Winter's Silence

In Noah Webster’s 1788 essay advocating for universal education in America, the founding-era lexicographer distinguishes winter as the season most appropriate for schooling. After listing the subjects with which American citizens ought to be acquainted—beginning with ethics and the principles of law—Webster explains that “[t]his acquaintance they might obtain by means of books calculated for schools, and read by the children, during the winter months, and by the circulation of public papers.”

The winter months are most fitting for reading because these are the months when children “are not otherwise employed.” Winter freezes kill most vegetation, putting a pause on farming until springtime, and the shortening of days limits any other outdoor labor. Hence, as Webster writes in another essay, these are the months “when every farmer can spare hiz [sic] sons.”

Winter, in other words, is nature’s way of making us rest from our labor. For some animals, this means sleep and hibernation. Too often, we humans assume the same for ourselves. After unwrapping new smartphones and watches, headphones and VR headsets, chocolates and bottles of wine, many of us spend our Christmas vacation attempting to escape from the “real world,” whether through entertainment, self-medication, or sleep.

Yet it’s worth recalling in what ways humans are different from other animals. Our souls have not just nutritive and appetitive faculties but rational capacities, and this means that we are made not just to eat, work, and sleep but to have leisure. So said Aristotle, echoed by many other thinkers and texts of the Western tradition. But by leisure, they did not mean passive entertainment—watching Netflix, playing video games, or scrolling social media feeds. In the Western tradition, leisure is not an escape from the demands of the real world but an entry into the essence of reality, the experience and awareness of which our day jobs necessarily obscure by narrowing our focus to the task at hand.

Hence, Aristotle identifies leisure with contemplation, the activity of seeing with the intellect, and with philosophy, the loving pursuit of wisdom. It is marked not by sleepiness or stupor but by the gaze of what he calls the “eye of the soul.” As 20th-century German philosopher Josef Pieper explains, this means that leisure is first and foremost a form of silence, which prepares and allows the soul to apprehend or “hear” reality.

Winter’s confining temperatures and dimmer lights invite us to heighten our other senses in response and pay attention to the silent realities we often miss in the hustle and bustle of the warmer seasons.

Such a contemplative attitude is impossible to attain when one is busy tackling a to-do list, whether at work or at home. It is also impossible to attain when one is subject to the artificial overstimulation that attends most of modern media consumption. Leisure requires receptivity to the reality of the world. When one’s senses are plugged—by earbuds or a stream of images—it’s quite difficult to remain open to anything else.

It is precisely because winter is a time when so much of nature is in hibernation that it is optimal for leisure, properly understood as a wakefulness of the soul. Its confining temperatures and dimmer lights invite us to heighten our other senses in response and pay attention to the silent realities we often miss in the hustle and bustle of the warmer seasons. For Christians, the liturgical calendar further emphasizes the natural features of the season by recounting the ways in which God comes to us in the quiet, from the angel Gabriel’s silencing of Zechariah, so that he may ponder and come to understand the good news, to the Silent Night of Jesus’ birth. The Christmas story gives new meaning to the Psalms’ command to “be still and know that I am God,” which the ancient Greek version translates, “Have leisure and know that I am God.”

Just as with the Christmas story, however, silence is only the beginning of the experience of leisure. While Pieper characterizes leisure in the first place as a form of silence, he characterizes it in the second place as a form of affirmation and festivity. A readiness to see and hear the world beyond us presupposes a confidence that, to put it simply, it is good to be here. Existence, however complex and mysterious it may be, is good, a gift, even.

Leisure, therefore, involves a disposition of gratitude and celebration of a life and a world that we did not create, and this is why, traditionally, the exercise of leisure often took the form of a religious feast. The first time Aristotle mentions leisure in the Ethics, for example, it is as an occasion for festivity, when a political community exercises its leisure to offer sacrifices to the gods in thanksgiving for the harvest. While means of escape presuppose an aversion to and rejection of reality, genuine feasts and festivals are occasions to contemplate and celebrate life’s fundamental goodness.

Leisure, in its fullness, encompasses both contemplation and festivity, silence and cheer, and a richness the human experience of winter similarly embraces. Though the season’s stillness gives us more opportunity than normal to listen and reflect, its darkness and cold temperatures also invite us to huddle together for light and warmth. Hence, winter is also the most holiday-packed season of the year, marked by giving thanks, exercising hospitality, and spending time with family. The rituals surrounding the festivities of holidays like Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year, and Mardi Gras can, if properly approached, deepen reflection, prompting us to consider both the smallness and significance of our own lives in light of all that has come before us. Without such thoughtfulness, however, holiday celebrations can often devolve into debauchery and consumerism, becoming yet another means of escape. Approaching leisure as Pieper first defines it, as a kind of silence of the soul, can help us to fully experience the leisurely festivity he later describes.

Seasonal changes no longer dictate work schedules, of course. Many Americans have at most a few days off at Christmas and New Year’s, rather than the months of increased leisure time that winter once afforded in Webster’s day, when most farmed for a living. Still, Americans today do have leisure time—on average over five hours a day, according to the latest American Time Use Survey—and the growing prevalence of remote work now allows many to extend their holiday visits. But Americans also report spending the majority of their leisure time watching television. The problem seems to be not that we don’t have time for leisure, but that we don’t know how to be at leisure.

Perhaps for that reason, it’s worth reconsidering Webster’s winter proposal. While he singled out this time of year as the obvious season for educating citizens, we today are more apt to see it as the natural “break” from school, in part because we have lost sight of the kinship between school and leisure. Though leisure implies ease—retreating from the busying necessities of everyday life—it is not easy. On the contrary, it takes a good bit of practice and virtue to properly prepare one’s soul both for leisure’s quiet receptivity and its thoughtful festivity. This is why, for the ancients, it was not work so much as leisure that called for education, and education, in turn, was understood in terms of leisure, as a preparation for and practice of it. Our English word for “school” reflects this relationship, in fact, since it comes from the Greek word for leisure, scholē.

Winter’s stillness makes it ripe but not sufficient for leisure’s enjoyment, especially in a day and age in which technological advancements enable us to defy nature’s cues by turning up the volume on our various personal devices. In order to fully take advantage of the unique conditions winter offers, we must educate ourselves and our children to be capable of leisure. Whether by embracing the silence on our commute to work, getting off of social media, or substituting a book chapter for another TV episode, the new year is a great time to adopt habits and practices that help us to cultivate and preserve the space and quiet necessary to see and hear the world around us.

In Benjamin Franklin’s amusing autobiography, in which he instructs the reader how to educate himself, he identifies “silence” not as an external condition or occasion for passivity but as an active habit, and a most important one, at that, second only to temperance. “[M]y desire being to gain knowledge at the same time that I improved in virtue, and considering that in conversation it was obtained rather by the use of the ears than of the tongue,” he explains, “I gave silence the second place.” Not only will those who hold their tongues be more likely to hear those around them; they will be more inclined to hear, period. They will therefore be better prepared for leisure as a form of silence in which one “hears” reality, for, as Pieper notes, “only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.” Only then can we wholeheartedly embrace nature’s gift.

This essay is based on a Heritage Foundation report, “America Needs an Education in Leisure.”