Saturday, 3 February 2018

Aristotle at the Seaside

In 1868 the South Jetty in Blackpool was opened in an attempt to keep the hoi-polloi away from the genteel North Pier; it was “the first major commitment of resources to pleasing this more plebeian public” (quoted in Chant, 2008, p.156).  This charming sentiment marks a new start for the seaside holiday, with activity-based attractions vying with the rather more sedentary approach favoured before that time. The new pier offered cheap pleasure cruises and all day dancing. A brief examination of secondary sources on Aristotle (384–322 BCE) suggests he might not value the more robust pleasures on offer; for example, Jonathan Barnes says Aristotle thinks that:
To flourish, to make a success of life, requires engagement in intellectual pursuits.  (Barnes, 2000, p.125)
...and Carolyn Price, answering the question “What is the best way to use one’s leisure?”, concludes that Aristotle’s answer is “intellectual reflection” (Price, 2008, p.19).

The South Jetty was later renamed the Central Pier and a new pier, the Victoria (now called the South Pier) was opened in 1893; as its regal name suggests, this was also aimed at the more upmarket clientele, and it banned dancing. So Blackpool had the North Pier and the Victoria Pier for what might be considered the higher pursuits, and the Central Pier for the more vulgar seaside attractions. A late Victorian textile worker may well have stood on the promenade at Blackpool and wondered at the two to one overprovision of Aristotelian diversions to Epicurean ones. Although perhaps it’s unlikely the worker would have thought so classically. (Very briefly, Epicurus, 341–270 BCE, favoured activities that felt good for promoting well-being (Price, 2008, p.27), so he and Aristotle oppose each other in a centuries old dialogue between the active and contemplative ways of life, that continues today.)

A class-based analysis of Aristotle’s philosophy of leisure is also suggested by these developments at the seaside, in addition to his rather rude dismissal of the ‘vulgar’ mass of men in the Nichomachean Ethics (1095b19-20). I shall discuss this more later, after considering support for the views quoted above from Aristotle’s own writings.

For Aristotle, eudaimonia, or human flourishing, is the ultimate objective of human life – the state to which we all aspire – and this is inextricably linked to certain activities, specifically leisure, which have no aims but themselves:
‘For, let me emphasise once again, leisure is the foundation of all that we do. Both leisure and work are necessary, but leisure is to be preferred to work, and is its aim.’ (Politics 1337b33-34, in Price, 2008, p.32)
So leisure is our aim, but what sort of leisure? To answer this, Aristotle asks: what is our function? He thinks that things, animals and humans have functions, and, that the expression of each thing’s distinctive function is the activity which perfectly expresses its being, and that activity must be valued as an end in itself. For example, a good hammer would be one that hammers nails well. In the Nicomachean Ethics he applies this ‘function argument’ to human beings:
‘What then might the human function be? Simply living seems to be something that we share with plants. But what we are looking for is something distinctively human. (...) What remains is the exercise of reason. [...] So the function of a human being is to engage in activities that use or are governed by reason.’ (Nicomachean Ethics 1097b33-1098a8, in Price, 2008, p.32)
He concludes that a good man would be one that reasons well, so it’s safe to assume that this teleological view of the world is what would drive his judgement on leisure activities, and this supports the quotes above, from secondary sources, that he would most value intellectual pursuits. With this in mind, we can consider how he would have viewed some seaside holidays, ancient and modern.

In antiquity, seaside Roman villas were popular with high born citizens at leisure. In Pliny the Younger’s (61–c.112 CE) description of his villa on the West coast of Italy at Laurentum, he says:
Round the corner is a room built round in an apse (...)  with one wall fitted with shelves like a library to hold the books which I read and read again. (...) When I retire to this suite I feel as if I have left my house altogether and much enjoy the sensation: especially during the Saturnalia (...) for I am not disturbing my household’s merrymaking nor they my work. (Pliny the Younger in Radice, 1969, in James, P, and Huskinson, J., 2008, pp91-93)
The whole piece emphasises the villa as Pliny’s sanctuary, with phrases such as ‘profound peace and seclusion’ and ‘retreat’ included. This conforms to the Roman idea of otium – leisure – in opposition to negotium, the business and public duties of everyday life. Even if he was exaggerating the contemplative aspect of his villa for public consumption, we can conclude that the Roman ideal for leisure, among the upper echelons of Roman society in which Pliny moved, was intellectual reflection. It’s evident that he also finds something about the seaside situation conducive to reflection – he remarks on how the rooms integrate with the villa’s surroundings.

Further evidence for this intellectual leisure ideal can be found in mosaics found in Roman villas; many images from classical mythology are depicted to give the impression of a cultured property owner, reflecting highbrow interests. In the seaside Romano-British villa at Brading, for example, amongst many other mythical characters we find an unusual roundel of Medusa:

(Image from Roman Villa DVD, 2008)

Mosaics of Orpheus, Bacchus and other Roman gods and goddesses fill the rooms. And many similar characters and scenes from mythology have been found in the ruins at Pompeii. Because of this preponderance of scholarly subjects, Aristotle would find much to approve of in a visit to a Roman villa. The signs are not all one way, however; the Brading mosaics perhaps include the depiction of a gladiator, referring to the games put on in large stadia to entertain the masses in Roman cities. This might not meet with Aristotle’s approval so readily.

For a later seaside example, let us consider the introduction of sea bathing in the eighteenth century. Bathing doesn’t appear to meet the requirements for Aristotle’s ideal leisure activity – it’s not a uniquely human activity nor could it be said to be solely enjoyed for its own sake. The humoral system was the prevailing theory of medicine for many centuries, and the practice of sea bathing arose at a time when this theory still had some credibility, and perhaps as a consequence doctors began to recommend a medicinal dunking for some of their patients. Its persistence in popular culture is notable; bracing sea air and the benefits of paddling in ice-cold Atlantic waters were recommended to me by my mother in the 1960s!

It’s not really the case that bathing per se is health-giving, but empirical enquiry shows that vigorous activity of any kind promotes health. A contradiction is suggested here in Aristotle’s philosophy; we have an activity that promotes well-being but which isn’t, apparently, the ideal leisure activity. This can be resolved by observing that Aristotle would probably not dismiss bathing as worthless; it has medicinal value, even if it’s not the ultimate reason for being, so it cannot be the most valuable leisure activity.

Returning to the battle of the piers in nineteenth century Blackpool, Aristotle does rather dismiss the simple pleasure-seeking (dancing, games) in which many indulge:
To judge from the lives that men lead, most men, and men of the most vulgar type, seem (...) to identify the good, or happiness, with pleasure; (Nichomachean Ethics, 1095b14-16)
And because the vulgar lead a life pursuing pleasure, and are ‘slavish in their tastes’ (Nichomachean Ethics, 1095b19-20), it follows that this cannot be the epitome of what it is to be human, Aristotle reasons. In the Politics, however, we can deduce some value from play:
So we need to consider what we should do with our leisure. (...) Rather, play is needed by those who are hard at work and who need to rest from their labours, for the point of playing is to rest. Work involves labour and exertion, and so we should make room for play at the right times, applying it as a kind of medicine. (Politics, 1337b35-43, in Price, 2008, p.32)
The nineteenth century saw an explosion in concentrated populations of labour, thanks to the industrial revolution; this would have generated a demand for an antidote to the lives of drudgery led by most people week in and week out. The technology of the industrial revolution, such as railways and funfairs, together with the means to power them, helped to satisfy this demand. Scenes like this, photographed at Blackpool Central Railway Station in 1937, became commonplace:

  (Chant, C., Figure 4.18, 2008, p.154)

Since society was comparatively free (no slaves!), Aristotle could have predicted that this explosion of work would lead to a burgeoning of leisure activities that are, in his terms, medicinal rather than ideal (in his view). Dancing, fun fairs, bathing, crazy golf are all valid leisure activities from this viewpoint, and Aristotle would see the value in them. As a consequence, at Blackpool we see a move from a gentle, contemplative, middle class seaside holiday, for folk looking for the intellectual life of leisure, to a more active, pleasure-seeking, working class seaside holiday. And, for a more modern example, in the twentieth century we see a similar evolution in the resort of Benidorm. A quaint and peaceful Spanish fishing port, popular with the well-to-do, develops into a destination for the ‘fun-loving’ Brits, seeking sun, sea, sand and sex. Whilst Aristotle might have denigrated what the masses sought out, I think he would concede some value in them.

Despite these developments, Aristotle’s ideal was still part of popular culture. In 1918 Fred Gray produced this postcard, making explicit the contrast between workers’ everyday lives and their putative escape:

  (Chant, C., Figure 4.17, 2008, p.152)

The couple at the bottom, on an improbably deserted beach, may well have achieved eudaimonia. It’s to be hoped, for Aristotle’s sake, that the gentleman puffing on a cigarette is pondering the human condition; but the lady with a book open on her lap is surely fulfilling the ideal, once she stops posing. Sun bathing became fashionable in the twentieth century, and shortly after acquired a healthy connotation, with news that vitamin D from the sun was an important contribution to health. From this time, for our purposes, it can be compared to sea bathing – a valuable medicinal activity without being Aristotle’s ideal. Before that, he may well approve of folk simply lying on the beach, cogitating or reading like the couple above.

To consider a more recent, but perhaps atypical, seaside activity, I shall look at the Mods in the 1960s, when I was freezing my toes in Ilfracombe. The Mods were a teenage subculture defined by their fashion, music taste and leisure choices, and, because of those choices they often clashed with another subculture, the Rockers. Trips to the seaside on the Mod’s trademark Lambretta scooters regularly resulted in clashes with their arch enemies, and if Aristotle noticed that their leisure time was spent “going to clubs, taking amphetamines, dancing to certain types of music” (Jones and Danson Brown, 2008, p.188), he might not be surprised that this didn’t result in a sense of well-being, since they aren’t the activities that he would identify as the best way to spend one’s spare time. The Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia is a paean to the disturbed youth of that period; the hero is mentally ill and this is reflected in the film’s use of the seaside location. However, a line in the song “Bell Boy”, from the Quadrophenia album, suggests a link to Pliny the Younger’s more obviously healthy experience of the seaside location:
A beach is a place where a man can feel/He’s the only soul in the world that’s real. (quoted in Jones, N. and Danson, R., 2008, p.193)
This sentiment also harks back to Fred Gray’s postcard depiction of the beach (above), and points to a unique quality that the beach may have which helps us to achieve well-being.

To conclude, we’ve seen how Aristotle would find much to value in seaside holidays down the ages, even if he might not think it all ideal. The modern vogue is moving away from his ideal of intellectual reflection, catering as it does for entertainment of the masses, although many still value the thoughtful life. The basis for Aristotle’s analysis, founded on what a human being is, might be a naturalistic fallacy, and since modern science has shown that there is no need to posit a teleological life, his conclusions could be attacked. Further, I cannot agree with his attitude to the mass of humanity. But even if we have no ultimate purpose, it’s important to create our own purposes, and so Aristotle’s ideas still intrigue, and can inform our own choice of seaside holiday.

Barnes, J. (2000) Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Price, C. (2008) ‘Aristotle and Epicurus on Leisure’, in Brunton, D.  (ed.) Place and Leisure (AA100 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 10-34
James, P. and Huskinson, J. (2008) ‘Leisure in the Roman Villa’, in Brunton, D.  (ed.) Place and Leisure (AA100 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 65-96
Faire, L. (2008) ‘Dressing for the Beach’, in Brunton, D.  (ed.) Place and Leisure (AA100 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 131-145
Chant, C. (2008) ‘Technology and the Seaside: Blackpool and Benidorm’, in Brunton, D.  (ed.) Place and Leisure (AA100 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 147-168
Brunton, D. (2008) ‘The Healthy Seaside’, in Brunton, D.  (ed.) Place and Leisure (AA100 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 169-182
Jones, N. and Danson, R. (2008) ‘Seaside Music: The Beach Boys and the Who’, in Brunton, D.  (ed.) Place and Leisure (AA100 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 183-204
Aristotle (2001) Nicomachean Ethics (trans. W.D. Ross), The Basic Works of Aristotle, New York, The Modern Library, pp. 935-1126.
‘Roman Villa’ (2008) (AA100 DVD), Milton Keynes, The Open University
‘The Seaside’ (2008) (AA100 DVD), Milton Keynes, The Open University
Brunton, D. (2008) ‘From Greece to the Middle East to Europe: The Transmission of Medical Knowledge’, in Danson Brown  (ed.) Cultural Encounters (AA100 Book 3), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 151-189


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