Toward a Leisure Ethic: How people spend their time is a fundamental mark of civilization. (Stuart Whatley, Spring 2024, Hedgehog Review)

This preference for leisure over work was hardly unique to Pacific Islanders. Urban and rural artisans in preindustrial England also took it as a given that more free time was better than work, even when more work promised greater monetary returns. When the prices they could command for their goods rose, they saw it as an opportunity not to amass wealth but to work less.2

In this limited respect, they were much like the elites of antiquity and the Middle Ages. In the Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the idea of working beyond what was necessary was abhorrent. Likewise for the Roman elites, though their precise views on leisure differed from those of the Greeks. In both cultures, the word for leisure seems to have come first, with work and business framed as nonleisure—scholé versus aschole in Greek, otium versus negotium in Latin.

Similarly, in later centuries, following the rise of Christendom, religious thinkers generally favored leisure over work (vita contemplativa as opposed to vita activa), because that was how one drew closer to God. Work, after all, was punishment for humankind’s original sin. “The obligations of charity make us undertake righteous business [negotium],” wrote Augustine, but “if no one lays the burden upon us, we should give ourselves up to leisure [otium], to the perception and contemplation of truth.”3

All were expressing a leisure ethic: a worldview in which a preference for free time and intrinsically motivated pursuits is accompanied by an understanding of how time can best be spent.