The Use of Free Time

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Question: The increased leisure time that is a result of the shorter work week presents modern Americans with a difficult problem: How are they to fill the workless hours? Didn’t the ruling classes of ancient societies become weak and degenerate through too much leisure time? I wonder if leisure is a good or a bad thing for most people. Isn’t a man’s work more important than his leisure in building his character?


Dr. Adler’s Answer: Before I answer your question, let me clear up one point about the use of words. Like so many people today, you speak of “leisure time” when what you really mean is free time–time free from the work you have to do to earn a living.

Free for what? Leisure is one answer to that question, but most Americans today who give that answer mean play, amusement, recreation, even sleep. My old friend Aristotle means the very opposite of all these things. Of all the great writers of the past, he is the one who can give us the best advice about the problem of leisure in our society today. And there is no question that it is a serious problem now and will become an even more serious problem in the years ahead as the work week approaches thirty and twenty-five hours.

Leaving play or amusements aside for the moment, Aristotle distinguishes between two kinds of serious activity in which men can engage. One is labor, toil, or business–the kind of work which produces wealth and earns a man’s subsistence. The other he refers to as ‘leisure activities”–the kind of work which produces not the goods of the body, not the comforts and conveniences of life, but the goods of the spirit or of civilization. These include all the liberal arts and sciences, and all the institutions of the state and of religion.

Like labor, toil, or business, leisure is hard work, in the sense of a tiring activity. Men need play or recreation to remove the fatigues of leisure as much as they do to refresh them from toil. In order to avoid today’s widespread confusion of leisure with play, I recommend speaking of “leisure work” and “subsistence work” to indicate that both are serious activities, and that the one is as far removed from play as the other.

Aristotle, in considering these three parts of a human life, places them in a certain order. Since he feels that earning a living is for the sake of being able to live well or lead a good life, he says that business or toil is for the sake of leisure. Business or toil is merely utilitarian. It is necessary but, in and of itself, it does not enrich or ennoble a human life. Leisure, in contrast, consists in all those virtuous activities by which a man grows morally, intellectually, and spiritually. It is that which makes a life worth living.

From Aristotle’s point of view, those who have enough property so that they do not have to work for a living are the most fortunate of men. All their waking time is free. How should they spend it? Aristotle’s answer: “Those who are in a position which places them above toil have stewards who attend to their households while they occupy themselves with philosophy or politics.” In other words, a virtuous man who has plenty of free time devotes himself to the arts and sciences and to public affairs.

As for play or amusement, Aristotle acknowledges that, like sleep, it has some biological utility: it provides relaxation and refreshment; it washes away the fatigues and tensions caused by work–subsistence work or leisure work. Hence, just as toil is for the sake of leisure, so play is for the sake of both toil and leisure. Aristotle writes:

“We should introduce amusements only at suitable times, and they should be our medicines, for the emotion they create in the soul is relaxation, and from the pleasure we obtain rest . . . To exert oneself and work for the sake of amusement seems silly and utterly childish. But to amuse oneself in order that one may exert oneself seems right.”

Now let me rephrase the question you asked, as follows: “Is it good for a society to have much free time?” The answer is that it depends entirely on how men who have ample free time use it. If they use it, as so many Americans do today, in aimless play, passive forms of amusement, and desperate measures to kill the time that hangs heavy on their hands, then it obviously is not good for them or for society. It can only lead to degeneracy and corruption. But if people use their free time to develop their faculties, to grow mentally, and to participate in society and culture, then the more free time they have, the better.

Of course, there is a great difference between the problem of leisure in Aristotle’s day and in ours. In his day only a small segment of society formed the “leisure class,” that is, men with enough property to have free time for leisure. The rest were slaves or toilers. But in our society all of us who work for a living also belong to the “leisure class.” We all have plenty of time free for leisure, if we would only use it for that purpose.

Will we? That’s the most serious problem our society has to face. In my opinion, we can successfully check the trend toward mindless and passive time-killing indulgences only if genuinely liberal schooling prepares the young for the liberal pursuits of leisure in adult life. In addition, such things as the great ideas and great books seminars for adults may help them to use their free time in the right way, for continued learning in adult life is one of the best examples of leisure activity.

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