Fighting the Great Battle for Leisure

Many classical writers regard the Greek thinker Antisthenes (c. 445-365 BCE) as the founder of Cynicism — a school of philosophy that taught rigorous asceticism as the path to happiness and virtue. For later cynics, Antisthenes’ close association with Socrates became equally important to his ideas. (In the world of ancient philosophy, the legitimacy of a theory was often measured by how closely it aligned with Socratic thinking.)

One of Antisthenes’ principle contributions to the doctrines of Cynicism was the idea that leisure is more precious than wealth. When someone pointed out his poverty, Antisthenes retorted that, “leisure, the most enviable thing of all, is always mine to enjoy. It allows me to delight in those sights and sounds that I most prize and that merit my attention. But most of all it gives me whole days free to spend with Socrates” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives 6.44; trans. Dobbin 2012:21).

Imagine asking Antisthenes, “What would you do you if you were the wealthiest person in the world? How would you spend your time if money was no object?”

To this, Antisthenes would probably reply, “Why, I’d wander around the city taking in all the sights and spectacles, and I’d spend as much time as possible hanging out and chatting with Socrates.”

And this is exactly what Antisthenes did, even though he barely had a penny to his name. The pursuit of money, according to cynics, is a stress-inducing liability, not the means to an end of relaxation. Leisure, the end goal, is only accessible if it is taken up now, not propped up as an imaginary trophy at the end of some arduous race.

Contrary to common knowledge, the cynics taught wealth only impedes leisure. A century later, Bion of Borysthenes, another cynic philosopher, taught the wealthy do not really own their fortunes — their fortunes own them. When someone asked Bion, “Who suffers the most from anxiety?” he replied, “Whoever is most ambitious to succeed” (Lives 4.50, 48; trans. Dobbin 2012:73-4).

Two and a half centuries later, this Cynic principle of personal autonomy over wealth still held significant currency. Demetrius, a close friend of Seneca, is quoted as saying, “I want to inspect at leisure the things you are ready to pay for with your life and blood” (Seneca, De beneficiis 7.9.1, trans. Dobbin 2012:87). To understand this principle is to grasp a large portion of the cynic heart. Society is — and always has been — full of people running helter-skelter after the promise of ease, luxury, and peace. But the cynic decries the pursuit. Ambition itself is the enemy of leisure, not the procurer of comfort. To chase after leisure is to leave it behind. To be virtuous is to learn how to desire and appreciate what one can enjoy right now. Everything else is an ill-fated rat race.

Of course, you do not need to be a card-carrying member of the Cynic school of philosophy to find some value in this perspective. Sri H.W.L. Poonja (1910-1997), the Hindu teacher, perhaps said it as well as anyone: “Any attempt to find peace is throwing a stone into a calm lake. Peace is already here” (Poona 2000:216).

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