What's Leisure For?

We’ve all heard some version of this:
在忙碌的現代社會中,每個人都是匆匆忙忙的。學生忙著學業,上班族忙著工作,主婦忙著做家事。每個人都太忙了,忙得忽略了休閒的重要性。其實,適當的休閒使我們放鬆緊張的情緒,有助於健康。因此,我們應適當安排自己的生活,在工作、讀書之餘不忘休閒。
-from a high-schooler’s translation homework this month
We’ve also all heard some version of this:
“We’ve been so perfectly acclimated to the sick society we’ve created, we actually believe we’re NOT DOiNG ENOUGH. More, more, more, we’re driven to do more, more extremely, faster, harder, louder, bigger, swaggier. There is no connection of the infinite growth model & ever more consumption to the exhaustion of all vital resources and by extension life on earth a.k.a mass extinction. How much is enough ‘stuff’? Ask yourself, why are we being told that idleness is to be avoided at all costs; that if you’re not “productive” you’re not therefore valuable.  We must let go of our emotion-backed obsessions to be productive ALL THE TiME.  We must realize that we are not our “productivity”, or the “value” of it. We must stop trying to profit from our leisure. We must just let it be. We must reduce our slave-like connections to our devices; the new overseers, scheduling every second of our lives with some multitasked, partially comprehended, quickly forgotten activities that absorb and degrade our minds. it would do us well to reclaim our humanity, spontaneity, untethered to the matrix selves.  Don’t freely surrender your YOU time to forces dedicated to draining and profiting from your life energy. Don’t let you’re leisure time be privatized by the vulture capitalist forces that pay you to use your life energy for their gain. Breathe deeply. Meditate.  Do Yoga. Disconnect. Focus on powering down and really building and maintaining your vital life energy. Balance your consumptive activities with non consumptive ones. You will heal yourself.  it’s sooooo much better than pills, energy drinks & self-help books. Reject your subservience to the Cult of Productivity.  Resist the savage inhuman slavery that’s being passed off as “success”.  You’ll live a calmer, longer, less stressed, more balanced life.
-from The Oldspeak Journal

Let’s talk about the assumptions behind each passage.

What is each author recommending?
What’s the assumption the author is making about the world in order to recommend this?

What is leisure, what is work?
What is an appropriate attitude towards leisure, in your opinion?


Modern day leisure is too much like work
Now I don’t deny that many of us would be bored by a life of leisure, and carry on working primarily in order to avoid that prospect. But that is only because we do not know what leisure really is, or might become. We talk, revealingly, of ‘taking a break’ over the weekend or over summer.
Leisure for us, in other words, is a mere interlude in the productive process, a moment to unwind or recharge before the next bout of work. Indeed, a good deal of modern leisure is indistinguishable from work. We play squash in order to stay fit, party in order to network, invest quality time in our children in order to keep them sweet. No wonder a life of leisure fills us with dread!
How can we recover genuine leisure? A first step would be to recall the original meaning of the term. Leisure in the ancient world – schole in Greek, otium in Latin – was not just time off work, but a distinct form of activity in its own right. It was what was done freely, for its own sake, rather than for the sake of something else. Leisure was a privilege of landed gentlemen. Slaves proverbially lacked it, as to a lesser degree did paid labourers, whose waking hours were devoted to servicing the needs of others.
Athenians called work of this sort ‘banausic’ or ‘mechanical’, words suggestive of servility and stultification. “We call those arts mechanical which tend to deform the body,” wrote Aristotle, “and likewise all paid employments, for they absorb and degrade the mind.”

True leisure vs recreation
The Greeks were well aware that slaves and workmen had to rest, perhaps even ‘unwind’ occasionally, but for them that was something altogether distinct from leisure. ‘Recreation’, as we might now call it, was simply the flipside of work, a necessary respite from its pain and constraint. Leisure in the true sense had nothing restorative about it. It took place beyond the work/recreation cycle; it was human activity unleashed from any external purpose.
Leisure could thus be strenuous in the highest degree – far more strenuous than work – without losing its leisure character. The modern identification of leisure with recreation, as embodied in the ‘leisure centre’, simply shows how far the concept has strayed from its original and deeper meaning.
Leisure in the ancient world took many forms. For most Athenians, it was synonymous with athletics and oratory, the conventional occupations of the propertied elite. But for a dissident minority, leisure meant philosophia, love of wisdom – an activity quite unlike the academic discipline that now bears its name. Philosophia was free, open-ended speculation, unconstrained by dogma or money.
Plato contrasted it with litigation, in which the goal is to win one’s case, and win it quickly. (“Law is philosophy on a stopwatch,” said a friend of mine who had recently switched from one occupation to the other.) For Aristotle, philosophy was a celestial activity, the closest we come to the contemplative bliss of the gods.

Can leisure be separate from work?
Here is Shen Fu, a failed scholar of the early 19th century, reminiscing about happier times: “We would spend the whole day doing nothing but criticising poetry and talking about painting. My friends were like swallows on the rafters, coming and going as they pleased. Yün even sold her hairpins to buy wine without a second thought, because we did not want to give up lightly such a beautiful time and place. But now we are all parted like clouds blown by the wind. The jade is broken, the incense buried! I cannot bear to look back.”
These visions of leisure, Western and Eastern, are in many ways repugnant to us. Aristotle’s gentleman philosophers would have lived on the labour of slaves – “human tools”, as he charmingly calls them – while Shen Fu, a local government secretary, received an income that was almost certainly made up largely of bribes. How can an ideal of life erected upon such murky foundations hold any appeal for us today?
I share these worries. Yet when all is said and done, what else matters, ultimately, apart from leisure? To be without leisure, to do everything for the sake of something else, is to be only half alive. Imagine a man who works long hours at a boring job to pay the school fees; eats brown rice not because he likes it but because it is good for him; reads books in order to increase his stock of knowledge and culture; and keeps fit for the sake of his ‘erotic capital’.
Such a man is perpetually looking forward to a consummation he can never, in the nature of the case, enjoy. As Keynes put it, “he does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom.” He will die before he has ever really lived.

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