Do you consider playfulness a virtue? Did you know there is actually a virtue of playfulness? It’s called eutrapelia.
If you are like a lot of people, you probably think of play as belonging to the arena of childhood. You might even think—and you would be right—that play is essential for healthy child development.
However, if you are like a lot of people, you probably also think that play is something people must leave behind as they grow older and enter the serious, responsible world of adulthood.
Too Much Play
In fact, many people look askance on playful adults. We might consider such adults as strange, eccentric, or irresponsible. And perhaps there is a small kernel of truth in this belief. After all, there are adults who refuse to address adult responsibilities. And because of this, they constantly expect other people to look after them and to manage their life. Sometimes psychologists refer to this sort of behavior as Peter Pan Syndrome, after the fairy tale character, Peter Pan who refused to grow up.
“Peter Pan”, by Arthur Rackham, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Living in a state of arrested development can lead to all sorts of problems. When we are stuck in this state, we might play too much or all the time. In doing so, we never tackle the serious endeavors that sharpen our character and contribute to a full, flourishing human life.
An Inability to Play
But what about the other extreme? What about the inability to be playful?
Just as we can play too much, sometimes we don’t play enough, or at all, as we get older. Such unplayfulness might occur because we feel completely overwhelmed by the responsibilities of life–we all go through periods like that. Or it might occur because we believe that the grown-up world is no place or has no time for play. And many of us suspect that there is something irresponsible or even unvirtuous about play in adulthood.
Many people have such feelings. So, it may come as a surprise to learn that some ethical philosophers consider play a virtue! Aristotle is one such philosopher who extols the virtue of playfulness.
Statue at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki by Wikimedia Commons.
He refers to this virtue as eutrapelia, and believe it or not, Aristotle argues that eutrapelia is directly connected to human excellence.
Eutrapelia: The Virtue of Play
In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, he argues that the purpose or end goal of our lives is happiness. But when Aristotle writes about happiness, the world he uses is the Greek word eudaimonia. English doesn’t have a word that is exactly equivalent to eudaimonia, so academics often translate it happiness. But eudaimonia really means something more like flourishing or something expressing every good potential to its fullest. I think of it as like a state a tree achieves when it is in full bloom and at its peak.
Photo by Shelly P. Johnson
But interestingly, eudaimonia pertains to human beings, rather than trees, or animals. So, Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia pertains to a state humans achieve in which, as I think of it, they are in full bloom. Aristotle argues that people achieve this state by consistently developing a virtuous disposition over time.
To contemporary minds, the notion of a virtuous disposition may sound a little boring. It kind of sounds like Aristotle is saying, “Be good all the time, and you will reach your full potential”, which is not very inspiring.
Our inner Power
But Aristotle’s account of virtue is indeed inspiring. Virtue for Aristotle is a kind of inner health or power unique to humans. And it develops as we learn to fine-tune our rational and emotional response perfectly to certain life situations. When we do this we combine reason and emotion to act in a continually harmonious and balanced way. In addition, we avoid acting in an excessive or defective manner. Aristotle writes:
Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle which a man of practical wisdom would determine it.
For example, when we face fearful situations, we must learn to respond with reason and emotion in the proper amount so that we neither behave excessively in the face of fear, which would demonstrate recklessness. Nor do we behave defectively in the face of fear, which would demonstrate cowardice or timidity.
Rather, we cultivate eudaimonia in our life when we practice responding to fear with the proper amount, or the mean, of reason or emotion. This mean, in situations pertaining to fear, is the virtue of courage. Courage is an inner power we develop in response to fear.
In book three of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle also discusses other virtues like self-control, generosity, good taste, truthfulness, and proper ambition, to name a few. One of the virtues Aristotle mentions as necessary for eudaimonia is eutrapelia (εὐτραπελία), or the virtue of playfulness! Aristotle characterizes playfulness as wittiness, and just as we must avoid excess and defect with all the other virtues, we must do so with eutrapelia, too.
Drawing and Painting by Shelly P. Johnson
For example, Aristotle argues that someone who has an excess of playfulness suffers from bomolochia, (βωμολοχία ) or buffoonery. On the other hand, someone who has a deficit of playfulness suffers from agroikia (ἀγροικία) or boorishness.
We see personifications of these excesses and defects all the time. For instance, there is the person who constantly makes jokes, often at inappropriate times. Or they constantly play practical jokes that cross the line and make people feel uncomfortable.
But we also know people who act like an agroikos and show a defect of playfulness. This is a person who never finds any joke funny—even those that are appropriate, clever, and well-timed. Such a person often takes themselves and life too seriously. Or they may be so concerned about work that it is hard for them to relax and have fun. In extreme cases, this kind of person might frown on any other person having fun as well.
Photo by Shelly P. Johnson
And what about the eutrapelos: the person who has the right amount of playfulness or wittiness? We see this kind of person in everyday life, too, and it’s always a joy when we do. The eutrapelos is the kind of person who can recognize the absurdity or delightfulness of a lighthearted moment. Or such people can combine seemingly incongruous aspects of life for comedic affect.
And they call attention to these absurd, lighthearted, or incongruous moments with appropriate timing and grace. They are neither afraid to dive into the humorous moment. Nor do they dwell too long in it. They capture it, revel in it with anyone else willing to do so, and then they move on. This brings more magic into our life. Aristotle writes:
With regard to pleasantness in the giving of amusement the intermediate person is ready-witted and the disposition ready wit.
You have probably witnessed the magic of eutrapelia in your own life. Playful wittiness intensifies the beauty of our most special moments together. And it lightens the load of many of our mundane or even painful moments.
I teach a philosophy of play class at my local college. We discuss play philosophy for the first forty minutes, and we play for the last twenty. One week we might play with a parachute; the next with juggling equipment; the next with poi-spinning toys; and the next with hula hoops. My students’ wittiness during these sessions and their ability to think up new antics with play equipment often has all of us in hysterics.
These moments of laughter, absurdity, and lightheartedness banish the stress of academia (even if only temporarily). And they have brought us closer as a group and illuminated the play lessons we are learning together. And so, then, it is not hard to see why eutrapelia is a virtue and related to human excellence.
And this is also why it’s right to say that play is the province of adulthood as much as childhood. The way we play might change as we grow older (although not always). But at all times, the right amount of playfulness inspires us and helps us flourish.
“Dance”—Photo courtesy of Use and ReUse, Library of Congress
For an everyday look at the benefits of play, you might also like this post: Playfulness and Performance. Or you might like to read more about Aristotle’s philosophy here: How to Flourish by Cultivating Virtues.
Aristotle. Nicomachaen Ethics. Ethics: History, Theory and Contemporary Issues, 7th Edition. Steven M. Cahn and Peter Markie, ed. Oxford University Press. New York, NY: 2020
My friend Kevin M. Johnson and I frequently discuss the importance of play. He recently suggested to me that certain elements of our culture, specifically our lack of connection with the natural world, might especially encourage Peter Pan Syndrome.
For example, contemporary society is highly routinized, sanitized, and mechanized. And people increasingly spend a large percentage of their time inside. This is dramatically different than the way people lived even just a hundred years ago. In these earlier eras, people spent most of their time outdoors, immersed in the natural world, grappling with challenges, danger, and adventure as a part of their everyday life. Such experiences sharpened the mental and physical faculties of people and cultivated a wise, wary, and seasoned maturity.
Kevin suggests that contemporary life may make it very difficult for people to mature in the same way and may encourage a state of perpetual adolescence. Paradoxically, then, certain kinds of play—especially play outdoors—seem necessary for mature, adult development. And a lack of such play can exacerbate arrested development.
Kevin argues, “The consciousness and type of thinking/presence/knowing that occurs in the open-ended awe, curiosity in play is the type of knowing that is contemplative in nature. Theoria. A type of knowing that is outside of thinking but allows us to see the whole. It is embodied. It encourages relationship of our body to all other bodies. And it is here we play ourselves back into the world rather than cut ourselves off in the moment of thinking as we usually do in our jobs, schools, buildings etc.”
My note: American naturalist, John Muir, writes extensively about the kind of outdoor experiences that help us play ourselves into the world. For example, on pg. 139 of his book Wilderness Essays (2015), Muir writes about an encounter with a bear that is at once frightening, humorous, and full of worldly wisdom:
But I was afraid to run, lest he should be encouraged to pursue me; therefore I held my ground, staring him in the face within a dozen yards or so, putting on as bold a look as I could, and hoping the influence of the human eye would be as great as it is said to be. Under these strained relations the interview seemed to last a long time. Finally, the bear, seeing how still I was, calmly withdrew his huge paws from the log, gave me a piercing look, as if warning me not to follow him, turned, and walked slowly up the middle of the meadow into the forest; stopping every few steps and looking back to make sure that I was not trying to take him at a disadvantage in a rear attack.
John Muir, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons