This entry will include the following essays, 1) "On the Meaning of Sport," 2) “‘What Think You of the Peacock’s Tail?’


            My two short books Play on: From Games to Celebrations and Far Too Easily Pleased: A Theory of Play, Contemplation, and Festivity indicate the basic approach and give further bibliography on these topics. In addition, The Unseriousness of Human Affairs goes into this matter of the relation of sports and philosophy.

            Other essays on these topics:

            1) "On Playing," in The Praise of 'Sons of Bitches': On the Worship of God by Fallen Men; 2) "On the Seriousness of Sports," Vital Speeches, XLIX (February 15, 1983), [also in Another Sort of Learning]; 3) "On Spiritual and Physical Exercises," in The Distinctiveness of Christianity; 4) "On Walking and Jogging," U.S. Catholic, 49 (June, 1979), 18-21; 5) "On Wasting the Best Years of Our Lives," Vital Speeches, LIX (January, 1993), 179-82;

            6) "Ludere Est Contemplari: On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs," The American Benedictine Review, 44 (March, 1993), 99-111; 7) "Aspects of a Theology of Play," The Catholic World, 212 (November, 1970), 69-73.


1) James V. Schall, S. J.


            The Greek philosopher Aristotle (d. 322 B. C.) remarked that play or sport is the closest thing most human beings come to contemplation, to the highest of human activities. Sport perhaps lacks the "seriousness" of contemplating the highest things, yet it contains a liberty and a joy of its own that can only be had if we seriously engage in the play before us.

            Play, by demanding all of our energies and skill to perform either badly or well, takes us out of ourselves. We are at our best when we are looking at something besides ourselves. The best way to catch the meaning of ourselves as physical beings endowed with bodies is to watch those of our kind exerting themselves in the highest of athletic skills, to become hushed as the challenge unfolds, to cheer the play and the winner, to know that good players also lose, to see the spirit suffuse the flesh.

            Aristotle knew of the Olympic Games and their religious and exemplary overtones concerning human limits and human beauty. He meant that play was something for its own sake, something that need not exist, something that was free. But still play was put into being in order to reveal the excellence and limits of the condition of man in his earthly human form when he is striving to be his best. The kinds of games that exist -- the contest games, the vertigo games, the games of chance, and the imitation games -- each reveal a different side of human excellence.

            The closest most people come to pure contemplation is in the beholding of a good game, in being fascinated with the play, the strategy, the uncertainty of its results. We are enthralled by absoluteness of the game, by the time of the game, which is a time outside of the normal day-to-day time. The game we watch itself takes us outside of ourselves and concentrates our attention on something that, like ourselves, need not exist at all, yet in existing holds our complete focus and interest. The game must have an absolute structure of rules, space, and judges or referees who guarantee that the game be what it is, that it be played in its own justice and its own time.

            Games themselves are wholly contained worlds that imitate the play, the dance of the cosmos -- something that itself need not exist but which, none the less, because it does exist, reflects the order out of the nothingness from which it came. The game does not symbolize the chaos but the order of things. And the game signifies the energy, the talent, the peak of human existence in an order of its own possibility, the wonder that it exists at all in its physical excellence, itself a sign of its spiritual depths.

            The game, the sport is worthwhile playing for its own sake. Yet, this thing that is worthwhile doing -- the race, the championship, the vault, the goal -- stands out against the dullness of ordinary things as light and glory. This light or glory is not merely of itself but it reflects something that exists at all, something that reflects a higher origin of all things, including human things.

            In The Laws (d. 347 B.C.), when he finally describes our human lives at their highest, Plato remarks that we should "live out our days playing at certain games -- sacrificing, singing, and dancing...." The seriousness of sports takes us to the seriousness of what is. "Play Ball!" "Let the Games go on!" These are the cries of those who realize that the only way to know the wonder of life itself is to live it, to engage in it, in its own order and its own time with the seriousness of joy that shows forth the excellence that is ours as we play.


2) Published in Vital Speeches, LXVIII (June 1, 2002), 508-12. Lecture delivered at Northern Virginia Community College, April 11, 2002.


Of Things For Their Own Sakes: Leisure, Sport, And Beauty


            Let me begin by recalling and citing three basic propositions that serve to set the tone and

content for what I want to maintain here:

            1) “For six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest....”

– Exodus, 34:21.

2) “There are branches of learning and education which we must study merely with a view to leisure spent in intellectual activity, and these are to be valued for their own sake; whereas these kinds of knowledge which are useful in business are to be deemed necessary and exist for the sake of other things.”

– Aristotle, Politics, 1338a10-12.

3) “He (an old friend) once maintained the paradox, that there is no beauty but in utility. ‘Sir, said I (Johnson), what say you to the peacock’s tail, which is one of the most beautiful objects in nature, but would have as much utility if its feathers were all of one colour?’”

Boswell’s Life of Johnson, II, 459.

In the three citations that I have chosen to begin these remarks, such words are found as “rest,” “work,” “leisure,” “intellectual activity,” things “for their own sake,” “things necessary,” “business,” “utility,” and “beauty.” In the sub-title, I also included the term, “sport,” which is derived from Aristotle and Plato and is intellectually related, though with distinctions, to the terms leisure, relaxation, work, and rest. Two of these words, “work” and “rest,” in particular, have revelational origins, though they are also found in the classical authors. Some writers, like Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition, even want to distinguish between “work” and “labor,” on the grounds that work refers to making things, while labor refers to bodily functions as when we speak of a woman in labor when bearing a child. Footnote

            Moreover, these terms, with the experiences they represent, bear some intelligible relation to each other. An order exists among them. Saint Thomas says at the beginning of his Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, something he repeats at the beginning of his Commentary on the Ethics, that sapientis est ordinare – it is the nature of the wise man to order things. Indeed, the whole philosophical function is, as Robert Sokolowski has remarked, precisely to distinguish things one from another and so put them into order, to see how they are related in being. Footnote All these terms stand in the light of an orderly philosophic understanding of man, his purpose in the world, and his ultimate meaning. Let us see if we cannot spell out together the various senses or meanings of these words, the experience on which they are grounded, and on their inter-relationships. This clarification is, I think, intrinsically fascinating – a word that itself has origins in Greek and Latin cultic experience, that which is interesting in itself, for its own sake.

            Initially, I will approach my topic through sports or play. Aristotle contrasts the term sport or play with the term theorein or contemplation. He finds that the best way to begin to understand what we mean by the awesome word, contemplation, is to commence with the more familiar experience of sport, which he assumes to be familiar to us. And his emphasis is, surprisingly, not so much in playing the sport as it is watching the game being played before us -- not that Aristotle or the Greeks had anything against playing a sport. The Greeks, after all, did invent the Olympic games. The spectator experience is not unrelated to the similar beholding of a tragedy or comedy in a Greek amphitheater. Aristotle calls a game, a sport, something that exists “for its own sake.” It is this latter phrase, “for its own sake,” that relates it to contemplation, which he considers to be our highest, most delightful, and most profound act. It is also what makes us free through knowing what is.

            Aristotle notices that sport and contemplation differ in that contemplation, as he puts it, is more “serious,” or, perhaps better, beholds a higher object or drama. He recognizes, however, that games are also played “for their own sakes,” but they are human constructions or events. Neither games nor human life itself “need” exist, even when either does exist. That is, neither games nor human life cause themselves to be what they are. As anyone knows who understands the rules of, say, bridge or soccer, the regulations are too intricately contrived to be merely accidental. Even a chance game like craps or dice has rules. Yet, as I like to say, watching a good game is the closest that the average man ever comes to pure contemplation. What does this mean? It means that there is a certain hush, a certain absorption in watching a good game, as in watching a play or listening to a concert. During the performance of such games or plays, no one hardly breathes or munches on pop corn, as Aristotle said, so enthralled is he in what passes before him..

            In such cases, we are taken out of ourselves, as it were. We lose track of our own existence, except our clear awareness of our heightened interest directed outside of ourselves. We literally leave our ordinary time and enter into the time and motion of the game being played before us. We are immersed in the ongoing drama of the game whose result we do not yet know, whose rules and whose setting are fixed arbitrarily, yet finally. We must know and play according to rules we did not make. The winning or losing or both are likewise “according to the rules.” We may cheer or laugh or even weep during the game or drama, but we are involved in something for its own sake, something we did not make. We are only indirectly, as it were, concerned with ourselves. We can reflect later that it is we ourselves who were watching this game, this play. We remember that we were there. We have found something that, for a time, takes us outside of ourselves, that involves us in something fascinating in itself. Whether this experience be the final of the World Cup in Madrid, the Super Bowl in 1989, the finals of the NCAA basketball tournament in Atlanta, or just some grammar school county championship in softball, the essential experience is there for us to reflect on.


            If we have this experience of beholding a great game even once in our lives, we will be able to take the next step. Play is like unto contemplation, not work or recreation. It is taken for granted that most people, most of the time, spend most of their waking hours in what is called “work.” Work has two meanings. First it can refer to what Aristotle calls, in Book 6 of his Ethics, “techne,” that is, art or craft, the making of things that need not exist, useful things, beautiful things. Their form and shape result from human purpose and human craft. We tend to distinguish the fine and the practical arts or crafts. Fine arts are physical things – words, music, statues – that have no use other than themselves. At their highest, they approach the beautiful, the pulchrum, the that which, when seen or heard, pleases because of what it is, because we see the harmony of its inner form.

            Work in its normal sense of “going to work” or “business” or heavy labor is a good thing. It is not the highest thing, but it is a good, human thing. Recreation normally means the relaxation that we need to go back to work. Its end is related to our physical nature, that it cannot continue to work without respite – even games have “time outs.” The purpose of work is the making of things we need, that we concoct for our use or pleasure or even for our contemplation. There is nothing wrong with such activities, unless, of course, we think this is all there is to them. This is how Aristotle put the problem: “Amusement is for the sake of relaxation, and relaxation is of necessity sweet, for it is the remedy of the pain caused by toil (work): and intellectual enjoyment is universally acknowledged to contain an element not only of the noble but of the pleasant, for happiness is made up of both. All men agree that music is one of the pleasantest things, whether with or without song...” (Politics, 1339b15-21). Amusement is for the sake of relaxation which, in turn, is for the sake of work -- and remember that in Book Four of his Ethics, Aristotle says that there is a virtue, no less, of being properly amused. But work, though it is a good thing, is for something else. We work, Aristotle tells us, so that we might have leisure. “What is this ‘leisure’?” we ask ourselves. Is it not just another word for relaxation? The whole political and moral order exist, in Aristotle’s view, in order that we might have leisure, the space for the highest things.

            Josef Pieper’s famous book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, remains fundamental in understanding what goes on here. Footnote Pieper immediately points out that the Greek word for leisure (ςκολη), the word from which significantly we get the English word “school,” is understood to be the opposite word to their word for “business,” which is simply the negative of leisure, “a-skolia.” The Latin has the same distinction – the word for leisure is otium, while the word for business is its negative, neg-otium, the same word we have for negotiate. So anyone who is in business, who is “working,” is not at leisure. One hesitates to think of what the Greeks would make of our “business schools,” to them a veritable contradiction in terms! The activities of leisure and those of business or work are quite different, though they are both human acts and necessary in a complete understanding of man. Our modern priorities seem almost to be the opposite of those of the Greeks, the significance of which goes back in early modernity to Descartes, Bacon, and Machiavelli, to the replacement of the theoretical with the practical intellect as man’s highest function.

            To grasp these points more clearly, let us take a brief look at scripture. We will recall that the commandment tells us to “keep holy the Sabbath Day.” Generally, this meant that we were not to work so that we might devote ourselves to something higher, something requiring all our attention. Those of you who are Jewish will recall the strictures that are considered necessary worthily to celebrate this day. Christians are admonished to abstain from “servile” work. Why was this? In part, it had to do with the Genesis account of the days of creation. On the seventh day, the Lord “rested.” The Sabbath was intended to imitate this example. The positive side of this commandment implied that there was something more important than work or our ordinary affairs, something to which we ought at regular times to turn our attention. And this attention was to something that we ourselves did not make but only discovered, something more fascinating than our own affairs.

            Does that mean there was something wrong with “work?” Not as such, of course. Indeed, work was conceived to be something in part “imposed” by the Fall – man is to work “by the sweat of his brow.” This suggests that there are two kinds of work – there is that natural activity of man that would have been present even if there had been no Fall. Presumably, men would have still been able to and have wanted to make beautiful and useful things. Moreover, even now, if we are engaged in making something, say a chair or even a house, we become absorbed in it, not unlike in a game. The time passes; we actually enjoy the “work” involved and do not look on it as a burden, just as athletes in fit condition do not notice the exhausting strain on their bodies during a good game.

            Another kind of work exists that is a drudgery, something boringly repetitive that slaves and businessmen did. They attended to things that had to be done lest human life fall apart. Aristotle in a famous passage suggested that if the statues of Daedalus could move by themselves, they could be constrained to make cloth automatically, for instance, then we would not need slavery or burdensome work. If we know the subsequent history of the industrial revolution, there is something prophetic in this remark of Aristotle. Much modern technology is designed to relieve the “burdensome” side of the work that we need or want so that we can devote ourselves to higher things.


            But what I want, mainly, to do here is to see if I can make clear what is meant when we say that something is “for its own sake.” Let me recall another passage from Aristotle, this time from his Rhetoric: “To be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but to the rest of mankind, however small their capacity for it; the reason of the delight in seeing the picture is that one is at the same time learning – gathering the meaning of things....” (Rhetoric, 1448b13-17). Every human activity, including intellectual activity, has its own pleasure intrinsic to it. What human culture means essentially is to associate an activity with its proper pleasure. But the pleasure follows the act which act is what determines its own moral status. When we separate the due pleasure from an act in which it belongs, we corrupt both.

            Craft activities, even though they begin in us and are carried through our minds to our hands into the thing made, end in precisely the thing made. When we finish making something, the thing remains, while we go away for the rest of our lives. In moral affairs, something rather is found that we “do” as opposed to “make.” We judge a person more by what he does than by what he makes or says. Tell me what you get angry about and I will tell you what you are. We are not concerned with merely keeping alive. Plato wrote in the Fourth Book of the Laws, “We do not hold the common view that a man’s highest good is to survive and simply continue to exist. His highest good is to become as virtuous as possible and to continue to exist in that state as long as life lasts” (707d). If you will, granted that we already are what we are, that is, human beings and not turtles, we have a lifetime project with regard to ourselves, to make ourselves not to be what it is to be men or human beings, as we already are that, but to be good men, as Aristotle says.  

            What does this mean? It means that I am responsible for what I make myself to be. My moral actions do not have a result only outside of me as craft products do, but also in me. If, say, I rob someone of a vast amount of money, and if I do not repair or repent of my act, I now become within myself someone who has this character of disorder in my soul. I am creating a habit in myself that indicates how I will normally choose to act in similar situations. I am defining what I mean by my own happiness – in this case, presumably, someone who thinks of money as his end.

            But the moral and political virtues, while real and worthy in themselves, things that we ought to acquire and not their opposite vices, are not themselves what we are ultimately for. This brings us back to the notion of leisure and rational activity. The moral and political virtues exist also that we may know how to live in leisure. They free us from ourselves so that we might be able clearly and calmly see what is not ourselves. If we get this order wrong, we will never experience what this contemplation is, which is to know the things that are for their own sakes.

            What do we do when all else, all the necessary things, are done? This is the question that the concept of leisure poses to us. Aristotle says that the purpose of a doctor is to restore us to health, but when we are healthy, the doctor has nothing to say to us. What are the activities of health, the things we do when we have done the necessary things?

            In The Republic of Plato, there are a number of famous incidents in which the young potential philosophers are listening to Socrates who will be speaking familiarly and calmly to them. Suddenly, Glaucon or Polemarchus or Simmias will stop him and say, “What did you say Socrates?” They will suddenly hear something that they never heard before. This stopping, this turning around is precisely what Socrates intended to happen. Each of us, I think, needs this experience in our souls. This is indeed why we are here. Listen to how Plato describes this experience, “This isn’t, it seems, a matter of tossing a coin, but of turning a soul from a day that is a kind of night to the true day -- the ascent to what is, which we say is true philosophy” (521c). What we do in our leisure is to waste our time on true philosophy.


            The human intellect is defined as that faculty by which we are capable of knowing all things, all that is. It has its own proper activity as well as the activity of ruling the other things in us over which it has some control – our passions, our money, our relationships. But does the intellect, as such, have a purpose other than this activity of ruling our passions or relationships? Or put it another way, what is this activity, the exercise of which gives us the intense pleasure of knowing? We do not want to know the knowing, but to know what is not ourselves. Indeed, we cannot even know ourselves unless we are in the very act of knowing something that is not ourselves. In this sense, what is not ourselves gives us ourselves to know. We know reflectively, that is, we never look directly at our own knowing but indirectly we are aware of the fact that it is we ourselves who are knowing what is not ourselves. In one sense, this is why it is all right to be a finite human being.

            What is the very best thing, I ask in conclusion, that can happen to a young man or woman during his years in college? Earning a degree? I doubt it. The very best thing that can happen to us is, as Socrates put it in The Apology, “to know that we do not know.” And this knowing that we do not know is a very active kind of a thing, it is something that wakes us up, gives us a thirst, as it were, for being, for what is. E. F. Schumacher, a young German, studied at Oxford in the late 1940's. He tells us in his A Guide for the Perplexed, of his sudden realization that in what was probably the most famous university in the world, few of the really important things were discussed. “All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance to the conduct of my life.” Footnote We are not educated simply by earning a degree. We may indeed have to learn most of the important things by ourselves, though even here we need help, which is why, among other things, we learn to read – read seriously, but with pleasure.

            Let me conclude with two examples, one from my own experience, one from Augustine. When Augustine was about nineteen years old, as he tells us in his Confessions, he was a normal, bright, dissolute young man. He lived near the ancient city of Carthage. Somehow, he came across a dialogue of the Roman philosopher, Cicero, called the “Hortensius.” This dialogue is now lost. But on reading it, Augustine was so inflamed with the desire to be a philosopher that he gave up all else to pursue this goal. It would be difficult to exaggerate what a momentous turning in the history of the world happened when the young Augustine read a book and decided to pursue the highest things.

            When I was nineteen, by no means of the stature of the young Augustine, about whom at the time I had never heard, I was in the Army at Fort Belvoir. The war was just over, so we had in fact pretty soft duty, with lots of time on our hands. We spent much of it, as young soldiers often do, in sports, drinking, and running around. But somehow, I knew that there were things that I should read. I recall going into the Post library, no doubt a modest library, but still an organized library. What I remember of this scene, and what I want to leave with you, is that I looked over this library, with its ordered shelves with the usual divisions of history, novels, science, literature, religion, and philosophy, and I did not know what to read. There is no more important experience a young man or woman can have than this vivid realization that they do not know what to read.

            Samuel Johnson asked, in the passage I cited in the beginning, “What say you of the peacock’s tail?” I will leave you with this thought – there are things that we ought to know for their own sake, just because they are delightful, just because they are true. The peacock’s tail could fan him equally efficiently or attract his mate if it were not beautiful. Aphorism #73A in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil reads, “Many a peacock hides his peacock tail from all eyes – and calls it his pride.” Footnote Such pride destroys the whole point of beauty – quod visum, placet. Why indeed are things beautiful, things that have no other purpose but to be beautiful? This is what leisure is about.