Leisure frees us from oppression

Leisure and Oppression

How being useless makes us human

Leisure, literature, philosophy – all superfluous, idle pleasures of the upper echelons.  

These are not activities for the poor and the downtrodden. They should learn real, practical things, so they may escape. Leisure will be their reward.

It is this very thought that reinforces the cycle of poverty. 

This article is about the power of leisure – to dignify and uplift the oppressed. But further than that, it is an exploration of what makes us human, why our humanity is currently under threat, and what we may do to resist.

A note, on leisure

The Lavish Roman Banquet: A Calculated Display Of Debauchery And Power :  The Salt : NPR

First, let me clarify what I mean when I say ‘leisure’.

The Oxford dictionary defines leisure as: “time when one is not working or occupied; free time”. This definition sucks.

Now I guess I can’t really blame Oxford for their, well, heinous crime. The definition is ‘accurate’ – to most, leisure is just an absence of work. The blame really lies with us, and, of course, capitalism. Leisure needs to be reimagined and redefined.

The big problem is that we see it in terms of work, as if it exists for the sake of work – just another way of being more productive. This is a misconception that begs correction. Work exists for the sake of leisure, not vice versa.

But we’ll get to that later.

It hasn’t always been like this either. This is one of those words, that over time has lost all its subtle meaning and profundity. Originally, leisure was something done “without haste, with deliberation“, and was seen in a positive sense, as the “opportunity to do something” with connotations of “capacity, ability, freedom”.

In other words, it is not lounging around on a chais, sensuously dangling grapes (but never actually eating them) and sampling red wine from crystal glasses.

Neither is it mindlessly scrolling through Facebook. 

It is something worthwhile, if not necessarily productive (by which I mean having a product): It is learning, art, music, contemplation, just sitting in nature, prayer, reflection, meditation and the like.  It has value independent of its results, because the action itself is satisfying and fulfilling.

Now let’s look at the other side of the story — oppression.

Oppression is self-Perpetuating

brown rope in close up photography

Oppression is self-perpetuating.

After being imposed, it quickly takes on a life of its own, like a virus. It is passed down the from generation to generation, through two cycles:

  1. The physical cycle. This is the traditional ‘poverty cycle’, where parents lack money and education, and so the child also lacks money and education, and can’t escape poverty.
  2. The mental cycle. The more pernicious and overlooked of the two. Children inherit an attitude of submission and defeat, and begin to live this lie.

‘It’s bad enough,’ she said severely, ‘when a country gets colonised, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end.’ – Nyasha (Nervous Conditions)

This is one of the central themes of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions. She explores how, long after legal oppression has ceased in Rhodesia, colonisation lingers in the mindset of the people:

A mystical, godlike aura envelops the ‘whites’. When natives are educated, it is a divine gift, rather than their right. This attitude is self-propagated, and has established itself in the very heart of Shona culture.

Because of this, their inferiority seems natural, even divinely ordained – so why fight against it? Why even question it?

Tambu’s mother takes her oppression, and the burden it brings, for granted, as a fact of life – constant as the waxing and waning of the moon:

‘This business of womanhood is a heavy burden,’ she said. ‘How could it not be? Aren’t we the ones who bear children? When it is like that you can’t just decide today I want to do this, tomorrow I want to do that, the next day I want to be educated! When there are sacrifices to be made, you are the one who has to make them. And these things are not easy; you have to start learning them early, from a very early age. The earlier the better so that it is easy later on. Easy! As if it is ever easy. And these days it is worse, with the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other. Aiwa! What will help you, my child, is to learn to carry your burdens with strength.’

And another:

Accept your lot and enjoy what you can of it. There is nothing else to be done.

How can someone escape oppression, if they don’t even believe they deserve to, or that it exists as something that can be escaped?

I am not implying that oppression is something that can be easily cast aside once realized. It is difficult to escape habits of thought, especially those we grew up with, as the novel clearly shows, and as we all know. Tambu’s liberation is a messy, painful process, that requires her to severe herself from Shona culture altogether, so entrenched has this mindset of oppression become.

Leisure is useless

Let’s recap:

  1. Leisure is any inherently worthwhile activity (one that does not derive value from results).
  2. Oppression exists, to a debatably large extent, in the minds of people.

Leisure, in the most basic sense of the word, is use-less. It’s products do not matter.

This is its greatest attraction. It is what makes it instrumental in alleviating oppression.

Human traffiking for forced labor – a problem of contemporary society |  Asociatia PRO REFUGIU

Poverty necessitates brutal hours of work, which leaves neither the time nor energy for leisure.

The person becomes a tool. Others measure them by their usefulness – much as we would measure the worth of an axe by it’s ability to chop wood. And they begin to measure themselves by the same standard, finding self-worth not in the fact of their humanity, but in their products, contributions and results.

Leisure breaks this cycle. Through it, a person realizes their intrinsic human worth. They realize they are valuable, because they can engage in uniquely human and inherently worthwhile activities – contemplation, prayer, art, music – and have something unique and important to contribute, because they have had unique and important experiences.

Leisure asserts the value of life for the sake of life, because it shows that we are valuable, regardless of what we produce. In this our self-worth restored, based upon the solid foundation of our humanity, rather than the shifting sands of usefulness.

For the oppressed, it shows them they are deserving of an education, of a good life, and of equal status to their oppressors. Because to escape oppression, you must first believe you are deserving of freedom.

A Compelling Vision For Humanity — The Youth Cafe | Youth Empowerment in  Africa | Creating a Better Future

Once again, I turn to Nervous Conditions to demonstrate my point (it’s such a great book).

In the novel, children are expected to advance familial interests, or be deemed worthless. As a result, children measure their own worth by what they can contribute to the family.

Take this quote for example:

I often felt superfluous in those days, but there in the camaraderie of the cooking, it was comfortable to occupy the corner that that same natural process had carved out for me. It was comfortable to recognise myself as solid, utilitarian me.

Tambu, when first starting her education, feels “superfluous”, because she is not making concrete contributions to the family. Only in cooking, where she can prove her usefulness, does she feel valuable. This is a sad state to live in.

It is a state she is conditioned to:

‘You are quite a little worker,’ they said… Their praise made me feel better. It made me feel good. My confidence returned; Nyasha would not, I was sure, be able to prepare such a fine stew, certainly not at an open hearth.

But as the novel goes on, she begins to realize her own, intrinsic value. She begins to free herself, tragically, painfully, finding self-worth in the cultivation of her mind, rather than the products of her actions.

On a side note: I represent education as altogether good in this blog post, because I am examining only a certain facet of it (the good one). The novel itself portrays education as multi-faceted, and questions its goodness. Don’t get the wrong impression. I’m here to talk about leisure, not education.

Leisure dignifies and ennobles

But beyond restoring a basic sense of humanity, leisure can cultivate and elevate this human core of ourselves. It not only allows escape, but provides a refuge from inescapable suffering, and may assert our dignity in the most demeaning conditions.

It elevates the oppressed to the level of their oppressors. They can become equals, and superiors – spiritually, emotionally and intellectually. Physical oppression is perhaps the most obvious, but also the least significant. It may be endured through inner wealth created in leisure.

Similar to how fiction serves as an escape from the real world, leisure – learning, music, contemplation – cultivates a rich inner life, that one may retreat to. Our mind becomes an inviolable sanctuary, saturated in thought and imagination, with its own inner music.

Here are men going afar to marvel at the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the long courses of great rivers, the vastness of the ocean, the movements of the stars, yet leaving themselves unnoticed and not seeing it as marvelous that when I spoke of all these things – Saint Augustine

Examples of this can be found in the most dire circumstances:

Malcolm X

Malcolm X - Quotes, Movie & Children - Biography

Malcolm Little entered prison steeped in drugs, sex and crime. There he met John Elton Bembry, who introduced him to rich worlds of thought, and changed his life.

He left Malcolm X, a man of faith, learning and purpose. He had discovered and explored his inner life, and set out to conquer social injustice, energised and dignified by the realization and development of his inner humanity. 

The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

By far my favourite part of The Count of Monte Cristo were the chapters involving the Abbe Faria, a learned Italian gentleman imprisoned alongside Dantes in the Chateau d’If.

This is a man that has spent a large portion of his life in a cell only few meters wide. He has not only survived, but flourished, through the discipline and cultivation of his mind.

I found out that with one hundred and fifty well-chosen books a man possesses, if not a complete summary of all human knowledge, at least all that a man need really know. I devoted three years of my life to reading and studying these one hundred and fifty volumes, till I knew them nearly by heart; so that since I have been in prison, a very slight effort of memory has enabled me to recall their contents as readily as though the pages were open before me.

Having so familiarized himself with these books, he has almost infinitely expanded his inner life, to encompass the thoughts and experiences of dozens of poets, philosophers and scientists. In him there is a vast freedom and depth, extending across thousands of miles and hundreds of years and dozens of cultures. It is a freedom which no one can violate.

“True,” replied Faria, “we are prisoners; but I forget this sometimes, and there are even moments when my mental vision transports me beyond these walls, and I fancy myself at liberty.”

In the expansive realm of his mind, he forgets that he is imprisoned, and is able to defy his physical poverty. This gift he shares with Dantes:

for I will freely confess that my historical labors have been my greatest solace and relief. While retracing the past, I forget the present; and traversing at will the path of history I cease to remember that I am myself a prisoner

These different sciences that you have made so easy to me by the depth of the knowledge you possess of them, and the clearness of the principles to which you have reduced them—this is my treasure, my beloved friend, and with this you have made me rich and happy. Believe me, and take comfort, this is better for me than tons of gold and cases of diamonds To have you as long as possible near me, to hear your eloquent speech,—which embellishes my mind, strengthens my soul, and makes my whole frame capable of great and terrible things, if I should ever be free,—so fills my whole existence, that the despair to which I was just on the point of yielding when I knew you, has no longer any hold over me; and this—this is my fortune—not chimerical, but actual. I owe you my real good, my present happiness; and all the sovereigns of the earth, even Caesar Borgia himself, could not deprive me of this.”

Dantes has no practical use for this knowledge. But it has power; to elevate him above the meanness of prison, and to open his soul to the heavens themselves. It is an escape and a delight that none can take away.

Leisure is the ultimate expression and assertion of human freedom.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

How did Victor Frankl survive Auschwitz?

He had a purpose: to complete the manuscript he had started, which later became his book Man’s Search for Meaning.

His mind remained active in contemplation of human nature. He cultivated, painstakingly, an inner life of thought, a refuge from his physical suffering.

In the deepest pits of suffering, only leisure may preserve humanity and dignity, may deny the hold of the physical over the spiritual and intellectual.

Why You Should Care

Rob on Twitter: "“Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of  poverty and ignorance." -George Orwell https://t.co/5hmqLsSkT3" / Twitter

Oppression takes many forms, some less severe, and less obvious, than others.

Capitalism is a machine, generating money, pumping that money back into itself, so it may generate more. All we humans do is siphon some of that profit. In exchange we maintain the machine – tightening screws, greasing wheels, replacing cogs – and power it, shovelling coal, operating bellows. Or maybe we’re more like a hamster on its wheel, in endless rows, seeing only the rewards ahead.

Two films come to mind.

First is Mortal Engines, a decent movie about ‘cities on wheels’ that really exploited my love of steampunk. The only difference is that we don’t steer the machine. It steers us. Inevitably forward.

The other is The Matrix. Especially that terrifying scene where Neo wakes up, and sees the real world for the first time – all those humans tricked into powering this gargantuan machine. The whole thing is just a crazy metaphor for capitalism.

What a great film.

This machine doesn’t care about you and me. It cares about feeding itself. So it determines our value based on what we contribute to it.

And this machine is really smart. It realizes we don’t care about it either. Herein lies the genius of the whole system: It determines our value, then ‘rewards’ us with money and consumer goods. And, because others can see these ‘rewards’, we are motivated to work not only by material prizes, but by the praise of those around us. Capitalism harnesses our self-serving nature, and our need for social approval, for its own growth.   

And so we work, on and on, supposedly for ourselves. In reality, though, we’re just feeding the machine. 

Now what is this wackjob getting at? you might ask. That’s a good question. But first, a brief diversion.

Now, admittedly, I’ve been very dramatic. Some would say over-dramatic. But, in my defense, I had a lot of fun writing that section. Can you really blame me?

Okay, okay, I don’t really think we’re hamsters on wheels, or brains in vats. And capitalism isn’t really this malicious, sentient machine. In fact, it’s done many great things.

But I do believe that we are all, to some extent, being tricked into working harder than necessary. This has some serious, even dire, repercussions:

Because of all this, man’s value has become measurable; wealth and fame his currency.

We are conditioned to think someone who works harder, sleeps less – and as a result contributes more to society – is worth more than those who don’t. This pattern of thought is reinforced by the ‘rewards’ I mentioned earlier – praise, wealth, consumer goods – which are given to those deemed ‘valuable’, making them ‘successful’. We covet these rewards, implicity acknowledging their value, and the worth of those who already have them.  

Now you might think you are free from this. That you don’t judge other’s value by their success. But I would argue that we are all victims, whether we are aware or not. 

Just consider these two variations of the trolley problem:

There is, of course, the basic problem: The train is going to kill five people, but you could divert it, killing only one. It’s a difficult choice. I wouldn’t interfere.

But what if those five people are eminent and successful – perhaps a hotshot young lawyer from some big New York firm; a critically acclaimed author; a top neurosurgeon; a software engineer working on cutting edge AI; maybe your favourite celebrity – that’s a different story.

Now let’s imagine the other guy is some street bum, lazy and without skills. Or maybe he’s just an average office worker.

Suddenly, the decision becomes much easier.

This response proves, that to some extent, we have been conditioned to make judgements about human value based on success.

And because we judge other’s worth by the standard of success, we naturally judge ourselves by the same criteria.

In other words: We confuse and conflate our inherent human worth with our contribution to society. We forget our intrinsic worth, independent of our results and contributions and products. Our humanity is erased. Oppressed.

Like those in poverty, we think we exist to work. We are better off, physically, yet suffer from the same spiritual impoverishment.

Leisure is our only hope.

Leisure is, far from an idle pleasure, a human right, perhaps the most fundamental human right, because it deals with our most basic essence – our humanity. It is not the reward of riches and retirement, but should be shared by all. For in it, our oppression, no matter how ordinary and innocuous a guise it wears, even if there are “spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains which weigh men down”, is undone. We are freed in the realization that work exists for the sake of life, not vice versa; in the realization that we have intrinsic value, independent of contribution. We are freed in the realization of our humanity.

Leisure is not a specific activity. It can be reading and writing poetry, or hiking in nature, or just spending time with friends and family. It takes many forms, wears many garments – it is up to you to discover the one, or many, that fit you, the unique expressions of your being – ‘hobbies’ some call them, as if they are but trivial accessories to a life of work.

Don’t succumb to the endless demands of work and society. Find the things that satisfy you, that are important to you, and invest in them, now, because they are, quite profoundly, the essence of your humanity.

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Brian Scoles
7 months ago

“Leisure, literature, philosophy – all superfluous, idle pleasures of the upper echelons. 
These are not activities for the poor and the downtrodden. They should learn real, practical things, so they may escape. Leisure will be their reward.”

Louis, as I read your opening lines, I couldn’t help but recall a truly remarkable book:The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose. He paints a very different picture.


7 months ago
Reply to  Brian Scoles

Those lines are a sort of ‘set up’ or hook. The thesis of my article is the exact opposite.

The following line: “It is this very thought that reinforces the poverty cycle” is a direct attack on the preceding lines.