The University Bookman


Spring 2016

On Play and Seriousness

book cover imageHomo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture
by Johan Huizinga.
Beacon, 1950.

James V. Schall, S. J.

“We must emphasize once again that play does not exclude seriousness.”

—Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, 1938.

The classical Latin adjectives that we see associated with the Latin noun homo—meaning what-it-is-to-be-a-human-being—are quite instructive. Thus, we have homo rationale. This phrase contains the most fundamental adjective that penetrates to the point wherein man and animal are properly distinguished. Man is indeed an animal, but one with the capacity to reason, a capacity that governs all he does. In fact, as Leon Kass showed in The Hungry Soul, his rationality shapes his interior and exterior senses. For, in their very structures, they are ordered to his knowing ability, as is his whole being. This knowing capacity is not something added from the outside like a spare tire. It is already a power of his soul for the activity of which he is formed.

Likewise, we have homo risibile, that is, the being who laughs. It is a fact. We do laugh. We begin there. The capacity to laugh is itself an aspect of rationality. Why is this? Laughter arises from the capacity of mind to see relationships between things, or lack of them. To laugh we have to be able to hold two or three different things together in our minds at the same time. Only an immaterial power can do this. In so doing, we realize some unexpected incongruity among things with similar sounds, spellings, or meanings. The capacity to laugh is a precious thing that lights up our days.

The term homo faber means literally man the maker of things, the fabricator, the craftsman, the carpenter, the technician, the surgeon. This capacity of our minds connects us most directly with things to be made for our purposes. In this sense, our minds are proportioned to our hands through which our ideas pass into matter. We can know what things are. We can tell the difference between wood and iron. We can make things out of both. We put the stamp of our minds on the thing we want to fashion. The technology that we see all about us is the combination of mind, hand, habit, memory, and the many kinds of matter on which ideas can be impressed.

Then there is homo ludens, the man who plays. In some ways, this combination almost seems the best of all of them. This phrase was also the title of a famous book by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. It is a book that—for me, at least—when once read, often comes back in my understanding of things.

There is an interesting note about the subtitle of this book—“A Study of the Play-Element in Culture.” The author, who knew English well, insisted that it should be “of Culture,” not “in Culture.” Why did he stress this preposition? If we speak of play “in” a culture, we could simply be talking of the games people play—soccer, tennis, rugby, basketball, cricket, marbles, croquet, hockey, and many others. But if we speak of the play element “of” culture, we indicate that something of what it is to play can be found in every aspect of life, especially in those things of greater moment.

The problem, of course, is that we can confuse play and entertainment or relaxation. Aristotle said that play is very close to contemplation, the highest of our activities. Intellectual activity occurs when we simply want to know what is for its own sake. When we speak of play, we speak of things of surprising profundity.

I have been struck over the years by the number of students who confided to me that they were perplexed by their athletic experience. Again and again, they were told that it was mere entertainment, or a pastime, fundamentally useless, the proverbial “waste of time”. To such concerns, I never failed to recall St. Exupéry’s “Little Prince,” who told us that it is only the time we “waste” with our friends that counts. I found that most students could immediately see the point.

Aristotle, of course, distinguished between recreation and play. Into the mix must come, as Josef Pieper always reminds us, leisure and work. Recreation is related to work. Work and craft are good things. They require much exertion. They put needed things into the world in an artifact we can use. The human body can take only so much. It needs intervals of rest, both in the normal day (coffee break, halftime) and in the year (vacation).

Play is something else. “Playing is not ‘doing’ in the ordinary sense; you do not ‘do’ a game as you ‘do’ or ’go’ fishing or hunting or Morris-dancing, or woodwork—you ‘play’ it” (37). Play is something “for its own sake”. We do not “play” to do something else. We play to play, play to win.

Moreover, play is not best seen from the side of the players, though their side is fundamental. They have to be playing to play, to win. We cannot have a tennis match if our opponent is playing tennis for the exercise it gives him. We can only play tennis if we try to beat him and he tries to beat us. Otherwise, we might just as well be doing pushups in the corner. And the drama of the “big games”—the Olympics, the World Cup, the Superbowl, the World Series—is real.

The world does not watch these events simply for recreation. They bring forth something very basic to our existence—the final decision, the rules, the fine skills, the sense of glory and loss. Sometimes the most profound thing about the big game is not the elation of the winner but the gloom of the loser. We all realize that the number of winners is one, while the number of losers is legion.

The great thing about play, about games, is they need not exist, but do. They have existed as long as man has existed. What is so great about this aspect of play? Again, I think that Aristotle had it right, an utterly unsurprising surprising thing, for Aristotle saw so much. He had said that play was like the contemplation of what is, only it was not so serious.

Here, Aristotle meant that the playing of a game, as well as the beholding it, were fascinating in themselves, for their own sakes. In this sense, they are like existence. Neither the world nor games needs to exist, but do. This fact means that something is going on in the world that draws our attention simply because it is there, going on. We see it happen before our eyes. We are taken out of ourselves. We do not notice the time passing. Games are played in their own time.

Let me go back to the notion of Huizinga that the notion of play does not exclude seriousness. Chesterton said the same thing of humor. When someone criticized him for not being “serious” because he was also “funny” he explained that the opposite of funny is not serious. The opposite of funny is not funny. There is absolutely no reason that the highest things cannot be filled with joy, amusement, humor, and still be serious, still bring us to the heart of what is.

Play, as I have intimated, need not exist, but does. The cosmos need not exist, but it does. When we ask who beholds a game, the answer is the one who watches, the spectator. When we ask this question of the cosmos, we find that Plato and Scripture picture the events going on in the world as the Lord watching his “playthings” carry out their destiny before him. They did not exist because God needed them for his own well-being. They existed in that same abundance that we associate with games. They need not be, yet when they go on before our gaze they reveal to us what we are.

It is not an accident that the language of sports includes words like honor, fairness, rules, chance, cheating, skill, vanity, humility, penalty, punishment, reward, winning, losing, competition, training, and, yes, glory. Such is the stuff of our lives that we see played out before our eyes in games—as we do in another way in theaters and concert halls. We catch glimpses of the events of our own lives.

So there need be no contradiction between play and seriousness. The drama of our games, when we think of it, reflects the drama of our lives. This is what Aristotle meant, I think, when he said that play was like contemplation but not so serious. He did not mean games were frivolous. He meant that their very being fascinated us. We are to see in them the greater fascination with our existence, an existence that is beheld, that sees us play out lives in the serious play that decides whether we win or lose that for which we are created.  

Posted: March 27, 2016 in On Letters and Essays.

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A culture is perennially in need of renewal. A culture does not survive and prosper merely by being taken for granted; active defense is always required, and imaginative growth, too.

Russell Kirk


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