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An Inquiry into Leisure

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At the end of the day, everyone just wants to be happy.
According to Aristotle, happiness is one of those things that is desired in and of itself, and not for the sake of something else. For Aristotle, happiness is our end (1). In light of the Judeo-Christian Revelation, thinkers such as Aquinas would expand upon this notion by claiming that only God can make man truly and genuinely happy. God is our end. If the world needs happiness, then the world needs God. If the world needs God, then man must have the time set aside to pursue God. This raises the question of leisure.
Leisure is often referred to in our modern American culture by its synonym, free time. This is indicative of the very nature of leisure itself, as leisure and freedom are intimately connected (2). Alex Sager observes, to his dismay, that, “to professional philosophers, the philosophy of leisure has none of the weight of metaphysics, epistemology, or the philosophy of science, less rigour than logic or the philosophy of language, and little of the urgency of ethics” (3). In a rebellious culture that seems to be demanding personal freedom now more than ever, the discussion of leisure and its importance in developing a happy and healthy human society shouldn’t be simply glazed over or belittled in the philosophical realm. Rather, the philosophy of leisure should be given its fair due as a serious branch of study in philosophy.
While the study of the importance of leisure seems to be sorely needed today, classes at universities on such a topic seem to be scarce. Nobody is talking about it. It’s not seen as being a discussion worth having amongst so many other pressing ethical or metaphysical questions being raised by an increasingly relativistic culture. Thus, leisure is something that has fallen to the wayside, “surrendered…to the self-help gurus and pop psychologists” of today (4).
Perhaps this is why such a morally blunted culture has also rapidly become a very unhappy, miserable culture. According to Aristotle, most people who seem “happy” are people who repeatedly find themselves taking refuge in their leisure time (5). If you were to contrast that idea of happiness with the idea of happiness that modern utilitarianism seems to propose in our culture of busyness, it wouldn’t take long for you to figure out just how far we’ve wandered from that ancient Greek ideal of human flourishing. Instead of taking refuge in our leisure, whether that is the enjoyment of natural talents, prayer time, or a family movie night, modern man has learned to take refuge in his work, allowing it to distract him from the reality of his personal life. In the modern drama, the hero is the busy bee. Afterall, if you snooze, you lose, right?
But what value is it exactly that Aristotle sees in leisure? Why is it fundamental to human flourishing?  
The value of leisure time lies in its restorative power. To put it simply, Aristotle states that, “we need relaxation because we cannot work continuously” (6). How does the philosopher expect himself to answer the burning ethical and metaphysical questions that humanity is facing if he does not have the leisure to be contemplative or thoughtful, or to rest his tired mind in order to approach the question later with fresh eyes? Leisure often increases our productivity because we are happier and better rested when we take the time to enjoy life and treat our bodies well. Many people have abandoned all thoughts of leisure and recreation because there is simply too much to be done. These people work too much. They ignore what is most important in their lives. They abandon living in order to simply exist from paycheck to paycheck. Life begins when they clock-in in the mornings, and ends when they clock-out just in time for the afternoon rush hour. Our work often defines us, and we feel an incredible sense of self-worth based upon what we have accomplished. But what quality of living is that? What is it that makes a good life? What makes life worth living? Is leisure simply the freedom from work, or is it the freedom for something even greater? It is the philosophy of leisure that seeks to answer these questions, and in my opinion, they’re worth asking ourselves.


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(1) Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Nicomachean Ethics
(6) Ibid.
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