Early this month, I spent my entire Saturday in an intense discussion on Plato’s Republic. We read the text slowly, carefully analyzing the nuances of Plato’s word choices—both in English and in Greek—as we parsed through the ancient text attempting to see some truth that we hadn’t previously considered. We do this every year.
This isn’t a job requirement. I’m not being punished. I’m not getting credit toward my PhD. No, I expect it to be fun—the perfect way for my friends and I to enjoy ourselves after a week of work.
I’m not crazy, nor am I the sort of person who doesn’t know how to relax. I also enjoy video games, rock shows, movies, and a good karaoke night. Rather, I participate in our annual Plato marathon discussion in an attempt to embody a life of true leisure.
In today’s world, leisure is often ill-defined as “a break from work” or “a time to relax and be lazy.” The various and sundry screens in our lives are effective in helping us turn off our minds as we thoughtlessly and animalistically attempt to recharge after a difficult day. I often find that this sort of attempted rest does not, in fact, prove restful to me. Rather, it plunges me further into exhaustion and triggers the beginning of a spiral into deep discontent and despair. Surely, I’m not the only person to have gone on a weekend long Netflix bender and found myself feeling utterly lifeless by Sunday night. In this, I am in accidental hiding, not just from my work, but from myself and my God. The break that I seek out is actually what Josef Pieper calls acedia (sloth)—not just a form of laziness but a profound denial of the self.
“Metaphysically and theologically,” Pieper says in his excellent book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, “the notion of acedia means that a man does not, in the last resort, give the consent of his will to his own being; that beneath the dynamic activity of his existence, he is still not at one with himself; that, as the Middle Ages expressed it, sadness overwhelms him when he is confronted with the divine goodness immanent in himself” (44).
This acedia, this impotent deadness of the will, disrupts the internal unity of the soul, causing it to cease proper function—wherein the reason governs over the appetites through the will. When the will deadens, it ceases its partnership with the reason and nothing is then left to govern the appetites, resulting in a deeply disordered soul. It is of no surprise, then, that acedia makes human being incredibly unhappy. This sort of sloth, which for me often begins innocently enough, leads to a sense of deep existential dread and a feeling of unsettled disunity within myself that is neither relaxing nor restful.
If acedia is our only option for R&R, then we are doomed. Luckily, Pieper offers an alternative—leisure—in which a person doesn’t fracture his soul or disconnect from himself, but instead pursues deep unity of the self and true rest. Pieper establishes his definition of leisure by contradistinction, contrasting it to his concept of the “worker,” who is defined by his social function, his activity, and his toil.
First, Pieper’s definition of leisure runs contrary to the understanding of work as a social function. When work is man’s function, weekends and holidays remain centered on work, as “the pause is made for the sake of work and in order to work, and a man is not only refreshed from work but for work” (49). When man is considered a cog in the machine of industry, the breaks he receives exist only to make him more efficient for his future work. But God doesn’t rest on the seventh day so he can get back to work with renewed vigor on the eighth. Similarly, “the point and the justification of leisure are not that the functionary should function faultlessly and without a breakdown, but that the functionary should continue to be a man” (50). Leisure, for Pieper, is part of man’s purpose and is designed to make him fully himself. He is not a worker who happens to be human, but a human whose work is part—just a part—of his existence.
Second, whereas the life of the worker is often characterized by constant activity, leisure is characterized by silence and stillness. “Compared with the exclusive ideal of work as activity,” Pieper notes, “leisure implies an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being ‘busy’, but letting things happen” (46). This stillness is not the will-less deadness of sloth, but the willful choice to remain receptive to what will come. It is a constant dedication to the movement of the universe and a peace to accept what it will bring. It is, as Pieper notes, “not the same as non-activity, nor is it identical with tranquility…Rather, it is like the tranquil silence of lovers, which draws its strength from concord” (48). In this stillness, one can open their eyes and perceive the truth and glory surrounding them. In contradistinction to a life of constant activity and control, leisure involves stillness and waiting—the only posture the allows for a life of contemplation.
Finally, contrary to the worker’s life of toil, leisure makes space for celebration. This celebration, for Pieper is not a way of forgetting yourself in an attempt to unwind, but to gaze in wonder at the glory your hands hath wrought. Just as God steps back on the seventh day to drink in His creation and declare it good, “in leisure, man too celebrates the end of his work by allowing his inner eye to dwell for a while upon the reality of Creation” (49). The receptive nature of leisure allows the inner eye to more fully absorb the glory of Creation—in activity and toil there’s simply no time. To pursue true leisure is to pursue gratitude and wonder, to gaze lovingly at the world of which you’re a part and marvel at its goodness, truth, and beauty.
The Plato marathon is just this sort of leisurely celebration, wherein our community of friends and colleagues come together to examine and enjoy the world together. Our minds rest upon an excellent text, some fascinating truths, and—most importantly—the glory of the Imago Dei emanating from one another as we enjoy collective leisure together. As Pieper notes, “To hold a celebration means to affirm the basic meaningfulness of the universe and a sense of oneness with it, of inclusion within it” (49).
The temptation to sloth remains, but I find that true leisure provides a deeper rest and a happier life every time.
All citations are from Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009).