There is No Leisure for Slaves

I was reading Politics recently and the above quote hit me like a ton of bricks. Although today’s world seems light-years away from the world Aristotle inhabited, with staggeringly eloquence he reaches right into the heart of the problem of leisure in modern life.

Of course, Aristotle’s remarks should be set in the context of the social climate in ancient Greece, where servants and slaves carried out tasks of labour while the free man held this work in contempt. As Cicero famously said:

“A citizen who gives his labour for money degrades himself to the rank of slaves”.


At first we might be tempted to dismiss this as grandstanding, but I believe it there are several meanings behind it. Up front I would say that labour can be fun and cleanses my soul (and I don’t think Cicero would have disagreed with that), but I think he had a different point to make.

The first point is that by occupying all your time with working, you leave little for classical leisure (in Cicero’s time this would have meant the study of philosophy, contemplation, discussion with others and the practice of oratory). This was considered the true mark of a free citizen.

It is that it is a neatly designed call to action. By resigning yourself to work or labour, you are accepting you will always be a slave to someone else. Not a slave in the ancient sense as you are (hopefully) getting paid for your time. But unless you have complete autonomy in your job you have, you are required to be subservient in some way.

Enslavement as a Badge of Honour

How many of us work to the bone for something we don’t believe in, or wouldn’t be doing if we had the choice? The advantages are compelling – security of income, safety and structure. But these are not the lofty attributes I aspire to gain.

How would you describe someone who feels enslaved by their job? Not counting actual slavery, for me the usual adjectives fall out: overworked, powerless, hopeless and unfulfilled.

It may be alarming but many of the people who fit the above criteria are only slaves by their own doing. Those who work countless hours of overtime are often doing it to impress – perhaps with the notion that they will get noticed. What they may not realise they are doing is getting swept in an undercurrent of status affirmation. Working hard just so someone can acknowledge how hard you are working is both crushing and circular.

To the ambitious over-worker, the goal of the next rung on the ladder is compelling enough to seek recognition. But what if the only person who can actually give that recognition is themselves overworked? Their position seems attractive to the outsider – social status is heavily linked to success and income, which up to a point most people attribute to being the result of hard work and busyness.

Those with higher earning power will choose longer hours of work time, leading to misery in those who seek to progress their career. This misery has proliferated within corporate culture and in stark contrast to the ancient world, working hard (rather than leisure) has become the new badge of honour. By working more, we have less time to spend on things that actually matter.

The Leisure Gap

Contrary to how we might feel, it is important to note that the average work time is actually decreasing, and we generally work less hours than our ancestors. Perhaps the reason that we feel busier is due to the different time pressures of the modern age (e.g. single parents and dual career couple households).

It’s also fair to say that different cultures approach work in different ways. Americans, by and large, have a high ideal of social mobility; that is the freedom and ability for one to move up the career and status ladder. The American Dream reveres hard work and utility, and people will do whatever it takes to socially position themselves alongside those who are at the top of their game .

In contrast, Europeans have historically had a lower sense of social mobility and have typically felt trapped within their social ‘class’. But as the leisure landscape becomes normalised through the availability of the internet and social media, Europeans too are also seeing hard work as a badge of honour. This is particularly noticeable where I am based in the UK, perhaps this is to do with it’s historical ties with the US.

It is clear to me that in the current climate, the majority of the world has succumbed to the capitalistic view that success will come, if we only hustled harder.

Is Leisure at a Turning Point?

Historically leisure was the hallmark of those with higher wealth and social status, with the working man being held in lower regard. While this can still be true today’s world, I have several observations to make:

  • Leisure is conflated with having material possessions and wealth. Of course, this has always been the case, but never before has there been so little value put on exercising true virtue in our spare time.
  • The modern view of leisure lacks permanency. In a world that idolises celebrity, the instances of people actually doing some good with their increased social status is fleeting, at best.
  • People are now normalised to seeing huge amounts of wealth through social media, where people will always present their best version of themselves (and often lie). This further reinforces the feeling of disempowerment to the individual who is working hard but never reaching their target.
  • The moral emptiness of many high net worth individuals who flaunt it (and these are the only ones we see), leads to a general feeling that retirement doesn’t have any real meaning. Many retirees finish their working life and struggle for meaning and identity which was previously found in the workplace.

The above doesn’t paint a great picture for the future of meaningful leisure. Of course these are generalisations, and the world is not short of creative, compassionate, intelligent and flourishing people. And I think the value of leisure may be at a turning point thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic of this year.

Commuting is now out of the equation for many, giving people access to a better work/life balance. And the ‘success’ of furlough schemes and are causing union leaders in the UK to further the case for a reduced hour work week.

One final thing that isn’t getting mentioned is that the fear of working for a boss has diminished. When people work from home they maintain the same feeling of anonymity as they do when they interact elsewhere on the internet. They are not being watched and the power of bosses to rule purely by intimidation has decreased. This may leave the door open to more compassionate management styles.

Making Way for Leisure

Aristotle argues that “the necessaries of life have to be supplied before we can have leisure”, meaning that in today’s world we first have to provide a roof over our heads and maintain a decent standard of living. But thereafter, “leisure is necessary both for the development of virtue and the performance of political duties”.

In the past I’ve struggled with putting my own interests at heart in the workplace and ironically sometimes the easiest thing to do is to work harder to appease someone else. Recently I made a conscious decision to make more time for leisure and I feel more in control. And from this platform I can see a clearer path towards otium.

We need to think about cultivating the wisdom and virtue that enables us to best serve others, and by developing our personal agency we can make inroads to clearing the path to meaningful leisure. But the subjectivity of what people value makes it impossible to provide a clear road map – every person has to decide for themselves.

I will be exploring the different forms of leisure in subsequent posts, but for now please feel free to drop in a comment with your thoughts.

References and Further Reading

Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol – Belleza, Paharia and Keinan (2016)

Busyness as the badge of honour for the new superordinate working class – Gershuny (2005)

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