Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Danger of Leisure


In my last post about property and leisure, I praised Aristotle for incorporating leisure into his conception of property. Property, for Aristotle, is what assures a man leisure to pursue higher callings, especially politics. The idea was that once a man was assured of a living, he would not feel the need to amass wealth beyond measure.

That tells only one side of the story, though. Given the frailty of human nature, leisure not only opens the way for higher pursuits, but also for greed (pleonexia). To see why, we may as well begin exactly where we left off, with a passage from the Politics where Aristotle argues that the best type of democracy is a democracy composed primarily of small (yeoman) farmers. The reason for this is that
owing to their not having much property they are without leisure, so that they cannot often meet in the assembly, while owing to their having the necessities of life they pass their time attending to their farmwork and do not covet their neighbors' goods, but find more pleasure in working than in taking part in politics and holding office, where the profits to be made from the offices are not large; for the mass of mankind are more covetous of gain than of honor (Bk. VI.i.1; 1318b12-18).

This is obviously an attack on acquisitiveness (pleonexia), but it also is a frank acknowledgement that leisure (or at least too much leisure) is not good for everyone or necessarily for the political community as a whole.

A more detailed explanation of this conclusion comes in Bk. IV. There Aristotle discusses the problem that many people participate in politics to get hold of the public revenue for their own private ends. If the possibilities of the citizens to abuse the government in this way is limited, the result will be that "the laws govern" (1292b41). (For example, I have heard it said that Washington, D.C., was intentionally built in a swamp, so that legislators would not stay there too long and enact new laws all the time.)

Aristotle's critique of overly active citizens leads to an interesting conclusion: Being a citizen means having the leisure and the right to participate in the framing of the laws of one's country, but being a good citizen means actually letting those laws govern. Constantly enacting new laws is a cover for naked self-interest, and it is an excess of leisure that allows citizens the chance to enact too many laws, thereby destroying the authority of the laws.

How much leisure should a society enjoy, then?

Aristotle's solution, as far as I could tell from reading the Politics, seems to be to give most free men enough to live on, but keep them busy on their small farms, and allow leisure only for the few--the aristocrats--who are worthy of higher pursuits. Whether Aristotle's solution actually works is a question for another day. But, at least Aristotle can still inject into our political discussion today some awareness of the largely forgotten issue of leisure.
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