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.

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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!

Seek A Holy Leisure

As to these three modes of life, the contemplative, the active, and the contemplative-active, a man can live the life of faith in any of these three and get to heaven. What is not indifferent is that he love truth and do what charity demands. No man must be so committed to contemplation as, in his contemplation, to give no thought to his neighbor’s needs, nor so absorbed in action as to dispense with the contemplation of God.

The attraction of leisure ought not to be empty-headed inactivity, but in the quest or discovery of truth, both for his own progress and for the purpose of sharing ungrudgingly with others. …

No man is forbidden to pursue knowledge of the truth, for that is the purpose of legitimate leisure…Thus, it is the love of study that seeks a holy leisure; and only the compulsion of charity that shoulders necessary activity. If no such burden is placed on one’s shoulders, time should be passed in study and contemplation. But, once the burden is on the back, it should be carried, since charity so demands. Even so, however, no one should give up entirely his delight in learning, for the sweetness he once knew may be lost and the burden he bears overwhelm him.

~St. Augustine, The City of God, Book XIX, Ch. 19.

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Driven to Distraction Versus Driving to Distraction

How do we make sense of our world? Does reality even make sense? What does it even mean for something to “make sense”? Blaise Pascal, one of my favorite philosophers, asks these same questions and muses on our miserable state in light of reality—it’s uncertainties, it’s difficulties, our finitude in the face of infinite space and time.

We desire truth, and find within ourselves only uncertainty.
We seek happiness, and find only misery and death.
We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness. (Pensées, 401)

Given our unhappiness and uncertainty there are two popular paths that people follow: indifference and distraction. Life is so daunting and our death is ever approaching so that many or perhaps most people choose the path of least resistance.

Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition. (Pensées, 434)

The last act is bloody, however fine the rest of the play. They throw earth over your head and it is finished forever. (Pensées, 165)

We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it. (Pensées, 166)

I often return to these ideas, these concerns—and even more so given my recent schedule. I’ve been unusually busy with responsibilities as of late. As a result, I’ve had no time to think, to reflect—to pray. I long for these times—these times of leisure. Many people seek out distractions of schedule, work, and general “busyness” for very purpose of avoiding such times. The idea that one would sit and think is anathema to people.

I had originally written “anathema to the modern mind,” but I was immediately reminded that this is not a condition unique to modernity. What is unique to modernity is the creativity, diversity, and scale that goes into creating distractions. In a world where every technological advance purports to “save time”—we find we never have enough! How can this be?

The answer is that we don’t want the time. We don’t want to have to think. We don’t want leisure. Leisure means coming face to face with what matters most of all in the world. And this is the contradiction: the very truths that matter most to our existence are the very truths that we do everything to avoid!

Pascal is right when he laments:

…Men cannot be too much occupied and distracted, and that is why, when they have been given so many things to do, if they have some time off they are advised to spend it on diversion and sport, and always to keep themselves full occupied. How hollow and foul is the heart of man! (Pensées, 139)

Distraction has its time and place—but it’s not to be our lives. This is why I pity those people whose lives are consumed by “professional” sports. How little difference could the outcome of sport make on my eternal fate? I enjoy a good ball-game; it is not what matters to me.