Mini-Feature: The Importance of Play

How important is play in living a healthy and fulfilling life?

Play is life, living for the sheer joy of it. Rejecting play is suicidal. Celebrating and elevating play is life-affirming and life-giving.

Read On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, DancingPlay On: From Games to CelebrationsFar Too Easily Pleased: A Theology of Play, Contemplation and Festivity, or this short essay on the meaning of sport by Father James Schall.

Living things as we sense them could be defined by their possession of an intrinsic principle that orders physical material over time, moving to transcend the material through ordered motion, indefinitely.

The decay and degeneration and violence we observe interfering with or stopping this ordering over time are obstacles—accidental to the strivings of life to transcend matter and time through a unified ordering in physical space.

A blade of grass takes or subsumes physical material and imposes or shapes a unity of order upon it, and works to perpetuate that order. A blade of grass is god-like or divine in this way. It works to order matter and perpetuate itself.

This is what we mean by the “spark of life”: the beginning or seed or inner act of this working from within. The continual work or act of life seems like a fire within.

Yet living material things are themselves composed of material created by the interactive motion of non-living material things. Elements and composites rearrange in large and small scale orderings of material by the material itself: the burning up of stars, the constant separating and combining of the physical stuffs of the cosmos over time, according to which stuff meets which stuff as it moves about in time and space.

How the non-living latter became the living former is, er, immaterial to the point. Which is that the motion of the material in both cases produces consistent, recognizable orderings of matter. In the case of life, however, this ordering works “from within” to perpetuate itself, and to further its perpetuation.

To perpetuate—to pass on this order, and recreate it in another—is not mere existence. To merely exist is, in principle, stasis—for to merely exist seems not to require the existing thing to diffuse itself. Yet, upon consideration, even to merely exist does depend on a state of action or act in regard to time, at least—one must keep the arrangement or order through time, preventing corruption and decay.

So to stand against motion and stay what one is requires an inner motion of material things, or some action to keep the order of the material together. Things hold fast together as they can, or they break up and pass away. But life seeks more than this.

Thus natural selection in the most negative sense seems oddly to best apply to non-living things and their corruption and decay amidst accidental interactions arising from more general external motions, or the physical tides of the cosmos. And one notes these kinds of materials don’t seem to necessarily evolve in a positive sense.

Rocks, for instance, may last longer than a blade of grass, and granite has something within that holds it fast, acting against decay by means of a compositional ordering, but granite does not itself seem to positively act to live on—to perpetuate itself and its form beyond its own decay, never mind to “evolve” its form.

But in the case of our planet, at least, we see living things intrinsically imposing order upon all kinds of material compositions, and seeking to perpetuate that order. The living thing with reason is the only one of them that can truly decide not to perpetuate itself—that can choose to act against or deny this fundamental component of that which we generally call a living organism.

But this power of denial or rejection itself merely reveals the depth of the inner drive, flow, or act. Biologically and psychologically, humans still desire to physically and psychologically act as if they will pass life on even if they claim to have decided they will not.

Life does not seek mere static existence. Life is diffusive of itself. Life is the spreading of an acting order. Life harnesses physical stuffs and arranges them into wholes, and seeks to further those wholes, all of which strive to move and thrive themselves through time—to transcend time—and all of which strive to act and thrive in and through space—and to transcend it too.

What nature is, in general and in particular “natures”, is ultimately intimately related to a principle and purpose within material things that seeks to transcend them—that seeks to transcend physical matter, and orders and perpetuates itself accordingly. A transcendent order that underlies and ceaselessly swells against the continuous degeneration and decay of physical things.

Nature or the cosmos does not just point beyond matter or itself. It lives this truth. Life itself is what “points.” Life is the active shaping of matter to live above and beyond and past or through it.

And to the exact extent it is able in the circumstances, nature doesn’t just seek to exist as opposed to not-existing, or seek merely to maintain itself at 1 as opposed to 0, but it lives and thrives as abundantly and diffusively as possible to the extent it overcomes decay and degeneration.

Look around you. Natural things, living things leap up and flow over precisely to the extent circumstances are favorable. That’s when the whales start breaching—and not only to attract a mate. We have to severely miseducate ourselves not to understand why.

Again, play is life, living for the sheer joy of it. Rejecting play is suicidal. Celebrating and elevating play is life-affirming and life-giving.

Read Josef Pieper's Leisure: The Basis of Culture.

-Matthew Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind

Play—what is it? People disagree on the exact definition. Most seem to think a life without play is a life that sucks, that is, in some fundamental way, forced out of its natural proportion: artificial, fake, and harmfully so. I think this too. But the distinction I want to introduce is that “virtual” play—play with artifacts of imagination and invented image—can supplement but never supplant play in the real, incarnate, ensouled world.

Yes, this is bad news for gnostics, transhumanists, and other new-age religionists, many of whom want to use the technology of entertainment to design not just themselves but the world, and, ultimately, YOU. Sadly, they will fight to keep doing this, even though the reality of our human identity and our humanized world is stacked against them.

They will do a lot of harm trying, and in part for understandable reasons—few hunger for a world where the fantasy industry is destroyed as a source of good jobs, but it is coming. Fake play, as Neil Postman says, amuses us to death. Retrieving real play—beginning to understand once again what that is—will be essential to saving our souls.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind

Well, I used to smoke cigarettes and read Nietzsche, and felt on top o' the world. Now I read Jane Austen and cry. 

-David Bahr, managing editor of The American Mind

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Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy that “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” I confess that I have a very deep-seated and easily activated mistrust of seriousness, especially self-seriousness. I think I share this with many young people who spend a lot of time online, which is telling. Our famous obsession with irony and aversion to cringe is both a great attitudinal strength and a serious shortcoming in the Millennial generation. Because of course there are some things—God, for instance, and honor—which deserve to be taken seriously. Failure to do so can be degrading and eventually fatal. 

But actually I suspect that Millennial levity expresses a perception, so deeply experienced as to be often subliminal, that many things and people are being taken hyper-seriously which do not deserve to be. The seemingly incessant back-of-house gaffes made visible to the public by digital media have demonstrated the thinness of our society’s conceits, which is why sarcasm is a natural reaction to being online. Putative academics deliver grave exhortations to ignore the truth. The supposedly powerful supposed leaders of the supposedly free world make acrobatic prostrations at a new altar of racialist or sexual dogma every day. The only thing morally or intellectually weaker than our supposed aristocrats is the narrative they confect to cloak themselves in faux gravity. There’s a reason they call it clown world. 

In such a context and at such a moment, play and mockery might be not only helpful for sanity, but essential for survival. One of the most influential publications of our era is a satire website, and that’s not by accident. In point of fact, a healthy sense of amusement liberates us from the need to pretend-believe in the value of dead things. Thus freed, we will find we have the emotional bandwidth to take seriously—to revere, even—that which deserves it. 

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind