Amusement, Play, and Leisure

On the difference between leisure and amusement, noted in another recent post, Aristotle says that leisure time cannot be filled with play, because “Play is a thing to be chiefly used in connexion with one side of life – the side of occupation. (…Occupation is the companion of work and exertion: the worker needs relaxation: play is intended to provide relaxation…The feelings which play produces in the mind are feelings of relief from exertion; and the pleasure it gives provides relaxation.” On the other hand, “Leisure is a different matter: we think of it as having in itself intrinsic pleasure, intrinsic happiness, intrinsic felicity.” Happiness of that order does not belong to those who are engaged in occupation: it belongs to those who have leisure” (Politics VIII.3.4-5, Barker translation).

A bit later he continues, “Men fall, it is true, into a way of making amusements the end of their life. The reason for their doing so is that the end of life would seem to involve a kind of pleasure. This kind of pleasure is not the ordinary, but in their search for it men are apt to mistake ordinary pleasure for it; and they do so because pleasure generally has some sort of likeness to the ultimate end of human activity. This end is desirable just for itself, and not for the sake of any future result; and the pleasures of amusement are similar – they are not desired for the sake of some result in the future, but rather because of something that happened in the past, that is to say, the exertion and pain which have already been undergone” (Politics VIII.5.13).

In other words, true leisure is not coming home from work, popping open a cold one, zapping a frozen dinner to eat with a plastic fork, and plopping down in the easy chair to watch three or five hours of TV before bed. Nor is true leisure what Americans want as they “work for the weekend.” True leisure is connected with seeking things that are good in and of themselves, not good in relation to something else (like recuperating from work). Leisure is neither entertainment nor play, and to confuse them is to confuse the condition which is necessary for building and maintaining culture with things which merely “kill time” and serve artificial, shallow, selfish ends.

Aristotle’s idea of leisure, whether right or wrong, provides us with yet another interesting way to evaluate the nature and quality of our own lives.

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