The Incomprehensible Pleasure of Solitude

Aristotle claims that “the first principle of all action is leisure.” Many modern people would be tempted to agree with Aristotle, thinking that we work so that we may have things we like and do things that bring us enjoyment. Yet, if modern people knew what Aristotle had in mind by “leisure,” it is unlikely that they would endorse such a view. Today, leisure, is synonymous with “amusement” or “entertainment.” A search online for “leisure activities” is likely to return such things as amusement parks, sporting events, or any number of outdoor activities or vacation spots. Yet Aristotle would hardly reckon these among proper “leisure activities.” In fact, these activities are quite un-leisurely.

What, then, does he have in mind? For the Greeks, the word leisure is σχολή (scholē), from which we derive the word “school” (a fact that never ceases to confound students), and meant both “time free from labor” or “spare time,” and also the content of that spare time. It was defined negatively as “time not working” and suggested the proper activities that a human being should be about while not working. Furthermore, the negation of scholē, a-scholē, meant “busy,” connoting “busy at work.” The word scholē was translated in Latin as otium and likewise denoted “time free from labor” and like the Greeks, the Romans negated this work to suggest “business:” neg-otium, from which we derive the English word “negotiation.” In the case of both scholē and otium, the time for “not working” connoted time spent in learning, thinking, contemplation, reading, writing, etc. In essence, it was time set aside for the mind, not the body, to work. This, as Aristotle indicates, is the primary function of the human being. Similarly, Isocrates argues that “it is acknowledged that the nature of man is compounded of two parts, the physical and the mental, and no one would deny that of these two the mind comes first and is of greater worth; for it is the function of the mind to decide both on personal and on public questions, and of the body to be servant to the judgements of the mind” (Isocrates, Antidosis)

Leisure activities thusly understood mean simply cultivating and using the innate, universal human faculties in the discovery and performance of truth. They are activities distinguished from “amusement” in that “amusement” is aimed only at pleasure. Leisure, on the other hand, is precisely the time for “musing” or thinking, not “a-musing” or not-thinking. Leisure activities are anything but idleness, for they involve a great deal of effort by the mind. An effort that is fundamental to the very nature of humanity, yet one so difficult that people would rather abandon the endeavor altogether (and consequently their humanity) than to take the time to pursue truly noble ends. And “leisure,” says James V. Schall, “is the noblest name of all” (Schall, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, 102). It is the noblest because it is what makes humans, human. Furthermore, these activities are ends in themselves, and not means to other ends, as is work. As Mortimer J. Adler points out, “Leisure activities, in sharp distinction from labor or work, consist of those things that men do because they are desirable for their own sake. They are self-rewarding, not externally compensated, and they are freely engaged in” (Mortimer J. Adler, Reforming Education, 100).

220px-Blaise_pascalThe inability to use free time for leisure is symptomatic of our inability to be human, and consequently to be happy. As Aristotle points out, we work that we may be at leisure, that is, that we may do those activities which truly become a human. As Adler says, “The good life depends on labor, but it consists of leisure … Leisure activities constitute not mere living but living well” (Ibid.). According to Blaise Pascal, that people cannot use their leisure time properly is what leads them to create a multitude of distractions and evils: “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town.” (Pensées, 136) He continues,

That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle; that is why prison is such a fearful punishment; that is why the pleasures of solitude are so incomprehensible. That, in fact, is the main joy of being king, because people are continually trying to divert him and provide him every kind of pleasure. A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself. (Ibid.)

That quiet and solitude are “incomprehensible” for many people demonstrates their inability to use that part of them which is the highest, the mind. A person who cannot sit quietly with their own thoughts shows that he is at odds with himself, he cannot stand to be with himself. Certainly humans are not just their minds, but they are certainly nothing less. This incomprehensible solitude is essential for a flourishing human life, for the cultivation of the essentially human faculties can only be accomplished through leisure activities. Therefore, a recovery of leisure and leisure activities as something other than amusement is necessary for human happiness.

Boredom Is Inhuman

It is an interesting fact that only humans get bored, and I say that people only get bored when they fail to be human.

Boredom appears to be a kind of restlessness that occurs when one does not know what to do when there is nothing to do. By “nothing to do” I mean nothing “compulsory” (work, labor, etc.) and when no form of amusement presents itself—when I’ve done all my work, when there is nothing on television or at the theater that I care to see, and when all my friends and family are otherwise occupied. Keep this understand of “nothing to do” in mind, because by it I do not mean that there is actually “nothing to do”. Boredom occurs when I do not know what there actually is to do apart from the things mentioned above (work, amusement, etc.).

And this is what makes Boredom essentially inhuman. By “inhuman” I mean “goes against the essence of humanity.” What does it mean “to be human”? What distinguishes humanity from all other beings? No doubt this question goes well beyond what I can cover here, but let me put forth the mild assertions that what makes humans, human, is the ability to think, to reason, or to know. If that is so, then thinking well is the highest activity a person can do and that our ultimate happiness consists in an activity of the mind. What a person is saying when he/she says, “I’m bored,” is essentially, “I do not know how to be human,” or “I do not know how to think”. Because, for the person who can think and learn for themselves, there is never a time when there is “nothing to do.” As Mortimer Adler says, “[it is] the mark of the happy man…that you never find him trying to kill time” (Adler, “Labor, Leisure, and Liberal Education,” 1951).

Only humans can get bored because only human can know / think. It is when I do not know how to learn, how to become more human, more of what I am, that I get “bored”.

So, to all my students who, finding themselves out of school for the summer and without a job: exercise you mind. You have been given an amazing gift of leisure time, time to become more human, time for contemplation and reflection.

Our society enjoys more “free time” than any other society in history. It is a simple fact that prior to the industrial revolution the vast majority of humankind spent their lives in work and sleep, with no opportunity for leisure. We have been given this amazing gift to explore the universe and our own minds, both of which provide for infinite growth and possibilities. And what do we do with all this free time? We say, “we’re bored, there’s nothing to do”!?

What an absurdity! What a denial of life! What an inhuman thing to say!

Going to College So That We May Learn to Live Well

The least important of all the the reasons for going to college and trying to get an education is that it will help one to earn a living. … There may be other reasons for going to college, but unless the chief reason is to learn what needs to be learned in order to live well, in order to lead a decent human lie, then one might have been better off, perhaps, not to have gone to college at all.

~Mortimer J. Adler, Education and the Pursuit of Happiness

Given what goes on at most colleges, Adler is right. Students often see college as a time of experimentation rather than formation, and the experimentation that goes on is destructive to the soul. Better not to go and save one’s soul.

Happy Birthday to Søren Kierkegaard!

There is far too much of Kierkegaard worth quoting. So, here are just a few gems:

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.

The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but, if one will, are to be lived.

Boredom is the root of all evil – the despairing refusal to be oneself.

One sticks one’s finger into the soil to tell by the smell in what land one is: I stick my finger into existence—it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? … How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted, why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but was thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought by a peddling shanghaier of human beings? … How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? Why should I have an interest in it? Isn’t it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?

You have surely noticed among schoolboys, that the one that is regarded by all as the boldest is the one who has no fear of his father, who dares to say to the others, “Do you think I am afraid of him?” On the other hand, if they sense that one of their number is actually and literally afraid of his father, they will readily ridicule him a little. Alas, in men’s fear-ridden rushing together into a crowd (for why indeed does a man rush into a crowd except because he is afraid!) there, too, it is a mark of boldness not to be afraid, not even of God. And if someone notes that there is an individual outside the crowd who is really and truly afraid — not of the crowd, but of God, he is sure to be the target of some ridicule. The ridicule is usually glossed over somewhat and it is said: a man should love God. Yes, to be sure, God knows that man’s highest consolation is that God is love and that man is permitted to love Him. But let us not become too forward, and foolishly, yes, blasphemously, dismiss the tradition of our fathers, established by God Himself: that really and truly a man should fear God. This fear is known to the man who is himself conscious of being an individual, and thereby is conscious of his eternal responsibility before God.

~Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)


Would Aristotle Send His Son to a Public School?


[ Disclaimer: please understand that I am not, in this post disparaging those people who work in public education. My criticisms are leveled against the Philosophy of Education which is driving modern Progressivist Education. I wholeheartedly support those people who are working hard in public schools, in spite of the philosophy which drives it.]


Aristotle stands in between two giants of history: his teacher, Plato, and his student, Alexander the Great. As both a student of a great teacher and a teacher of a great leader, one wonders just what Aristotle thought of education. Today there are several strains of educational theory which each offer their own views on the means and ends of education. Aristotle himself had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, so one wonders just what kind of education he thought best? A brief analysis of his Nicomachean Ethics reveals that Aristotle would likely reject modern theories of education.

In Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins his discussion of ethics with the observation that whenever a person acts, they always act with some end in mind, some purpose, goal, or good. Further, he observes that the ends we have in mind are mostly means to other ends. For example, I brush my teeth. This is not done, however, without purpose. Clearly there is a good I have in mind for the action, for otherwise I would not brush my teeth. People may brush their teeth with different goods in mind. For example, one person may do it in order to avoid gingivitis, others to have a “clean” feeling in their mouths. Either way, the end in mind is a means to another end. In the former case the end is health and in the later it is pleasure.

Aristotle links the chain of means and ends and asks, is there something towards which all actions aim? That is, is there a “last end” or a “highest good” that we have in mind when we act? Aristotle asserts that the end we all have in mind is “happiness.” (See Note at end of post) That is, whatever we do, we do because we think it will make us happy. All people, says Aristotle, agree on this, but that is as far as the agreement goes. Just what is meant by “happiness” is highly disputed. Some might say that happiness is found in wealth, some that it is found in pleasure, others that it is found in honors. Is there any way to settle this dispute? Aristotle thinks so.

The question of “what is human flourishing or human happiness” must be defined in terms of what it means “to be human.” For, to find the “good” of anything, we must know its function. For example, the good of the computer rests in its functioning as it was designed to function (compute) and it reaches its “good” when it functions (computes) according to the way it was designed to function. The guitarist is a “good” guitarist when he plays the guitar in the way it was designed to function. So, if a human being has a function, the human being’s ultimate “good” will be functioning according to its nature (i.e., we will find fulfillment (our good) when we function according to our essence). Yet, how might we determine the human function?

To determine an object’s function one needs to discover what distinguishes it from all other objects. What is it that makes it, it? What is it, within humans, which makes them “human” and not “whales” or something else? Aristotle claims that the human function is “the soul’s activity that expresses reason [as itself having reason] or requires reason [as obeying reason]” (Nicomachean Ethics 1098a7-8). That is, it is the ability to think or to know that is unique and the principle element that makes a human, a human.  However, it is not merely “thinking” but rather reasoning and acting in accordance with reason. Furthermore, it is not just thinking and acting, but thinking and acting well; that is, excellently or virtuously. Aristotle concludes, “each function is completed well when its completion expresses the proper virtue.  Therefore the human good turns out to be the soul’s activity that expresses virtue” (1098a15-17). Happiness, therefore, “is an activity of the soul expressing complete virtue” (1102a5).

So, what has all of this to do with education? Education itself is an action and therefore may be analyzed with regards to its means and ends. The central dispute in contention is two different theories as to the end of education, and how these relate to the end of human “happiness.” (Here and throughout, I will not assess the means (i.e., methods and materials) by which the two views on education attempt to reach their ends, but only the ends themselves.)

On the “Progressivist” view of education, the primary purpose of education is vocational in nature. For example, the United States Department of Education’s stated purpose is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” No doubt, the competition to which this statement refers is “jobs” or “careers.” The consistent message from politicians with regard to education is that students need to be prepared to enter the “workforce,” and that we must be more “competitive” in math and sciences so that Americans will not be displaced by foreign competition in the job market. So, when the question is put forth as to the end of education, the answer is, “to secure a career.”

On the “Classical” view of education, the primary purpose of education is to rear children into adults. Education on this view has the whole of the person in mind, to train boys to become men and to train girls to become women. It is not taken for granted that as children grow they will naturally mature into adults. This begs the question of what we mean by “adult”. There are a range of answers to this question, but invariably the Classicist will answer along the lines of Aristotle outlined above. The Classicist holds that the end of education is to train the child to think and act well in accordance with virtue. Says Aristotle, “excellence, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual excellence in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral excellence come about as a result of habit…” (1103a14). Habits themselves are trainable and we must, through education, come to learn “to enjoy the things we ought and to hate the things we ought” (1172a22).

So, which of these two views of education is most consistent with the end of “human happiness?” The Progressivist view of education, while it may prepare a student for a job, has confused the means with the end. For if it is asked, “why do we want people to have careers,” the answer, most assuredly would be, so that they can be “happy.” How exactly having a career ipso facto makes one happy or just what “happiness” is, is never quite addressed, especially given how unhappy so many people are in their careers. It isolates a single part of life and leaves the children to fend for themselves in all other things. Furthermore, it eliminates even the possibility of educating for “happiness” precisely because it attempts to remain neutral with regard to the definition of “humanity.” Thus, Progressive education is reductive by its very nature, treating children not as humans who need to be nurtured, but as animals that need to be trained.

Contrariwise, the Classicist has in view an education that creates, not young adults who are prepared for a specific career, but adults who are prepared to live well no matter what their career. For “career” is not an end itself, but a means to an end. Occupation is but one part of life and unless the child is taught to think and act well, even with an occupation, the child can never be fully “happy.” Furthermore, Classical education allows the student to stand before and judge all things, thus preparing the child for whatever may come. The carpenter, who has received only training in carpentry, may be able to judge what is or is not a good wardrobe, but not what is or is not a just society. Such judgments, however, are necessary for the fully formed human.  For, to know, to judge, and to act well is what it means “to be human.” As Aristotle says,

“Now each man judges well the things he knows, and of these he is a good judge. And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-round education is a good judge in general” (1094b27-95a1).

Given this, it seems unlikely that Aristotle would have entrusted the education of his son to the modern public school system. The education which Aristotle endorsed was one which conforms to the purpose of human beings, contributes to their proper functioning, and enables the child to grow into adulthood. An education that only equips the student to accomplish a single task is not meant for the free, liberated man. Without the ability to stand before all things and judge, the child is at the mercy of those who can. What needs to be assessed now are the best means by which to accomplish this end.


Aristotle uses the word “eudaimonia” which is misleadingly translated as “happiness,” and notoriously difficult to define. Etymologically, “eudaimonia” means “well-spirited” but may best be translated as “flourishing,” “blessed,” or “fulfilled.” The English word “happiness” is derived from the Old Norse “happ,” which means “chance” or “luck.” Clearly this cannot be what Aristotle has in mind. See, Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1099b9-17.

Why Dogs Are Better Than People

In 1855 George Graham Vest, representing a man who sued another man for killing his dog, gave the following closing argument:

Gentlemen of the Jury: The best friend a man has in the world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us, may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads.

The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog. A man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer. He will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings, and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

If fortune drives the master forth, an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him, to guard him against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes his master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by the graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad, but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even in death.

My dogs, Thursday & Maggie: