Bill Bennett, Larry Eustachy, and Mike Price would probably agree with T. S. Eliot — April is the cruelest month. That’s when gotcha squads were gathering the evidence that would publicly humiliate them. By the first week of May, Bennett had to acknowledge that he’s a gambler, Eustachy that he’s an alcoholic, and Price that he’s a swinger. The separate incidents reveal a common trait in American life: Despite the live-and-let-live credo of most Americans, when it comes to certain public figures, we still possess remnants of a Victorian shame culture.
Apparently none of the men broke civil laws to pursue his pleasure. Debatable is the degree to which any of them broke God’s laws. (I certainly am not competent to judge.) But the social reaction has been terribly swift. Many admirers of these men feel betrayed. Each was a role model who violated — at the very least — a social trust with young people and families. Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues, is now likened to the Puritan scold who was constantly frowning upon the vices of others while lustily indulging one of his own. Eustachy, the recently fired basketball coach at Iowa State University, turned out to be a heavier drinker than many of his young charges. And Price, the recently fired football coach at the University of Alabama, was a bit too interested in ogling topless women.
Without excusing the behavior of these three men, we should not be naïve about the human condition. No one — not even the most saintly among us — is entirely successful at keeping the lid on disordered appetites. Of course, some people reveal their shortcomings more transparently than others. The lustful get STDs. The slothful cannot hold down a job. The wrathful leave a trail of broken objects and broken relationships. Still, even those who successfully conceal their disordered passions, who seem perfectly righteous in polite society, struggle in their conscience with something — and frequently fall short. As the late Fritz Wilhelmsen of the University of Dallas used to observe, “Everyone must give Bacchus his due.” Each one of us has some stubborn peccadillo or sin that keeps puncturing our moral shield. To deny the fact is as prideful as it is deluded.
As Bennett, Eustachy, and Price could tell you, Bacchus especially wants his due after the day’s work is done. During the night. In dimly lit spaces. Beyond the reach of our neighbors’ eyes. That is to say, disordered appetites are usually indulged when we have leisure time.
Now we are hitting upon something truly interesting, for leisure rightly considered should be a nursery not of vice, but of virtue.
This requires explanation because, unfortunately, “leisure” has become one of the most deflated words in currency. In common parlance, it simply means free time; it’s a neutral term without moral edge. The word’s impoverishment is apparent in its adjectival use: We speak of leisurewear, leisure suits, and Leisure World. But previous generations that went through the rigors of a classical education were likely introduced to a more challenging concept of the word. The ancient Greeks believed leisure is much more than free time. It is free time well used, free time with a moral mission. In the Politics, Aristotle makes this arresting assertion:
The first principle of all action is leisure…. Leisure is better than occupation and is its end; and therefore the question must be asked, what ought we to do when at leisure? Clearly we ought not to be amusing ourselves, for then amusement would be the end of life.
Aristotelians see human time divided into three major spheres: (1) working for a living, (2) recovering from working for a living, and (3) leisure time. Leisure is the highest use of time. It is the antithesis of “wasting time” or “killing time” with diversions and amusements. Nor is it rest and relaxation; the downtime we need to recover from work should really be considered an extension of work.
Leisure is time beyond that which is needed to recover from work. It is the time when we can detach ourselves from immediate needs and concerns, and pursue beauty, truth, and goodness for their own sake. Thus understood, leisure is recreational in the old sense of the word, and indispensable to achieving our human potential.
Over the centuries, Aristotle’s idea of leisure would capture the imagination of many a writer. Thinkers as various as Plutarch, Hobbes, and Thoreau would unpack its meaning. Most would stress that leisure is inseparable from education. This is why our word for school is derived from the Greek word for leisure and learned discussion, schole. One must be taught that leisure is the purposeful use of free time to improve oneself intellectually, morally, and spiritually; that it is habituating the mind to seek higher over lower pleasures; that it is training the heart to find fulfillment in virtue over vice; that it is educating the intellect to discern between ordered and disordered attachments. This purposeful use of our free time, of our leisure, increases our share of wisdom and virtue. Befitting free men and women, true leisure is indispensable to a self-governing polity.
Religious thinkers have written at length about leisure. For them leisure includes the time one spends at prayer and at worship, restoring a right relationship with the Creator. Leisure is a kind of spiritual work, revealed in the word “liturgy,” which is derived from the ancient Greek word for “work.” This, too, is recreational in the old sense. The official Catechism of the Catholic Church observes:
The sabbath brings everyday work to a halt and provides a respite. It is a day of protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money. …With temperance and charity the faithful will see to it that they avoid the excesses and violence sometimes associated with popular leisure activities. …The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement.
For religious writers, leisure is serious business. The Mexican priest Marcial Maciel urges the faithful to examine their conscience about the use of time:
I am convinced that when we appear before the Lord, one of the first points which we will have to account for will be the use we have made of the time that was ours…. On that day we will not be blamed for perhaps missing an opportunity to earn a million dollars, but yes, for having lost a minute.
It seems terrible to me that someone could appear before God and offer Him as the product of 80 years of life, what he could have perhaps produced in only 20 or 40…. I consider this a very grave sin.*
In the last century, some of the most insightful essays about leisure were written by the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper. His Leisure the Basis of Culture, which is still in print, makes an amazing claim. It argues that leisure is the foundation of our civilization. For it is in leisure that our minds are habituated to the beautiful, the true, and the good. Pieper observes that three conditions are necessary for there to be leisure: (1) government that is not coercive, (2) property or income that is higher than a subsistence level so that people have free time, and (3) the opportunity to overcome “internal poverty” through a liberal-arts education.
The liberal arts are essential to leisure, yet leisure is not just a function of knowledge. Even after acquiring knowledge of beauty, truth, and goodness, people must have the will to pursue them. It is an historical truism that the ruling classes of ancient societies lost the ability to govern as they lost the will to use their time well; they sank into decadence and could no longer mount a defense of their lives or civilization.
Bill Bennett knows all these things. Both as a practicing Catholic and as a professionally trained philosopher, he is familiar with the Aristotelian idea of leisure. When he compiled The Book of Virtues and The Moral Compass, he was pointing Americans in the direction of leisure, properly understood. Many readers have no doubt been improved by his books.
There is no excusing Bennett’s waste of time on gambling. But I humbly suggest that revelations of his moral lapse should elicit less Schadenfreude and more introspection. We all could spend our days better and — just occasionally — find more time for true leisure.
* Marcial Maciel, Time and Eternity (Hamden, CT: Center for Integral Formation, 1995), pp. 11-12.
— Gleaves Whitney is the editor of American Presidents: Farewell Addresses to the Nation, recently published by Rowman & Littlefield.