Aristotle Research Report #10: σχολή

by Peter Saint-Andre


In Nicomachean Ethics X.7, Aristotle mentions almost in passing that "we engage in unleisured pursuits so that we may be at leisure" (1177b5). In Politics Book VIII, where he discusses the role of music in human life, he expands on this idea:

Nature itself strives not only to be busy in the right way but also to be capable of being at leisure in a beautiful way. For this one principle governs everything, so let us speak about it again. If one has need of both, but being at leisure is more worthy of choice and more an end than being busy, what needs to be sought out is what one ought to spend one's leisure doing. (1337b28-33)

Aristotle goes on to explore why educators specifically introduced music into the curriculum for young people, concluding that "it is for that part of life one spends in leisure", which is "the way of life suited to free people" (1338a20-25). Thus "music is to be used to enhance the joy of living and a way of life suited to freedom" (1339b4-5).

He makes a similar argument with regard to the love of wisdom (i.e., philosophy) and intellectual work in general: it is serious, inquisitive, self-contained, innately enjoyable, and leisurely.

In her book Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship, Lorraine Smith Pangle provides a beautiful summary of Aristotle's insights here:

Most of us do not spend much time cultivating activities that are good in themselves and not frivolous, but we do recognize them: music, good conversation, gazing into a lover's eyes, learning and contemplating what we know, a quiet, deep enjoyment of what is beautiful. Most of us are too restless and too lazy to spend much time in such pursuits. We are ourselves not talented or accomplished in the arts, and being a spectator is less satisfying than being actively engaged in them. We find thinking difficult and unpleasant, and we are too agitated to contemplate anything for long. We need problems to tackle and common enemies to fight to give depth to our friendships, exams to take and performances to give to keep us learning and practicing, courses to teach and publication deadlines to keep us thinking. But all of these things are ultimately crutches and should be frankly regarded as such.

As David Roochnik notes in Retrieving Aristotle in an Age of Crisis, the Greek word for leisure is, ironically, σχολή - the root of our English words school and scholar. Yet nowadays we find nothing restful about schooling and scholarship. By contrast, although Aristotle was incredibly productive, he held that true learning emerges from a more leisurely approach, driven not by the desire for honors or money or fame but by the sheer love of inquiry and creativity. Naturally, few people have the requisite financial means or psychological makeup to live that way, but more fundamentally it is an ideal that we have almost completely lost touch with. The grievous effects of that loss are all around us.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal