Aristotle on Work vs. Leisure

The discussion of noble leisure emerges in Aristotle’s theory of education. Education aims at being occupied in the correct manner and at being at leisure in a noble fashion (1337b29). What remains is to understand the difference, on Aristotle’s account, between proper occupation and noble leisure. Leisure, unlike mere amusement, involves pleasure, happiness and living blessedly (1338a1). And this is not possible for those who are occupied (insofar as they are occupied) since occupations aim at some necessary end. So there should be education with a view to leisure, i.e, with a view to things done for their own sake. This, then, is the first distinction; insofar as work and leisure are both good, work is extrinsically good, while leisure is intrinsically good. Aristotle elaborates on this first distinction in the Nicomachean Ethics:


The activity of the practical virtues is exhibited in politics and in affairs of war, and actions concerning these seem to be un-leisurely. Actions in war are completely so, for no one chooses to fight a war for the sake of fighting a war… But political action is also un-leisurely, and beyond taking part in political activity itself, this type of action seeks to gain power and honors, or at least, happiness for the politician himself and for his for his fellow citizens, and is different from political science [theory], which is clearly sought as being different. So among virtuous actions, political actions and actions in war are superior in nobility and greatness, but they are un-leisurely, aim at some end, and are not choiceworthy for their own sake [my italics] (1177b6-18).

The same can be said for activities involving wealth acquisition (household management and commerce); these are good, but only extrinsically so, as each aims at some higher end.


Aristotle also tells us that children should be taught those useful things that are truly necessary, but not all of them, since there is a difference between the tasks of the free and those of the unfree (1337b5). This is the second distinction. “What one acts or learns for also makes a big difference. For what one does for one’s own sake, for the sake of friends, or on account of virtue is not unfree, but someone who does the same thing for others would often be held to be acting like a hired laborer or a slave” (1337b15-20). Earlier, Aristotle remarks famously, “there is no leisure for slaves” (1334a20). Similarly, the activities of farmers, shepherds, craftsmen, etc., will be un-leisurely, even if mixed with play and relaxation; their whole lives will be spent on their occupations. “Amusements are more to be used when one is at work, for one who exerts himself needs relaxation, and relaxation is the end of amusement, and work is accompanied by toil and strain… we should be careful to use amusement at the right time, dispensing it as a remedy to the ills of work” (1337b40). By contrast, to be at leisure is to be free to pursue studies and activities aimed at the cultivation of virtue (such as music, poetry and philosophy). These are properly the ends of noble leisure.


The division between work and leisure is not a strict one on Aristotle’s account. Someone could be occupied part of the time, and devote the rest to the activities at which noble leisure properly aims (Oeconomics, 1345a16). What Aristotle appears to have in mind is “the leisure worthy of a really free man, such as he attains when his political duties have been performed, or such as he already possesses, provided he is financially independent and leads a life of true study or contemplation” (Susemihl and Hicks, 1894, 542).

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