How Do You Know We are Free? Play.

Andrew Sullivan is far and away my favorite social and political commentator. His book The Conservative Soul has influenced my own political thinking more than anything I’ve ever read. I’m on my fifth run through right now, and as with other greats, each time reveals gems.

I just spotted this passage that seems especially interesting to me now…


The freest society is the one in which the quintessential, ultimate activity is play. Security is guaranteed; Work is done; the wealth that freedom creates enables leisure; and leisure begets play. When we play games we suspend for a time the burdens of practical life- of earning a living, feeding our bodies, getting enough sleep, saving our souls. We engage in activity that has no point; and those who play games merely to win them miss the point of playing. Games help us learn restraint, prudence, and cooperation that are central to democratic life. They teach us activities that lead nowhere but where they are.

Appreciation of those self-fulfilling activities is growing ever more important to me. If one is able to do something for its own sake without need for specific outcomes, than happiness in life is guaranteed. Though, I’m learning that it is much easier said than done. Most of the time I find myself battling it. I am not sure about you, but I always seem to want a specific result when I do something. It’s human nature, I suspect.

But if we are able to do things for the sake of doing them, without any regard for what happens, then we’ve reached an impressive pinnacle.

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8 comments

  1. I’m afraid I must disagree. I do believe that games and fun have value, at least on a personal level, but describing gameplay as ‘quintessential’ and ‘ultimate’ in society seems to defeat the point a little bit.

    People banding together for survival and success- forming cities and countries and what have you- is one thing, but for the goal of a free society to be play removes them from earnest, hard, and important work of survival- the very reason they came together in the first place.

    Which brings me to another thought- who is he talking about? I know America is a great industrial country that has given its citizens every opportunity to live a comfortable, healthy life, but are we to take that for granted while much of the world is still working- not playing- very hard for food and shelter? It seems shallow and careless to place ‘play’ on such a pedestal. And some may say that countries like America have earned their leisure, but we all know we’re not in our own little bubbles. We are connected to our factories and businesses abroad; if we insist that we are playing on the merit of our own work, we must admit that we’re doing so on their work as well.

    Thought I’d like to avoid hyperbole (as well as an over-used comparison), I would like to point out that this was very much the attitude of the Romans before the Empire fell. Days-long parties, feasts of bacchanalian proportions, and of course the infamous vomitorium were all play and fun, and they were all symptoms of atrophy in a breaking society.

    I agree that games have their place, and that we need to have fun. Of course I do. But for that to be our goal, our quintessence, our height of living … doesn’t sit well with me.

  2. I hope you aren’t afraid to disagree, because that is the fun part. Ha. I always learn so much more when someone disagrees.

    As always, some fantastic points to consider. Among others, you mention two lines of thought: (1) Isn’t the whole point of coming together to form society about working for survival in the first place? (2)Isn’t it a little arrogant for the U.S. to think that it should seek play as a goal when much of the world is struggling to eat, drink, and not get killed?

    Both ideas seem natural critiques. A response:

    To your first point, I agree that survival and efficiency were the catalyst for the slow coming together of people which has created city-states, empires, and nations. That is exactly why Sullivan feels that if play is possible, than a society must be doing pretty well at fulfilling its original goal.

    In other words, people come together so they can survive (as you mention). It is an impressive feat when that societal structure allows them to temporarily suspend real life, because they have faith that all of those survival details are firmly secure. In that sense, play proves the stability of a society. That doesn’t necessarily endorse play at all times and places. But the ability to chose when one enters the world of play is stunningly impressive.

    Our ancestors were much less free to play a game of checkers whenever they wanted without fear of getting eaten, missing a hunt and starving, or being battle-axed in the skull. We can play checkers for a day straight, if we chose, without those worries. From a purely societal perspective, that is a sign if strength.

    A different argument might be that people need not have too much play, because it qualitatively hinders their own personal development. But, I think that would be a human/moral debate and not one from a society/government perspective.

    Second, onto the point about the U.S. and the world. I completely agree with you on the interconnectivity of everything on planet earth. Spot on. I think in this regard its key to mention that Sullivan is talking as a theorist, in generalities about the role of societal structures on humanity. I don’t think he means to say that the U.S. is the richest nation in the world, and that it should feel free to dance in the streets to celebrate most days of the week. Though who could turn down a spin on the vomitorium.

    Because he is talking about theory, Sullivan doesn’t at all believe we have ‘reached’ this pinnacle. So I do not think that he is endorsing complete disregard for anyone who doesn’t happen to be within whichever society happens to dominate at the moment.

    Also, rereading your comment again, I noticed you conclude by mentioning that having play as the ultimate goal…”doesn’t sit well with you.” Amen to that. And I think that a key distinction here is between the individual and the society. As an individual, you know what works for you and what doesn’t. You know what motivates you, inspires you, excites you, and makes you feel truly alive. Society cannot know that. And so from society’s perspective, it is succeeding most when you are free to do whatever it is you fancy (including play), if your chose.

    Maybe I would have been better to say ‘the option of play’ is the sign of ultimate freedom. Not the actual ‘playing’ itself.

    Thoughts?

  3. That whole passage is just silly. Further, his semicolon placements are infuriating.

    “We engage in activity that has no point; and those who play games merely to win them miss the point of playing. Games help us learn restraint, prudence, and cooperation that are central to democratic life.”

    A communist country in theory can provide an opportunity for people to “play” without worrying about all that other important stuff right? Sounds like this guy is a red, and by red I don’t mean republican.

    Hardy har, just kidding. But still, that passage is silly. He has a strange cyclical way of thinking. Games teach us how to be a good democratic society, but a good democratic society can only afford to play games. Plus, the reason why you need to cooperate, and learn all of those good skills, is so you can win. It’s not aimless play that brings about all of those traits he likes so much.

    Despite my kidding semi-serious comments that make luke warm points, I despise that passage. Your praise for it unsettles me.

  4. Ha. First, I concede the semicolon point. I try not to be a stickler on grammar, but his usage confuses me as well.

    However, I cannot agree with your disdain for these thoughts. Perhaps I don’t yet understand your argument.

    I do not think that Sullivan is suggesting that “a good democratic society can only afford to play games.” Instead, I read it as stating that a sign of stability within a society is one which inhabitants are free to play games for their own sake.

    And I’m also not convinced that the purpose of cooperation and skill-building is to ‘win.’ Sure, people try to win, but successful game-playing doesn’t hinge on it. The process matters. The pursuit matters.

    What unsettles you?

  5. On another note, I agree that ‘in theory’ communism could certainly produce abundant play. There is nothing wrong, to me, with the theory of communism: everyone works hard at what they are good at and then are doled out what they need to survive in equal amounts.

    The problem, of course, is that the practical application of communist principles have proven to be full of fear, depravity, unhappiness, inequality, and chaos.

  6. Hahaha, very well. My argument is that the passage is just silly.

    This is not that important, but can you think of a game where you learn cooperation, but their is no end goal to cooperate for? I understand you get something out of a game even if you loose, but in the meantime you were trying to win…”those who play games merely to win them miss the point of playing” sounds like something on a poster in a third grade class room, hence the sillyness factor. I’d prefer not to pay for that advice. I wonder if he thinks there’s no “I” in team…or if cats should “hang in there” when they’re stuck in trees.

    Plus, game playing is so specific.
    What about – A free society is one where people can do what they want with their free time? By refining that to: Playing games that teach skills while not caring about an end goal is just…well…silly!

    What if a free society is one where people can forget all there stresses and cooperate to build public service projects to help society? They can learn skills and enjoy the process for its own sake, and STILL care about winning (finishing the project). I dunno…something about that passage creeps me out. Maybe its just the semicolons. Maybe I’m just weird!

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