Womankind 6: Mona Lisa

The lost art of leisure

Comments Off on The lost art of leisure
by Antonia Case on May 27, 2016

It is rare to meet a person these days who has superior skills in leisure. How often do you hear someone say: “By gosh, that person has a remarkable leisure ethic?” A good worker, on the other hand, is something that we constantly hear praised.

In ancient Rome, in contrast, many good citizens cultivated the arts of leisure. To be economically unproductive was an accomplishment, a triumph of the good life. One strived, as only a good Roman should, to do as little “work” as possible.

But the leisure I speak of here is not what’s typically deemed “leisure” in popular imagination. Leisure is not what happens by simple virtue of not working. Leisure is not rest, inaction and passivity, quite the contrary. To engage in purposeful purposeless, and to do it well, is a skill that takes time and practice.

“It is often asked: what will people do if they don’t have to work? Get drunk or drugged? Spend the day slumped in front of the television?” asks Robert and Edward Skidelsky in How Much is Enough: Money and the Good Life. “Underlying this kind of question is the view that human beings are naturally lazy, so that work is necessary to keep them productive, keep them ‘on the rails’, stop them from ‘going to the dogs’.”

But this view of humans – as creatures only motivated by the prospect of money or reward – is unique to modern times, argues Skidelsky. During the Renaissance, citizens were extraordinarily active in politics, literature, the arts and sciences, for no other reason than for their love for the activities themselves. When we do something because it gives us pleasure, psychologists tell us that we’re intrinsically motivated. “The sculptor engrossed in cutting marble, the teacher intent on imparting a difficult idea, the musician struggling with a score, a scientist exploring the mysteries of space and time – such people have no other aim than to do what they are doing well,” writes Skidelsky. “They may receive an income for their efforts, but that income is not what motivates them. In our terms, they are engaged in leisure, not toil.”

But Skidelsky argues that the habits bred into us by capitalism have left us unable to enjoy leisure properly. We’re either working, or preparing and commuting to work, or recharging our batteries for another round of work. Otherwise, we’re just flopping out in front of a screen.

And many of the activities that we deem as leisure are in fact just another version of toil, argues Skidelsky. Jogging to lose weight, hosting parties in order to ‘network’, learning yoga to be an instructor, these activities are undertaken instrumentally with a specific goal in mind.

Leisure, on the other hand, is done for no other sake than for the sheer joy of immersion. Painting flowers on a ceramic bowl, playing the piano, reading philosophy are leisure in action. Indeed, cultivating a good leisure ethic is something we all should be working at.


From the ‘Mona Lisa’ edition of Womankind – you can buy a copy from our online store.

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