By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
The Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Sebastian de Grazia in Of Time, Work, and Leisure (1962), discussed as a central thesis a topic that is perennially poignant: what is the role of leisure time in society, and why is it important.
When we think of ‘leisure’ today, most of us equate the term with ‘free time’; in this light, leisure can range from anything from sitting watching television, to playing the Xbox, or lying in a hammock. Yet this is not the correct use or meaning of the term according to de Grazia. Yes, de Grazia cites Aristotle’s “freedom from the necessity of labour” (de Grazia, 1962, p. 13), but he also notes that leisure cannot be in anyway related to one’s own occupation – hence, ‘amusement’ and ‘recreation’ are necessary because of ‘work’ – and cannot therefore be considered as ‘leisure’. (cf. de Grazia, p. 15). According to de Grazia the key marque of ‘leisure’ is that it is performed “for its own sake or as its own end.” (ibid, p. 15). Aristotle provides us with two examples of leisure: music and contemplation. A devotee of Aristotle, the 19th Century English theologian, John Henry Cardinal Newman would say of leisure that examples would include: “the hearing of noble music and noble poetry, intercourse with friends chosen for their own worth, and above all the exercise, alone or in company, of the speculative faculty.” (ibid, p. 19). The Ancient Roman, Seneca, would concur with Newman, that “The only men of leisure are those who take time for philosophy. They alone really live.” (ibid, p. 23). So most thinkers who have considered leisure, including de Grazia, equate the term with spending some time: creating, thinking, improving oneself. In fact it was the famous political economist, John Stuart Mill, who proclaimed as the goal of the Political Economy that it should bring about, when the factors of production were being utilized to their highest end, an increase of time, whereby individuals in society now do what human beings were first created to do – to speculate and think. On this point de Grazia would write: “The greater the abundance of blessings that fall to men, the greater will be their need for wisdom, and wisdom is the virtue that cannot appear except in leisure.” (ibid, p. 13). Why should it be that wisdom requires time spent in leisure? Aristotle perhaps answered best: “No man can be a philosopher on an empty stomach.” Hence time from labour is required to contemplate. For a society to improve, genuine time for leisure is therefore critical: “A citizenry unprepared for leisure will degenerate in prosperous times.” (Ibid, p. 12). What de Grazia indicated by this phrase was that if we were only spending time producing and consuming, then the human family would become much like the greyhound racing on the circular track, chasing a rabbit that he thinks is real, but in the end has been placed not so much for his betterment, but for the betterment of third parties. We may believe that we are in fact living lives of great worth but are we not like the greyhound, going from the workplace to the lounge chair – earning money, in order to see advertisements, that massage our patterns of expenditure; becoming one long circle from – workplace – to lounge chair – to the shops, back to work – ad nauseaum. Thus we become slaves to those whose task and lust it is to make us desire the wants they produce in order for us to consider these to be our needs. By profession I am teacher – but my leisure time is spent considering and reflecting on subjects far beyond and diverse to the subject that I teach. A good part of my life is in teaching – but it is not all of my life. There are many varied layers to the human person – and leisure, appropriately understood, teaches us this.
Of Time, Work, and Leisure, was a project that de Grazia embarked upon for the Twentieth Century Fund, a philanthropic body that sought to investigate issues paramount to modern-day living. His work was an in depth study as to how modern man and woman spent their time. With all our modern machines and time saving devices, one would have thought that de Grazia would have concluded that we had far more time for self-improvement or leisure activities today than in the past; de Grazia clearly articulated that this was not in fact the case. The ‘Rat Race’ has taken much of our time from us. The automobile had made it faster to travel – initially so, but it also had meant that we could now live further away from our places of work. When enough people owned automobiles and lived good distances from work – it meant the morning and afternoon bottle-neck; that robs us all of time. When both husband and wife go to work, the chores of the house-hold are now held over until evening, or the weekend. Our workplaces also have engendered a culture that one should work long hours – and put extra time in. If we want to be perceived to be a good worker, and to be promoted, then it would seem, we have to show how much overtime we enthusiastically put in. Many of us now regularly work weekends, and have developed a new disease – presenteeism, or attending work, even while feeling physically ill. Ironically enough, instead of the employer seeing in the first case scenario that the employee has a values problem, with regard work/life balance, and in the second scenario that the employee has a near to complete disregard for the welfare of others, if the illness is communicable – our modern work culture suggests the opposite: an individual who is putting in for the team!
Moreover, de Grazia moves on to say that storytelling and reading as leisure activities, have lost out to the television set: “Whether the hours are 2 or 3 or 4 a day, per person or per family, other studies too seem to confirm a high score for TV watching in the evening hours. Indeed the television seems to have the evening licked into shape. Even by the lowest estimates, no other form of recreation comes close in time devoted.” (de Grazia, 1962, p. 144). Whereas in the past, sundown usually meant the time for enjoyment – of song, story, games, food and drink – many of us are too burnt-out to do anything else, but sit in front of the television and be ‘entertained’. We rarely have the time and energy to communicate with one another with any sense of intimacy. (Not too long ago I saw a father driving his two teenage girls home from school. Both his daughters wore headphones and were listening to their iPods, the father sat dumb in the driver’s seat. One could not help feel that some important time was being wasted. Whether the three people sitting in the car thought that this was the case, I am sure they would have debated).
The very fact that you have chosen to read this Reflection is indicative of you, the reader, wishing to spend some of your time in leisure. You are probably hoping to read something that you may find informative, or challenging, or mind-expanding. You are sharing also in the fruits of my leisure time; for I sat, and for a number of hours each evening for a week, read through de Grazia’s five hundred page work. What became of this leisure, was a few thousand words of reflection, written in order, to help you, the reader, reflect and then recollect. But how many of us, participate in leisure, or at the very least are willing to make sacrifices in order to spend some time at thought? For that matter when was the last time we picked up a book, for no other reason than we thought it would help improve our minds or souls?