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Leisure: From Ancient Greece To Today

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2829 words Published: 21st Apr 2017

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Leisure, "used as an all-inclusive term to describe the meaning, conditions, functions, and opportunity complex in which recreation / play occurs" (Murphy, p. 22), and can thus be seen as a concept or study which only offers information about the way in which people spend their spare time, but is also actually far more intriguing and multifaceted. An interesting fact is that the term leisure "is derived from the Latin word licere or 'to be permitted to abstain from occupation or service'" (Murphy, p. 24), thus showing the roots of leisure; being free from the physical and forced activities like labour. In this paper I will attempt to examine what precisely leisure entails and how it can be linked to identity formation, as well as depicting the developments in leisure as a concept throughout history. In order to do so, I will touch upon three remarkable periods of the past; first of all Ancient Greece as the era of the great philosophers, then the period around 1900 in Western Europe, and finally I will research the significance of leisure in today's globalising world. Finally, to discuss the relationship between leisure and identity formation, I will incorporate the subsequent topics within each historical time frame;

The concept and 'division/availability' of leisure

The relation between work and leisure

The link between leisure and human development

The social differences between individuals and groups of individuals

After having discussed each time period in detail and having thus constructed a general timeline of leisure, I will round up with a conclusion hoping to have then found answers to the questions surrounding the notion of leisure.

Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece, which is generally considered as the period from "the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BCE to 146 BCE and the Roman conquest of Greece after the Battle of Corinth" (Amazines), can be seen as the era of the great philosophers who we still recognize today. Not only this is what makes Ancient Greece so fascinating, but this is also the period in which leisure as a concept emerged, with the "cultivation of the self interpretation developed by Aristotle (384 B.C. - 322 B.C.)" (Murphy, p. 23). During these days, leisure was seen as an activity used to seek the truth, and the understanding of the self. Contemplation was key, and it was considered a notion of being free, and of not being occupied with work or other commitments. But which exact activities did leisure entail then? I believe that Anderson puts it properly, though from the Greco-Roman perspective; "They learned music and played it and enjoyed the physical arts of war and sport. They were skilled in intellectual conversation, and that consumed much time. But they rarely had an interest in talking about handwork and ordinary labour or even cared to understand its meaning. In their way of life there was no hurry" (Anderson, p. 91). Thus, leisure was at the root of society and its culture, and paved the way for many great philosophers through intellectual discussions.

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But for leisure to exist in the way it did in Ancient Greece as the time free from commitments or work, a distinction had to be made between individuals. This distinction was mainly to allow certain people to engage in leisure, while others were forced to engage in the opposite of leisure; labour and hard work. Or as Murphy puts it; "the aristocratic quality of the Ancient democracy gave the leisure class a tradition of taste and elegance which was maintained by the nobility" (Murphy, p. 24), consequently leisure was made possible for the privileged because slavery existed. The privileged used slavery as a way to express power and control, maybe even only for the sake of being in control over others. But "dominating and bossing others around, are among the first activities that humans, newly empowered, discovered and enjoyed for their own sakes" (Hunnicutt, p. 60), showing that leisure not only existed off contemplation and conversation, but also of horrid activities creating a division between groups of people. Still, "undoubtedly servants and women held in whatever degree of bondage, were able to understand the difference between the times in their lives when service was required of them, and other times when they were free to do more of what they wished" (Hunnicutt, p. 60). So, although leisure is mainly seen as a privilege for the higher classes of men, also the women and slaves experienced leisure to some extent. This shows that the availability of leisure differed depending on your class of gender, but that most likely everybody experienced it to some extend in Ancient Greece.

Therefore, leisure should be seen as key to human development. Not only did it pave the way for great philosophers and religious men, others also used it in connection to their identity as it is part of human nature. For the Greeks, leisure was used as a "cultural arena in which vital questions of human means and ends, of purpose and hence of meaning, have been addressed" (Hunnicutt, p. 58), and thus gave room to answer significant questions concerning life and human-beings since "man is a symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animal" (Geertz, p. 140). Leisure could be seen as a means to understand the meaning of life, and come to know and develop the self. Leisure thus led to identity and self-development through personal growth and freedom, since "the sign of an educated person was active leisure" (Hunnicutt, p. 64).

Industrial Revolution

After the Ancient Greece timeframe as previously discussed, "the leisure tradition established by the Greeks continued through the Middle Ages. The Liberal Arts taught in the universities, the understanding of work and leisure as means to ends, endured" (Hunnicutt, p. 67). And when the Industrial Revolution was ongoing in Europe, leisure was still present but significant changes were gradually taking place in its character and the influence it held in daily life. It could be said that a revolution in human history and leisure occurred when capitalism transformed the role of work, as "one does not work to live, one lives to work" (Pieper, p. 40). Then, work became a spiritual end in itself and was thought to answer the questions vis-à-vis leisure. It also started to take on a submissive role as it was used as a way to achieve and support the highest purpose; work. Subsequently, "work emerged out of the nineteenth century both as the basis of modern culture and as the glue that held societies together" (Hunnicutt, p. 69), and basically took over the role leisure held in Ancient times.

But even though work was key, the concept of spare time, and thus leisure, changed over time after the Industrial Revolution had left its mark. For example, farmers and factory-workers worked six ten-hours days from sunrise to sunset, and it was not until "the sixty-hour work week of 1900 shrank to thirty-nine hours by 1975" (Rosenthal, p. 11), that people possessed more free time to spend on leisure activities of one's own choice. Even though they still had to work hard the work ethic gradually changed, people now possessed a day, and later even two, during which they were free to choose what to do. It was no longer the master who possessed free time and told his slaves what to do, the whole day, every day. More money was now being made, and thus being spend during those few hours or days the workers had off and activities related to sport, education, self-development, and entertainment started to rise. Also, the availability of more and cheaper goods due to the revolution led to an increase in the standard of living, and thus formation of identity. People were slightly and slowly more able to establish themselves as different from others, and to use goods to identify with.

Finally, "it was only in the nineteenth century that the real impact of steam would be fully felt" (Robinson, B). Steam changed the availability of opportunities, as well as leisure. Work was performed faster and more efficient, and changes also happened geographically as factories could now be located anywhere, as well as the workers. Transportation increased due to the invention of railways, and thus leisure opportunities surfaced since people could travel further and were no longer limited to the area they worked and lived in; horizons slowly widened.

The Ancient Greeks were able to see leisure as their 'work', but the workers from the Industrial Revolution could only participate in leisure and 'non-work behaviour' after their long days of labour. Not only the content and value of leisure changed, but also the impact it had on the individual. Since the Industrial Revolution, "Americans have inherited ... a sociopsychological attitude which equates individual self-worth and productivity with working" (Murphy, p. 27), thus showing the influence work had on life and ones goals. The Revolution "created further interest in the individual in society and the responsibilities of society to them, together with the realization that the ultimate power within society is in the hands of those that are governed rather than the governing classes" (Ouedraogo, D). The working class, and thereby the individual and his interests became more important, and people had more choices related to identity formation as mentioned before.

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Today's globalizing world

The changes that took place in leisure in Ancient Greece and around the 1900s show its roots, but also the rudiments that have made leisure to be what it is today. Today, the twenty-first century, leisure still takes up an important place in many aspects of people's lives and is still seen as "time free from work-related responsibilities" (Murphy, p. 27), as well as obligatory household tasks. More and more activities are now acceptable forms of leisure, and more money and time is dedicated to them. Also, due to globalization much more is possible, since the world is brought closer to our home. We now have internet, television, mass media and facilitation of travelling; anything is possible. Too see what function leisure holds in today's society in relation to identity and development, I will look at it from the following perspectives; behavioural, psychological and social.

Behaviour in leisure should be "recognized as an expression of the individual's total self; cognitive, affective, and motor domains are potentially engaged" (Murphy, p. 29). Thus, engaging in leisure is key to personal development since it touches upon many important aspects of the individual. Also, since behaviour is goal-directed, leisure can also be seen as "as direct result of goal-seeking" (Murphy, p. 29), and success or failure in such activities will strongly influence one's mental and physical state, as well as future participation. Also, according to the French sociologist Joffre Dumazedier, "leisure fulfils three functions: relaxation, entertainment, and personal development" (Murphy, p. 30), again showing that leisure is key to self-development through exercising one's capacities.

From the second and psychological perspective, leisure is also important for self-improvement, as "to leisure means to be oneself, to express one's talents, one's capacities, one's potentials" (Murphy, p. 30), as stated by Neulinger. Leisure is a state of mind and being, since it is then that one is free to choose what to do and engage in what brings satisfaction, fulfilment and pleasure. Thus, from the psychological perspective, it would "tend to analyze leisure activities according to the needs they satisfy" (Murphy, p. 31), which can only be fulfilled during free time and not through achievement in work like during the Industrial Revolution was the case. Examples are "needs for sex, independence, understanding, getting along with others" (Murphy, p. 32).

The third perspective is that the social function of leisure, as the "most significant determinant of what one does in leisure is membership in a social group. Leisure is a means for establishing and sustaining intragroup solidarity" (Murphy, p. 32). Friendship and kinship are crucial determents here, and belonging to a social circle with common interests is what individuals aim at through leisure. This can be seen when people participate in sports, theatre, crafts, or other clubs organized to bring those together who are alike. This can also be through identifying with others with similar education, occupation, race, or income; some of the socioeconomic-demographic indicators.

What also plays an important role in leisure, is the newfound presence of choice in this globalizing world. So much is present and available when it comes to activities, resources, knowledge and goods that choice greatly penetrates our culture; it has "transformed not only how we live but also how we think and who we are" (Rosenthal, p. 1), through the presence of excessive choice. We no longer have to give something up in order to gain something else, we can now sometimes "have our cake and eat it too" (Rosenthal, p. 9) and now sacrifice les which made our wants become needs. We have embraced change, and the "necessity to travel down all of life's branches is real to us" (Rosenthal, p. 9). Since we have excessive choice, our leisure has become so broad and open to our own preferences that we can maximize our own potentials through it. Also, since "one hour's work buys six times as much now as it did in 1900" (Rosenthal, p. 12) we can spend much more on leisure, and thus again have to choose less and have more.

Today, we also develop ourselves through 'serious leisure', which is the degree of seriousness tied to an activity as "the activity involvement of these devotes shows a degree of intensity that is consistent with flow experience and a patterns of commitment that joins them with others in a unique ethos of shared meaning and perseverance" (Kleiber, p. 25). Leisure activities of this level can seem to work in some extent, but are free of choice and are therefore sources of "self-esteem, self-actualization, and other psychological and social benefits" (Kleiber, p. 25), showing the great link between serious leisure and development. Also, since leisure in today's globalizing world is less linked to gender and race and more and more available to everybody, it can be seen as a true sources for self-development and identity formation.

Identity formation then takes place not only through serious leisure, but also through more general and simplified versions of leisure. For example, athletics perform sports as their work. For most, engaging in sport is a form of leisure that brings pleasure and self-improvement, but for a true sportsman this is his identity. He is a footballer, he is a rugby player, he is a dancer. Wherever he will go, this part of him will be at the roots of his other actions since he is so serious about it and cannot afford letting other types of leisure take away from what he has achieved; their "identification and commitment is evident in joining groups and sacrificing other aspects of life" (Kleiber, p. 25). This is the same for musicians, many band members identify with their job and consider the musician label to be indistinguishable from their identity.


Leisure can thus truly be seen as a source of self-development and identity formation. Even though leisure has gradually changed throughout the years and has even shown distinct characteristics during when comparing the timeframes, the core has remained the same; free time dedicated activities of one's own choice used to better the self.

To conclude, most noteworthy is the part leisure took up in an individual's life. In Ancient Greece, leisure mainly served as an activity that took up the entire day for the elite, whereas for the slaves it consisted of the little time free from the orders of the master. It was mainly used to engage in intellectual conversations, and plain activities like sports. During the Industrial Revolution this outlook changed, and work became most important and took over the role leisure used to hold in the lives of the elite; self-improvement was achieved through work and not leisure. However, this was also the period when the workers started to protest and managed to receive a better work-week with more free time in the weekend; time free to be dedicated to leisure since money was also more available. Finally, in today's society leisure takes up an maybe even more important role and is still the time dedicated to activities free of choice used to develop the self. Thus, leisure has always played an important role and its nature has remained constant, while its use and availability has changed.


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