Freedom, Leisure, and the Good Life: Aristotle Versus Us

In Book VII of his Politics, Aristotle discusses his ideal city. In such a place, in order to have what he calls “the good life,” Aristotle says that you can’t be a slave to menial labor or other “vulgar” tasks, such as being an artisan (who works for someone else) or a merchant (who has to spend most of his time buying and selling). That is, in order to have “the good life,” you have to have significant leisure time. Consequently, in his ideal city Aristotle limits citizenship – the class of those who participate in the political life, the life of seeking virtue – to those who do not have to labor for necessities or work for others. But of course, somebody has to do all that menial work, like farming and hunting and fishing, so that the leisure class can, well, be at leisure. Can’t be at leisure if you don’t have food or you’re having to fix your house or weave your own clothes, and so forth. Not surprisingly, Aristotle figures that all that “vulgar” sort of stuff can be done by slaves, foreigners, or barbarians.

We’ve learned a few things since Aristotle’s day, of course, achieved a few things that perhaps he never could have foreseen. We no longer have a subsistence farming mode of life, for instance – thanks to the marvels of technology, highly specialized division of labor, and mass distribution, nobody in a modern city (thinks he) has to worry about where his next meal is coming from (there’s a grocery store every other block), or what he’ll do if his shoes develop holes (just go to Wal-Mart and buy some more), or how he’ll deal with a stopped up toilet (just call the plumber), and so forth. Industrialization, specialization, and efficienc-ization have freed us from lives of caring about tomorrow, let alone five or ten or twenty years from now. We are free and at leisure and have a good life that Aristotle could never have imagined. So we, thinking ourselves so much more “advanced” than the Ancients, think of things.

Aristotle said we need leisure to pursue the good life? Well, in our modern system, just about everyone has some significant leisure time available to him, and so, could conceivably seek after an Aristotelian life of virtue. At least after a fashion – Aristotle would not recognize a modern, commercial megalopolis, crammed full of strangers seeking their own private goods rather than the good of the whole society and concerned only with provision for today, as a true city or its so-called “democratic” conventions as a truly “political” life. Nevertheless, almost everybody in today’s world has some sort of leisure time, and so fulfills at least one of Aristotle’s criterion for attaining “the good life.”

But there are some substantial problems with this self-analysis.

For one thing, most people in today’s world aren’t truly educated, as Aristotle understands the word. Education for Aristotle (Politics, Book VIII) is a liberal education, a broad, general education that equips a person for rational discourse about the just and the unjust with free and equal peers (Politics, Book I). In our world, at least, in America, education is seen as almost purely functional, as being about cramming heads full of data that serves some immediately practical purpose such as helping them meet the Government’s standard of what a “good citizen” is, or, as I frequently hear from young people in my tutoring job for a public school, helping them “get a job” so they can “make lots of money.” Whatever falls through the cracks at school is, presumably, going to be resupplied by the talk shows, sitcoms, movies, and other forms of mass media which seem so deliberately calculated to bombard a person 24/7 and from every conceivable direction.

Education in our world isn’t about making free people concerned with lives of moral goodness and what is best for the whole community. Rather, it’s about cookie-cuttering out warm bodies who can serve the System, cranking out whatever Widgets their part of their great Assembly Line has been assigned to do. Hence, the plumber doesn’t usually know much more than how to plumb, the mechanic usually doesn’t know much more than how to fix cars, the checker at the grocery store doesn’t know much more than how to push the right buttons at the right times so as to best facilitate transferring cash from your pocket to those of his employer, the TV guy doesn’t know much more than how to screw in cables and properly position satellite dishes, and so forth. For that matter, even the average college graduate doesn’t know much more than how to do whatever his “Major” was – or, as seems to be increasingly the case, something entirely unrelated to either his “Major” or his “Minor.” And let’s not even get into the shockingly poor state and unbelievably narrow horizons of your average seminarian’s or pastor’s mind.

For another thing, people don’t understand the difference between leisure and entertainment. Several years back Neil Postman wrote his illuminating book Amusing Ourselves To Death, which chronicled the rise of the “TV culture” by showing how vastly different a cast of mind is created by someone whose primary stimulation is reading as opposed to someone whose primary stimulation is watching. On Aristotelian terms, leisure is about being able to do acts which are good in and of themselves; entertainment is about being able to do acts which are merely useful for some passing goal. So, although as moderns we have been freed by our amazing technology to have significant leisure time, we do not generally use our leisure time in a way ordered toward wisdom and temperance, let alone toward any such high-minded thing as “the common good.”

Still further, it is not only questions about the nature of our concept of “leisure” that arise from considering Aristotle’s ideas, but also questions about its cost. Sure, most of us only have to work 40 hours a week and then we get to come home and have at least that much leisure time still remaining in our week. And on top of that, we can have all that leisure time while doing any number of things which Aristotle would have called “vulgar labor” – farming, fishing, being merchants, craftsmen, office workers, etc. Haven’t we shown up Aristotle for a benighted Ancient, after all? Perhaps not. Aristotle points out that if in order to keep food on your table you have to spend a significant part of your time doing things assigned to you by other people and which contribute first and foremostly to their ends, you are really not in a better position than a slave.

In fact, because you are serving what Aristotle would call an “artificial end,” that is, an end which does not come from the natural world itself of which you are a part, you really are just a slave – a slave to your boss’ needs, desires, and pocketbook. If you punch a clock (and I myself have punched many of them in my life), you are still fundamentally a slave and still hampered from seeking the good life as Aristotle understands it. Forty hours a week isn’t much compared to what farmers in Aristotle’s day would have been working, but on Aristotelian terms it’s still enough to distract you from seeking the good life. Maybe that’s why the proverbial image we have of wage laborers is the guy who comes home from an 8-5 job, throws a frozen pizza in the microwave, and plops down in front of the TV, there to spend his “leisure” time having all his personal, private, selfish needs pandered to by other slaves of artificial ends.

That’s a third problem that Aristotle’s ideas help show us about ourselves: as moderns we pretty much do not have an objective concept of “the common good” which orders all our actions in community. All we have are innumerable concepts of relative private goods which disorder all our actions and send all of us careening all over creation in the pursuit of separate, selfish ends. Our cities are not communities, they are what Aristotle would have called mere alliances of strangers for purposes of mutual protection and more efficient pursuit of commerce (Politics III.10).

This brings up a fourth problem. Our modern way of life in general, but especially in the megalopolises we call “cities,” separates what for Aristotle were a unified whole: politics and ethics. In Aristotle’s Politics, it can be plausibly argued that there is simply no such thing as “what is good for the individual” where that conflicts with “what is good for the community.” The life of virtue for the individual is (or is supposed to be) the exact same life that the whole community is together seeking to attain. Politics is ethics, and ethics is politics. A truly political life does not exist where the people do not personally know the characters of their leaders, where their leaders radically separate their “private” and “public” lives so that they can be thought of as “good leaders” despite, say, being rampantly promiscuous, and where the people seek innumerable private goods that are completely unrelated to (and sometimes pursued in spite of) the common good.

Interestingly, this reasoning even extends to piety, or religious matters. If I’m reading him right, Aristotle would be unable to fathom how we can think of ourselves as “united” when there is simply a cacaphony of contradictory religious notions in the public square, no way to resolve their conflicts (because each is “true in its own way”) and each and every private person seeks what he or she thinks is the religious good for his or her own self, irrespective of the larger needs of the community. If I’m reading him right, Aristotle would not understand the modern idea of “tolerance,” let alone approve of the fundamentally irrational mode of living which it creates in terms of further and even deeper isolation of citizens from each other.

As in the last post, again, let’s prescind from whether Aristotle was right or wrong or whether his ideas are good or bad. Whatever may be the case, they serve to show us a great deal about and (hopefully) stimulate some critical thought about ourselves, holding up to our eyes, as it were, a mirror which we never would have been able to construct for ourselves. In this way, Aristotle though being dead, yet speaks – and speaks quite relevantly.

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