Leisure and the Perfected Life

Dr. Evaggelos Vallianatos

During my teaching at a number of colleges and universities I often started my class by reminding the students how close they were to the enveloping tsunami of global warming and environmental destruction. Your parents and grandparents, I would say, let you down. They work or worked for fossil fuel companies or supported the nexus of the military, academic, and industrial complex responsible for the ceaseless exploitation of the natural world and for the unacceptable inequalities in our society.

I would also ask them why is it that with all we know about this looming disaster, and despite the fact of having hundreds of environmental organizations, we are passive witnesses to the unraveling of ecosystems? Is this not a massive moral failure? Is this not amnesia, ignorance, or total control of society by a suicidal oligarchy?

My students appeared unaffected by my remarks and questions. Perhaps they were well prepared for this outrageous reality from childhood. Their dream jobs might even include the corporations undermining life on Earth. Certainly, their colleges were not on the forefront of this moral, political, and environmental crisis. They watered acres of grass in draught conditions. They sprayed toxic chemicals for “landscaping.” And they received lots of money from polluters. And one of them, the University of Maryland, is a land grant university, one in sixty-four in the United States. These agricultural universities have been the brain of agribusiness responsible for converting rural America into a gigantic plantation. Agribusiness is also responsible for emitting huge quantities of Earth-warming gases into the atmosphere.

The questions I raised in my classes go back all the way to Plato and Aristotle. They, too, tried to find out what hurts society and the polis – the political state organization that protected each Greek community from its neighboring states and external enemies.

The Greeks did not have the environmental tragedy of our times, but they faced existential threats from the competition of poleis and other enemies. War was the tragedy of their times.

Plato and Aristotle wrote after the devastating Peloponnesian War of late fifth century BCE. They studied and wrote about what makes citizens free, self-reliant, virtuous and happy. Could a rhetorician serve the public good while writing speeches for pay? Could work (ascholia) be virtuous if it was motivated by the accumulation of gold and silver or if the worker earned his living from wages? When would the wealthy man and the worker have the free time, the necessary leisure, to know themselves and to theorize about life and the happiness of the polis?

The Greeks had an alternative to endless work. They called it “schole” by which they meant free time and leisure. Schole gave us school. All major European languages have adopted schole for school.

This does not mean that schole is against work. The Greeks treasured work. It was necessary. In fact, they abhorred laziness and idleness.

So schole preoccupied Plato and Aristotle to the degree they made it a way of life. Unless one is free, self-reliant, and virtuous, work ends up being work for pay and profit that compromises the body and the soul of the worker, making it impossible for him to know the essence of things. Work then becomes a lifelong punishment like the punishment of Sisyphos. Day after day Sisyphos is rolling the stone to the top of the mountain only to see at the last moment the stone crushing back down to the feet of the mountain. The myth of Sisyphos becomes the myth of the vast number of working human beings.

Plato and Aristotle documented the pain and astonishment of those doing the work for profit. No schole meant the perpetuation of the Sisyphean predicament of ever lasting cruelty. Only those who were free, self-reliant, and virtuous had schole for testing their unexamined beliefs, knowing and improving themselves, and even indulging in theoretical and practical work. Schole (leisure) enabled them seeing the world as is.

“We speak of leisure as the opportunity to choose and consume goods… In schole, nothing in it is consumed because there is no process occurring in it; like eyesight or hearing it is functioning completely – consummated and not consuming. Because it is the condition for the perfected life, it orders all of life for its actualization,” wrote Kostas Kalimtzis in his book about schole: “An Inquiry Into the Philosophical Concept of Schole: Leisure as a Political End” (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).

Kalimtzis, a Greek philosopher living and teaching in Athens, does a wonderful service in summarizing the views of Plato and Aristotle on schole. He admires both philosophers but gives more credit to Aristotle for his audacity or vision in thinking schole could be “the regulating principle for political society.” In other words, Aristotle was convinced schole was a necessary end good for all.

Yet the death of Aristotle also brought the end of schole.

Nevertheless, Kalimtzis has written an original book packed with delicious food for thought. It is insightful, timely, and riveting. His story is extremely important. It resurrects schole. It brings to life ancient Greek thought that speaks to our troubled time. We need as never before to rethink our purpose and mission. Continuing with our deadly affliction to self-destructive practices (pollution, exploitation of the living natural world, waging permanent war) is certain to also bring us down. Aristotle was clear on that.

Read Kalimtzis. Schole remains a critical if hidden contribution of Greek civilization. It will not be easy to convert shopping malls and the culture of waste and consumption into leisure that resembles schole. But it is worth trying. Leisure is in fact a political end.

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