Why Leisure is the Remedy for Sloth

Summer is ripe with possibilities for activity. More daylight, warm temperatures, and, at least for those who benefit from the break afforded by the academic calendar, more free time. This is an opportunity for many good things, but also can be a perfect petri dish for the germination and growth of sloth in our lives. When we are given prime conditions for discretionary activity, we can choose either to use it for proper leisure or to squander it in idleness; either wasting time doing nothing or by busying ourselves with things that don’t need done in the first place.

Sloth is perhaps the least understood of all the capital sins, and perhaps the most understated in terms of gravity. The capital sins are called such not necessarily because of their particular offensiveness to God, but primarily because of their capability to serve as gateways to all the other sins. Sloth is commonly misinterpreted as mere laziness or lack of activity, but to define it this way is to look at only one of its possible manifestations while saying nothing of its nature. Truly sloth can just as easily be, and is perhaps more commonly, characterized by hyperactivity than by underactivity. We tend to define it incorrectly because we have been conditioned by our mechanical and material culture to believe that progress is synonymous with motion; that accomplishment is the same thing as action. For this reason, we live in a world full of motion and action but which is, despite and even because of this extreme usage of productive energy, decidedly slothful.

Leisure is the remedy for sloth. Leisure is, perhaps paradoxically, the antithesis of both sloth and labor. A leisurely person is the opposite of a lazy one, and is also the opposite of a work addict. To be leisurely is to freely choose to engage in efforts dedicated not to the pursuit of financial compensation (which is the goal of servile labor), but to pursue the more lofty goals of life which truly benefit those engaged in them and the cultures in which they live. Louis Kelso and Mortimer Adler described this type of activity in The Capitalist Manifesto (1958) when they wrote that “leisure, properly conceived as the main content of a free, as opposed to a servile, life, consists in activities which are neither toil nor play, but are rather the expressions of moral and intellectual virtue—the things a good man does because they are intrinsically good for him and for his society, making him better as a man and advancing the civilization in which he lives.”

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The pursuit of leisure has been esteemed by philosophers throughout the ages as something praiseworthy, precisely because it is not, to them, the same thing as merely doing nothing. According to Kelso and Adler, “leisure is misconceived as idleness, vacationing (which involves vacancy), play, recreation, relaxation, diversion, amusement, and so on. If leisure were that, it would never have been regarded by anyone except a child or a childish adult as something morally better than socially useful work.” In other words, if we are just going to waste our free time, we would be better off working.

By restoring leisure, we restore mankind to his proper place before God as recipient and steward of his good gifts, to be cultivators and co-creators with him. For this purpose, the Church obliges us to set aside one day of each week, for the sake of what will be accomplished on that sacred day as well as for the ability of that day to set the tone for the rest of our week and in fact our entire lives. The Catechism reminds us that “Human life has a rhythm of work and rest” (2184), and that “God’s action is the model for human action. If God rested and was refreshed on the seventh day, man too ought to rest and should let others, especially the poor, be refreshed. The Sabbath brings everyday work to a halt and provides a respite. It is a day of protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money” (2172).

Rest is required in order to restore our powers to do productive work, but this is not the primary purpose of the sort of rest associated with leisure. In his celebrated work Leisure: the Basis of Culture (1958), Josef Pieper wrote that “no one who looks to leisure simply to restore his working powers will ever discover the fruit of leisure; he will never know the quickening that follows, almost as though from some deep sleep.” When it is being sought only as a temporary respite from work ordered towards more efficient future labor, it ceases to be leisure. Periodic rest, in the Sabbath tradition, enables us to persist successfully not only in our servile labors, but more importantly to fruitfully perform the works of leisure. Kelso and Adler note that “play, like sleep, washes away the fatigue and tensions that result from the serious occupations of life, all the forms of labor which produce the goods of civilization … since the activities of leisure can be as exacting and tiring as the activities of toil, some form of relaxation, whether sleep or play or both, is required by those who work productively.”

The philosophers of the Middle Ages understood well that sloth manifested itself as “leisurelessness”: the inability to enjoy or even take part in leisure. This idleness, caused by sloth, is what gives us the mentality that work, even for only its own sake, is always a good thing. This modern overemphasis on work creates not only a sort of idolatry in itself, in which productivity becomes a god, on a more basic level it prevents man from doing those things which truly make him a man in the first place. As Pieper reminds us, “idleness, in the medieval view, means that a man prefers to forgo the rights, or if you prefer the claims, that belong to his nature.” The slothful man either shies away from all effort and concern, reduced to a lethargic state of indifference, or occupies himself with any number of distractions, many of which may require great effort and even result in great productivity, in order to avoid his truly human tasks. The latter case is the modern one, and to me the far more harmful possibility. Few people would be proud of a life doing nothing, but many would be satisfied with a life of activity and accomplishment, failing to evaluate their purpose and legacy.

The terrible irony of our modern outlook on leisure is that we have surrounded ourselves with technology and machinery, claiming that it would increase our ability to be leisurely, but in doing so have created a society nearly devoid of leisure entirely. The modern world seems to prefer pleasure in whatever form may appeal to the senses over wholesome and natural forms of leisure. We want passive forms of entertainment through which other people’s ideas about amusement are mediated to us, rather than using our human creativity for our “re-creation”: a term which itself should remind us of its intended purpose of making us new again, rather than making us different, or, as it were, indifferent.

In 1940, Monsignor Luigi Ligutti recognized the destructive power that the mentality of work could have on leisure, pointing out how work can actually begin to reconstruct our personalities; a sort of counter-infusion in which idleness takes the place of the naturally human sensibilities and faculties. According to Ligutti:

“Mechanical labor injures a man psychically and stunts his personality. Men who labor under such conditions cease to be normal, and ceasing to be normal they seek not culture in their leisure time but external distraction, for the pursuit of culture demands a measure of mutual concentration and self-control of which they are incapable…. The father of a family, blunted by monotonous work where the less intelligence he displays and the more he conforms to a clockwork performance of a mechanical task the better he is valued, is unable to fulfill the duty of guiding his children, to open their eyes to new wonders, or to enjoy playful leisure with them” (Luigi G. Ligutti and John C. Rawe, Rural Roads to Security: America’s Third Struggle for Freedom).

For this unfortunate worker, his employment not only robs him of humanity while he is at work, but also at home by deadening his human faculties necessary for his paternal vocation. While most who labor so diligently would think themselves safe from slothfulness, Ligutti shows that sloth is precisely what they are being forced into.

Our productive work often prevents us from leisure even when we have set it aside for exactly that purpose, even when we have the proper intentions, because it has come to dominate not only our options, but also our minds. We find that the very work from which we seek respite has invaded the sanctuary of our leisure, plundered it, and claimed it for its own. In the hopes of limiting the power that productive work has over our lives, particularly mechanized and technological work, we have ironically placed our trust in machinery and technology to set us free from the demands that machinery and technology have themselves placed upon us. In The Outline of Sanity, G.K. Chesterton explains the problem with this naïve hope in the goodness and benefits of mechanization in this way:

If by machinery saving labor, and therefore producing leisure, be meant the machinery that now achieves what is called mass production, I cannot see any vital value in the leisure; because there is in that leisure nothing of liberty. The man may only work for an hour with his machine made tools, be he can only run away and play for twenty three hours with machine made toys. Everything he handles must come from a machine that he cannot handle. Everything must come from something to which, in the current capitalist phrase, he can only lend a hand. Now as this would apply to intellectual and artistic toys as well as to merely material toys, it seems to me that the machine would dominate him for a much longer time than his hand had to turn the handle.

There is no doubt that technological advancements can be used properly, in a way that increases our ability to be leisurely in a true sense of the word. But those who look to technology as their hope for leisure must be careful that they are not letting technology be our master, rather than the other way around. When we look to technology to make us happy, it seems that we have forgotten, or are at least beginning to forget, the essence of happiness in a natural sense. In The Restoration of Christian Culture, John Senior wrote “happiness consists, exactly opposite to what the technologists say, in conformity with nature, not against it or reconstructing it according to our desires.”

When we reorder our lives around work and production, our lives become ipso facto disordered. The modern materialist seeks to reconstruct reality with himself at the center, while centering himself on nothing but the work of his own hands. This technological idolatry interrupts the pattern of creation in which man is meant to occupy an important (as guardian, artist, and co-creator), and also very specific place, in right relationship with his creator and the entire cosmos. In order to occupy that place we need to be who we were created to be, not who we have striven to create ourselves to be. To be truly human is to be truly leisurely.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Classical Women Reading by a Temple” painted by Henry Thomas Schafer in 1889.


  • Dusty Gates

    Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and three children.

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