Aristotle, Tolkien, and Why You Should Watch the Super Bowl

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This essay is excerpted from On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs (ISI Books 2011) by James V. Schall, SJ. 

Besides work, leisure, recreation, business, labor, amusement, and wasted time, there’s another activity that we devote considerable time and energy towards. That is “play,” or “sport.” We might easily, particularly in light of professional athletics, think of sports as mostly a business, in which case it would be un-leisurely. At first, play or sport seems to be mostly recreation, an escape, a relaxation. But there seems to be something more to it than merely having a relation to work.

A New Yorker cartoon once showed a rather startled middle-aged man sitting in his living room watching the evening sportscast on television. The sports announcer reads the following summary of the day’s sporting events: “The combined total of major-league batting averages was down three and a half points today. Outs outnumbered hits four to one, on a total volume of fourteen hundred at-bats.” Needless to say, we are amused at this treatment of a day of baseball like a day on the stock market. We are aware that the different subject matter makes this a ridiculous comparison: business and sports deal with vastly different subjects, even when there is competition in both.

Aristotle somehow thought that sport or play was more like contemplation than was work or business. He thought that play—say, a championship game—bore some of the characteristics of contemplation. Considering God and considering a game had something in common. Play and contemplation were alike in that both were activities indulged in “for their own sakes,” whereas business and work were for something else. Games need not exist, just as the world need not exist, but both do. Aristotle said that sport lacked the seriousness of contemplation. Yet, he did not mean to denigrate the “seriousness” with which we take our games. We are rightly fascinated by them. Even watching a good game can be fascinating. It is its own world and time. It absorbs our attention in something that is not ourselves. Aristotle thought that our relation to God was not unlike that experience.

Once, in the letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, I came across the following passage he wrote in response to the young daughter of one of his publishers who had written to him as part of a school project. She was to write on the question, “What is the purpose in life?” No mean question, of course. Tolkien answered her in this remarkable way:

The desire to know for the mere sake of knowledge is related to the prayers that some of you address to what you call God. At their highest these seem simply to praise Him for being, as He is, and for making what He has made, as He has made it. Those who believe in a personal God, Creator, do not think the Universe is in itself worshipful, though devoted study of it may be one of the ways to honouring Him. And while as living creatures we are (in part) within it and part of it, our ideas of God and ways of expressing them will be largely derived from contemplating the world about us. (Though there is also revelation both addressed to all men and to particular persons.) So it may be said that the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis: Laudamus te, benedicamus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te, gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam.

What is striking about this letter to a schoolgirl wanting to know the purpose of life is that Tolkien answered her in terms best understood from sports, that is, that there are things that exist for their own sakes. Cheering and praising have this in common: they are responses to and recognitions of a beauty and glory that is outside us and that we behold.

We should no doubt take our business and our duties seriously. To realize that they do not bear ultimate destiny in themselves, however much we can see the hand of God in them, is not to denigrate them but to accept them for what they are. But when we come to wasted time, to the time we waste with God in prayer or with our friends in laughter and conversation, we begin to approach the essence of that side of faith that reminds us that God is already God.

Tolkien was right. When we understand that God is God, our response is praise, thanks, delight, and joy. That the highest things are for their own sake means that something simply is, though we engage in them because we simply want to know about our lives, about why we are. The teaching of Aristotle that play is like contemplation gets at something fundamental: we are—by the important things, by God, by one another, by the games that fascinate us, by beauty and understanding—taken out of ourselves in order to discover what is in some sense also destined to be ours. Joy, Pieper remarked, is the having of what we want, when what we want is itself good and worthy of our fascination, when we receive what we love.

In this sense, Christianity is a religion of “wasted” time. It is a religion of joy because it is a religion of God who is joy. And it tells us that our end is serious joy, because this God is our end. We are to order our lives to participate in the things of this joy—and these are praising and thanking and those activities, as even Plato said, which are manifestations of joy: singing, dancing, even sacrificing. We know that the only time worth having is the time we waste on our friends. And our prayer is the time we “waste” with God, the time we take to comprehend all that is given to us, all that is.