"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.