Western Ideas of Work and Leisure

Shante Abdo

In “The Western Idea of Work and Leisure: Traditions, Transformations, and the Future,” Charles Sylvester highlights the changing conception of work and leisure by pointing up the notions of Plato and Aristotle in Classical Greek thought, the Judeo Christian view, and the views of Locke and Marx. A general objection might be made against all of these views in that they present an absolutist interpretation of work or leisure based on justifying the conditions that exist in the present and advocating that this is what the work-leisure distinction should be. These views don’t recognize the relativist position that might be obtained through the anthropological study of the role of leisure in other societies with different social structures or cultures.

For example, both Plato and Aristotle reflect a view that supports the value of the leisure engaged in by members of the upper aristocracy in a hierarchical society, where the work of the many provided support for an elite that did not have to work. Thus, Plato could justify the existence of this class by claiming that the best class of citizens were the “philosopher kings” and that leisure enabled individuals to achieve the good life which was “knowing truth and living according to true knowledge.” Similarly, Aristotle argued that there was a divinely ordered hierarchy in which god was at the top, and those who were freed from work were the “finest human beings”, who could “discover truth, govern wisely, and create culture.”

However, one could legitimately object to this view on two major grounds. First, this view derives from a particular social context in which there was a very small elite class. So Plato and Aristotle are justifying the existence of this class and its ability to engage in intellectual philosophizing with no instrumental value. However, from the Judaeo-Christian perspective, which developed as a religion that helped to bring solace to the poor and everyday workers and which placed a high value on work as part of God’s plan, such philosophizing would be viewed as idleness. While some Christian thinkers, such as Aquinas, supported the ideal of the contemplative life (p. 26), the Protestant Reformation emphasized the virtue of work, and so did Locke, who saw the idleness of both the poor and rich as immoral. Secondly, one might object to this classical Greek view from an anthropological perspective in that it reflects and supports a particular hierarchical culture, which required a large number of individuals to support a small elite through their labor. However, as society changed and democratizing forces undermined this elite and spread power, this view that leisure was the entitlement of this small class was no longer valid.

At the same time, one can object to Locke’s distinction between productive labor, as all that is good, valuable and the essence of personality, and leisure, unless designed to be recreative industry, which is immoral. Locke developed his view at a time when the wealthy property owners were being challenged by a growing class of merchants and artisans, and his view was used to support the accumulation of property.

But his view similarly is a product of his times, and does not recognize the way work and leisure can be integrated into everyday culture or the way leisure can become the essence of personality. For example, in traditional cultures, such as the Aztec, Inca, and Maya, farmers have days of celebration and ritual when they are not working, and those times of leisure are what are seen as most good and valuable in that culture. And today, many people see work as something they do to support themselves, while their primary source of identity comes from their leisure activities, which they engage in for self-fulfillment, learning, and fun.

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