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Leisure

Some authors hold that leisure has existed in all civilizations at all periods. Time-out is of course as venerable an institution as work itself. But leisure has certain traits that are characteristic only of the civilization born from the industrial revolution.

In the earliest known societies, work and play alike formed part of the ritual by which men sought communion with the ancestral spirits. Religious festivals embodied both work and play. Moreover, work and play were often combined. Conflict between them was either inconsequential or nonexistent, since play entered into work and became part of it. “Leisure” is not a term that can be applied to societies of the archaic period.

Nor was leisure, in the modern sense, to be found in the agrarian societies of recorded history.

The working year followed a timetable written in the very passage of the days and seasons; in good weather work was hard, in bad weather it slackened off. Work of this kind had a natural rhythm to it, punctuated by rests, songs, games, and ceremonies; it was synonymous with the daily round, and in some regions began at sunrise to finish only at sunset. After work came relaxation. In the temperate zones of northern Europe, during the long winter months, the period of hard work would give way to a kind of semi-active existence during which the struggle for survival was nearly always hard. Inactivity, under such circumstances, was something to be endured, it certainly had none of the characteristics of leisure as we understand it today.

The cycle of the year was also marked by a whole series of sabbaths and feast days. The sabbath belonged to religion; feast days, however, were often the obverse or opposite of everyday life. The ceremonial aspect of these celebrations could never be disregarded; they stemmed from religion, not leisure. Accordingly, even though the major European civilizations knew more than 150 workless days a year, we cannot use the concept of leisure to analyze their use of time. In those poverty-stricken times the majority of such days were not chosen; rather, they were imposed either by religious requirements or by lack of work.

Aristocratic and courtly leisure . Some scholars trace the origins of leisure to the way of life enjoyed by certain aristocratic classes in the course of Western civilization. Of course, the aristocratic way of life has contributed in no small measure to the refinement of human culture; its ideal man was freed from work so that none of his capacities, physical or mental, should fail to be developed to the highest level. In ancient Greece, philosophers associated this ideal with wisdom; Aristotle himself argued that the work of slaves (that is, almost any form of manual labor) was incompatible with nobility of mind, and it is significant that the Greek word for having nothing to do (scholē) also meant “school.” The courtiers of Europe, after the end of the Middle Ages, both invented and extolled the ideal of the humanist and the gentleman. The idleness of the nobility never lost its connection with the very highest values of civilization, even though many of the nobles themselves might have been mediocrities or scoundrels. Nevertheless, “leisure” is not a suitable term for referring to the activities of these idle elites, since leisure in the modern sense presupposes work.

Modern leisure . For leisure to become possible in the life of the great majority of workers, two preconditions must exist in society at large. First, society ceases to govern its activities by means of common ritual obligations. At least some of these activities (work and leisure, among others) no longer fall under the category of collective rites but become the responsibility of the individual, even though the individual’s choice in the matter may still be determined by social necessities. Second, the work by which a man earns his living is set apart from his other activities; its limits are no longer natural but arbitrary—indeed, it is organized in so definite a fashion that it can easily be separated, both in theory and in practice, from his free time.

These two necessary conditions exist only in the social life of industrial and postindustrial civilizations.

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