"The Hammock," by James Jacques Joseph Tissot.  Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

“The Hammock,” by James Jacques Joseph Tissot. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

On my other blog, Beyond Halfway, which is devoted to well-being in the second half of life, I’ve been thinking about retirement—leaving one’s job and no longer working.   What is the appeal of retirement in the first place?  Why not just work as long as we are able?  For some people, it is because they’re tired of how work dominates their days.  They want unscheduled time—time to fish, golf, or take painting classes: time for leisure.  Why do we want leisure, though? Where did we get the idea that leisure is a good thing?  This seems to be the sort of question about values and lifestyles that I focus on in this blog, so I decided to write here about the ideal of leisure.

First, though, what distinguishes leisure from mere inactivity? Philosopher Alex Sager explains that “The English word leisure comes from the Latin licēre through the Anglo-French leisir, meaning ‘to be permitted or allowed’.”  Thus, leisure involves freedom, and the association between the two concepts makes us value leisure more than we do plain inactivity, even if leisure and inactivity may look the same to an outside observer.  Being free to do what one wants would seem to be a good thing, but freedom is often abused. Perhaps only some forms of leisure are conducive to human flourishing. The ancient Greeks certainly thought so.  They valued the freedom that leisure provided, but only if it was used in a particular way.

Plato and Aristotle both thought that some members of society should not work, but should instead have their time free for other pursuits.  Leisure among the aristocrats would provide advantages both for the individual and for society. In contrast, commoners did not have the qualities that would allow them to benefit from a life of leisure.  Those who worked for a living were debased by their work so that, even if they were to pursue on a part-time basis the activities that occupied the majority of the aristocrats’ time, they would gain only limited advantages. According to a journal article by Charles Sylvester of Western Washington University, Greek aristocrats accepted the superiority of leisure over work more than commoners did.  Though the upper classes distained work altogether, the lower classes considered toil to be worthwhile.  Even so, workers did aspire to spend some of their time in the activities associated with leisure.

The leisure sought after by the aristocrats was not mere inactivity or entertainment.  The Greeks used the term leisure in two different senses.  It could mean free time.  It could also mean time during which one is released from mundane tasks to pursue something more important.  What was more important was a liberal education, one that included the study of disciples such as philosophy or music that would lead to the acquisition of wisdom.  According to Plato, such an education prepared its recipients to lead.  The ideal ruler was the “philosopher-king.”

Of course, others have valued leisure for reasons other than the time it gives to pursue a liberal education.  Here is what Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 classic Theory of the Leisure Class says about the significance of leisure:

“Abstention from labour is the convenient evidence of wealth and is therefore the conventional mark of social standing; and this insistence on the meritoriousness of wealth leads to a more strenuous insistence on leisure. . . . According to well established laws of human nature, prescription presently seizes upon this conventional evidence of wealth and fixes it in men’s habits of thought as something that is in itself substantially meritorious and ennobling; while productive labour at the same time and by a like process becomes in a double sense intrinsically unworthy. Prescription ends by making labour not only disreputable in the eyes of the community, but morally impossible to the noble, freeborn man, and incompatible with a worthy life.”

In other words, if I constantly am engaged in leisure activities such as boating or golfing, doing so shows others that I have no need to work.  Leisure thus demonstrates that I am wealthy; by association, leisure thus takes on something of the sheen that wealth itself has.  Does this association still hold, though?  I wonder if over the last half-century the frantic work pace of the executive has become associated with wealth, while leisure has become associated instead with either unemployment or retirement, neither of which connotes wealth or status.

To conclude this post, then, it seems that leisure hasn’t been valued intrinsically so much as it has been valued for what it leads to, be that the capacity to benefit from a particular form of education or the suggestion that one has wealth.  Neither of these seems closely related to the modern value placed on a leisurely retirement as a reward for years of work.  So is leisure a desirable feature of retirement, or should we give up on the pursuit of leisure?  If we relinquish leisure as an ideal, what, then would be the rationale for retirement?  I’ll consider such issues in a future post on Beyond Halfway.

In earlier posts, I talked about the Greek concepts of eudiamonia and makarios as found in Aristotle.  Each refers to a form of happiness, with the first consisting of being fulfilled and virtuous and the second consisting of being fortunate and blessed.  Aristotle also talks about hedonia, or pleasure.  Aristotle took it as a given that humans (and other creatures) pursue pleasure.  After considering the views of other philosophers concerning pleasure, he concluded that it is good and that it serves to complete the activities that it accompanies (thus, for example, the experience of listening to music would be more complete if accompanied by pleasure than it would without pleasure).  However, pleasure can accompany either good or bad activities (with the good activities being those that are proper to man).  Pleasure accompanying good activities is good; pleasure accompanying bad activities is bad.   

As is only fitting for someone who thought virtue resided in the mean, Aristotle had a moderate view of pleasure.  He was favorably disposed to it for the most part.  He did not see it as the highest or only form of good, though, since, for the person lacking in virtue, pleasure often accompanies bad deeds, not good ones. 



In contrast to Aristotle’s moderate beliefs about pleasure, current cultural beliefs regarding pleasure seem rather immoderate.  The dominant view seems to be that pleasure as an unmitigated good to be sought at every opportunity.  This “if it feels good, do it” mentality (one of my college roommates endorsed this phrase as his guiding philosophy of life) has been a driving force in many works of popular culture, though some works exploring the theme make it clear that using pleasure as one’s compass is more likely to result in a shipwreck than a satisfying voyage (I’m thinking here of movies such as “Carnal Knowledge” and “Autofocus”).  A less prevalent element in society is a Puritanism consistent with the characterization of the original Puritans by Thomas B. Macaulay “The puritan hated bear baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”  In some quarters, there certainly is suspicion of the pleasures that life has to offer.  I’ve probably run into the aversion to pleasure most when working with clients who feel guilty whenever they take time to do something enjoyable.  I certainly don’t encounter this view as much now as I did years ago, though.  I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), a Dutch Calvinist denomination.  Up until at least the sixties, the denomination disapproved strongly of movies, dancing, and card playing.  The idea was that these were mere worldly amusements, not fit to occupy citizens of the kingdom of God.  There certainly was some Puritanism in that stance.  It’s probably been at least twenty years since anyone prominent in the CRC argued seriously against such entertainments, though. 

So, at present the danger for our society seems to be that we overemphasize pleasure and confuse it with happiness.  One question to consider is whether it’s useful to distinguish, like Aristotle did, between the pleasures that accompany good activities and the pleasures that accompany bad activities.  How can we tell which is which?   




I wrote in an earlier post about the Greek concept of eudiamonia, which is often translated “happiness” but might better be called fulfillment or flourishing.  Aristotle believed that eudiamonia can be attained by cultivating virtue.  Some psychologists writing about happiness, such as Daniel Gilbert and Daniel Nettle, argue that considerations of morality and virtue should be exluded from discussions of happiness.  Their interest is in researching people’s subjective well being–what people report when they are asked whether they are satisfied or happy with their lives.  I’ve suggested that we would be missing much of what people mean when they speak of “happiness” if we exclude ideas of fulfillment or the life well-lived.  Responding to a comment by Emily Wright, I suggested a distinction between happiness as a feeling and happiness as a state of mind. 

I recently came across an article discussing many of these issues.  It’s written by philosopher Matthew Pianalto and is in the July/August 2008 issue of Philosophy Now.  He suggest that, in order to avoid confusion, we divide the concept of happiness into two subconcepts, subjective well-being and objective well-being.  The first is what psychologist’s questionnaires measure; the second is what philosophers discuss.  Considerations of virture, morality, and how we should live can be excluded from the first, but not from the second.

I was particularly interested in Pianalto’s argument against the exclusion of ethical considerations from all discussions of happiness.  He has us consider how we would respond if we learn that Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi leader responsible for millions of deaths, had described his life as happy.  Pianalto writes:

“Would we say that Eichmann was happy? If we are asking whether he felt happy, then of course we have to say yes. But if instead we are asking whether Eichmann’s was a happy life, and whether it is the sort that we should strive for in our pursuit of happiness, then the resounding answer is no. It would be absurd to suggest that there was nothing to be criticized about how Eichmann lived on the grounds that he felt happy. This in itself leads us to suspect that there is something defective about the kind of happiness Eichmann might have achieved – which is just what Aristotle etc were saying.”