Amusement parks. Vacation. Time to decompress. We all need and crave recreation and refreshment, but somehow, we often find ourselves not as refreshed as we hoped to be. I think this problem has to do with the fourteenth shift in thinking since the Enlightenment–replacing the former idea of leisure with the very different idea of amusement.
The Pre-Enlightenment Idea of Leisure
Aristotle defined the pre-modern understanding of leisure. These were periodic times, he wrote, when we did not have to be productive, as is required during our time at work. Instead, we should take time for that which most deeply nourishes our souls–understanding ourselves and the world around us better. Since we are fundamentally rational creatures, Aristotle argued, in this activity of contemplation we are most fully human.
It follows, then, that leisure is the one thing we do as an “end in itself” or for its own sake. Everything else we do is to achieve some other goal–to make money, to stay fit, to grow a friendship. But leisure is its own end.
How can we achieve meaningful leisure? Well, we might take time to read a thoughtful author who engages with fundamental life issues, or a work of fiction that captures important ideas in illustrative ways. We might go hiking in the woods and contemplate the grandeur of creation and our place in it. Or we could enjoy spiritual reflection, artistic experience, or any number of other activities that help us understand truth, beauty and goodness, which God created us to experience for their own sake, and not for some further end.
In this sense, times of leisure are when we most fully experience true freedom, for we are not required to do these things to reach any other goal or end. Since leisure as Aristotle understood it involved reflection on the big questions of life, these areas of reflection became known as the “liberal” arts–liberal because they liberate us. They are activities we pursue because they are valuable in and of themselves, and because they help us better understand ourselves and our place in the world. By contrast, every other area of study is valuable only because it helps us develop a skill that is useful for some other end.
This idea shaped Aristotle’s understanding of education and (through him) the history of education all the way until the Enlightenment period. (For more on the history of education, especially higher education, I recommend my interview with Dr. Liam Atchison on the College Faith podcast). In fact, the Greek word for leisure is schole, from which we get our word “school.” It was a place to learn things that don’t have to be learned to make a living or achieve some other end (as opposed to guilds, which were for learning a trade). Rather, a school was a place where one could think about bigger questions. It was a place to learn to think well and more broadly than is required to practice a craft. It was a place to learn for its own sake. It was a place for leisure.
As we take time for leisure and to reflect on the big issues of life, we develop virtue, which is the art of living well—living as we are meant to live. More technically, leisure alone allows us to fulfill our telos—our end, or what we were created to be (I discuss this point in relation to spiritual growth here). In other words, we are not fundamentally workers–there is more to life than productivity (and more to rest than just getting ourselves prepared to go back to work). In sight here is the idea of the Renaissance Man: someone who understands and makes time for leisure, and who as a result is well-read, thoughtful, discerning, and able to live well and virtuously.
Aristotle contrasted leisure with amusement, which was done for the sake of something else—for instance, being rested so we can go back to work. Amusement is the opposite of leisure. Whereas leisure necessarily includes time to reflect, the word “amusement” signals just the opposite. To muse” is to think, and “a-“ indicates negation, so “amusement” is the art of not thinking.
This does not mean amusement is bad. It just means that the activities of amusement are not ends in themselves, and therefore they are not intrinsically valuable. They have merely extrinsic value. And “man cannot live on extrinsic value alone,” or so says Aristotle. Only leisure—contemplating and finding answers to the larger questions of life—can truly enliven us, because this is the end we’ve been created to strive toward. And only in so doing can we fully flourish and find the “good life.”
The Post-Enlightenment Alternative: Amusement
This all changed during the Enlightenment. The classical idea of leisure was done away with, and all we had left was amusement. The “good life” was no longer defined in objective terms of human flourishing. It was now defined in individualistic and relativistic terms. Recreation scholars Estes and Henderson summarize this new idea well: “What constitutes a good life is people thinking they’re living good lives. This idea, known as subjective well-being, refers to people’s mental and emotional evaluations of their own lives” C. -Estes and K. Henderson, “Enjoyment and the Good Life,” Parks and Recreation, 38, no. 2 (2001): 24.
Comparing and Contrasting the Two Approaches
I hinted at the fundamental difference between these two approaches above. If we have a nature, there is a definite way in which we flourish, based on what type of thing we are. (I discuss this at some length here.) In this case, living well and developing as well-rounded, virtuous, and healthy people will be living according to this nature. And to do so requires leisure, not just amusement.
On the other hand, if there is no fixed nature that makes us what we are, the idea of leisure makes no sense at all unless it happens to “tickle your fancy.” And one of the main goals of the Enlightenment was to get rid of any idea of fixity and objectivity with regard to what we are—to do away with natures (among other things—see my discussion of universals and particulars–Realism to Nominalism–here).
Once natures, and therefore the importance of leisure, are done away with, the only reason to learn, rest from work, or do anything else is as a means to something else. There are no ends in themselves, because there are no ends at all. Ends assume natures.
As in all other areas, how we understand what we are (ontology) has deep and vast practical implications for our day-to-day lives. For instance, if human flourishing (e.g., “happiness” or the “good life”) and leisure turn out to be purely subjective, then “anything goes.” There is no way to say one person’s conception of the good life is any better or worse than anyone else’s conception. Charles Sylvester offers a jarring example:
Two people living entirely different lives—one volunteering her time … , another prowling the internet searching for sexual liaisons with children—could equally judge themselves as experiencing leisure and feeling happy. There is no disputing happiness or leisure in the modern view; they are what individuals say they are. Conversely, Aristotle’s conception provides “an objective topic for disputes about how a human being should live. Furthermore, whereas ancient ethics was mainly concerned with virtue, the ethical theory of utilitarianism best suits modern happiness and leisure, since the goal is to maximize feelings of pleasure.” Charles Sylvester, “A Comparison of Ancient and Modern Conceptions of Happiness and Leisure”, paper presented at the Eleventh Canadian Congress on Leisure Research, May 17-20, 2002)
We all experience this denigrated model of happiness, leisure, and the good life. We binge on a Netflix series, and the minute it is over we are looking for the next one to start. Or we waste (not invest, but waste) an hour on Facebook, and at the end of it we feel less alive, rather than more alive, as a result. And the list goes on … we are subject today to countless distractions that don’t help us grow, flourish, or be all we have been created to be. No leisure. All amusement.
We continue to develop technologies designed to provide better and more accessible amusement, all in an effort to address our need for leisure. In fact, entire industries have been launched to provide us Modernists with amusement 24/7/365. And these amusement providers work constantly to convince us that they are providing what they promise—happiness—though we all know this is not true.
The most recent iteration of this is virtual reality, which takes us to an entirely different “world” filled with new and exciting experiences. Currently these experiences come in the form of games. But the day is not far away when all types of experiences are offered virtually—a virtual cruise in the Caribbean for a fraction of the cost, a virtual day at Disney for a few dollars, a virtual dinner guest to enjoy a fine meal with. The fantasy world of Total Recall, filmed in 1990 and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, is soon coming to a virtual reality headset near you!
The sad truth is that as we seek more and more amusement, and expect more and more from these experiences, they prove to be more and more hollow. We are incarnate beings, and so AI will never meet our need to engage with real people, in the real world, in real and meaningful ways. In short, AI (or any other iteration of amusement) will never help us live fully flourishing lives. This will only be obtained by rediscovering the lost art of leisure.
To rediscover leisure will mean rejecting this shift of Modernity. But we cannot do so if we are chronological snobs. Only by recognizing this shift for what it is, and by choosing not to embrace it, can we be the type of dinosaur that Lewis was skilled at being and, in doing so, find the good life.
Next week I’ll discuss the fifteenth and last shift in thinking due to the Enlightenment. Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life by Zena Hitz. An excellent interview with her can be found on The Art of Manliness podcast #656.