via Crisis Magazine
by Dusty Gates
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.”
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.