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Diversion v. Recreation

Two different kinds of pleasure with two very different ends

     There is a common misconception that diversion and recreation are the same thing. The words are used interchangeably to describe what people do in their free time. They are synonymous with such things as playing sports, going to the movies, shopping, listening to music, even eating. All these things are done to relax after a strenuous day of work, or to get a person’s mind off of whatever it is they do not want to think about. However, diversion and recreation were not always thought of as the same thing. In fact, they were two very different things, but they became synonymous because they both lead to pleasure. Yet there are many different types of pleasure, and not all of them are good and some are better than others.[1] The pleasures of diversion, when they are sought in excess, lead to vice, while the pleasures of recreation not only keep virtue, but make acting in accord with it more pleasurable. In order to understand how this is possible, it is helpful to see the difference between diversion and recreation. Once diversion and recreation are placed in their proper categories, it will be much easier to assign the proper activities that go along with each one.

The root of the word recreation comes from the Latin, recreare, to create anew, or recreatio, which means a restoration to health. This is very different from diversion whose original meaning is to turn in the opposite direction. Just from the definitions it is obvious to see that recreation is more difficult to do than diversion. They both lead to pleasure, which is probably why many people confuse them, but it takes a particular kind of person to participate in recreation, whereas anyone can have diversion.[2] As Aristotle puts it, “Most people and the crudest people seem, not without reason, to assume from people’s lives that pleasure is the good and is happiness. For this reason, they are content with a life devoted to enjoyment.”[3] These enjoyments that Aristotle speaks of are diversions and often cause people to confuse them with happiness. The reason why most people get them confused is because, “It seems that these pastimes are conducive to happiness because those who are in power spend their leisure in them.”[4] Those who are in power also include those who are wealthy and do not need to work as much as other people might have to, which is also why they have so much time for diversion. However, Aristotle goes on to say that these people do not indicate what enjoying truly pleasant things are because, “if those people run off to bodily pleasures because they have no taste for pleasure that is pure and suited to people who are free, one ought not to believe, on that account, that those pleasures are more worthy of choice.”[5]

It appears then, that there are certain kinds of people who seek diversion and others that seek recreation. What they share in common is that they are both pursuing pleasure, but the pleasures differ in that one leads to corruption and the other to a restoration of health as its definition tells us.[6]Unfortunately, it appears that most people go after diversion, and they are commonly called the masses. This is because, “Bodily pleasures are pursued on account of being violent, by people who are not capable of enjoying other pleasures; they even provide themselves with thirst in certain ways.”[7]This goes back to what Pascal spoke of when he wrote, “They think they genuinely want rest when all they really want is activity.”[8] Those who constantly seek diversion want to escape from what they find painful, but what they actually end up doing is causing themselves more harm. Instead of curing the pain, they cause more, especially when there is nothing to divert their attention.[9] All these people know is diversion and have never tried to attain anything greater, which is why they eventually become base. Yet it is so tempting to believe that diversion will lead to happiness because those who appear happy have the most diversion, but Aristotle sees through this misconception where others do not, “But many of those who are considered happy escape into pastimes of this sort.”[10] Yet it is important to keep in mind that those who consider these people happy are the very ones who do not understand what true happiness is, that is, living in accord with virtue.[11]

Part of the confusion arises between diversion and recreation because they are both chosen for their own sake, which is pleasure.[12] These pleasures are different since the pleasures found in recreation come from acting in accord with virtue, but those who do not know the difference can easily confuse the two. This is why they are chosen for their own sake, “But so are the pleasures that come from playing, since they are not chosen for the sake of any other things.”  However, when people have too much diversion they, “Are harmed by them more than they are benefitted, since they neglect their bodies and their property.”[13] Whereas recreation leads to a restoration of health, diversion causes people to neglect themselves and ultimately leads them to a base and vicious existence. This is because there are some pleasures that are good in themselves and others that lead to vice.

When taken to its natural end, recreation leads to contemplation, the greatest form of pleasure. Whereas diversion leads to pleasures of the flesh, recreation leads to pleasures of the soul, the purest form of this being contemplation. “There are also pleasures that are without pain or desire, such as those of contemplating.”[14] Recreation is a form of being at work that leads to rest in contemplation, which Aristotle also links with the action of the gods.[15] The closest human beings can come to “resting” as the gods do is through contemplation, “So the being at work of a god, surpassing blessedness, would be contemplative, and so among human activities, the one most akin to this would be the most happy.”[16] The more a person partakes in recreation, the more intensely they will feel the pleasure of contemplation, a pleasure that does not get boring.[17] When Aristotle describes the three forms of life that are most “prominent,” contemplation holds the third and most important position, and the one least sought after by many, “There are three ways of life especially that hold prominence: the one just now mentioned [life devoted to enjoyment], and the political life, and third, the contemplative life.”[18] Those devoted to enjoyment pursue diversion, but the few who enjoy recreation also enjoy the greatest and most complete form of pleasure, contemplation.

     It is unfortunate that the definition of recreation has been absorbed into that of diversion. To Aristotle, they were two very different things with only one common element, they both produce pleasure. However, the pleasures lead to two different things, that of diversion to vice, and that of recreation to virtue. Whereas the pursuit of one leads to a vicious person, the other produces a virtuous one. This virtuous one, “Will be happy throughout life, for such a person will always, or most of all people, be acting and contemplating the things that go along with virtue, and will bear what fortune brings most beautifully and in complete harmony in every instance, being in the true sense good and flawlessly squarely centered.” The real difference in the end, between diversion and recreation, is that one requires more work than the other. Unfortunately, most people want to avoid work and do what “feels” good. However, for those who see beyond diversion, as Aristotle does, and realize that it will eventually become boring, undertake the difficult task of training their passions. These people learn to act in accord with virtue, and these very acts become recreation for them and the virtue even brings more pleasure to the action. Finally, after much work and exerted effort, they will come to rest in the pleasure of contemplation, a pleasure that does not corrupt the work, but rather, brings it to completion.[19]

[1] Joe Sachs, trans. Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics (Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2002), 1173a 13: “But as things are, it is obvious that people avoid one of them as bad and choose the other as good; hence it is in that way that they are opposed.”

[2] Ibid., 1147b 24: “Self-restrained and enduring people, and unrestrained and soft people, have to do with pleasures and pains.”

[3] Ibid., 1095b 11.

[4] Ibid., 1176b 20.

[5] Ibid., 1176b 20.

[6] Ibid., 1154a 30: “And so pleasure seems not to be a thing of serious worth for two reasons, as was said, since some pleasures are acts of a base nature (either from birth, as with an animal, or from habit, such as those of a base human being) while others are curative of something defective, and having something is better than coming into having it; though the latter sort result in states of completion and thus have serious worth incidentally.”

[7] Ibid., 1154b 3.

[8] Blaise Pascal, Pensées (Penguin Books Ltd., 1966), 39.

[9] Joe Sachs, trans. Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics (Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2002), 1154b 7: “But they do not have any other sort of things from which to get enjoyment, and by their nature a neutral state is painful to many people.”

[10] Ibid., 1176b 13.

[11] Ibid., 1098a 17: “The human good comes to be disclosed as a being at work of the soul in accord with virtue.”

[12] Ibid., 1176b 8: “And those activities are chosen for their own sake from which nothing is sought beyond the being at work; and actions in accord with virtue seem to be of this sort, since performing actions that are beautiful and serious is something chosen for its own sake.”

[13] Ibid., 1176b 10.

[14] Ibid., 1175a 10.

[15] Ibid., 1154b 26: “Hence, a god always enjoys a pleasure that is one and simple, for there is a being at work not only of motion but also of motionlessness, and there is greater pleasure in rest than in motion.”

[16] Ibid., 1178b 22.

[17] Ibid., 1174b 15: “There is a pleasure that goes with each of the senses, and similarly with thinking and contemplation, and its most complete activity is most pleasant…and the pleasure brings the activity to completion.”

[18] Ibid., 1095b 16.

[19] Ibid., 1174b 34: “The pleasure brings the activity to completion not as an active condition present within it all along, but as something that comes over it, like the bloom of well-being in people who are at the peak of their powers.”