Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On Vacationing

Summer has arrived in the Norther Hemisphere and thus in the land of your humble blogger. School is out and many look forward to their vacations. There is something I do not quite understand about what we broadly consider vacationing. I dispute neither the importance nor pleasure of leisure time. Likewise even amusement is a sort of relaxation and is thus necessary. Yet vacationing seems to many to be something of special importance, but what and why?

The chief characteristic of the vacation seems to be a longer-than-usual freedom from one's duties. Most basically, then, a vacation is a lack, but a lack cannot provide a positive good but merely relief. This leisure, though, does allow people to pursue something for its own sake rather than out of necessity. People naturally have expectations about what such pursuits should be and do for them but a common response might be they hope to "enjoy" their vacation or something similar. We might divide the vague concept of "enjoy" into "pleasure" and "happiness." Considering the former first, all people aim at pleasure and all take delight in pleasing sights, sounds, and so on. We do seek it for its own sake and not to achieve something else. Yet pleasure is simply a favorable response to some stimulus to our senses. It is also temporary and fades as we grow habituated to the stimulus. If such is the essence of the vacation we should not be surprised to find most people wanting for something more soon after the vacation has ended. Indeed such is most common. Of happiness let us consider Aristotle's thoughts:
. . . everything that we choose we choose for the sake of something else–except happiness, which is an end. Now to exert oneself and work for the sake of amusement seems silly and utterly childish. But to amuse oneself in order that one may exert oneself, as Anacharsis puts it, seems right; for amusement is a sort of relaxation, and we need relaxation because we cannot work continuously. Relaxation, then, is not an end; for it is taken for the sake of activity. (Ethics, X.vi. 1176b)
Happiness then does not consist in amusement, relaxation, or idleness. Aristotle argued it consisted in virtuous activity and most chiefly in a contemplative life. He also added, "in a complete life" since "one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy." (Ethics, I.vii. 1098a) Also happiness depends part on past acts, part on present ones, and part of the expectation of doing in the future. Happiness thus requires work and work over a period of time. More precisely then we might say it requires cultivation.

In his collection of writings commonly referred to today as his "Meditations," which we would understand better if we thought of them as "writings or exhortations to himself," Marcus Aurelius stated a similar position:
Everyone dreams of the perfect vacation–in the country, by the sea, or in the mountains. You too long to get away and find that idyllic spot, yet how foolish. . . when at any time you are capable of finding that perfect vacation in yourself. Nowhere is there a more idyllic spot, a vacation home more private and peaceful, than in one's own mind, especially when it is furnished in such a way that the merest inward glance induces ease (and by ease I mean the effects of an orderly and well-appointed mind, neither lavish or crude.) Take this vacation as often as you like, and so charge your spirit. But do not prolong these meditative moments beyond what is necessary to send you back to your work free of anxiety and full of vigor and good cheer. (Translation, C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks.) (Meditations, Book IV. iii.)
Whether it be toward pleasure or happiness, one ought to have an idea what one is intending to gain from a vacation, lest one be disappointed.

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