“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive,”
Seneca, On the Briefness of Life.
Within our modern culture of productivity and consumption, the concept of ‘leisure’ is not considered as a fundamental right and essential component of being human, but rather as a privileged luxury, or as a colossal waste of time.
In 1948, German philosopher Josef Pieper published Leisure, the Basis of Culture – a manifesto for the importance of leisure in an age when we have mistaken making a living for having a life. He highlights the origins of the word leisure: the Greek word σχoλη, from which derives the word school – the institution for learning and contemplation.
Under the tyranny of workaholism, the human being has forgotten the value of leisure, and has been reduced to a functional piece of a much bigger machine, and our work has become the only thing that there is to our existence. Pieper writes how our culture has effectively normalised working as a mere obligation:
‘What is normal is work, and the normal day is the working day. But the question is this, can the world of man be exhausted in being “the working world”? Can the human being be satisfied with being a functionary, a “worker”?
How is it that we have come to view work as a necessary evil that is needed for our survival and leisure as a luxury we cannot afford? And how is it that we have come to see these two activities as entirely distinct and mutually exhaustive?
To answer this question we must look into mans basic desires and expectations in life, and how these have been manipulated over time. The common modern perception is that the main purpose in a persons existence is to find happiness and to live a good life. The debate over what constitutes the notion of ‘good life’ and ‘good society’ is secular: financial security, access to a variety of goods and services, leisure and entertainment, equality, peace, good health care, life expectancy, literacy, cultural development, political rights and freedom, social civility, are only some examples of the criteria argued to contribute to individuals and societies happiness.
Because many of these aspects are obtainable through financial means, Ray suggests that a minimal requirement for the good life of a society is that the ‘physical quality of life be high’. Based on these assumptions, we can quite easily sum up man’s relationship with work:
I want to be happy
I need money to be happy
I need to work to earn money
Conclusion: a workaholic society where leisure has no room.
Thus, according to this logic, work becomes a simple means to an end, in which the human spirit finds no affirmation or
growth. However this reasoning rests on the entirely generalised and constructed premise that material goods = happiness, as well as excluding some rather significant variables, such as time and health. If we dedicate all our life to the means of our objective, and then no longer have the time, the mental enthusiasm and the physical health to benefit from it, what indeed is the point? As Dostoevskij put it: ‘when each man will have reached happiness, there will no longer be time.’
Another question I could ask is: why is it so evident that we have to sacrifice a whole chunk of our lives, in order to find a smidgen of happiness in what’s left of it? Our modern work etiquette rests on the underlying assumption that work and leisure live on planets apart and are mutually exclusive. All you need to do is look at the basic microeconomic model on individual preferences which contrasts leisure and income, placing leisure as a dis-utility and putting us at a fork in the road when there ought to be an intersection.
E.F Schumacher underlines this concept in his masterpiece Small is Beautiful: Economics as if people mattered’. He highlights how traditional Western Economics have shifted us towards a reality where “goods are more important than people and consumption is more important than creative activity.” He writes how:
There is universal agreement that a fundamental source of wealth is human labor. Now, the modern economist has been brought up to consider “labor” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a “disutility”; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.
Leisure as an affirmation of the human spirit is not a ‘taking time off’. It’s not switching our mind of from our every activity. It
is not laziness. It is being able to give the activities we pursue the time and value they deserve. It is being able to sit still andsoak in all that is around you, listen to your feelings, and breath in your own life. It is not detachment, it is full immersion and affirmation. It is distraction, observation and uninfluenced attention. It is that feeling of immensity when you listen to music, look at the stars or listen to a lover’s heartbeat. Leisure feeds our minds and souls, gives us ideas, and puts purpose into our life and into our work. It allow us to be inspired by all that is around us and to let loose the creative spirit that is part of man’s nature. It is a joyful celebration of who we are and what we do, and a quiet meditation on what we desire and believe. Without leisure, the job you choose and the life you live are meaningless, unsatisfactory and deprived of any form of self-awareness.
Leisure may not be what makes you survive, in this world of frenzied and money-hungry busy bodies, but it sure as hell is the only thing that gives value to your survival.
To conclude, here are a few more beautifully written word from Pieper’s manifesto:
Against the exclusiveness of the paradigm of work as effort, leisure is the condition of considering things in a celebrating spirit. The inner joyfulness of the person who is celebrating belongs to the very core of what we mean by leisure… Leisure is only possible in the assumption that man is not only in harmony with himself … but also he is in agreement with the world and its meaning. Leisure lives on affirmation. It is not the same as the absence of activity; it is not the same thing as quiet, or even as an inner quiet. It is rather like the stillness in the conversation of lovers, which is fed by their oneness.
Dostoevskij Fedor (1873). I Demoni. Feltrinelli, Milano: 2000
Pieper, Joseph. (1948) Leisure, the Basis of Culture. Pantheon Books. San Francisco: 2009
Ray, Debraj (1998). Economic Development: Overview. Development economics. Princeton University Press.
Schumacher, E.F. (1973) ’Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. Vintage Books. London: 2011.
Seneca, Lucio Anneo, La Brevità della Vita, by Alfonso Traina, BUR Milano: 2010
Vabba, Alisha (2014) Economic development, Globalisation and Human Well-being. Development Economics. Lancaster University.