How to start a Civic Renaissance? Recover leisure

Redeeming Scholē, leisure vs. luxury, recommended reading, + more!

Gracious readers,

This week, we’ll explore:

  • How to start a Civic Renaissance: recovering leisure (not luxury)

  • Word of the week: scholē, which refers to the Greek word concept of leisure—incredibly important to the ancient Greeks—and is the root of our modern word school

  • An invitation: Classics without a Classroom

  • Worth reading: CS Monitor article on respect, an essay of mine on why the classics still matter, and an Oakeshott piece on work & play

  • Poll: Civic Renaissance seminars (please vote / send me a note with your thoughts on this!)

How to start a Civic Renaissance? Recover leisure

When one looks at the “renaissances” of human history—eras of “re-birth,” periods of uncommon human achievement, innovation and creativity—one observes a few commonalities.

I’d like to survey these eras and explore these commonalities over the next few issues of CR to better understand the “ingredients” of unlocking human potential on a mass scale. I hope that by doing this, we can learn how we might usher in a civic renaissance today. One essential ingredient is leaders—elites and people of means who care about education, arts, and culture, invest in these things, and take pains to ensure that people of all backgrounds have the opportunity to cultivate themselves and realize their potential. We’ll discuss this in a future CR issue.

Today, we’ll explore another important ingredient in fomenting renaissances—leisure.

Our word of the week is the Greek word scholē. This word describes a concept of leisure that was prized in Ancient Greece and was central to the unprecedented flourishing of human ingenuity in Periclean Athens.

Scholē is also the origin of a modern word and concept that we are all familiar with: school.

Athens under Pericles’ rule is considered a “golden age” for the Greek city. Dated from roughly 480 to 404 BC, this period began after the end of the Persian wars and concluded with the death of Pericles during the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta. This roughly 75-year period is a remarkable testament to human ingenuity:

  • In philosophy, this is the period in which Socrates, Plato and Aristotle taught and wrote.

  • In theater, this era gave us the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—as well as the comedies of Aristophanes.

  • In history, the athenian golden age gave us the historical analysis of Herodotus and Thucydides.

  • In architecture, this epoch saw the construction (orchestrated by Pericles) of the beautiful Acropolis and Parthenon, which to this day symbolize the greatness of Athen’s culture, society, and way of life.

What enabled this incredible burst of human success in such a short period of time?

Part of the answer is scholē.

Scholē is the leisure, the unstructured free time, that Athenians enjoyed which allowed them to cultivate their minds and abilities at such institutions as Aristotle’s Lyceum or Plato’s Academy, all to the end of becoming well-rounded citizens and fully actualized human beings.

Yet as we discovered in a recent CR issue, there is often duality to things that at first glance seem entirely good. In A Tale of Two Parthenons, we discussed how the creation of the Parthenon also led to Athen’s demise.

Similarly, there is a dark side to these unprecedented achievements in the realms of philosophy, theatre, history and architecture.

Scholē was only made possible through the institution of slavery.

Because a subclass of human beings toiled to meet their daily material needs, Athenians citizens had the time to cultivate their minds and fulfill their human potential.

What does all of this mean for us today? Can we appreciate and learn from the good in the ideas and culture that came from this era while still condemning and recognizing the injustice that allowed it to happen in the first place?

How might we revive and redeem the concept of scholē for our own moment today—and even start a civic renaissance?

Today, we are privileged enough to live in an era where we have more wealth, education, and discretionary time than virtually any other era of human history. We also have things like the internet and affordable books that connect us with like-minded people and allow us easy and costless access to the best ideas and written works of human history.

How might a desire to redeem scholē and recover leisure be used to reform our schools and educational system today?

Can we celebrate the good that this concept and era produced, while condemning the bad?

I’d love to hear from you.

Send me a note with your thoughts at ah@alexandraohudson.com

Leisure vs luxury

A few thoughts on the difference between leisure and luxury.

While leisure can certainly feel luxurious, I think it’s important to distinguish these concepts.

Luxury consists of things. Luxury, for example, is the nice car a lawyer drives to and from the office, which he enjoys during those few minutes he isn’t working. (This is far from hypothetical: my husband is a lawyer, and we have many friends that lead this sort of existence—living for the brief moments of joy in their car on their drives to and from work).

Leisure, by contrast, is a frame of mind.

Instead of things, leisure consists of of time and experience.

Leisure can feel indulgent, but true leisure is never decadent. Have you ever been on vacation or out to a day at the same and came away feeling more tired then when you arrived? Such “relaxation” is not genuine leisure, and is often not only self serving, but also self-defeating, foolishly focusing on our physical needs instead of our soulish ones. It sounds counter-intuitive, but over-fixation on the self, and self-indulgence generally, is depleting.

Leisure, by contrast, gets our eyes off ourselves and onto something else. It takes our focus off the flesh and cultivates our ability to see and feel and experience life. Leisure nourishes our soul.

This vision of leisure is difficult to cultivate in an era that tells us that all that matters is what we see, that stuff matters more than the soul, and that the more we serve ourselves that happier we are.

I think our very lives depend on finding ways to resist this materialist way of thinking, and instead to cultivate the disposition of leisure—finding time to cultivate our hearts and minds in our everyday.

Who knows? We might even start a civic renaissance.

What do you think of this distinction between leisure and luxury?

Leave a comment below, or send me a note directly at ah@alexandraohudson.com

An invitation: Classics without a Classroom

Civic Renaissance has partnered with Classical Wisdom—an organization that brings ancient wisdom to modern minds—to discuss the how of scholē, leisure, and the life of the mind.

Register to join the conversation here!

Worth reading: CS Monitor essay on respect, why the classics still matter, work & play

A few essays worth perusing:

  • Civility, politeness, and respect in CS Monitor. I had a great conversation with a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor last month about my work on civility. We discussed the difference between civility and politeness, and how civility relates to respect—which was the topic of his article. He thoughtfully explored my work, and kindly featured me alongside thinkers such as Andrew Sullivan and Cornel West. This essay is the first in a series on respect—a topic that is both timely an important. Read the piece here.

  • Do the Classics Still Matter? I penned an essay on why the classics still matter, why there is more diversity in the classics than people often assume, and what a more diverse and omnicultural core curriculum of great books and thinkers might look like. “‘The Classics’ are simply not a monolithic collection of the works of white, powerful men. The works of the Greek female poet Sappho rival the epic poetry of Homer. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus was a slave. Plutarch, the Roman moralist, strongly advocated the education of women. Zeno of Citium was Phoenician and described as having ‘dark skin.’” Find the essay here.

  • Work and Play. I love this essay by English philosopher Michael Oakeshott. To be human is to be intelligent, he writes. And to be intelligent is to adapt, to progress, to innovate. To innovate is to think beyond our basic needs and to dream about wants. The human project can be said to be the process of meeting our basic needs—and then moving on to both defining, and then even creating, our infinite wants. It is the process of move from living to living well. The human experience is a project from work to play—from survival to leisure, an essential part of being human. It is well worth reading the whole essay here!

Poll: Civic Renaissance Seminars

As the world begins to re-open I’m thinking about what comes next, and where and how this community can continue to learn together.

One idea is Civic Renaissance Seminars, opportunities to dig into ideas and books about the human condition together, either online or in-person .

For example, we could spend an afternoon together online discussing leisure and how to cultivate habits of leisure in our everyday.

Or, we could spend four days exploring this same theme together on the Athenian Riviera in-person.

Is this something you would be interested in participating in—either in person one day or virtually for now?

Vote below, and also please feel free to send me a note with your thoughts on this idea.

Vote on your interest in the idea here.

Civic Renaissance Seminars?

Vote on your preference of in person or online here.

In person or online?

Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance Community!