for most people. It was a condition enjoyed exclusively by the ultra-wealthy. Fortunately for commoners like us, the last century saw a magical blend of two economic systems, capitalism and socialism, which created a vast middle class. Capitalism provided widespread personal wealth and socialism provided policies like Medicare and social security to help preserve it. Together, they made it possible for many older Americans to enjoy the leisure life.
Thorstein Veblen was an American economist during the Gilded Age. His most famous work was an 1899 book called “The Theory of the Leisure Class”. It was well received by many, but not by members of the leisure class. Veblen’s analysis and language is so sharply critical of the leisure class that many readers still debate whether or not it was written as a satire.
To Veblen, leisure was “the non-productive consumption of time” and would be manifested through “conspicuous consumption” of both objects and time. He might have seen evidence by taking a drive down Bellevue Avenue in Newport and viewing the many “marble cottages” built by the men we’ve come to know as the Robber Barons, his leisure class. Veblen saw their owners as predatory and living lives meant to display their superiority. Their reward for such displays was “reputability”.
This view of leisure could not be more different from the one held by Aristotle in “The Ethics”. Learning what he has to say may help us discover a different understanding of what a life of leisure can be.
Aristotle claimed that all human activities could be assigned to one of four categories: work, rest, play, and leisure. Any activity that is obligatory is considered work. (Despite the smile on his face, Mookie Betts is working at baseball, not playing it. If he wants his 20 million, he’d better be there.) Any activity that is performed for one’s physical well-being is called “rest”. Hence, eating, sleeping, jogging and brushing one’s teeth are in the same class. “Play” is anything performed for no purpose other than passing time pleasantly. Finishing a crossword puzzle or a round of golf would constitute play. To clarify, a set of tennis would be work for Nadal, rest for a guy fighting obesity, or play for four women at the public courts.
But wait. Isn’t tennis a leisure activity? Nowhere close, says Aristotle. The Greek word for leisure is “schole”. That’s right, the root from which we get school. What’s the connection?
For Aristotle, leisure is the ideal life, the life all men should live if work were not a necessity for survival. It would be a life in which we freely exercise our uniquely human nature, the nature that separates us from all other creatures. The life which is the proper course for man to reach happiness is, hold on to your hats, the life of the mind and our capacity for moral action, the same focus that all good schools ought to have. Seeking knowledge and practicing moral virtue is the essence of leisure and the very definition of “the good life”. Quite different from a round golf, isn’t it?
Fortunately for us Cape Codders, we have numerous opportunities for living Aristotle’s vision of the good life. Thousands of retired citizens volunteer at hospitals, churches, charitable organizations and homeless shelters; others attend courses in libraries and cultural centers. What we need to commit to now is electing enlightened politicians and supporting public policies which guarantee that all citizens and all succeeding generations get a chance to experience the same good life.