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Leisure in Ancient Greece with Hannah Arendt

in Ark Review/Essays by

It’s July! Or, as it is known in Denmark, the month where almost literally everybody is on vacation. The city is empty, the streets are quiet and shops, with the exception of ark books, are closed. This month we will be tackling all things leisurely and bookish, with as much patience, time and space as this requires. It’s summer after all. Today, Franek Korbanski takes a summer trip to Ancient Greece with Hannah Arendt as his guide to explore ancient leisure…

One certitude of ours is that summer means no school, no university, time off. Less work, holidays, a few days—or months—off; under the palm tree or at a festival, or whatever one’s leisure of choice may be. Sun and the general sense of lolling around and taking life easy.

It may then come as a surprise that in the word ‘school’—arguably one of the most antithetical to all things leisurable—there rings skhole, the original Ancient Greek term for nothing other but leisure. As the etymological dictionary informs, skhole originally meant “spare time, leisure, rest ease; idleness; that in which leisure is employed; learned discussion.” The presence of this contradictory gem works strongly against our modern intuitions and is therefore not easy to comprehend in our modern terms. Luckily, there is a thinker whose work can help us make sense of this perplexing hybrid. This thinker is Hannah Arendt.

According to Arendt, the way the Greeks of the ancient polis understood leisure was significantly different than the one we are so closely familiar with today—as it happens, leisure was entangled in the myriad of phenomena that influenced the way the Greeks understood, organised and valued the human life. To comprehend this ancient meaning of leisure, we need to take a glance at Arendt’s account of the division between two ways of life—vita activia and vita contemplativa—as she presents it in The Human Condition. The theme of leisure can hardly be said to be central to the book’s discussion, but it appears there early, in a significant moment as Arendt draws the basic and the most fundamental distinctions that will inform her further argument.

We come across it for the first time as an element of the sketch designed to distinguish these two distinctive ways of human life—vita activia and vita contemplativa—as they were understood throughout the history from the time of the first democracies; in essence, from the moment fundamentally decisive for our own subsequent modern understanding of what they denote. Broadly speaking, vita activia encompasses the sphere of the practical life whereas vita contemplativa is the way of life of the philosopher.

[…] although we moderns may know more forms of entertainment than the ancients, in this one respect our life is poorer than theirs in that we know less leisures.

Vita activia consists of three ‘fundamental human activities of labour, work and action’ (p. 7) and ‘each corresponds to one of the basic conditions under which life on earth has been given to man.’ (p. 7) This tripartite division largely organises the structure of The Human Condition, which discusses each of the activities in separate chapters. As such, vita activia constitutes the very substance of the book’s discussion. The opposing way of life, vita contemplativa, is the life of contemplation, freed from the concerns and limitations characteristic of the other sphere. Vita contemplativa was traditionally championed in the Christian idea of contemplation as the superior form of human life and which transported it throughout history.

As Arendt notes, however, this distrust towards the vita activia and the corresponding preference of the life of thought has a precedence already in the Ancient Greek experience, though not unqualified: this distrust finds its expression in particular in its philosophical thought. Importantly—a truth as relevant twenty four centuries ago as today—those two experiences are not to be conflated, as what philosophers have to say most often does not align with what laymen opinions. This friction comes to the fore in a conflict between the life of polis and the life of philosopher (p. 12)—as famously exemplified in the case of Socrates’ trial. It is this conflict Arendt takes to be of central importance in comprehending the structural organisation of the spheres of life, pointing towards the discrepancies between vita activia and vita contemplativa. The latter, ancient philosophers will tell us, is superior to the former.

Leisure—skhole—can be seen as one of the acid tests of sorts here: In its positive capacity, it is a characteristic of vita contemplativa as a specific freedom to abstain from the life of a political engagement. Its obverse, ‘un-quiet’—a-skholia—functioned traditionally as a negative term to characterise vita activia as seen from the philosophical perspective of ‘the absolute quiet of contemplation’. (p. 15)  

It is interesting to note that in this narrative, skhole is not just any form of free time as such, but is inherently linked to the tension between the polis and philosophy. For those not engaged in the activity of political action, who remain constrained by demands of labour or work, the possibility of having skhole does not even arise. In this model, as Arendt notes, it goes without saying that a possibility to attain leisure hinges also on the freedom from the basic necessities of life belonging to the private sphere and resulting from the life itself. This is because the model itself is deeply hierarchical. In other words, in the Ancient Greek terms, one has to first free oneself from the need to labour and from work—a problem which in the time of the Greek democracies was notoriously resolved through the possession of slaves— prior to even attaining the possibility to engage in the political action happening in the public, in the true locus of human freedom. Prior, also, to the possibility of skhole.

Action, the hallmark of the politics, is the highest and most noble activity in the structure of vita activa. As Arendt points out, leisure as such was understood very differently from skhole as a leisure from the political activity. That such a fine-grain distinction—seen from the perspective of our times— even makes sense in the Ancient Greece illustrates how differently its life was organised and comprehended, and how different was the meaning Greeks attached to, ostensibly, the same spheres organising their life as we know them today. In the case of leisure, in its strictest original sense, it is not the positive quality of having a free time that is essential in its definition—free time resulting from having slaves was not skhole—but the negative aspect of what one frees oneself from.

It is this negative ‘lack’, corresponding as it is to the different spheres of human activity, which ultimately defines the fine palette of ‘leisures’ available to the citizen of Ancient polis, of which we seem to know only the distant echo of the homogeneous leisure from whatever our occupation may be. Hence, although we moderns may know more forms of entertainment than the ancients, in this one respect our life is poorer than theirs in that we know less leisures. As Arendt puts it, the skhole of antiquity—in opposition to the modern understanding of leisure—’was not a phenomenon of consumption’ and ‘did not come about through the emergence of “spare time” saved from laboring, but was on the contrary a conscious “abstention from” all activities connected with mere being alive, the consuming activity not less than labouring”. (p. 131)

As we have seen, the sense of the inferiority attached to the practical life that manifests itself among others in its negative characterisation as a-skholia is reciprocally bound to the superiority traditionally associated with the vita contemplativa. But precisely here it is crucial to keep in mind who does the characterising, to pay heed to the implicit power-relations at work here: It is the philosophers who organise the hierarchy and bestow the judgement, to the disfortune of vita activia. It is therefore telling that Arendt, the apologist of the politics understood as action, never considered herself to be a philosopher: Her project in The Human Condition is to propose an account of vita activia which stands in ‘a manifest contradiction to the tradition’ and aims not at reconsidering and undermining the very distinction between two types of life, but rather ‘the hierarchical order inherent in it from its inception.’ (p. 16) Here lies one of the central aims of Arendt’s project: A rehabilitation of vita activia, and especially of the activity of action, the one defining for the human experience of freedom and for politics.

In this project, leisure has a minor role to play. In this article, we managed only to scratch the surface of The Human Condition, as Arendt’s discussion is infinitely richer, more nuanced, and decidedly more extensive. Here, there was no time to address the activities of labour, work and action in more depth, nor to discuss the distinction between the public and private spheres, the one central to her thought. Remaining in Greek polis, we never discussed the modernity as Arendt accounts for it, characterising it by the pivotal moment of ‘the rise of the social’.

Many things were left unsaid: But then, this piece is about leisure, also known as spare time, time off, recreation, relaxation, inactivity or pleasure—as such, not a piece to ask for too much focus. Unless, perhaps, one may now be willing to see a bit more of skhole in leisure and perhaps decides to engage in the activity that ultimately gave name to what so many are currently taking a well deserved time off from. If so, then I would recommend The Human Condition as a summer ‘leisure’ choice.

Photos: Edgar Talbot

Lives in Copenhagen, volunteers at Ark, has a degree in philosophy and political science. Wrote his thesis on the notion of Angst in Heidegger’s philosophy, his dissertation on Arendt's account of totalitarianism.

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