Aristotle on Leisure

And the critical difference between relaxation and leisure.

In Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle outlines the nature of happiness, which, he reminds us, is the “end of living” or purpose of life. Happiness, he says, is not a disposition but an activity, or else it might belong to someone who slept through his whole life, or to someone suffering the greatest misfortunes.

Some activities, he continues, are chosen for the sake of something else, while others are chosen for their own sake. And it is among the latter that happiness is to be found, for happiness is not in want of anything. Activities that are chosen for their own sake are those from which nothing more is sought than the activity itself, and it is also of this kind that virtuous actions are thought to be.

It would be strange if happiness lay in amusement rather than in virtuous activity, for then man would toil and trouble all his life for the sake of nothing more than amusement. In truth, he amuses himself only so that he may exert himself. Amusement is a sort of relaxation, necessary only because of the impossibility of continuous activity.

Any chance person, even a slave, can enjoy the bodily pleasures no less than the best man; but no one assigns to a slave a share in happiness—unless he assigns to him also a share in human life. For happiness, as has been said, does not reside in sensual pleasure, but in virtuous activity.

Philosophic contemplation

Having established that happiness consists in activity that is chosen for its own sake, and especially in virtue, Aristotle argues that, of all such activities, it is philosophic contemplation that leads to the highest happiness.

The pleasures of philosophy, he says, are marvelous both for their purity and their enduringness. Man, more than anything, is distinguished by reason, and the life of reason is the most self-sufficient, the most pleasant, the happiest, best, and most godlike of all.

Indeed, the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must surely be contemplative. All life aims at God and eternity: plants and animals participate in the eternal through reproduction, but man comes nearer through philosophic contemplation. Contemplation and, therefore, happiness are the fruits of leisure, for we are busy that we may have leisure, and make war that we may live in peace.

To be happy, one does not need many or great things, and the life of virtue and contemplation can be practiced, indeed, more easily practiced, with but moderate means. The happy person is bound to seem strange, since the many and miserable only perceive, and judge by, external possessions.

Leisure in Politics

Aristotle returns to the subject of leisure in Politics. The state, he says, should aim at something more than mere survival or self-sufficiency:

Men must be able to engage in business and go to war, but leisure and peace are better; they must do what is necessary and indeed what is useful, but what is honourable is better … If it be disgraceful in men not to be able to use the goods of life, it is peculiarly disgraceful not to be able to use them in time of leisure—to show excellent qualities in action and war, and when they have peace and leisure to be no better than slaves.

To make time for leisure, virtue, and contemplation, Athenian citizens should have no part in agriculture or manufacturing—which are to be left in the care of slaves.

Discussion and relevance today

Anyone who loves his or her work, and who does it for its own sake, will agree with Aristotle: performing this activity, whether it be a job or a hobby, is a source of bliss. And if this activity can help or touch others, then our happiness is all the more complete.

But the most complete happiness comes from reflecting on the preferred activity, its purpose, and its meaning. For instance, it is a great thing to love gardening, but it is an even greater thing to understand why we love gardening, because it tells us something eternal and universal about what it is to be a human being, and connects us with everyone else who loves, has loved, or will love gardening.

Insightful and illuminating is the distinction drawn between time spent in amusement and relaxation, necessary because of the impossibility of continuous activity, and time spent in leisure, that is, in contemplation, friendship, and other virtuous activities.

Economic imperatives have led us to associate free time exclusively with amusement and relaxation, so that many people who retire, and no longer need to flop on a beach or in front of a screen, find themselves at a loss—essentially, because they have never been schooled in leisure (in fact, the Greek word for “leisure”—schole— is the root of our word “school”). But by conflating relaxation and leisure, we risk losing out on the fruits of peace and civilization, and, so, on the highest happiness.

As a moral philosophy, Aristotelian ethics, also called virtue ethics, is astonishingly modern, even futuristic, with people poised to have much more free time as robots take over from slaves and workers.

So much has changed since the time of Aristotle, and yet so little.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle