Be at leisure –
and know that I am God.

– Psalm 45

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We can begin, like the Scholastic masters, with an objection: videtur qued non … ”It seems not to be true that …” And this is the objection: a time like the present [i.e., a few years after the Second World War, in Germany] seems, of all times, not to be a time to speak of ”leisure”. We are engaged in the re-building of a house, and our hands are full. Shouldn’t all our efforts be directed to nothing other than the completion of that house?

This is no small objection. But there is also a good answer to it. To ”build our house” at this time implies not only securing survival, but also putting in order again our entire moral and intellectual heritage. And before any detailed plan along these lines can succeed, our new beginning, our re-foundation, calls out immediately for … a defense of leisure.

For, when we consider the foundations of Western European culture (is it, perhaps, too rash to assume that our re-building will in fact be carried out in a ”Western” spirit? Indeed, this and no other is the very assumption that is at issue today.), one of these foundations is leisure. We can read it in the first chapter of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. And the very history of the meaning of the word bears a similar message. The Greek word for leisure (σχoλη´) is the origin of Latin scola, German Schule, English school. The name for the institutions of education and learning means ”leisure”.

Of course, the original meaning of the concept of ”leisure” has practically been forgotten in today’s leisure–less culture of ”total work”: in order to win our way to a real understanding of leisure, we must confront the contradiction that rises from our overemphasis on the world of work. ”One does not only work in order to live, but one lives for the sake of one’s work,” this statement, quoted by Max Weber , makes immediate sense to us, and appeals to current opinion. It is difficult for us to see how in fact it turns the order of things upside-down.

And what would be our response to another statement? ”We work in order to be at leisure.” Would we hesitate to say thet here the world is really turned upside-down? Doesn’t this statement appear almost imorral to the man and woman of the world of ”total work”? Is it not an attack on the basic principles of human society?

Now, I have not merely constructed a sentence to prove a point. The statement was actually made – by Aristotle . Yes, Aristotle: the sober, industrious realist, and the fact that he said it, gives the statement special significance. What he says in a more literal translation would be: ”We are not–at–leisure in order to be–at–leisure.” For the Greeks, ”not–leisure” was the word for the world of everyday work; and not only to indicate its ”hustle and bustle,” but the work itself. The Greek language had only this negative term for it (´α−σχoλ´ια), as did Latin (neg-otium, ”not–leisure”).

The context not only of this sentence but also of another one from Aristotle’s Politics (stating that the ”pivot” around which everything turns is leisure) shows that these notions were not considered extraordinary, but only self-evident: the Greeks would probably not have understood our maxims about ”work for the sake of work”. Could this also imply that people in our day no longer have direct access to the original meaning of leisure?

Of course, we can expect an objection here too: how seriously must we take Aristotle anyway? We can admire the ancient writers, of course, but that doesn’t mean we are obliged to follow them.

On the other side, consider the following: the Christian concept of the ”contemplative life” (the vita contemplativa) was built on the Aristotelian concept of leisure. Further, the distinction between the ”Liberal Arts” and the ”Servile Arts” has its origin precisely here. But is not such a distinction of interest only to the historian? Well, at least one side of the distinction comes to the fore in everyday life, when the issue of ”servile work” arises, the kind of activity that is deemed inappropriate for the ”holy rest” of the Sabbath, Sundays, or Holidays. How many are aware that the expression ”servile work” can not be fully understood without contrasting it with the ”Liberal Arts”? And what does it mean to say that some arts are ”liberal” or ”free”? This is still in need of clarification.

This example might suffice, if we wanted to show, at least, that Aristotle’s words do have some relevance to our times. And yet this is still not enough to ”oblige” us in any way.

The real reason for mentioning it was to show how sharply the modern valuation of work and leisure differs from that of Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The difference is so great, in fact, that we can no longer understand with any immediacy just what the ancient and medieval mind understood by the statement, ”We are not–at–leisure in order to be–at–leisure.

Now, the very fact of this difference, of our inability to recover the original meaning of ”leisure,” will strike us all the more when we realize how extensively the opposing idea of ”work” has invaded and taken over the whole realm of human action and of human existence as a whole; when we realize, as well, how ready we are to grant all claims made for the person who ”works.”

In the following discussion, the word ”worker” will not be used in the sense of a distinct kind of occupation, with the sociological and statistical sense of the ”proletarian worker,” although the ambiguity is not coincidental. ”Worker” will be used in an anthropological sense: as a general human ideal. It is with this meaning in mind that Ernst Niekisch spoke of the ”worker” as an ”imperial figure,” and Ernst Junger sketched a portrait of that ”worker”-type which has already begun to determine the future of humanity.

An altered conception of the human being as such, and a new interpretation of the meaning of human existence as such, looms behind the new claims being made for ”work” and the ”worker.” And as we might expect, the historical evolution which resulted in this changed conception is difficult to follow, and almost impossible to recover in detail. If something of real import is going to be said on the matter, it will be achieved not by reconstructing a historical narrative, but by digging more deeply to the very roots of a philosophical and theological understanding of the human person.


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Imam Al-Ghazali

Read: Leisure