“And happiness is thought to depend on leisure; for we are busy that we may have leisure… but the activity of reason, which is contemplative, seems both to be superior in serious worth and to aim at no end beyond itself, and to have its pleasure proper to itself, and the self-sufficiency, leisureliness, unweariedness (so far as this is possible for man), and all the other attributes ascribed to the supremely happy man…”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle has distinguished amusement and leisure, calling the former a kind of ‘medicine’ that causes relaxation so that one can return, rested, to more serious things. Leisure, on the other hand, “of itself gives pleasure and happiness and enjoyment of life.” If amusement is medicine, leisure is the center of the healthy living one seeks.

But what are these mysterious and seemingly elusive activities that are supposed to be so meaningful? Aristotle points to the ‘contemplative activity of reason.’ This phrase that might leave us a bit perplexed calls for a closer look. What is ‘contemplative activity’ and where is it to be found? Here are a few things that can help us think about this.

Contemplative thinking always implies that we ‘see’ something—with our intellect—that is beautiful, worth simply gazing upon. This gazing is more of a resting than a moving, since an insight has already come and is now savored.

For instance, one might come to the insight that so many aspects of life have been a gift—a gift that could not have been anticipated and cannot be fully repaid. This can be almost overwhelming, and it calls among other things, that we simply see this truth and rest in it.

This insight could come while observing children play, or when reading a story, or when walking in the woods. We might be alone, or with someone we love. Whenever it comes, it calls for lingering, and entering into it, and receiving it. While such insights cannot be simply fabricated or demanded, we can foster them. We can set aside times and do activities that lend themselves to their arising, and to their having a place to be received. A mindset of readiness, and of longing to see more deeply can go far.

While we can do contemplative thinking most intensely when free from other activities, nonetheless even our work or amusement can have a contemplative element. Imbued with this special character, our other activities are themselves enriched and become a fertile seedbed from which contemplative activities can arise, now or later.

Leisure, then, as most of all consisting in contemplative thinking, we can seek and cultivate in two main ways: First, pure leisure is in those activities that are contemplative by their nature. These are the activities for which we must carve out a protected and somewhat silent space—including in small groups of people, as when we read some great text aloud, or we pray together. Second, leisure in a mixed form is in work and amusement activities wherein we foster a real contemplative element. Certain kinds of work and amusement lend themselves to attending to reality and to presence with other people.

We can be discerning and intentional in bringing out our contemplative and truly leisurely side, which is always there. It calls for cultivation. Given the proper attention, including some protected and set apart times, it can permeate and give richer focus to every aspect of our lives.

This is the third in a series of Wednesday Quotes on leisure.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. The Nicomachean Ethics is his major ethical work.

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