The Ideas of Work and Leisure – 3

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


Is a Particular Activity Sleep, Toil, Leisure, Play,
or Some Mixture of These?

A particular activity may fall solely under one of these categories; for example, ditch-digging or feeding an assembly line is sheer toil. It may fall primarily under one of these categories, but have an additional aspect that is subordinate to its primary character; for example, a person employed gainfully as a gardener may, in addition to earning his living by that activity, enjoy the work he does as much as he would any other form of play.

Sometimes, however, an activity of one kind is transformed into a different kind of activity. For example, at one time, tennis was entirely a sport of amateurs. It subsequently became a professional sport. Engaged in by amateurs, it was once entirely play. When it is engaged in by professionals whose exclusive interest in the game is the money or the reputation they make, it becomes toil. For some professionals, it can, of course, be a mixture of toil and play.

There is still one more alternative. A particular activity may fall under two or more categories where neither aspect of the activity is primary or subordinate. The individual engaged in the activity would continue doing it if either one of its two aspects were absent. The individual may be equally motivated in either direction.

Professional musicians who earn their living by the performance of their art are workers whose work involves an admixture of toil and leisure. They would continue to exercise their skill and try to improve it even if they were no longer employed in an orchestra or no longer had to earn a living by such employment. If that is not the case, then working in an orchestra is simply toil for them.

Another example of double motivation is to be found in any activity that aims at both health and pleasure. A physician may recommend to a patient that for his health’s sake he swim a certain amount of time each day. The patient who follows that recommendation may be one who enjoys swimming as a playful exercise, but now engages in it with the regularity prescribed for therapeutic purposes.

Swimming thus becomes for the patient both sleep and play. By calling the patient’s swimming therapeutic or utilitarian play, we indicate its double motivation. If an exercise prescribed by a physician were performed by a patient who abhorred that activity, it would be purely sleep for that person, though for some other individual who engaged in that activity solely for pleasure and not for the sake of health, it would be pure play.

Consider the case of the professional athlete — in football, baseball, tennis, or basketball — who performs without pleasure, who does not need to perform for the sake of his health, and who has reached the point where no increment of skill is likely to occur. He may even have lost interest in the game and continue to play it only for the money earned by doing so.

Then it is sheer toil for him, but it need not be so. It is quite possible for athletes to enjoy what they are doing for its own sake as well as do it to earn a living, and at the same time also strive to improve their performance by increments of skill. Under such triple motivation, the activity becomes an admixture of toil, play, and leisure.

Eating and drinking, activities which for many individuals are nothing but biological refueling, and so fall entirely under the category of sleep, can be for other individuals who take sensuous delight in fine foods and excellent wines a playful indulgence as well. They eat and drink not only to refuel their energies but, whenever they can, they do so also for the pleasure inherent in the process. For a rare few, entitled to be regarded as gourmets, eating and drinking beyond the calls of hunger and thirst are purely playful activities. Just as we called an exercise prescribed by a physician, one that is also enjoyable to the patient, therapeutic or utilitarian play, so we might call a gourmet’s eating and drinking playful or sensuously delightful sleep.

I have so far called attention to activities that have double or triple motivations, requiring us to classify them under two or three of the main categories. I turn now to activities that at first blush appear to be pure instances of leisuring. I have in mind such activities as teaching, producing any work of art, giving lectures, writing books, engaging in political life, or for that matter practicing any of the learned professions that serve the well-being of others and the welfare of society.

All of these would appear to be prime examples of pure leisuring, especially if their performance involves some learning — some increment of knowledge or skill — on the part of the performer and some contribution to society as well. They remain pure leisuring if the performing agent has no other motivation than self-improvement or the social benefits conferred, or both.

However, that if italicized in the preceding statement introduces a supposition that is usually contrary to fact. Many practitioners in the learned professions and many creative artists work for some extrinsic compensation as well as for the rewards of leisuring. For them, the activity in which they engage is work that can be called compensated leisure. We dare not overlook the fact that for many others (one dares not say how many), the extrinsic compensation, the money they earn, is their only motivation. Then it is toil for them, not compensated leisure.

By their very nature, the aforementioned activities are such that one can learn and benefit others. They should, therefore, have the aspect of leisure, even if they are activities that earn a living.

What for some individuals is pure leisuring and for others compensated leisuring can become for still others work that is toil with out a scintilla of leisuring in it.

Monetary gain is their only interest. They would turn to something else if they could earn more money by doing it. If self-perfection and social service are no part of their aim, we are entitled to ask whether they have not violated the ethics of their profession. Can they be regarded as true practitioners of a learned profession or of one of the fine arts if the work they do is nothing but toil for them? It makes no difference whether the compensation received is large or small.

A large part of our population today consists of employees of government, from the president, justices of the Supreme Court, members of the cabinet, and senators and congressmen down to the clerks in government bureaus, police officers, and so on. Let us call all of them citizens who are also office-holders, whether elected or appointed. The rest of us are citizens not in public office.

Non-office-holding citizens who perform their duties as citizens by engaging in political action of one sort or another do so as forms of leisuring. How about the others — the citizens who are also office holders?

We know that the work they do for compensation is in that respect highly or slightly compensated toil for them. But does it also have the aspect of leisuring, as it should for them as well as for ordinary citizens? I need not pause to comment on what a negative answer means for the general welfare of the state, for the integrity of government, and for the prospects of a democratic form of government.

Work that is sheer toil seldom has any playful aspect. By those who have to earn a living, it is done solely for that purpose. Work that is pure leisuring or leisuring in part may be just as devoid of any inherent pleasure as the drudgery of sheer toil is.

When we understand that leisuring as well as toiling is work in the full sense of that term and when we understand that leisuring is never to be confused with play, we should not be surprised by the statement that leisure activities or activities that have a leisuring component may be just as painful and as fatiguing as work that is toil.

It follows that both forms of work, whether in separation or in combination, may require us to resort to play for its relaxing and recreational effects — removing the strains and tensions of work and refreshing our energies. The playing we do for this purpose then becomes therapeutic or utilitarian play.

Nevertheless, it is also possible for leisure-work, or work that has an aspect of leisuring in it, to have an aspect of playfulness, because the worker genuinely enjoys the work while doing it. This is not true of what I have called sheer toil and may also be called, for that reason, drudgery.

No housewife, as contrasted with women employed in other occupations, would fail to recognize that she also is engaged in work. Domestic work, the doing of household chores, is certainly work, not play. Much of it is sheer toil, as much for the housewife who does not receive an hourly or weekly payment for it as it is for the domestic servant or hired hand who engages in such work to earn a living.

The tasks performed, whether by the housewife or by a hired hand, consist of repetitive chores, from the doing of which almost nothing is learned and in the doing of which little pleasure is found. The work is for the most part manual rather than mental; its repetitiveness makes it stultifying; having nothing creative about it, it yields no self-improvement. The drudgery of the toil is alleviated only if an element of leisuring enters into the work for the housewife because she does it as an act of love and for the good of the family. Then it differs from the same work performed by a domestic servant solely for the money to be earned.

In contrast to such domestic work, which is largely manual rather than mental and repetitive rather than creative, such activities as gardening, carpentry, repairing plumbing or electrical gadgets, and the use of other skills to improve the household, are work that is leisuring rather than toiling. They can also be play to whatever extent the doing of them is enjoyed.

I have left to the last the most interesting example of an activity that can fall under all four of our main categories, either entirely under one or another, or involve some admixture of several at the same time. Consider sexual activity. If its motivation is purely biological, it belongs in the category of sleep. If it has no other motivation than financial gain, then it is toil. If it is indulged in solely for the inherent pleasure in the process, it is sheer play.

Is it ever leisuring? Does it ever have an aspect of leisuring combined with some other aspect? Yes, if the sexual union of two persons is an act of benevolent love on their part, an act that confers mutual benefits. We know that the sexual act may be performed by one of the partners without pleasure. Then, if it is an act of love, it is leisure-work without any aspect of play. When it is performed with pleasure, it is erotic love as distinguished from other forms of benevolent love that do not involve any sexuality whatsoever.

When the sexual act is performed without love, it may be sleep, toil, or play, but there is nothing leisurely about it.

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