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The uses of freedom, part 1: defining leisure

July 21, 2012

I do not, it must be acknowledged, have a dearth of free time. Since my day job, insofar as I have one, is “graduate student,” and I haven’t started teaching, I have few set hours, and many of my responsibilities involve reading things I wanted to read anyway. And so, perhaps because I’ve always had a lot of it, I’ve always found interesting the question, what should one do with one’s free time?

First, what is free time? If you’re going to ask this question, of course, and if you’re a conservative Catholic, you have to read Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture; and when you do, and you see a vision of leisure as directed towards the religious festival, we start to see an outline of an answer. But I’m interested more in what one does when one is not at the festival; when one need not toil (because one has toiled enough for the day), but when it is not yet time to pray. This free time is made more abundant with each technological advance (even if we are quite good at finding more labor with which to crowd out the leisure gained).

Pieper, as a philosopher, emphasizes contemplation; my instincts, however, tend towards the poetic, and I might introduce J.R.R. Tolkien as a corrective. Tolkien would say that that free time is best used for creation. I do not know which is correct, but I can certainly agree that these are the two activities activities which dominate my use of leisure. I spend most of my free time either doing some minimal physical activity, such as taking a walk; or reading, either books or articles or music or movies or television; or, though too rarely, writing, either here or for school or in private.

Reading and writing: we could call one contemplation and the other creation, but this would be too easy. When I read an imaginative work, I do not contemplate it, but re-create it in my imagination. When I write a philosophical paper, I do not create the ideas in it, but record the fruits of my contemplating them. We might say that each capacity, contemplation and creation, has an active and a receptive mode, and for each, these manifest primarily as writing and reading, respectively.

But there is a difference in that the activity and receptivity seem incidental to contemplation–we could do it without reading and writing; in its essence, it is simply thinking–but do not seem incidental to the creation. Creating something without creating some thing is just daydreaming. We can see this when we consider contemplation and creation on the communal level. When with others, apart from the eating and drinking and smoking we do to keep our hands busy, the main thing we do is talk; and talking is just thinking out loud. Talking may also seem creative, and it is, but it is not a way of creating things, because it’s not a way of doing anything; it’s a prerequisite for doing anything together. We can be creative communally, but we are so when we watch movies, plays, television shows, together, or when we make movies, or play music, together.

Contemplation, of course, is leisure, sitting around and thinking or talking; and so is creative passivity, reading the book or watching the movie. But it’s crucial to remember that creative activity, too, is leisure; that writing as well as reading and thinking is done in our free time. It’s certainly not toil, not the “sweat of thy face” that we’re punished with in Genesis, and anyone who has the good fortune to make a living with their writing knows it. It is not labor, but worship; Tolkien calls it “subcreation,” an imitation of the divine creation. As God made the world, so we make little worlds out of that one, and thus honor him.

Leisure, then, is time not spend in labor or worship, time used to engage in contemplation, creation, and re-creation. So much for preliminaries. The above has intentionally glided over one obvious fact: most of us only engage in two of these three. My question, then, is this: given the above understanding of leisure; and given that, unless one is very talented and very dedicated, one is unlikely to be successful in any substantial creative activity; which is to say, in brief, that one is unlikely to write a poem that is worth the reading; ought one to be purely passive in one’s leisure?

Our null hypothesis is this: one should think and read, but never write.


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