It’s May already, and the tulips of Prospect Garden brightly proclaim the glories of spring. With Dean’s Date and exams to go, we bustle about, dutifully dealing with the last flurry of essay-writing, test-taking, problem set-solving activity. But we’re itching to do something else, to be done with the to-do lists, the days of constant classwork, the hours spent dismally in a carrel on Firestone C-Floor. It’s time for a break. Maybe even a bit of leisure.
It could hardly seem more ironic to write one’s independent work about leisure. But here I am in a dusty cranny, perusing page after page of the Nicomachean Ethics, writing about the good and virtuous life and the leisure central to it, wishing all the while that I could simply be outside passing the hours in leisure, running the towpath or hammocking in the shade of the flowering magnolias and reading a novel by Evelyn Waugh.
We Princetonians hardly know what leisure means. And I don’t mean to say that we’re just a bunch of busybodies. Free time is hard to come by, but free time itself is not leisure. This distinction is often forgotten. In Book X.6-7 of the Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes “pleasant amusements” from leisure. The former are modes of relaxation—things we do to unwind after hours of work so that we can return to work functional once again. No one can work continuously for an indefinite period of time. Even a clinically-diagnosed workaholic needs to eat, sleep, relax, if only for moments at a time. We all find pleasant amusements enjoyable, but their function points beyond themselves; they prepare us to work once again. After all, no sane man naps simply for the sake of napping; he naps to awaken refreshed.
Leisure, Aristotle says, is more sublime than pleasant amusement since it is pursued wholly for its own sake even if it also happens to be pleasant and relaxing. What is this amorphous activity we call leisure then? German philosopher Josef Pieper puts it this way: “Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality…For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion, but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.”
Leisure, then, is hardly a specific activity so much as an attitude of openness, receptivity to the wonders of the world howsoever they may manifest themselves—whether in the beauty of the spring tulips in Prospect Garden or in the awesome silence of the University Chapel. This leisurely attitude can supervene on a number of different activities: reflecting while running or spending time outdoors, praying or meditation in the Chapel, or enjoying the fruits of genuine friendship in a whole host of different activities.
It takes time and effort to engage in leisure; all too often, we neglect it. Ours is hardly a culture of contemplation. Consider how little time we give over to pure silence in our unoccupied moments. We listen to music, make small talk, or lose ourselves in the chaos of noisy thoughts. Is it that we feel uncomfortable in our own company? Whatever exactly the cause, we will only be able to rediscover leisure if we can rediscover a certain silence of the soul, that receptivity that Pieper described.
This summer will present us all with a break of sorts, whatever internships or jobs we may be off to. To make the most of these estival months, we would do well to make time for reflective leisure, howsoever we each choose to enjoy it. With that, I want to wish you all safe travels and an excellent summer.
Oh, and be sure to bring the Tory with you—it’s another great issue, and I hope that you will enjoy it, be challenged by it, and discuss its contents with others in our community. As always, should you have any thoughtful insights or criticisms of anything in this magazine, don’t hesitate to reach out. Again, we will gladly publish well-written, constructively-motivated letters to the editor. See you all in September!
Thomas Z. Horton
The Princeton Tory