By Jonathan Rogers, reprinted from “The Habit,” his weekly newsletter about writing. To subscribe, click here.
When I was growing up in Warner Robins, Georgia, there was a subdivision called “Leisure World.” It wasn’t a retirement community or a neighborhood of vacation homes. It was just a place where people lived with their families. Best I could tell, most of the grown-ups had jobs. Leisure World, in other words, wasn’t a world of only leisure.
It didn’t occur to me that Leisure World was a funny name for a subdivision until after I had moved away. The neighborhood association eventually wised up and changed the name to Beaver Glen. Which seems a shame to me. I think Aristotle would think it a shame too.
Most of us, I suspect, think of leisure as a kind of absence—the absence of work, the absence of activity, the absence or worry or concern. That is to say, most of us think of work or activity as the norm and rest or leisure as an interruption of the norm.
I was surprised, therefore, to learn that in Latin, the word negotium, meaning “business” or “employment,” literally means the absence of leisure or rest:
neg (not) + otium (leisure or rest)
Leisure is the norm in that scenario, and work is the interruption. It’s the reverse of the way we think of things.
The same thing happens in the Greek word ascholia, which also means “work” or “busy-ness.” The root is schole—the leisure to think, talk, philosophize, make art (the things scholars do at school)—with the prefix a-, which means “the absence of.” (I’m getting all this, by the way, from the first chapter of Josef Pieper’s book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture.)
Negotium isn’t the only Latin word for “work”; there are also labor and opus, for instance. Also, other Greek words for “work” (pragma and ergon for two) were more common than ascholia. I don’t wish to suggest that the Greeks and Romans only thought of work as an interruption of leisure. I merely point out that they at least thought in those terms enough to inspire a word in each language.
“We work in order to be at leisure,” wrote Aristotle. Or, as Pieper renders it, “We are not-at-leisure in order to be-at-leisure.” Or, as the 80s band Loverboy renders it, “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” As a somewhat earnest teenager I thought the idea of “working for the weekend” betrayed an insufficiently serious approach to life and work. I had no idea that Loverboy was just paraphrasing Aristotle—assuming that Loverboy, like Aristotle, devoted their leisure hours to philosophy, reading, friendship, feasting, etc.
These ruminations were occasioned by an article from The Wall Street Journal: “How Being More Productive Starts with Doing Nothing.” A (free) login is required, so I’ll summarize: Counterintuitive though it sounds, you’ll be more productive if you take more mental breaks. (It’s possible, I realize, that the Wall Street Journal doesn’t understand how many breaks I’m taking already.) Appealing to neuroscience, writer Annemarie Dooling says that mindless activity like looking out the window or watching water boil gives your brain a chance to do “cleanup work” and will make you think better and more creatively. She recommends that you take long showers, go for walks, cook big meals, and spend time just sitting doing nothing in order to freshen up the brain and make you more productive when you are actually producing. All good suggestions, if you ask me. She also suggests that you play mindless swiping games on your phone. I can’t get behind that one.
It seems to me, however, that this article gives good advice for the wrong reasons. It treats leisure and rest as a means toward greater productivity. That’s a reversal of Aristotle’s dictum.
If “life hacks” like long showers and long walks and staring out the window succeed in making you more productive, what does your philosophy of work and leisure matter? I’ll speak specifically to the writers and artists in the room, but the principles apply no matter what kind of work you do. Creativity requires that you behold and receive. Beholding and receiving require a passive posture toward reality. A mindset consumed with productivity cuts you off from the ability to behold and receive.
I am not suggesting, of course, that productivity is unnecessary. As important as it it to behold and receive, the time comes to start making something out of the things you’ve received. But if you think the meaning of life derives from what you can produce—that is to say, if you worship productivity—you are seriously limiting your ability to produce good creative work. Your hard work isn’t the main source of creativity. Neither is the inside of your head. Good, lasting work can only be the product of a good life. Work is necessary, but it’s not sufficient.
This is all very closely related to the idea of a Sabbath. The Sabbath is a day to behold and to receive, not to produce. And it’s a weekly reminder that the world isn’t going to stop spinning just because you’ve stopped working.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of the Wilderking Trilogy, The Charlatan’s Boy, The World According to Narnia, Saint Patrick, and The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor. You can read more about him, subscribe to his newsletter, or join The Habit Community at his website.