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Why Boredom Matters: Education, Leisure, and the Quest for a Meaningful Life

Kevin Hood Gary
Published by Cambridge University Press in 2022

It seems that we have never had so much free time and so little idea how to use it. As is often the case, contemporary music articulates our pathologies: The progressive rock band, Styx, in their song, “Too Much Time On My Hands” confess, “I’ve got nothing to do / and all day long to do it.” The thoughtful rock group out of Stockton, Georgia, Collective Soul, in their stirring song “run,” plaintively ask,

Are these times contagious?
I’ve never been this bored before
Is this the prize I’ve waited for?

Right on time, Kevin Hood Gary’s book Why Boredom Matters: Education, Leisure, and the Quest for a Meaningful Life is a welcome contribution to the Aristotelian tradition dealing with the way human beings use—or misuse—their free time. In this case, Gary ingeniously begins with a symptom—boredom— and works backwards to the treatment—a proper use of leisure time. In doing so, he prompts the reader to wonder if in our nihilistically frenetic world, we might be nearing a point of no return in which we lose the mature character and healthy emotions necessary to regain our most important traditions. In both his Metaphysics, his Politics, and his Ethics, Aristotle explains that the most consequential life is one of eudaimonia, or “human flourishing” and this requires a life of meaningful leisure in which we cultivate the soul.

Gary, then, introduces us to the interdisciplinary world of “Boredom Studies” which is populated by “Boredom Scholars” engaged in “Boredom research.” This may seem boring as one pursues its study—which may necessarily involve the tedious but profound thought of Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, among others, from all of whom Gary obtains helpful discussions of boredom. From Why Boredom Matters we learn more about being bored than we thought possible. There is “situational” boredom (being bored at what we do) and “existential” boredom (just bored). The taxonomy continues: Gary cites research that identifies “indifferent” boredom, “calibrating” boredom, “reactant” boredom, “searching” boredom, and “apathetic” boredom. We also learn that a “roving curiosity” is a symptom of boredom making it plausible to infer that those who endlessly surf the internet and spend hours watching cat videos are, in fact, all bored.

Today most consider “leisure” synonymous with “recreation” or “play.” Not so for the classical, scholastic, and contemporary serious-minded. Gary reminds us that “leisure” is the most important thing we do and a failure to do so properly has dire consequences for the individual and his world (13ff.). Work, as Aristotle explains it in the Politics, is not an end in itself: individuals should aspire to something more meaningful. Accordingly, work should be undertaken to provide opportunity for leisure. Play provides us with rest from work, yet play, like work, has outgrown its proper place as the status is too often measured by how many time-share units one has, and at how many exotic venues they have been enjoyed.

Gary does well to spend considerable time introducing his readers to, or reacquainting them with, Aristotelian philosopher Josef Pieper, in his classic Leisure the Basis of Culture.1 Pieper expands the idea of leisure and describes it, as it matures, as a transcendent experience that runs close with contemplation. Aristotle introduces contemplation (theoria, θεορια) to the world and St. Thomas Aquinas “christianizes” the contemplative way of life. For over half a century, Pieper has startled his readers as he warns that health or sickness of a society is found in the way it uses its free time, and the extent to which it is able to differentiate between work, recreation, and leisure.

An important contribution of Gary’s book is its insistence that boredom is a moral problem. It is borne out of weakness of character and shallow spirituality. Though it may not be easy to escape, it can be done with strength of virtue and the exercise of the will. Gary also reminds the reader that it is the purpose of education to teach students how to use their leisure time. Schole, (σχολή “school” is a cognate) the Greek word for leisure, is a lifelong habit and pursuit. Gary does us the favor of tracing the meaning of boredom back to its ancestral roots in the more grave habitual sin of acedia, which was considered a much more serious issue than we think of boredom today. Not just laziness, acedia is a vice which rejects the goodness of God and his creation, an attitude which, in turn, spawns listlessness, depression, and sloth, the latter being the seventh of the “seven deadly sins.”

Gary draws on Aquinas’ distinction between ratio and intellectus. True leisure must build upon the former and allow space for the latter. Ratio is our reasoning and logical capacities, whereas intellectus is our capacity for observance and wonder. Accordingly, leisure is at its richest when we can move from the activity of ratio to the wonder of intellectus, or nous (νους), as Aristotle called it. It is during that time that we become open to the “mysterious encounters” or “epiphanies” that may emerge in manifold ways (76). Intellectus moves beyond the more ordinary practice of leisure, guided as it may be by reason, into contemplation, which takes on a mystical dimension, as Gary so ably explains in his exegesis of Pieper’s work.

With Gary’s guidance, then, we learn from Pieper that leisure may lead us into a transcendent experience. According to Aristotle, God himself engages in contemplation; some scholars call this a “problem” in Aristotle’s thought. But, as we can infer from Gary’s use of Pieper’s thought, such a phenomenon is possible because leisure as it evolves toward contemplation is not an activity, it is an attitude of mind, a state of being. It involves a vison of truth, and it is characterized by the experience of serenity. Would we expect God’s environment to be anything less? The Psalmist indicates a shared experience of contemplation with God himself:

Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
have swept over me.2

Psalm 46:10 is almost always translated “Be still and know that I am God.” Pieper, however, in the preface to his book translates it “Be at leisure and know that I am God.” Indeed, that is the more faithful translation, at least from the Septuagint: σχολάσατε καὶ γνῶτε ὅτι ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ θεός.

Among other noteworthy objectives, Gary hopes that a habit of leisure might be available to believer and unbeliever alike, and that it be possible for the blue-collar worker as well as the hermit. That is to say, he hopes to secularize and democratize leisure. He is at best mildly successful in both quests. Growing in leisure requires a mentor, but whereas in the tradition of leisure, that role would typically be performed by a spiritual director, in order to imagine a secular possibility, Gary offers Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid (1984). To show the possibility of a serious engagement with leisure for the rest of us, he invokes Phil the Weatherman (Groundhog Day, 1993), who, trapped in time, must become a more thoughtful and serious human being before he can achieve his chronological release.

Recently, my wife and I were in Ireland and we drove to the remote Lough Gill in County Sligo. There we gazed out on the Isle of Innisfree and read together “The Isle of Innisfree,” W. B. Yeats’s wonderful call to tranquility—and appeal to leisure, if you will.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.3

Gary’s book is one that all should read and discuss, and it is an important step toward that tranquility Yeats locates “in the deep heart’s core.”

Cite this article
Henry T. Edmondson III, “Why Boredom Matters: Education, Leisure, and the Quest for a Meaningful Life”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 53:2 , 126-129


  1. Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (London: Faber and Faber, 1952).
  2. Psalm 42:7, NIV.
  3. W. B. Yeats, “The Isle of Inisfree,” Poetry Foundation, 2023, https://www.poetry-

Henry T. Edmondson III

Henry T. Edmondson III, Department of Government, Georgia College.