Question: What did St. Thomas Aquinas do for fun? We know that he was a brilliant mind who wrote many good works. However, even he himself says that games and having fun are good for one's soul (I am not sure these are exact words, but he said something in that style). There is this quote attributed to him

Now this relaxation of the mind from work consists on playful words or deeds. Therefore it becomes a wise and virtuous man to have recourse to such things at times.

So, what was he doing to have fun, how did he play? If we do not have information, is there any educated guess? How did Dominicans, in general, have fun in those times?

  • Primarily opinion based and off topic having nothing to do with Christianity?
    – 007
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 20:28
  • 3
    @Kris What did the Dominicans in St. Thomas’ day do during their recreation time? Seems on topic to me! Just need to find a source...
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 20:36
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's historical trivia.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 22:14
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    I cannot vote yet, but I would keep it open. Maybe the question can be re-focused on St. Thomas's teaching on leisure so we have practical application since today's culture is in sore need to conceive a spiritually healthy way to regenerate after long days of work (see my answer). Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 23:07
  • 1
    I think this one is definitely to be judged by its fruit. It’s a simple question, but has led to a host of researchable, applicable, and Christian, information. Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 23:39

3 Answers 3


St. Thomas Aquinas discusses recreation in his question on the modesty of the outward movements of the body (Summa Theologica II-II q. 168). In Article 3 on "Whether there can be a virtue about games?," he writes (co.):

Just as man needs bodily rest for the body's refreshment, because he cannot always be at work, since his power is finite and equal to a certain fixed amount of labor, so too is it with his soul, whose power is also finite and equal to a fixed amount of work. Consequently when he goes beyond his measure in a certain work, he is oppressed and becomes weary, and all the more since when the soul works, the body is at work likewise, in so far as the intellective soul employs forces that operate through bodily organs. […] Now just as weariness of the body is dispelled by resting the body, so weariness of the soul must needs be remedied by resting the soul: and the soul's rest is pleasure

sicut homo indiget corporali quiete ad corporis refocillationem, quod non potest continue laborare, propter hoc quod habet finitam virtutem, quae determinatis laboribus proportionatur; ita etiam est ex parte animae, cuius etiam est virtus finita ad determinatas operationes proportionata, et ideo, quando ultra modum suum in aliquas operationes se extendit, laborat, et ex hoc fatigatur, praesertim quia in operationibus animae simul etiam laborat corpus, inquantum scilicet anima, etiam intellectiva, utitur viribus per organa corporea operantibus. […] Sicut autem fatigatio corporalis solvitur per corporis quietem, ita etiam oportet quod fatigatio animalis solvatur per animae quietem. Quies autem animae est delectatio

Although intellectual and spiritual pleasures are greater than sense pleasures, contemplatives can still grow weary of contemplating too long due to weariness of the body.

Community meals and especially feast days are certainly times for recreation.

The Primitive Constitutions of the Order of Friars Preachers (c. 1228) demands rest on Sundays and feasts, in accordance with the 3rd Commandment:

On Sundays and special feasts, they shall refrain from writing manuscripts. Likewise we forbid servile work on Sundays; for example, to carry stones, collect wood, and so on.

St. Thomas did recreate in the parlor with his fellow Dominican brothers, but not excessively. From the Ystoria sancti Thome de Aquino by William de Tocco (1323), his first biographer (translation from Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work by Torrell, O.P., p. 33):

he had the habit since youth of immediately leaving the parlor or meeting, whatever it might be, when, in their common recreations, his interlocutors diverted the conversation toward subjects other than God and what is ordered to him.

St. Thomas did have a sense of humor, too. See Joseph M. Magee's Thomistic Humor Page, esp. Quodlibet q. 12 a. 20 ("Whether truth is stronger than either wine, the king, or woman."), to which I'd add Summa Theologica II-II q. 189 a. 1 ad 5:

it is not necessary for one to be an ass before being a man
non oportet quod aliquis prius sit asinus quam sit homo

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    Did they do any kind of physical sport? Something including running or something like that?
    – Thom
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 21:48
  • @Thom They did a lot of walking, their primary form of transportation.
    – Geremia
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 21:54
  • +1 for the truth/wine/king/woman Q&A to illustrate the strength of St. Thomas's leaving no aspect of human faculties untouched for even the simplest act. No wonder he's the best philosopher of virtue. That's precisely what attracted me to his teaching in the first place. Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 0:07
  • Many religious orders have their meals in silence and thus is not a time of recreation. Which Dominican tradition existed in St. Thomas’ day?
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Sep 21, 2019 at 13:10
  • @KenGraham On non-feast days, yes, they don't talk to each other but listen to some spiritual reading read by a reader: "[Spiritual] Reading must not be wanting at the table of the brethren when they are eating." (St. Benedict's Rule ch. 38)
    – Geremia
    Commented Sep 21, 2019 at 16:42

Although I cannot find specific activities, my educated guess would be that St. Thomas governed his leisure time along the lines of Josef Pieper's 1948 book Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Many reviews can be found on the goodreads website as well. A more extensive 2015 blog review is here. The epigraph of the book is from Psalm 46:11 : "Be at leisure -- and know that I am God"

Josef Pieper is a renowned Thomist scholar famous for writing lay accessible books on Aquinas's notion of virtues, whose books were recently republished by Ignatius Press.

I found a very good and practical teaching note on the book plus exploration of related concepts (reason & faith, idleness, work, and feast), all along Thomistic ideas, written by Dr. Michael Naughton of the University of St. Thomas .

Introductory paragraph:

I begin this course with an extensive exploration of what we mean by leisure, work, and their relationship. My thesis with the students, which I encourage them to challenge, is the following: if we don’t get leisure right we will not get work right. Behind these words of leisure and work is the relationship between the contemplative and active life, which describes what we receive and what we give. I have found that Josef Pieper‟s essay Leisure the Basis of Culture to be a profound analysis of these relationships and while it is the most difficult text the students read during the semester, it tends to ignite in them the paradigmatic change they need.

The teaching note has 5 sections:

  1. An Introduction to the Meaning of Leisure: Since leisure is such a strange and old word to students, I give them a definition of what it means according to Pieper and how it has been used within the Western tradition.

  2. Seeing Things Whole: Ratio (Reason) and Intellectus (Faith). The modern academic problem is that faith has become alienated from reason/ratio. To see all knowledge as only ratio marginalizes theological discourse from the university and eventually reduces reason to empirical reasoning which eventually marginalizes philosophy, literature, and the humanities in general.

  3. Acedia: When we see the world only dependent upon reason or ratio, and increasing instrumental reasoning, we begin to experience acedia, the sin against leisure.

  4. Proletariat: The predominant anthropological understanding of the modern person is increasingly the worker who is bounded by the process of work.

  5. Feast: At the heart of leisure is festivity, which is the basis of leisure and of culture, and if we fail to see our feast as worship, and participate in false worship all the technological advancements and legal regulations will fail to save our culture.

To whet one's appetite to read the book itself, here is an Introduction to the 1998 edition (St. Augustine's Press) by Roger Scruton:

"Don't just do something: stand there!" The command of an American President to a fussy official was one of those rare moments in American politics when truth prevailed over industry. Josef Pieper's serene reflections on the art of being serene ought to be read by every practical person | and the more that person is involved in business, politics, and public life, the more useful will Pieper be to him. For here, in a succinct yet learned argument, are all the reasons for thinking that the frenzied need to work, to plan, and to change things is nothing but idleness under other names -- moral, intellectual, and emotional idleness. In order to defend itself from self-knowledge, this agitated idleness is busy smashing all the mirrors in the house.

Leisure has had a bad press. For the puritan it is the source of vice; for the egalitarian a sign of privilege. The Marxist regards leisure as the unjust surplus, enjoyed by the few at the expense of the many. Nobody in a democracy is at ease with leisure, and almost every person, however little use he may have for his time, will say that he works hard for a living -- curious expression, when the real thing to work is dying.

The calumnies, however, do not apply: so argues Josef Pieper. We mistake leisure for idleness, and work for creativity. Of course, work may be creative. But only when informed by leisure. Work is the means of life; leisure the end. Without the end, work is meaningless -- a means to a means to a means ... and so on forever, like Wall Street or Capitol Hill. Leisure is not the cessation of work, but work of another kind, work restored to its human meaning, as a celebration and a festival. [bold added by me]

This is what religion teaches us, and the teaching is as important for the unbeliever as for the person of faith. We win through to leisure. "At the end of all our striving" we rejoice in our being and offer thanks. It is then, eating a meal among those we love, dancing together at a wedding, sitting side by side with people silenced by music, that we recognize our peculiar sovereign position in the world.

Our failure to understand leisure, Pieper makes clear, is one with our failure to understand the difference between man and the other animals. Think only of meal-times -- and on this subject Pieper writes with uncommon perceptiveness. The meal, as Pieper puts it, has a "spiritual or even a religious character". That is to say, it is an offering, a sacrifice, and also - in the highest instance -- a sacrament, something offered to us from on high, by the very Being to whom we offer it. Animals eat, but there is nothing in their lives to correspond to this experience of the "meal", as a celebration and endorsement of our life here on earth. When we sit down to eat, we are consciously removing ourselves from the world of work and means and industry, and facing outwards, to the kingdom of ends. Feast, festival, and faith lift us from idleness, and endow our lives with sense.

Pieper's book is also a feast. With astonishing brevity, he extracts from the idea of leisure not only a theory of culture and its significance, not only a natural theology for our disenchanted times, but also a philosophy of philosophy - an account of what philosophy can do for us, and what it ought to do for us, in a world where science and technology have tried to usurp the divine command. And he reiterates that command as it came in a "still small voice" to Elijah, and again to Pascal and Kierkegaard: in his own gentle way, Pieper tells us to "Be still".


What did the Dominicans in St. Thomas’ day do during their recreation time?

Having lived in a contemplative monastery for awhile, my most logical thought would be that like Benedictines, the Dominicans would go for short walks in small groups in order to engage in light conversations, yet remaining somewhat spiritual. Perhaps on days when there would be bad weather, they would talk inside and tell stories or maybe even do small extras like pealing potatoes at the same time, as a group.

There is a little story of some of St. Thomas’ brethren making fun of him at his expense. No doubt this was probably done at a moment of common leisure.

Yesterday the Church celebrated the feast of a Church Doctor Saint Thomas Aquinas. His writings are an amazing gift to the Church that have been past down through the generations and are still being unwrapped. In good and right order, Chervin includes a ton of Aquinas’ wisdom in her book. As I reflected on Saint Thomas Aquinas throughout the day, I found one passage in the book that particularly gave me a great chuckle. Ms. Chervin introduces the story by explaining that Aquinas was often ridiculed by his Dominican colleagues for being too scholarly and one night they play a practical joke on him. The story goes:

“Thomas, Thomas,” one cried out, “Come, look out the window. A cow is jumping over the moon!” The portly theologian left his work and rushed to see the prodigy. When the assembled friars laughed at him, he replied, “I would rather believe that a cow was jumping over the moon than that a Dominican would tell a lie!” - [The Quotable & Quick-Witted Saint Thomas Aquinas](The Quotable & Quick-Witted Saint Thomas Aquinas)

We must remember that both monks and friars of the Middle Ages did a lot of walking and it would seem normal for many of these moments to be used as an ideal time for leisure.

There is no doubt that when major prelates visited a priory and if time permitted the whole community would have a common recreation with the visiting bishop or cardinal. It would be the ideal time to catch up on any news from the outside.

The Monastic Recreatio (page 110) explains that permission was granted in various monasteries for monks to leave their cloister for reasons of going for leisure walks for recreation and conversation. This was the very practice in the monastery where I stayed at. The Dominicans of St. Thomas’ day were not cloistered, and would certainly have done this type of recreational doings.

Following Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas assigns to games the virtue of eutrapelia. This is the virtue of pleasantness or playfulness. St. Thomas explains that, just as the body needs rest when it is weary, so too does the soul when it becomes overburdened. And, like the body, the soul takes rest in a kind of pleasure, which we call “play.” As St. Thomas says, “Now such like words or deeds wherein nothing further is sought than the soul’s delight are called playful or humorous.” Of course, these words or deeds are only virtuous if they accord with reason. Playfulness has its proper time, place, and mode. But insofar as we play reasonably, we can speak of a virtue of playfulness and, therefore, a virtue related to games. Through games we restore the strength of our souls, so as to be more fervent in pursuing higher ends, such as contemplation. - Eutrapelia: Pleasure for the Soul

Fun note:

Historical evidence tracks tennis to the crude handball game of 11th and 12th century French monks which later became known as jeu de paume or “game of the hand”. - A Brief History of Tennis

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