Scholé in The Scriptures: Choosing What Is Better

Those of you who know this blog (or anything about me) know that I have been reading and writing about returning scholé to our schools and homeschools for about three years now.  Here is a brief article relating the Greek concept of scholé to the Old and New Testament.–CP

Aristotle and Scholé

Well it was Aristotle who first described the importance of scholé (leisure, restful learning and conversation, contemplation), and yet the Hebrew Scriptures (which predate Aristotle) seem to touch on this theme as well.  The New Testament certainly does too in some unique ways.

Aristotle writes in Book VII of the Politics:

 …we fulfill our nature not only when we work well but when we use leisure (scholé) well.  For I must repeat what I have said before: that leisure is the “initiating principle” of all achievements.  Granted that work and leisure are both necessary, yet leisure is the desired end for which work is done; and this raises the question of how we ought to employ our leisure.  Not by merely amusing ourselves, obviously, for that would be to set up amusement as the chief end of life. (Book VII:iii)

Aristotle does not disparage wage-earning work, but he says that such work (and amusement) cannot be fitting ends for human aspiration and life.  The highest end is the right employment of scholé.


Scholé in The Old Testament

Now this insight was picked up by the church (many centuries later) and identified with contemplation.  This is not surprising since the Old Testament also suggests a life of “restful learning” and contemplation as the heart of a full human life:

One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.  (Psalm 27)

This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it. (Isaiah 30:15)

I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.” (Job 3:26)

The Hebrew concept of shalom (often translated “peace”) also includes a connotation similar to scholé: In addition to the idea of safety and soundness, shalom also frequently means quiet, tranquility and friendship—all components of scholé.

In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) scholé only appears twice (in Genesis 33:14 and Proverbs 28:19) and means leisure in the primary sense of “going slowly” (Genesis 33:14) and even wasting time (Proverbs 28:19).  In the Wisdom of Sirach however, we find this interesting passage:

The wisdom of a learned man cometh by opportunity of leisure (scholé): and he that hath little business shall become wise.  How can he get wisdom that holdeth the plough, and that glorieth in the goad, that driveth oxen, and is occupied in their labors, and whose talk is of bullocks? (Wisdom of Sirach 3:24, 25)

Here the word scholé is used very much as Aristotle uses it, and the context makes it clear that wisdom comes from the man who takes the opportunity of scholé and does not over-indulge in wage-earning labors.  Note how the passage not only addresses too much business or labor—but also address the mental preoccupation of the man who only talks about his work.  If his only talk is of his bullocks, we must surmise that his only thought is about them as well.


Scholé in the New Testament

In the New Testament (written in Greek), scholé only occurs a few times.  Scholé can refer to a lecture hall (where scholé or learned discussions occur) and this is what we find in Acts 19:9  where we read that Paul took his disciples daily for discussions at the lecture hall (scholén) of a man named Tyrannus.  In 1 Cor. 7:5, Paul writes that married couples should devote (scholaséte) themselves to prayer.  Paul here uses the verbal form of scholé that means to have rest or leisure, or to be dedicated or devoted (no distractions or obligatory work!).

Beyond the actual use of the word scholé, we do find the New Testament addressing the concept of scholé in several places:


The Example of Christ

The first indication we get that Jesus condones “restful learning” is that time we find him at age 12, away from his parents for at least three days, “in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” (Luke 2:46).  Leaving aside the fact that “everyone who hear him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (2:47), we should note that Jesus spend three days (sleeping at the temple too?) engaged in conversation with the best teachers in Israel.  And he did this at the age of a 6th grader.  He tells his parents that “he had to be in his Father’s house” (2:49), but we note that what he was doing in his Father’s house resembles scholé or restful learning.

We find Christ frequently going off by himself to pray, even for 40 days at a time.  Christ seemed never to be in a hurry, but relaxed and peaceful.  Even when others around him are frenetic, he is tranquil.  In Luke 10, Martha implores Jesus to tell her sister Mary to help her with dinner preparations, for Martha was busy working while Mary was sitting and talking with Jesus.  Jesus responds to her: “Martha, Martha you are anxious (busy) and troubled about many things, but only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better (literally “the good part”), and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10: 42)

It is hard to imagine a better illustration from the gospels about what scholé means than this event recorded in Luke 10. We all have to prepare meals, do dishes and work for wages—and these are good things.  The better thing, however (when we are free to chose), is to talk with a master.  Mary was talking with the Master, and certainly chose wisely.

Example from Paul’s Writings

Paul writes in 2 Cor. 3:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.   And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate[a] the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3: 17. 18)

Paul notes that the faithful, in the context of the freedom given by the Spirit, contemplate (gaze, reflect) the glory of God and are then transformed to resemble that very glory.  This reminds us of Christ’s teaching that a student, when he has been fully trained, will be like his master (Luke 6:36).  Paul also hints that this transformation is a process that takes time.  We gaze and study the glory, and slowly (with ever-increasing glory, literally “from glory to glory”) we grow to resemble this glory.

Paul has in mind the experience of Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai after meeting with God there, having received the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments.  When Moses came down from that mountain, his face was glowing brightly enough that he spooked the Israelites and had to put a veil over his face.

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him… Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord. (Ex. 34:29, 30, 35)

Apparently to Paul, the life of the Christian is to be one of contemplation and gazing—looking on the same one that set Moses face aglow.  This implies undistracted gazing, focus and….time.  Looking, gazing, contemplation thus become a metaphor for learning, conversation and transformation.  After all, Moses was not upon the mountain in a kind of dream sleep—he was rather talking and listening to God—having a remarkable conversation with the Master.  Paul suggests that we can now do the same.



It seems that even when not using the word scholé, that the Old and New Testaments nonetheless describe a growing and learning process that is very much in keeping with Aristotle’s use of the word.  Slow, restful, conversation and learning is set before us as an example to follow, with Christ himself as the Master of scholé.

If the entire Christian life can be summarized as a kind of slow and sanctified conversation with the Master, could it be that all of our learning should take a cue from this same kind “restful learning” and resemble a refreshing and ongoing conversation?

If Christ says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” and if he says, “ Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls,” (Matt. 11: 28, 29) then should not the way we educate our sons and daughters be gentle and restful?

How many of us have been busy about many things, thinking that we were not free to choose anything else?



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