Entertaining Solitude

Recapturing Leisure by Contextualizing Entertainment Technology

It isn’t good for man to be alone. So is it good for man to be entertained alone?

In the past century, the West has witnessed the proliferation of entertainment technology. Many readers of this article will have consumed some of it within the last day. While the harmful effects of excessive media consumption are widely acknowledged, especially in Catholic spheres, these cautions typically arise from symptom-based analyses that fail to grasp the underlying issues. Moreover, such cautions deal with excessive media consumption, rather than the nature of entertainment itself.

Well-meaning American Catholics find themselves habitually engrossed by entertainment media, often alone, without having thought carefully about the meaning of such a practice. In order to draw out the insidious character of entertainment technology, I will try to situate the issue within its broader context — technological, social, and traditional. First, I will posit that solitary entertainment, for the most part, is a technology-contingent innovation. Then, by an appeal to history, I will argue that entertainment itself is properly a social phenomenon. Finally, I will contrast solitary entertainment with the tradition’s sense of leisure.

Playing Solitaire

Given an abundance of technological resources, it would seem that man tends toward self-isolating entertainment. Or, at least, the following historical progressions make this case.

As a first example, consider personal-communication technology. In the late 1800s, the telephone, because of its cost, was confined to government agencies, large businesses, and very wealthy individuals. As AT&T succeeded at providing affordable “Universal Service,” it gradually introduced humanity at large to its first-ever occasion to socialize without the physical presence of others. Then, with the advent of mobile phones, there became even less need to be with people in order to keep in touch with them. The most recent major development — text messaging — de-socialized social communication only further.

Audio technology provides another good example of this self-isolating trend. In the years following World War I, a family’s one radio would draw the household together for Sunday afternoon entertainment. As radios became more affordable, they multiplied to suit individual tastes, and became standard vehicle accessories by the 1950s. Meanwhile, the household record player lost out to boomboxes, which in turn lost out to CD players, followed by tiny MP3 players — highly personalized devices which would rarely be shared.

Television, however, provides the starkest example. Like early radio, a household’s one television, with its very limited programming, could draw a family together, or give a neighborhood a shared experience to talk about. But televisions multiplied, as did television stations, again to serve individual tastes. There are now thousands of options — and if you were to subscribe to one show at random, you would be hard pressed to find anyone with whom to discuss it. As we know, television has now moved onto the lap. Services like Netflix are an amazing technology, in part because of their ability to effectively indulge one’s most egocentric cravings. They render the program you want, wherever you want, whenever you want, for as long as you want. When coupled with headphones, no one will even know what you’re watching (or even that you’re watching). No wonder it’s an epidemic on college campuses: it’s an ever-available distraction from loneliness and stress. Yes, people still enjoy discussing popular shows, but video-on-demand technology has done far more to draw people apart than to bring them together.

It’s not that the content of entertainment technology is isolating, or otherwise problematic — that’s a different issue. Many films available on Netflix are plenty artful, and, in themselves, valuable. And indeed, Bach sounds better on an MP3 than on a radio. The issue here is the isolating manner in which this content — good or bad — presents itself, thanks to technology. Three more examples will impress the point upon us: in the Western world, Internet dating has become the isolating alternative to dance mixers; computer gaming has become the isolating alternative to physical competition; online shopping has become the isolating alternative to mall shopping. Technology has opened worlds of opportunity, but at each juncture we’ve chosen the road with less passersby. Granted, social media makes us more connected, at least ostensibly. But only when individuals are isolated does socialization require an artificial “medium.” We’ve zealously pursued entertainment forms which best suit our peculiar, individual tastes, and so we’ve found ourselves pursuing such entertainment all alone.

Pastimes of Past Times

Fortunately, ours is an age which has become self-conscious of our phoniness. We recycle, hoping to recapture an age when we weren’t embarrassingly wasteful. We revert to Paleolithic diets, realizing that man can’t live on carbs alone. But if we are to make a holistic analysis of entertainment history, I think the implication becomes quite clear: non-social entertainment is unnatural, and not only because it never appears in nature.

From the beginning, human beings were entertained amidst communion with one another. The most ancient forms would occur around a campfire: music, dance, and the recitation of stories. In later civilizations, people began gathering for banquets and annual feasts. Sports and drama advanced parallel to the growth of public venues, which served to bring people together. For pre-modern people, entertainment was a rare privilege — but it was always a social phenomenon.

In fact, for most of mankind’s existence, private entertainment was not even possible, excepting royalty. It was, perhaps, the printing press which exposed humanity to the scandal of individual entertainment, albeit in a nascent form. Until that time, manuscripts of fiction, hand-copied as they were, were extraordinarily scarce and, likely, read aloud. Private reading would generally have been limited to work, study, or prayer. Music, meanwhile, remained a bulwark for communal entertainment for far longer. Until the 1900s, it was impossible to enjoy music without the presence of others, unless one took up an instrument, or somehow satisfied himself with a music box. The proliferation of the piano amidst the American middle class — around which a family would regularly gather to sing — was once so extensive, that Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked “’Tis wonderful, how soon a piano gets into a log hut on the frontier. You would think they found it under a pine-stump.”1

But regardless of the communal aspect, we should note that entertainment was never a significant part of pre-modern life. Life in the Middle Ages was hard, and characterized by work and prayer. As one modern scholar wrote, “The feudal aristocracy did not encourage their inferiors to amuse themselves, and there are records of games like football being banned.”2 Outside of conversation, little else of amusement was condoned. Even the Renaissance, which did much to promote the fine arts, did little to broadly popularize entertainment because its zenith coincided with the birth of the rigorous Protestant work ethic. It was not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when economic prosperity was coupled with declining religious fervor, that entertainment became a widespread activity.

Today, of course, entertainment is ubiquitous, and digital technology enables much of it to be partaken of in solitude. The vestiges of its communal forms are extant — dinner parties, concerts, malls, festivals, card games, special-interest clubs — but these modes make up a piddling minority. For every age but our own, entertainment was predominately communal, if it was present at all. Many of today’s popular amusements — the MP3 player, fantasy football, Snapchat — would have formerly been identified as agents of seclusion, if not occasions of sin.

Made for Leisure

It should be no surprise to the Catholic that private entertainment is unnatural, for a tree can be known by its fruits. What are the effects of private entertainment? It detaches us from community, it distracts us from reality, and it distances us from God, all in exchange for instant self-gratification. Insomuch as we turn to it for consolation when we are anxious, jaded, or discouraged — times when we should turn to God — it becomes an idol.

Of course, neither history nor Christianity sees anything wrong with working alone. In fact, left alone to his labor, whether in field or workshop, man encounters God. Nor is anything wrong with resting alone: it is necessary to have peace and quiet. But for a man to play alone—this seems to be the perversion.

In fact, the Judeo-Christian tradition has never endorsed entertainment itself, whether communal or individual, but rather leisure. God, having made the heavens and earth, did not spend the seventh day distracting himself with idle pastimes. He rested; he beheld the goodness of what he had made. And he commanded Israel to rest in the same spirit, every seventh day. Leisure, in God’s plan for Israel, was always communal, and was always subordinate to some greater purpose, like the celebration of marriages, holy days, or military victories. In fact, many modern forms of entertainment (e.g., television, phones, computers, sports) are still prohibited by the norms of Sabbath rest for Orthodox Jews.

Meanwhile, the Christian tradition denounces both idleness (that state which often precedes solitary entertainment) and acedia (which often follows) — the latter being a distaste for spiritual things. Unlike entertainment, true leisure is incompatible with boredom: it occurs only when man is at peace with himself. Josef Pieper writes, “Leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.”3 While it can occur in both social and individual settings, true leisure is always communal, because it always entails an encounter with God.

In the Christian worldview, we are creatures made for relationship — ultimately made for the intensely relational communion of heaven. That is why worship and contemplative prayer are man’s highest form of leisure — it is a foretaste of heaven. But any form of true leisure makes present the Kingdom of God. Family dinners, storytelling, wilderness adventures, “jam sessions,” worship services — in such things we encounter God in his creation, in his people, and in himself, and so we experience deep, interior refreshment. Meanwhile, individual entertainment in no way prefigures heaven’s glorious communion, but rather presages hell: isolating self-absorption, self-inflicted out of desperation for meretricious comforts.

The Work of Renewal

We’re all too familiar with the upshot. Because isolated entertainment doesn’t satisfy the way God intended leisure to satisfy, we can’t get enough of it. We need more and more entertainment, and with more intensity. Our ancestors would be shocked with what we now consider palatable. Our grandparents would walk out of movie theatres if they were scandalized — our generation walks out if we become bored (no matter: we pirated the film beforehand just to watch its ending). We’ve seen more gore than Spartacus and more sexual promiscuity than Emperor Nero. Since we’ve been over-sensed, we’ve been blunted to natural beauty, and made dependent on artificial modes of escape.

No doubt a cultural renewal is needed. Leisure was never meant to be reduced to entertainment, and entertainment was never meant to be de-socialized. If Christians hope to foster such a renewal, their witness will come from drastically altering their personal disposition towards entertainment technology. Who among us is ready to forsake all forms of isolated entertainment which technology so enables? He who does so lives as Christ lived. And he who does so finds that highest form of leisure, which Christ died for us to know: communion with the Father.

  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Society and Solitude,” Prose Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 3 (Houghton, Mifflin, 1880), 14.
  2. Tom Winnifrith, Philosophy of Education: An Encyclopedia (Routledge, 2013), 350.
  3. Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (Pantheon Books, 1952).
Br. Matthew T. Warnez, BH About Br. Matthew T. Warnez, BH

Brother Matthew T. Warnez is a member of the Brotherhood of Hope, a missionary community of consecrated men. He is a chaplain for St. Lawrence Catholic Church and Newman Center in Minneapolis, MN, where he serves students at the University of Minnesota.

Comments

  1. Masterfully presented. “But any form of true leisure makes present the kingdom of God” provides a powerful tool for Lenten reflections for us Catholics that are being harassed by entertainment world.

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