Leisure and the liberal arts tradition

A liberal arts education aims at forming the whole person to love God, to pursue the true, good, and beautiful—and to seek freely the permanent things. Educators, within this tradition, may find themselves alternately immersed in the delightful playground of wonder and the daunting demands of implementing a classical education. As such, are we living any differently than our progressive educator counterparts? Is there a danger in trading up our curriculum without a corresponding transformation in lifestyle? I submit for reflection that leisure may serve as a remedy to liberate the educator to cohere more authentically to the content of his curriculum.

When you think of leisure, do you imagine yourself lounging poolside, thumbing through a magazine and sipping a margarita? Perhaps you see yourself flopped on the couch mindlessly flipping channels? We often toss around the term “leisure” as though it’s synonymous with “down time.”

But what is leisure? Classically, “leisure” referred to something fundamental in a person’s life. Aristotle believed, “leisure is the center point about which everything revolves.” Aristotle’s idea throws our “down time” notion into stark relief. Understanding Aristotle’s idea may involve a little parsing.

Let’s begin with what leisure is not.

Leisure isn’t laziness. Laziness is the modern word for “sloth.” In the past, sloth meant avoiding spiritual goods and, perhaps surprisingly, working too much. Drowning in lesson plans, subtly “bragging” about a busy schedule, choosing a Sunday run instead of Mass. Surprisingly, these are all examples of sloth. To sloth, Thomas Aquinas attributes:

–  uneasiness of the mind
–  loquacity
–  restlessness of the body
–  instability

These interior dispositions, Thomas says, point to an avoidance of one’s rational, higher nature to seek the things that make a person human and not a beast.

Leisure is not sloth.

What about amusement? Aristotle asks what one ought to do when at leisure and answers: “Clearly we ought not to be amusing ourselves, for then amusement would be the end [goal] of life… he who is hard at work has need of relaxation, and amusement gives relaxation.” The great philosopher draws a clear distinction between amusement and leisure, which tend toward different ends. Leisure is not cramming in video games, Internet surfing, or catching a Netflix episode after a long day’s work. Aristotle might call these amusements.

So, what is leisure? In his seminal essay, Leisure, The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper explains leisure as being rooted in divine worship. As a correlative of this, contemplative reading is crucial. Done for its own sake, it is an end in itself and is directed toward God. Unlike our modern mode of data accumulation and information stockpiling, reading in a contemplative way involves relishing poignant, profound passages, mulling them over, and intermingling thought with prayer. Eventually, this becomes effortless as it progresses into a savoring consideration in which the idea acts on you. This sort of authentic leisure is characterized by an interior movement, unique, intimate, and personal.

Contemplative, active moments are also important. In my native Oregon, I often skied one of the highest runs on Mount Hood. On a crisp, cool spring day, I experienced the gift of deep and abiding joy while drinking in and savoring the breathtaking view of the Cascade Range and gliding effortlessly down the slope. These were given moments.

What of relishing the words of a cherished poem, “… rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim … chestnut-falls; finches’ wings…”? This too counts. As these sublime phrases evoke images and co-mingle with our own lived experience; the heart springs up and exclaims, as does the climax of Hopkins’ poem, “Praise Him!”

Absent a certain stillness of soul and bound up tightly in the distracted style of modern culture, we miss these gifts.

What has this to do with the busy educator? Is there truly a danger in living without authentic leisure? Yes!

Why? I suggest the answer is twofold:

  1. We derive too much satisfaction from “usefulness.” Without noticing, we may reduce ourselves to the level of working units.
  2. Our daily lives are jam packed with tasks and noise; we turn to work simply because it is less boring than pleasure.

The remedy? Leisure.

Pieper reveals that leisure is rooted in celebration, and celebration ultimately derives from divine worship. Here we rejoice in our gratitude to God for the gift of Himself and the universe in a way that differs from our everyday activities. “The most festive festival it is possible to celebrate is divine worship.”

Outside of the Divine Worship, authentic festival also exists. Take, for example, the River Valley Festival. Friends and families gather for feasting, fun, and fellowship. Hosted by Gregory the Great Academy, participants enjoy pit-roasted meat, local wine, beer on tap, games for children of all ages, and a musical juggling show. While nothing compares to the Divine Liturgy, a festival of this sort meets some of Pieper’s criteria.

The spirit of the festival affirms the goodness of creation. Fellowship is fostered while bumping into old friends and making new ones. Music fills the air with the hearty folk songs intoned by the jugglers and the strains of close-harmony vocals offered by blue grass bands. Daily steeped in the grace of the Divine Liturgy, the boys of Gregory the Great offer, as a sacrifice of praise, their musical and juggling talents—forged and mastered in countless hours of practice—to the delight of all.

Sprouting from the same seeds of joy in worship and leisure blossomed the formal dances with live orchestras, poetry recitations, and musical concerts, which characterized the initiatives of the students in the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas in the 1970s.

Today, at Wyoming Catholic College, students readily liberate themselves from their electronic devices in order to participate fully and wholly in a culture characterized by the poetic mode of learning and living which embraces a disciplined spirit of romance and adventure.

These examples of living a liberal arts lifestyle inclusive of leisure require space. Not just physical space, but cognitive, interior space. And yet, in the midst of countless lesson plans, emails, online bill pay, and electronic entertainment, where is this space? We can’t just “add one more thing” to our busy schedules. Pieper is adamant that leisure is only authentic when it is done for its own sake. It mustn’t smack of utilitarian ends.

Perhaps we need time and “permission” to liberate ourselves from certain elements of modern culture and to explore freely those interests that affirm God’s creation: crafts, music, arts, reading, writing; exploring and enjoying nature; and embracing the company of like-minded friends. Maybe some of our current activities need to go. Contemplating the permanent things may bear little fruit while listening to Taylor Swift on an iPod.

No doubt, shifting gears away from the noisy and frenetic pace of our modern world is challenging. The classical, Catholic liberal arts tradition is truly countercultural.

Space. Possibly what we require is space in our homes, in our schedules, in our minds and in our hearts. I submit for consideration, that something along these lines may provide the necessary freedom to live coherently a liberal arts tradition of leisure.

KAREN LANDRY chairs the Great Books Department at Christiana Homeschool Academy in Westminster, Md. She earned a master’s of arts in film from Regent University. Karen divides her time between teaching and forming her teen boys.

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