Leisure: The Life and Health of the Soul

by Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D.


Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian examines the deadly vice of acedia, its effects on the human mind and spirit, and why the art of leisure is so important, especially in today's workaday society.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


62 – 66

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, March 2009

To ignore the Third Commandment and not keep holy the Sabbath not only violates divine law but also forms the vice of acedia, that condition of the soul associated with apathy and joylessness. If a person does not enjoy periodic rest, cultivate leisure on festive occasions, or restore his soul by honoring Sunday as a day of celebration, worship and rejuvenation of body and spirit, he becomes prey to the noon-day demon that releases the various symptoms of acedia that afflict the soul. The Latin word that corresponds to the deadly sin of sloth, acedia signifies a state of mind, body and soul that manifests tendencies like listlessness, lukewarmness, restless, sadness and despair; as Josef Pieper explains in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, the unleisurely person "is not at one with himself . . . as the Middle Ages expressed it, sadness has seized him in the face of the divine Goodness that lives within him — and this sadness is that 'sadness of the world' (tristitia saeculi) spoken of in the Bible." A person who never plays or rejuvenates himself, who never distinguishes between work days and holy days, and who disregards the Greek distinction between living and living well invites an attack from the noon-day demon associated with the vice of sloth.

As the name suggests, the noon-day demon afflicts its victims in the middle of things — in the middle of the day when fatigue rules the body, in the middle of a journey when boredom or exhaustion destroys enthusiasm, and in the middle of life when ennui wearies the spirit. In this condition of being in the middle of things, the excitement and newness of the beginning have lost their freshness, and the anticipation of the end and the thrill of accomplishment have not whetted the appetite for joy. Thus acedia inflicts upon the person in the middle of things the state of lukewarmness or indifference. The noon-day demon makes a person neither hot nor cold, neither fervent about loving the good nor passionate about hating evil. This dullness or apathy becomes oppressive and robs a person of joy and hope, easily discouraging him from completing his journey, fulfilling his duty, or honoring his vows. Once acedia rules a person, he loses his resolution and purpose and fails to finish an undertaking with the conviction of the traveler in Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening": "And I have miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep."

Acedia also breeds listlessness. Because a person does not participate in the restorative leisure of Sunday or taste the rejuvenation of play, a person finds himself listless when not working. Time becomes burdensome and needs to be escaped by mindless activities that "kill" time and eliminate boredom. Thus unleisurely, unsociable pursuits such as endless hours of television viewing or Internet browsing fill the vacuum. In the total world of work without leisure, the time away from work is considered merely a "break" or a period of recovery for the body to nourish itself with food and fortify itself with sleep in order to return to work and regain physical energy. However, food for the soul and refreshment for the spirit do not receive their proper nourishment. In Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," Bartleby — the epitome of the "workaholic" who lives in his office and works even on Sundays — only eats and sleeps in order to return to work, never enjoying friendship, recreation or beauty. Listless and unoccupied when not working, he lives to work rather than working in order to play, and in the process he becomes perfunctory in his habits and lifeless in his demeanor, confining his conversation to a single phrase: "I prefer not to."

This listlessness of mind and spirit, however, can lead to restlessness or frantic activity — another trait of acedia. Chaucer's famous description of the lawyer from the prologue of The Canterbury Tales summarizes this state of mind: "Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas/ And yet he semed bisier than he was." Just as passive, inane entertainment fills the void and combats boredom, constant movement and incessant busyness also dispel the monotony of time. Compulsive shopping, an unnecessary second job, an overscheduled day or week, involvement in more volunteer work and committees, and endless home improvements all provide substitutes for true leisure. A benefit of leisure is a change in rhythm, an opportunity to "be still" and recollected and experience the joys of an interior life and the pleasure of contemplation that Pieper describes as a "relaxed . . . purely receptive" beholding and "listening-in to the being of things." The purpose of leisure, then, is both social and contemplative, an occasion to enjoy the company and conversation of friendship and an occasion to "taste and see the sweetness of the Lord" and revel in the pure goodness of life's simple pleasures. Like Alexander the Great's obsessive preoccupation with more conquests and victories even after he ruled the Greek world and was proclaimed king of Asia — Alexander wallowed in sadness because his troops refused to cross the Ganges, as Plutarch records — compulsive activity enervates a person's strength and robs the spirit of the regeneration that only leisure and play bestow. The inspiration of the Muses and the power of Eros, as Pieper acknowledges, do not touch the listless, who waste time, or the restless, who never pause. They never experience the joy that Gerard Manly Hopkins celebrates in his poetry: "Glory be to God for dappled things . . . The world is charged with the grandeur of God . . . Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!"

Another by-product of acedia that follows the absence of leisure is sadness, a sense of world-weariness expressed in words like the German Weltschmerz, the French ennui and the Latin tristitia that convey a tiredness with life. Instead of affirming the goodness of creation or rejoicing in the simple pleasures of life, the unleisurely suffer a chronic melancholy, a type of sickness unto death. This sadness does not proceed from natural causes such as death, tragedy or injustice, but from a jadedness from living, a feeling of déjà vu ("been there, done that"). The repetition of work without leisure, the busyness of activity without joy, and the regimen of living to work instead of working to play allow no opportunities to transcend the workaday world of getting and spending to experience innocent, wholesome, childlike fun or the highest joys of civilization that worship, beauty and learning proffer. Unlike the ancient Greeks who, as Pericles observed in his famous "Funeral Oration," cultivate beauty and play ("When our work is over, we are in a position to enjoy all kinds of recreation for our spirits"), the unleisurely neglect their emotional, physical and mental health. They do not avail themselves of the natural, God-given cures that combat world weariness and the sense of vanitas vanitatum.

Without the normal healing of the Sabbath and the sheer joy of exhilaration afforded by life's natural experiences of goodness, beauty and truth, the human spirit suffers from melancholy and never recovers from sadness. In Plato's words, when men ignore divine festivals "as a means of refreshment from their fatigue," the weight of the world's cares does not allow them to stand erect and "return to an upright posture."

The most insidious and destructive dimension of acedia is despair, a symptom that explains the deadly nature of this capital vice. Chronic listlessness, perpetual lukewarmness, compulsive restlessness and deep-seated sadness lead the soul to the state of hopelessness. When a person never looks forward to a time of leisure and recreation, when nothing beautiful, good, noble or miraculous inspires love or wonder, and when no form of activity produces rest, repose and happiness, the future appears bleak — a state of consciousness that Winston Smith in Orwell's 1984 experiences when he comments on the drabness of modern life: "It struck him that the truly characteristic thing about modern life was not its cruelty or insecurity, but simply its bareness, its dinginess, its listlessness." In the totalitarian regime of Big Brother, Winston suffers the dreary flatness of daily life because he is deprived of every form of leisure and play. After his day of work at the Ministry of Truth, Winston spends his free hours performing more labors for the Party — demonstrations, rallies and other political functions that amount to drudgery. The world in 1984 is devoid of beauty, art, poetry and great literature, for the classics have been banned to assure the proliferation of the Party's ideological propaganda. As Comrade Syme explains, "The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron — they'll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be." In the secretive world of Thought Police and spy networks where everyone suspects and distrusts everyone, Winston enjoys no friendships and pursues no romantic relationships. In the godless world of Oceania, Winston never anticipates the leisure of a Sunday, the celebration of holidays, or the civilizing, humanizing pleasures that restore the soul and lift the heart. The acedia he suffers because of Big Brother's dictatorial control of every aspect of personal life from work to play to thought to romance leads to a crisis in Winston's life, where he ponders the famous existential question of "to be or not to be" that Hamlet posed. Winston struggles in the novel to decide whether "to stay alive" or "to stay human" as he grapples with the temptations of despair.

A humane society, then, that cultivates leisure and works in order to play creates culture. Without the fruits of leisure human life lacks the power of renewal and regeneration that worship, beauty, hospitality, friendship, games and conversation provide the human spirit. This ideal balance of work and play, which creates civilization, epitomizes the art of living well that the ancient Greeks bequeathed to the West. In Homer's Odyssey, when Odysseus sojourns in the country of Phaeacia, he revels in the society of a cultured people who not only welcome him with the rituals of old-world hospitality and provide him all the comforts of the body but also invite his storytelling, conversation and knowledge as they marvel at the tales of his adventures. The music of the bard, the performance of the dancers and the exhilaration of the Olympic games inspire his wonder, lift his spirits and make his heart rejoice. The warm sociability of the Phaeacians, their worship of the gods and their appreciation of "the feast, the lyre and dance" all derive from their practice of leisure. Symptoms of acedia like listlessness do not appear in this land, for the people are productive in shipbuilding and weaving and skilled in dancing; as King Alcinous declares, "How far we excel the world in sailing, nimble footwork, dance and song." Celebrating the feasts of hospitality and the athletic games, the Phaeacians do not suffer world weariness but savor the sweetness of life's simple pleasures. As they honor their guest with a kingly welcome, they affirm their gladness at the joy of living and illustrate what Pieper calls "the cheerful affirmation by man of his own existence" — the sense that "man is not only in harmony with himself . . . but also in agreement with the world and its meaning." Because of these many blessings of leisure, Odysseus feels human and civilized again after all his tribulations at war and dangers at sea.

Without leisure, a society becomes dehumanized, impersonal, perfunctory or barbaric. Just as Winston in 1984 loses his capacity to think, feel, play and love because Big Brother and the Party organize their society as a regimen of total work and no play and regard persons as functionaries, so also the cyclopes in the Odyssey degenerate into crude barbarians because their way of life lacks every vestige of culture or civilization that comes from leisure: no worship of the gods, no customs of hospitality, no sense of beauty, and no conversations or life of the mind. Both Winston Smith suffering the stark loneliness of daily life in 1984 and the cyclopes living in the darkness of solitary caves without a social or political life are depictions of existence as mere survival, the struggle "to stay alive." The social virtues that foster civilization have no place either in 1984 or the caves of the cyclopes, where no one experiences a sense of belonging to a family or to a society. The art of living well cannot flourish in a culture that does not value the festive experiences that unify people and remind them of their common humanity. Without the mirth, joy and rest of leisure, man does not drink from the cup of blessings or taste the sweetness of life that the goodness of creation offers from God's divine Providence. If, as St. Thomas Aquinas commented, "No man can live without pleasure," then this deprivation robs persons of a civilized life that accords with man's dignity as a creature who has been created to rest on the Sabbath, to recreate on festive occasions and to provide for the body in order to enjoy the fruits of the spirit.

Like all of the seven deadly sins, acedia awaits its opportunity to seduce human beings. The noon-day demon prowls everywhere in a workaholic society that knows only work and idleness and preys upon the tired, the bored and the apathetic who lack the time, the energy and the spirit to look above, to lift their hearts, and to fall in love with life again and again in the revel of mirthful play. This great truth that leisure teaches is both simple and profound: the goodness of creation provides inexhaustible sources of renewal, regeneration and rejuvenation that are as plentiful as the myriad of stars. Just as play always gladdens the child, just as love always renews the heart and just as laughter always refreshes the spirit, leisure always liberates man from enslavement to work and releases him from the bondage to servile activities like earning money in order to contemplate the true, the good, and the beautiful.

The great mystery of leisure, then — to use a phrase from Xenophon when he refers to agriculture — is that it is "a generous art." It gives so much, and it costs so little; "it is all a purchase, all is a prize." So much exists to gladden and uplift the hearts of so many people. Just as the cycle of day and night requires man to eat, drink and sleep to replenish himself, the rhythms of the weeks and seasons also demand the food and drink and rest of the spirit that leisure provides. As Pieper writes, "The surge of new life that flows to us when we give ourselves to the contemplation of a blossoming rose, a sleeping child, or of a divine mystery — is this not like the surge of life that comes from deep, dreamless sleep?" A jaded, listless world debilitated by work, worry and debt and indoctrinated with the ideas of the noon-day demon ("Let both man and woman work," "Let them think they need more things," and "Let them have no time except to eat and sleep") needs this "surge of new life" again and again to resist the wiles of the deadly sin of acedia.

Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian has taught English literature for thirty-nine years at several colleges. He is the author of two books, The Marvelous in Fielding's Novels (University Press of America, 1981), and The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature (Neuman Press, 2000). He has published articles in the New Oxford Review, Culture Wars and The Catholic Faith. Currently he is teaching at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming. His last article in HPR appeared in April 2008.

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