“We work to have leisure, on which happiness depends.” So said Aristotle, quoted by Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting to explain “What Work Is For” in a recent article for The New York Times. Luther countered this medieval view of work—which is coming back into style in our consumerist culture—with his doctrine of vocation.

To be sure, as Gutting says, we celebrate Labor Day by not working. We work so that we can save up money to take a vacation. We spend most our lives in the work force so that we can retire. Or as the British rock group Hard-Fi says, we are “Living for the Weekend.” We work in order to not work.

For Aristotle, contemplation is the activity in which human beings reach their highest fulfillment. For that, we need leisure. In our culture today, though, most people probably do not use their leisure to contemplate the good, the true, and the beautiful. Our leisure is filled more with entertainment than contemplation.

Gutting recognizes that leisure can degenerate into idleness and boredom. We should use our leisure, he says, for “productive activity enjoyed for its own sake.” Some things are good in themselves, Aristotle says. Other things are good because they lead to things that are good in themselves. For example, money has no intrinsic value—it is just dirty paper—but it is an “instrumental good” because it allows us to buy food so that we can stay alive, provide for our family, help others, and other human purposes, all of which are valuable in themselves. In Book 7 of the Politics, Aristotle argues that work is such an instrumental good.

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