Monday, June 04, 2012

Even Play

But even playful actions, which seem to be done for no end [absque fine fieri], have a due end, to wit, that through them the mind may be in some way relaxed, so as to be afterward more capable for studious work [potentes ad studiosas operationes]: otherwise, were play sought for itself, one would always have to play, which is inappropriate.

Aquinas SCG III.25.9. I'm almost inclined to translate "quod est inconveniens" at the end with the pseudo-cognate "inconvenient," because it would definitely be that, too. Some translations translate "ad studiosas operationes" as "for serious work," but I think the relation to the virtue of studiousness is deliberate, given what Aquinas says elsewhere. We play because, despite being rational creatures, real thinking is hard work; thus the more we do it, the more we need to relax our minds, lest we wind ourselves up so tightly we break. (This is precisely the image Aquinas uses in discussion the virtue of eutrapelia, good playfulness, in fact.) The importance of balancing study and play is very clear in Aquinas: as bodily rest is to physical work, so play is to mental work. In any case, his primary point here is not that but simply that, even though play seems to be aimless, it actually has a very important aim, to which it must be proportioned. If it had no aim, then play would be an end in itself, and there would be no limit to how much it should be done. But it's not difficult to think of limits for play.


  1. Eric M.4:10 PM

    Brandon, I think you had good timing with this post. I've been recently reading St. Thomas’s passage on play in the "Concise Translation" of the Summa. (It also helps that I named my blog the “RPG Catholic,” in a sense setting up work and play as one of the major themes). Balancing work/study and play is an especially pressing problem for a millennial Catholic Thomist like me growing up in the Internet Age (the epoch of video games, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter). The young philosophers and theologians in Aquinas's time didn't exactly have these many potential sources of amusement. Of course, we still play games and still tell jokes, changing fashions aside. The issue then turns to what are the good or decent games and jokes (in addition to the right times to jest). Since Aquinas thinks playfulness useful for unwinding from hard intellectual labor, from contemplation, perhaps we can enjoy our Star Wars, our sci-fi books and movies, our South Park, our decent video games and jokes, and even occasional quirks like my liking of MLP, as long as we don’t neglect our final end (or pick an inconvenient time to play).

    In my case, I’m still worried about finding the mean between being a rude boor, a disagreeable person no fun to be around (“no one likes a wet blanket “ as Aristotle says in McDermott’s translation), and a jester who makes play an end in itself, taking no thought to serious work. Still, I recall that one aspect of being friendly or amiable to others is being agreeable, as the rude boor is not, so I’ll say the friendly person is playful.

  2. branemrys9:51 PM

    It's worth keeping in mind that the emphasis on the virtue of studiousness gives a pretty basic standard here; it's not the only thing relevant, but between it and good sense, one can pretty much hit the mark. Since play is supposed to supplement and assist the virtue of studiousness, the main thing is to ask if the play is contributing in the long run to one's better study and learning; it doesn't need to do so directly, but it does at least need to be embedded in a larger context of learning things we need to know. You're right, of course, that the distractions these days are pretty serious, and it will only get worse as time goes on; but the cultivation of devotion to inquiry, truth, and knowledge is the greater part of the battle. Because it's really not a matter of balance, except in the sense that we have to be moderate about anything -- study and play are not opposed to each other so that they have to be balanced against each other. They are an integrated duo; if one has both, and both with some self-control and consideration for appropriate circumstances, they mutually support each other.

    And I think you are right that friendliness is another virtue with which playfulness has a mutually supporting relationship.

    I'm glad to see that people are reading McDermott; his translations are generally very loose, but there's nothing better for getting both the gist and the big picture, and that is extraordinarily important for Aquinas -- many people misinterpret Aquinas precisely because they fail to grasp the bigger picture.


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