The Wikipedia entry on “Otium”

Roman soldiers at rest.

I didn’t know terribly much about this word or its history and even reading most or all of this Wikipedia entry I’m not sure how much I’m closer to getting much that is useful out of it. But it’s still pretty interesting how a words etymology and general meaning can shift with cultures and time.

Here’s a few interesting passages:

He who does not know how to use leisure . . .

has more of work than when there is work in work.

For to whom a task has been set, he does the work,

desires it, and delights his own mind and intellect:

in leisure, a mind does not know what it wants.

The same is true (of us); we are neither at home or in the battlefield;

we go here and there, and wherever there is a movement, we are there too.

The mind wanders unsure, except in that life is lived.

I especially love those first two lines because I had never thought about leisure and work in such a way even though it now seems really obvious. If you don’t know how to take it easy (and I’d argue knowing how to play too) then working for you may very well be a more difficult experience.

Some linguistic history:

Otium is an example of the usage of the term “praeterpropter”, meaning more or less of leisure. It was first used in military terms related to inactivity of war.[9] In ancient Roman times soldiers were many times unoccupied, resting and bored to death when not at war (i.e., winter months, weather not permitting war).[9] This was associated with otium otiosum (unoccupied and pointless leisure—idle leisure). The opposite of this was otium negotiosum (busy leisure) – leisure with a satisfying hobby or being able to take care of one’s personal affairs or one’s own estate. This was otium privatum (private leisure), equal to negotium (a type of business).

Of course, sometimes laziness has been mistaken for…well, not being lazy…

German historian Klaus Bringmann shows in Cicero’s works that one can not characterize him as a hypocrite while in otium because of his sense of duty to serve the state.[40] Cicero’s concept of otium does not mean selfish pursuit of pleasure. It means the well-earned leisure which is a culmination of a long career of action and achievement. It’s a reward. Idleness (desidia) had derogatory implications and unqualified otium was a problem for Cicero’s elite group of followers. Its break away from civic affairs contrasted with negotia publica, participation in civic affairs of the republican aristocracy.[41] To distinguish between plain “idleness” and aristocratic otium homestum, otium liberale or otium cum dignitate, writers of the day said that literary and philosophical pursuits were worthwhile activities and that they had benefit to res publica (the general public). These pursuits were a type of ’employment’ and therefore not mere laziness.[42][43]

Somehow I don’t think serving the state and dedicating one’s life to it is going to result in much leisure. And though I appreciate Cicero’s other distinction that leisure can take on many different forms he seems to have mostly had in mind devotion to the polis. And honestly, leisure should be correctly seen as something that one does either as a form of self-care or as a form of just fucking around for one’s sake. It can be used for social good or benefit obviously but I’m not sure it should be centered around that. To me, that just makes it sound like we should de-emphasize the role of the individual in their own time and how they want to spend it.

And then there’s this…

Cicero’s idea of otium cum dignitate (leisure with dignity) is considerably different from today’s version of the concept. In his time, this kind of “free time” was only for the few privileged elite and was mostly made possible by the toil of slaves. It was associated with an egotistic and arrogant lifestyle, compared to those who had to earn their own living with no slaves. Today technology and educational systems enter into the equation on making leisure time (otium) available to almost everyone, not just the privileged elite, which enables the pursuit of hobbies.[46] Cicero has a number of different concept versions for otium. In one concept he feels that a lifetime of loyalty attending one’s duty (maximos labores) should be rewarded with some form of retirement. This then promotes great sacrifices which promotes civic peace with honor within the state. He points out that the tranquillity one enjoys is due to the efforts of the majority. This concept of retirement through a lifetime of work was enjoyed only by the ruling class and the elite. The common people could only hope to enjoy a leisurely retirement with dignity as an inheritance.

There’s a huge historical problem with leisure being seen as a “privileged” thing or something for only the wealthy class. But here at Abolish Work our slogan is based around the idea that there should be no class but a class of people who are free to play, leisure and relax as much as they want. Productively or non-productively.Leisure and play should be for us all and not restricted to when we are children or when we are wealthy.

And again a lot of Cicero’s ideas of leisure comes down to things we should be doing out of societal duty instead of some duty to ourselves or some idea of what we want.

Eventually Cicero reveals his hand:

Seneca compares the difference in the Epicurean and Stoic choice of otium. He confesses that classic Stoicism urges active public life while Epicurus has a tendency not to advance public life unless forced to. Seneca views Stoicism and Epicureanism as legitimate to inaction in the proper situations. He defends the Stoic philosophy as leaning toward otium. The main responsibility for the Stoic is to benefit the public in some manner. This could be done by the cultivation of virtue or the research of nature in retirement. This would mean a life of meditation and contemplation rather than an active political life. Seneca shows that otium is not really “free time”, but a study of other matters (i.e., reading, writing) other than political and career gains.

It would seem to me that people who are just interested in leisure as mainly a means to an end don’t really understand the benefits of leisure. Leisure can certainly be used (and in my opinion is and should be used) as a springboard to productive activity but that doesn’t mean it is all about that. Sometimes leisure is just done for its own sake because we need to relax or take a break or recover our energies. I took a nap earlier today instead of going for a run not because I wanted to run later on (it’d be too dark by then) but because I felt tired and felt like I should relax myself. When I awoke I felt that I could better concentrate on my pursuits for the day but that was a side-effect and not an intended effect.

Anyhow, check out this Wiki entry for yourself, it’s got a ton of interesting things to think about!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *