Why Leisure is the Remedy for Sloth

Henry-Thomas-Schafer-classical-women-reading-by-a-temple

Summer is ripe with possibilities for activity. More daylight, warm temperatures, and, at least for those who benefit from the break afforded by the academic calendar, more free time. This is an opportunity for many good things, but also can be a perfect petri dish for the germination and growth of sloth in our lives. When we are given prime conditions for discretionary activity, we can choose either to use it for proper leisure or to squander it in idleness; either wasting time doing nothing or by busying ourselves with things that don’t need done in the first place.

Sloth is perhaps the least understood of all the capital sins, and perhaps the most understated in terms of gravity. The capital sins are called such not necessarily because of their particular offensiveness to God, but primarily because of their capability to serve as gateways to all the other sins. Sloth is commonly misinterpreted as mere laziness or lack of activity, but to define it this way is to look at only one of its possible manifestations while saying nothing of its nature. Truly sloth can just as easily be, and is perhaps more commonly, characterized by hyperactivity than by underactivity. We tend to define it incorrectly because we have been conditioned by our mechanical and material culture to believe that progress is synonymous with motion; that accomplishment is the same thing as action. For this reason, we live in a world full of motion and action but which is, despite and even because of this extreme usage of productive energy, decidedly slothful.

Leisure is the remedy for sloth. Leisure is, perhaps paradoxically, the antithesis of both sloth and labor. A leisurely person is the opposite of a lazy one, and is also the opposite of a work addict. To be leisurely is to freely choose to engage in efforts dedicated not to the pursuit of financial compensation (which is the goal of servile labor), but to pursue the more lofty goals of life which truly benefit those engaged in them and the cultures in which they live. Louis Kelso and Mortimer Adler described this type of activity in The Capitalist Manifesto (1958) when they wrote that “leisure, properly conceived as the main content of a free, as opposed to a servile, life, consists in activities which are neither toil nor play, but are rather the expressions of moral and intellectual virtue—the things a good man does because they are intrinsically good for him and for his society, making him better as a man and advancing the civilization in which he lives.”

The pursuit of leisure has been esteemed by philosophers throughout the ages as something praiseworthy, precisely because it is not, to them, the same thing as merely doing nothing. According to Kelso and Adler, “leisure is misconceived as idleness, vacationing (which involves vacancy), play, recreation, relaxation, diversion, amusement, and so on. If leisure were that, it would never have been regarded by anyone except a child or a childish adult as something morally better than socially useful work.” In other words, if we are just going to waste our free time, we would be better off working.

By restoring leisure, we restore mankind to his proper place before God as recipient and steward of his good gifts, to be cultivators and co-creators with him. For this purpose, the Church obliges us to set aside one day of each week, for the sake of what will be accomplished on that sacred day as well as for the ability of that day to set the tone for the rest of our week and in fact our entire lives. The Catechism reminds us that “Human life has a rhythm of work and rest” (2184), and that “God’s action is the model for human action. If God rested and was refreshed on the seventh day, man too ought to rest and should let others, especially the poor, be refreshed. The Sabbath brings everyday work to a halt and provides a respite. It is a day of protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money” (2172).

Rest is required in order to restore our powers to do productive work, but this is not the primary purpose of the sort of rest associated with leisure. In his celebrated work Leisure: the Basis of Culture (1958), Josef Pieper wrote that “no one who looks to leisure simply to restore his working powers will ever discover the fruit of leisure; he will never know the quickening that follows, almost as though from some deep sleep.” When it is being sought only as a temporary respite from work ordered towards more efficient future labor, it ceases to be leisure. Periodic rest, in the Sabbath tradition, enables us to persist successfully not only in our servile labors, but more importantly to fruitfully perform the works of leisure. Kelso and Adler note that “play, like sleep, washes away the fatigue and tensions that result from the serious occupations of life, all the forms of labor which produce the goods of civilization … since the activities of leisure can be as exacting and tiring as the activities of toil, some form of relaxation, whether sleep or play or both, is required by those who work productively.”

The philosophers of the Middle Ages understood well that sloth manifested itself as “leisurelessness”: the inability to enjoy or even take part in leisure. This idleness, caused by sloth, is what gives us the mentality that work, even for only its own sake, is always a good thing. This modern overemphasis on work creates not only a sort of idolatry in itself, in which productivity becomes a god, on a more basic level it prevents man from doing those things which truly make him a man in the first place. As Pieper reminds us, “idleness, in the medieval view, means that a man prefers to forgo the rights, or if you prefer the claims, that belong to his nature.” The slothful man either shies away from all effort and concern, reduced to a lethargic state of indifference, or occupies himself with any number of distractions, many of which may require great effort and even result in great productivity, in order to avoid his truly human tasks. The latter case is the modern one, and to me the far more harmful possibility. Few people would be proud of a life doing nothing, but many would be satisfied with a life of activity and accomplishment, failing to evaluate their purpose and legacy.

The terrible irony of our modern outlook on leisure is that we have surrounded ourselves with technology and machinery, claiming that it would increase our ability to be leisurely, but in doing so have created a society nearly devoid of leisure entirely. The modern world seems to prefer pleasure in whatever form may appeal to the senses over wholesome and natural forms of leisure. We want passive forms of entertainment through which other people’s ideas about amusement are mediated to us, rather than using our human creativity for our “re-creation”: a term which itself should remind us of its intended purpose of making us new again, rather than making us different, or, as it were, indifferent.

In 1940, Monsignor Luigi Ligutti recognized the destructive power that the mentality of work could have on leisure, pointing out how work can actually begin to reconstruct our personalities; a sort of counter-infusion in which idleness takes the place of the naturally human sensibilities and faculties. According to Ligutti:

“Mechanical labor injures a man psychically and stunts his personality. Men who labor under such conditions cease to be normal, and ceasing to be normal they seek not culture in their leisure time but external distraction, for the pursuit of culture demands a measure of mutual concentration and self-control of which they are incapable…. The father of a family, blunted by monotonous work where the less intelligence he displays and the more he conforms to a clockwork performance of a mechanical task the better he is valued, is unable to fulfill the duty of guiding his children, to open their eyes to new wonders, or to enjoy playful leisure with them” (Luigi G. Ligutti and John C. Rawe, Rural Roads to Security: America’s Third Struggle for Freedom).

For this unfortunate worker, his employment not only robs him of humanity while he is at work, but also at home by deadening his human faculties necessary for his paternal vocation. While most who labor so diligently would think themselves safe from slothfulness, Ligutti shows that sloth is precisely what they are being forced into.

Our productive work often prevents us from leisure even when we have set it aside for exactly that purpose, even when we have the proper intentions, because it has come to dominate not only our options, but also our minds. We find that the very work from which we seek respite has invaded the sanctuary of our leisure, plundered it, and claimed it for its own. In the hopes of limiting the power that productive work has over our lives, particularly mechanized and technological work, we have ironically placed our trust in machinery and technology to set us free from the demands that machinery and technology have themselves placed upon us. In The Outline of Sanity, G.K. Chesterton explains the problem with this naïve hope in the goodness and benefits of mechanization in this way:

If by machinery saving labor, and therefore producing leisure, be meant the machinery that now achieves what is called mass production, I cannot see any vital value in the leisure; because there is in that leisure nothing of liberty. The man may only work for an hour with his machine made tools, be he can only run away and play for twenty three hours with machine made toys. Everything he handles must come from a machine that he cannot handle. Everything must come from something to which, in the current capitalist phrase, he can only lend a hand. Now as this would apply to intellectual and artistic toys as well as to merely material toys, it seems to me that the machine would dominate him for a much longer time than his hand had to turn the handle.

There is no doubt that technological advancements can be used properly, in a way that increases our ability to be leisurely in a true sense of the word. But those who look to technology as their hope for leisure must be careful that they are not letting technology be our master, rather than the other way around. When we look to technology to make us happy, it seems that we have forgotten, or are at least beginning to forget, the essence of happiness in a natural sense. In The Restoration of Christian Culture, John Senior wrote “happiness consists, exactly opposite to what the technologists say, in conformity with nature, not against it or reconstructing it according to our desires.”

When we reorder our lives around work and production, our lives become ipso facto disordered. The modern materialist seeks to reconstruct reality with himself at the center, while centering himself on nothing but the work of his own hands. This technological idolatry interrupts the pattern of creation in which man is meant to occupy an important (as guardian, artist, and co-creator), and also very specific place, in right relationship with his creator and the entire cosmos. In order to occupy that place we need to be who we were created to be, not who we have striven to create ourselves to be. To be truly human is to be truly leisurely.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Classical Women Reading by a Temple” painted by Henry Thomas Schafer in 1889.

Dusty Gates

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Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and two children.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Pascal is very good on this:-

    “130. Restlessness.–If a soldier, or labourer, complains of the hardship of his lot, set him to do nothing.

    131. Weariness.–Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.

    139. Diversion.–When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”

    • Dusty Gates

      Excellent quotes! Are these from the Pensees?

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Yes. The numbering is from Brunschvicg’s 1897 edition.

        Pascal wrote a lot about « Divertissement », which means both diversion and amusement or pastime and he was a remarkably shrewd psychologist.

        More of 139: “This man spends his life without weariness in playing every day for a small stake. Give him each morning the money he can win each day, on condition he does not play; you make him miserable. It will perhaps be said that he seeks the amusement of play and not the winnings. Make him, then, play for nothing; he will not become excited over it and will feel bored. It is, then, not the amusement alone that he seeks; a languid and passionless amusement will weary him. He must get excited over it and deceive himself by the fancy that he will be happy to win what he would not have as a gift on condition of not playing”

    • Objectivetruth

      I’ll “wager” Pascal was never weary or restless………!

      …..OK…..that was bad…..

  • guest

    Nice article.

    No time for leisure.

    Now, I gotta get movin. Things to do.

  • John Horvat II

    Secular society and its lack of leisure inevitably leave a profound void inside the soul of modern man creating a frustration and desolation that many have termed a spiritual
    wasteland.
    Such an attitude calls to mind the condition that Saint Thomas Aquinas calls acedia, which he defines as the weariness for holy and spiritual things and a subsequent sadness of living. As a spiritual being, the man afflicted with acedia denies his spiritual appetites. “He does not want to be what God wants him to be,” notes Josef Pieper, “and that means that he does not want to be what he really, and in the ultimate sense, is.” This refusal cannot help but bring sadness and even despair.
    The modern version of acedia includes both a weariness and a
    wariness for all things spiritual. There is the conscious turning away from
    holy and spiritual things as well as a cultural regime where sublime goals or
    religious ideals are looked upon with suspicion and simply not considered to be
    an important part of our lives. The intensive feverish activity of modern life
    often is an attempt to hide acedia’s effects of listlessness, low spirits, and lack of joy.

  • James Bitting

    Good article Dusty! The quote from Msgr. Ligutti hits home.
    Especially where I grew up blue-collar fathers thought they were fulfilling
    their fatherly duties by going to work, putting in for over-time, and putting
    food on the table. If they did that they were considered “good guys” by their
    peers. “Leisure” consisted of watching sports with beer in hand only to get up
    early the next morning to return to the mechanical work-a-day world. My first
    response is that they need to hear this (i.e. wisdom from Ligutti, Pieper, Chesterton
    and others) but hearing is not enough it is just a stage in the process of
    building a culture that values true leisure. The big question is how to overcome
    societal structures which seem to make the mechanical the only option? In other
    words, the man who has given himself over to mechanical work, more often than
    not concludes that he must do that
    work…he cannot pay his bills if he does not continue to get up day in and day
    out to do the mechanical work. He would if given the chance pursue the “work”
    and rest of leisure, become a better man and contribute to the development of
    civilization, but the opportunity is not within his reach. What do you say to
    the man who cannot support his family by working only one 40/week job, or the
    woman who has to hand her 3-month old baby over to strangers during the day so
    she can make enough money to keep her electricity on? Regardless of how much
    they value leisure, they are exhausted and unable to pursue it. How do you
    effect change at the governing levels of society so that leisure is valued,
    encouraged, and accessible to all?

    • Paul

      I agree with your insight that it’s an uphill or even insurmountable battle for most to implement such a lifestyle/paradigm change especially looking from the inside out. No one easy solution but not impossible either. Like any big undertaking it maybe advisable to tackle, make progress and eventually conquer through small and attainable increments. A good start could be in the area of weeding out certain bad habits(vices) and replacing them with the opposing good habits(virtues). Equally helpful would be to search, discover and have a ‘goal greater than oneself’ which can inspire one to take action, get creative and persevere no matter what until the goal is achieved. Love and Fear are also effective catalyst. I think these have to be pursued on the individual level first, then progressed to the family and eventually to the greater society. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me..”

    • Dusty Gates

      Thanks, James, for your comments. I agree- this is an issue, like so many issues, which is easier to talk about than to make concrete changes to remedy. Some are never going to have the opportunity for leisure, as has been the case throughout all of world history (before the modern age it was only a select few who had the opportunity for leisure, and mostly based on their oppression of those less powerful than them!). Some, through varying circumstances, will always find themselves in the vicious cycle of labor and debt. But, I would argue, there are an equal or greater number who live in this “rat race” by choice, rather than by necessity. This takes a recognition of these tendencies on our part, and a conscious effort to live better. On a personal level, we need to challenge ourselves to want to live a life of authentic leisure, and be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to do so. I for one, am far from living this out in an ideal way. But we all have to start somewhere, and have goals towards which to strive.

  • Alexander Albert

    So many times I have read or heard of the importance of leisure and yet none deign to identify concrete and practicable examples of leisure in our era. Should I wrote poetry? Carve a table? Plant a garden? What are the mental steps, intermediaries, and habits which lead a man from a frenetic sloth into a fecund leisure? By what markers does one identify the path of leisure most fitting to their particular life?

    • michael susce

      Hint: observe the image to the above article!
      What I did:
      1) Got rid of my television over four years ago
      2) Realize that I will spend many years in purgatory for wasting my time watching sports and other meaningless empty programs
      3) Build yourself a library of history, philosophy, literature, ancient writings, theology, science. (I have accumulated over 1100 books)
      4) As a start, read AND purchase (because you will be, like me returning to these books):
      Abraham Heschel: I Asked For Wonder
      Anything by Christopher Dawson and Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the biography
      of Pope John Paul II
      Personal memoirs of the Gulag (there are many)

      Pascal: Pensees
      Streams in the Desert

      I leave you with a quote from a man suffering a terminal disease commenting on Amazon on the book, The life of the mind by James Schall

      I was most taken by his alluding to CS Lewis who says about books that
      they “enable us to live many lives besides our own” and “the
      enormous extension of our being, which we owe to authors” and “in
      reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself”.

      God bless

    • gally

      Alexander, it seems to me that you could ask yourself what gave you the most satisfaction when you were a child and had – presumably – abundant leisure time. I used to love reading when I was a child – I read everything I could get my hands on; the best gift anyone could give me was a book; being taken to the library delighted me infinitely more than going camping or being taken to an amusement park would have done. Also, I loved learning.

      I got away from those habits, ironically, when I went to university and became an English major. I studied literature because I loved literature, but the study of assigned books became my work. When other students would ask me, ‘What are you reading these days?’ I would reply, ‘Reading? I have no time for reading. I’m an English major!’ I was reading what was assigned, not reading for pleasure anymore. When I finished my degrees, I went into teaching – I became a college literature instructor. Literature remained my work to the point that I lost interest in reading ‘great literature’ anymore.

      I’ve had to rediscover reading and learning just for the pleasure of it. I take online courses (try Coursera or EdX – they are free) in a wide range of subjects (social psychology and the French Revolution this summer; and I’ve been reading books by Bill Bryson, which are entertaining and informative at the same time).

      But I’ve also just tried my hand at more ‘crafty’ things: embroidery (I embroidered baby things for a friend who was expecting); making beaded jewelry, baking bread and cookies – things I enjoyed doing or that my mother had taught me, but that I had somehow crowded out of my life. I have a list of other things I want to go back to or try: quilting, making clothes at home, learning to knit and crochet, painting furniture… There are many things that I want to try that I know will give me the satisfaction of being able to say, ‘I made that.’

      I my recent studies, I’ve learned that research shows that people take far more satisfaction in making – or putting together – a thing than buying it ready-made. For example an Ikea cabinet that you have to put together yourself gives people more satisfaction than buying the same cabinet already assembled. You could start with thinking about something you’d just like to make or do yourself – whether it’s repairing a dripping faucet or building a child’s bed or making a birdhouse from scratch. What appeals to you?

      I have a brother who loves reading, fishing, antiquing and hunting around for long-lost ghost towns that are no longer on any map – and who in middle age taught himself to draw and paint just by drawing and painting. He never had any particular artistic ‘bent’ before; he was simply inspired by a painter he read about, whose works struck him as beautiful, and he began trying to copy those paintings.

      Look into your own past, the things you enjoyed learning from or doing with your Dad, Mom, a scout-master, grandparent or teacher. Think about skills or attributes you always admired in someone else (being able to whittle or sing or bake a cake or plan parties or being well-read or confident in front of a group). In short, think of things that would make you feel more completely YOU, more like you’d fulfilled dreams and made good use of skills and time. Since you’re only doing a LEISURE activity, it won’t matter if you become good at what you attempt; all that matters is that you enjoy the learning process and that you grow and feel glad that once in your life you tried that.

      Everyone’s leisure is going to be different because it’s an expression of his/her unique creativity, experiences, aspirations and gifts. Just think about ‘things I always wanted to do’ or ‘things I would do just for pleasure and personal satisfaction if I had more time’ and do them.’ I’ll bet there won’t be any really time-wasting things (‘Watch every episode of Gilligan’s Island in order’) on your list.

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