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Anxious Idleness

Why are we incapable of guilt-free leisure? Jacob Snyder says, blame John Locke!

The unique spell of forced leisure imposed by Covid notwithstanding, it is a truth universally acknowledged that we lack sufficient leisure. We lead busy lives and wish that this were less the case. When considering why, the obvious initial answer is that our economic conditions bar us from leisure. We would like to work less, but working more is an economic necessity.

This is a convenient answer because it places the blame outside of ourselves. Rather than admitting any agency in the matter, we blame external necessities. Although economic necessity likely explains some of our lack of leisure, I do not think we should let ourselves off the hook so easily. If economic conditions were the only, or even primary, explanation, how do we explain the wealthy working longer hours than any other class? Also thinking more broadly, the middle and even the working classes in postindustrial nations lead lives of material convenience and comfort that would arouse the envy of the leisured gentry of centuries past. So, why do we continue to work as much as we do, to continue to seek economic advancement? Why not trade some of those economic gains for greater leisure? Is it simply greed?

Whereas the economic explanation lets us off the hook too easily, the greed explanation is unjustly harsh. Instead, I would like to examine the principled reasons for working when we could be leisured. The principled account has the advantage of explaining the moral guilt we feel when we are idle. We feel guilty when we are not useful, even when the putative usefulness is non-economic, such as re-organizing the garage or mowing the lawn when it’s grown another inch.

To explain our guilt, I will apply the thoughts of Aristotle and John Locke, who both considered the tension between work and leisure more than anyone else, although they did so in radically different ways, and came to conflicting conclusions. It is their disagreement, in fact, that best reveals our own relationship with free time.

Reading Aristotle and Locke on this question reveals that our incapacity for leisure is the product of both values and abilities. As for values, we are incapable of leisure because we have accepted two key aspects of Locke’s moral philosophy: the refusal to separate recreation from leisure, and the elevation of work as the morally serious activity. As for abilities, by accepting Locke’s moral philosophy, we have thereby rejected the education that Aristotle thought necessary for being leisured. If we’re bored, then, it is because we feel guilty at the prospect of leisure; and even if we did not, we do not have the intellectual preparation for enjoying our leisure properly.

fishing businessman

Defining Terms

Let’s begin by defining terms, with the help of Aristotle (384-322 BCE). For Aristotle, there is not a dichotomous distinction between work and leisure. It is instead tripartite, dividing into work, play or recreation, and leisure (Politics 1337b). Characteristically for Aristotle, each of these is defined and distinguished from the other by their end or purpose. The immediate purpose of work is utility. The immediate purpose of play is relaxation. Leisure, meanwhile, has no other end; it has no proper function outside of itself. It is for this reason that, of the three, leisure is the most valuable. This is also seen in Aristotle’s conclusion that while the immediate purpose of work is its usefulness, work’s ultimate end is leisure. Work serves to create later leisure, and is therefore inferior to leisure. This is for a similar reason that peace is superior to war: war is not good in itself, but only to the extent that it establishes peace.

What’s more important for our present question, however, is the purpose of play or recreation. Time-use studies tell us that relaxation is our primary activity in our free time, particularly the watching of television or other screens. Aristotle’s analysis says that although recreation might immediately seek relaxation, the final purpose is work. The apparent paradox here is easily cleared up: work creates the need for recreation, and recreation is taken so that we can get back to work. This explains much of our boredom when off work for a significant amount of time, such as during a lockdown or a prolonged vacation: relaxation or other forms of recreation are dependent upon work – without it, relaxation is meaningless and without value. Recreation’s value for those working is real, but its primary service is work, and it has little to no separate merit. Though it is understandable that we would value relaxation so highly because of our long working hours, this value washes away without its partner. Ultimately, relaxation as an ultimate end is nonsensical.

Even if we disagree with Aristotle’s judgement about the value of relaxation/amusement, his analysis concerning its relation to work is powerful and much harder to reject. If you are bored on vacation or in unemployment, according to Aristotle this is because your recreational activities are meaningless without the work that makes them necessary. Worse than meaningless, they become actively unpleasant. It’s like eating a heavy meal. It’s most enjoyable when you’re very hungry – perhaps after a day of physical activity – but that same meal is unpalatable if you’ve already eaten. The same is true of relaxation. You don’t want more if you’ve already relaxed. Its value is not independent, but contingent.

Leisure as an Accomplishment

What, then, should we be doing in our free time? Aristotle and Locke offer competing answers.

For Aristotle, leisure is the ultimate good for human life. It is different from play because the activities undertaken in it are done for their own sakes and are worthy of that devotion. Naturally, the peak leisure activity is philosophical contemplation (Nicomachean Ethics, 1177b); but leisure also seems to include various other forms of cultivated appreciation of truth, beauty, and goodness. For instance, Aristotle discusses music education at length for his envisioned leisured society (Politics,1339a–1340b), and the intent of an education in music is not the skilled playing of music, but the ability to properly appreciate higher forms of beauty. In this way, leisure is an accomplishment. It requires not only an intellectual education to take part in such endeavors, but also a moral education to be able to push away lower goods such as physical pleasures or the relaxation and pleasures found in play. Both intellectual education and freedom from work also require a level of wealth. Leisure, therefore, is not available to everyone. Moreover, whereas recreation is universally and immediately pleasant, leisure is not necessarily, even if we have the necessary wealth. The difference is comparable to the taste of chocolate. Recreation is like a chocolate-chip cookie; its sweetness is immediate and is as near to universally enjoyable as food can get. But leisure is like unsweetened dark chocolate. Its enjoyment is acquired and is not universal.

Locke’s Inversion of Aristotle

John Locke
John Locke by Essa Sameteh
Portrait by Essa Samateh 2021. Essa’s Instagram page is crise60

If Aristotle’s idea of leisure seems foreign, or even unjust, this is no accident. The Aristotelian conception has been rejected in the modern world – most thoroughly and clearly by John Locke (1632-1704), who provides our second answer to the question of what to do with our free time. Locke’s answer is that we should continue to work, even if that work is ‘recreational’.

To see what this looks like, consider first Locke’s rejection of Aristotle’s concept of leisure. First, Locke does not make Aristotle’s distinction between recreation and leisure – to him they are the same thing – then he denies our ability to handle what Aristotle would identify as leisure. As he states in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), most aristocrats with the wealth and time to have access to Aristotelian leisure will use the wealth and time toward “cards, dice, and drink” (sec. 207). This should remind us of the adage that idle hands are the devil’s workshop. One of our own responses to Aristotle is also likely to be the Lockian reply that the rich with the resources to be leisured will often not use those resources well, but will become morally corrupt. An idle glance at the children of our own rich and famous provides plenty of evidence of that.

Locke, however, is not simply a finger-wagging moralist. Rather, he thinks that, in the long run, cards, dice, and drink make us less happy. More specifically, he thinks that leisure makes us anxious, and that that anxiety turns us toward simple pleasures which ultimately cause more pain than pleasure. In cards and dice, the house always wins eventually; and with drinking, there is always the next day’s debilitating hangover. Without work for the mind and body, we act irrationally. The socialites are not just corrupt, but also less happy than if they had to work. They would have been better off not inheriting so much wealth.

To sufficiently ground this position, let me turn to Locke’s rarely studied moral theory, with its focus on what I call ‘radical self-creation’.

If you know anything about Locke’s ethics, it’s likely to be his political theory about rights, notably the right to property that’s gained by someone adding their labor to raw materials. But this is, at best, half the story of Locke’s proto-capitalism. In necessary support of his argument for property rights is an account of human happiness and excellence. And it is this account which should ultimately be blamed (or praised) for our unease with leisure. The political theory might explain why the wealthy are owed greater riches for their greater labor; but it is the moral theory that explains why the wealthy continue to work even when there is much less to be gained in improved material existence – a fact that was noted even by early commentators of democratic culture, such as de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1840, pp.642–43).

The Tabula Rasa & the Need to Work

Locke’s moral theory is developed in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). Locke’s famous theory of the mind as a tabula rasa, or blank slate waiting to be written upon, itself has moral implications. The various simple ideas we gain of the world, such as impressions of the color and size of things, are not under our control. These are given and cannot be created (bk. 2.1.25). But the mind does have much work to do in comparing, combining, and abstracting from those simple ideas, to attain truth by constructing complex ideas (bk. 2.7.1).

It is no accident that this theory finds an equivalent in Locke’s theory of property. Like simple ideas, the world and its resources are a given. Acorns, deer, and trees are there; but they are of little value, and do not belong to us, until we mix our labor with them (Two Treatises of Government, Ch. 5). Like creating complex ideas from given simple ones, we make the acorns ours by collecting them, the deer by hunting it, and the wood by milling the tree into lumber. The labored substance is what has value; the tree has little commercial value until it is cut down and milled. Laboring is, by extension, a responsibility. In order to survive, we need to hunt the deer. The deer’s roaming of the treeline may be pleasant to watch, but not if you’re starving in the state of nature. Likewise, simple ideas are of little value, and it is our responsibility as free rational creatures to labor on simple ideas and fashion them into true and useful complex ones. Nature itself is simply not enough for us – we have a responsibility to work, with both our bodies and our minds. Labor is therefore a necessary component of our natural condition. But even this does not quite cover it. It is evidently necessary for individuals in the state of nature to labor for their survival. The aristocrat or oligarch, meanwhile, has transcended this condition, and therefore does not need to work. So Locke takes us an important step further – a step which helps explain why the wealthy in the modern West work longer hours than the other classes. The further step is to see that labor is not only part of the human condition, it is also part of human nature. In order to achieve the felicity of which a human being is capable, regardless of her class, she must work. Felicity is not found in idleness, it is found within us and as a product of work. Labor is thus not a necessary evil, but is instead the necessary ground of all happiness.

Aristotle by Clinton Inman

Recreation as Work

Locke goes even further in his prescription for work. Not only should we all work for a living – including the gentry that have the opportunity for leisure – we should also make our leisure time productive. After a long day of work, Locke demands even here that we avoid easy comforts and do something useful. Specifically, our recreation should exercise other parts of us while resting the part of us that’s used while working (Some Thoughts Concerning Education, sec. 204). For instance, an accountant might take up gardening. His body is largely at rest while working, and gardening exercises his body and rests the part of his mind that creates and interprets Excel spreadsheets. Doing this serves our ‘more serious employment’. However, those without serious employment do not deserve or require recreation: “Recreation belongs not to people who are strangers to business and are not wasted and wearied with the employment of their calling” (sec. 207). Remember, this is also how Aristotle talks about ‘play’: play ultimately has the purpose of making us ready for labor. Thus, Locke and Aristotle are in agreement here. But they disagree over leisure. To Locke, recreation must itself be useful, whereas Aristotle defines leisure as inherently useless in any other terms, although it’s an ultimate good that has no end beyond itself (Nicomachean Ethics, 1177b). For instance, playing a beautiful piece of music need not have any other use – which is precisely why it is superior to playing music for some other sake, such as to earn money. Locke does not prescribe such useless leisure, even for the aristocracy. Instead, there must be a use to our recreation. One option for the gentleman is to learn gard ening. Locke tells us that this is useful, as he can then better direct his gardener (Some Thoughts Concerning Education, sec. 204).

However, Locke’s position is even more extreme: recreation must have a use, even when the use is not all that useful. He uses the example of Roman aristocrats such as Cincinnatus, who farmed and hunted in their free time. Surely, Cincinnatus’ toil was unnecessary. He did not need to personally harvest the wheat for his table, just as a contemporary investment banker does not need to repair his own car or renovate his own bathroom. If there are returns on this ‘recreation’, they are minimal, or at least diminishing. Therefore, utility is not the good here; it is instead the use of practical reason. And practical reason serves two purposes: first, it keeps us out of trouble by giving us an alternative to pleasures like drinking and gambling, which ultimately cause more pain than pleasure; second, we are happiest when applying practical reason. Striving is a necessary part of human happiness. Cincinnatus is happy while ploughing his fields and managing his small farm, despite its toil and the superfluous nature of his intervention.

Even philosophy begins to look like labor on Locke’s account. Rather than simply contemplating the truth and beauty of the cosmos, philosophy is portrayed as a ‘hawking and hunting’ (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ‘Epistle to the Reader’), and it is this striving for truth that is enjoyable for Locke rather than the actual attainment and appreciation of it. Therefore, even the philosopher must labor continually. This is in stark contrast to Aristotle’s ideal of contemplation, which is not the search for wisdom but the active possession of it (De Anima, 2.1).

Can Uselessness Be Good?

For few is proper leisure or recreation simply rest; but for Locke it is still labor, even if we labor a different part of ourselves than at work. For Aristotle, leisure is the activity that expresses the highest part of our souls, whereas for Locke to use practical reason is good, regardless of the actual utility of what we do.

Their disagreement centers on this question: is there a category of valuable uselessness? For Aristotle, valuable uselessness such as the contemplation of beauty or truth not only exists, but it is the peak of human life and represents the part of divinity with which human beings are endowed, even if imperfectly. This category does not exist for Locke. To be useless is to be both anxious and irrational. The good is usefulness all the way down – even when the useful has little use.

By denying the category of valuable uselessness, Locke is also denying the distinct Aristotelian category of leisure. This is what he meant by describing ‘the so-called leisure of gentlemen’ as an excuse for dice and drink. There is nothing elevated about the ‘leisure’ of the aristocracy – there is only mostly irrational recreation. According to Locke, those free from the necessity of work are not a class of people with greater access to happiness, as Aristotle thought, but are instead likely to be morally corrupt, and in fact deprived of the opportunity and ability to rationally create themselves, and are thereby incapable of happiness.

Insofar as we’ve inherited Locke’s way of thinking about leisure, our goal, deep down, is no longer to be the idle aristocrat with a penchant for amateur botany, but to be self-made men and women who exercise true rationality. So, when we are bored, it is because we desire to be useful in some way – any way at all. Even if we wished to use our free time for something like the cultivated leisure described by Aristotle, we are generally incapable of it. While we can quickly transition between work and play, pure leisure cannot be turned on like a switch. First, it requires a cultural education. You cannot simply decide to intelligently appreciate nineteenth century Romantic poetry, for example: you have to work at it. Second, leisure requires a moral education. You must be capable of desiring the beauty of Romantic poetry – which means being capable of rejecting simple, sensual pleasures; and also, cultivating the desire to be useful. You also must be capable of pushing away the guilt associated with uselessness, or even better, not experiencing that guilt at all. But most of us are not built for this. We were raised for cycles of work and useful recreation. We have inherited a moral understanding that requires us to be the opposite of leisured. This inheritance is not easily given up. We can defend the simple pleasures and relaxation found while on vacation, because it helps prepare us for more and better work. However, there is no such justification for leisure available to us. The devotion needed for leisure would also require lowering the value we place on our work – which is perhaps the part least easily given up.

© Jacob Snyder 2021

Jacob Snyder is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Dalton State College, Georgia, USA.

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