The semester is rapidly winding down. Soon the DFW airport will call us to its antiseptic gates.
When considering airport security, the lack of attractive art and the garish fluorescent lighting, it is difficult to argue that such an experience could truly be called leisure. The goal of such transportation is to return home. That’s a noble end, certainly, and the plane ride is a means to that noble end.
Plane rides, however, are not the only way to travel home. Here in the U.S. we have the wonderfully antiquated Amtrak system. Founded in 1971, Amtrak is one of the only good things to have come out of that otherwise disastrous decade.
Suppose you were to book a ticket from Dallas to, say, Washington D.C. Boarding the train, you fall back into the equivalent of a first-class seat on an airline. Upon leaving Dallas at about 3:40 p.m. on the Texas Eagle, you see dry dusty plains and the piney woods of East Texas. You stop by the dining car, where community seating gives you a fine meal with not-for-long strangers. Night falls as you enter into Arkansas. Because the scenery is obscured, the evening is the best time to pull out your reading material. Given that you have so much leisure time, perusing Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture seems especially appropriate.
You awake at dawn on the outskirts of St. Louis. As the sun rises, you see waves of golden Illinois wheat rustle in the wind, radiant in the morning sunshine. For much of the route, the track parallels Route 66, so you can catch a glimpse of the American heritage. In Chicago about 2 p.m, your four-hour layover leaves plenty of time to explore the city. You can visit the concrete canyons of La Salle St., feel the cool breezes off of Lake Michigan or try to decode the street signs in the Ukrainian Village.
Boarding the Capitol Limited at 6 p.m., you pass through decaying industrial yards on the shore of Lake Michigan. Upon waking in the morning outside Pittsburgh, you get an intimate view of the Appalachian mountains and river valleys. Finally, you pull into grandiose Washington Union Station at 12:20 p.m., a stone’s throw from the Capitol. Now you have really arrived home.
Both trains and planes are modes of transportation. As such, they are both means towards an end. Amtrak, however, is more than just transportation – it is leisure. As Aristotle says, “We work in order to be at leisure.” Riding the train does accomplish the task of transportation. But it also gives us a window into the world, in which we can observe intelligible things in all their splendor.
Aristotle’s insight is that contemplation is the highest form of activity. The existential revolution of St. Thomas framed this insight in respect to the act-of-existing itself. Thus, the individual essences that are grasped while travelling, each in their own way, give us a deeper insight into the being and goodness of the world and its source. Commercial aviation is very utilitarian – it is directed entirely towards an end. Airlines are not in the business of bringing us into contact with beautiful things. In contrast, riding the train allows us to see thousands of miles of beautiful things. What could be more leisurely?