Homo Ludens
A Study of the Play Element in Culture

by Johan Huizinga

This is a review of Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, by Johan Huizinga (Beacon Press, Boston, 1955. ISBN 0-8070-4681-7). It was written in 1938, on the eve of World War II. It is an interesting book, more concerned with the ritualistic than with games and pastimes. Here is the table of contents:

I. Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon
II. The Play-Concept as Expressed in Language
III. Play and Contest as Civilizing Functions
IV. Play and Law
V. Play and War
VI. Playing and Knowing
VII. Play and Poetry
VIII. The Element of Mythopoesis
IX. Play-Forms in Philosophy
X. Play-Forms in Art
XI. Western Civilization Sub Specie Ludi
XII. The Play Element in Contemporary Civilization

Huizinga starts off by noting that play is a universal, that it is older than humanity (animals play) and a constant part of human nature, that it is not an arbirary cultural convention:

Since the reality of play extends beyond the sphere of human life it cannot have its foundations in any rational nexus, because this would limit it to mankind. The incidence of play is not associated with any particular stage of civilization or view of the universe. Any thinking person can see at a glance that play is a thing on its own, even if his language possesses no general concept to express it. Play cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.

After looking over his background material in chapter 1, Huizinga defines play at the beginning of chapter 2:

... play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and the consciousness that it is "different" from "ordinary life."

In fact, the concept of play splits the world into two realms of play and earnest. It does not split the world into the frivolous and the serious, because play can be deadly serious, even lethal, and remain play, as the chapter on play and war brings out vividly. You need only think of such things as code duello, bushido, and chivalry, which fall under Huizinga's definition.

Huizinga recognizes two forms of play: representation and contest. He leaves it at that and, since his is a work of sociology, that's good enough. Speaking philosophically, I remark that contest seems to me a form of representation – a ritualizing, formalizing, or symbolizing of earnest conflict, so that, taxonomically, all play is representation, a form of pretending.

Huizinga is far more interested in contest than in any other form of play. He deals with non-competitive play occasionally, but I sometimes feel he concentrates on the competitive forms of play a little one-sidedly.

Huizinga recognizes a close connection between play and ritual. Since play involves rule-governed behavior (even if the rule is as simple as the puppy's "Thou shalt not bite thy brother's ear, or at least not hard"), all play is arguably somewhat ritualistic. But note that, although play often includes ritual, ritual does not always include play.

Our interactions with computers or bureaucracies are arguably ritualistic, but they are not play and do not fit Huizinga's definition of play. For a start, they are not wholly voluntary. Religious rituals are not play, or certainly not always or wholly play, because the devotee regards some of the rules as non-arbitrary (a legitimate formal baptism must be done in the names of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and the ritual is not isolated from the rest of life the way play is; a sacramental ritual, for instance, is supposed to effect a real metaphysical change of status.

The rest of the book, from chapter 3 to the end is a survey of the role of play in the development of different aspects of culture.

In Play and Law, Huizinga notes that judicial functions suggest their playful ancestry by the way they are isolated in special places (courts) and times (trials), besides all the costumes and ritual. Early trials were not investigations but the famous trials by ordeal or by combat – both forms of contest and therefore of play. The contests could take many forms, of course, and Huizinga says that our modern form of justice descends from arguing contests that only gradually developed into attempts to arrive at abstract truth and justice:

And it is quite true that the classical age of Greek and Roman civilization had not wholly outgrown the phase in which the legal oration is hardly distinguishable from the reviling-match [a popular sport in many cultures, often with little personal animosity attached]. Juristic eloquence in the Athens of Pericles and Phidias was still mainly a contest in rhetorical dexterity, allowing for every conceivable artifice of persuasion.
It was only when Stoicism became the fashion that efforts were made to free juristic eloquence of the play-character and purify it in accordance with the severe standard of truth and dignity professed by the Stoics. The first man who attempted to put this new apporach into practice was a certain Rutilius Rufus. He lost his cause and had to retreat into exile.

These judicial contests, Huizinga argues, were not originally meant as oracles to determine the judgement of the gods, but rather as games for deciding the issue, which is why less cerebral cultures would use weapons or even dice. But, since these are important issues, the gods get appealed to for victory in the contest. Then, as the ideas of right and might get slowly more distinct in the public mind, the more modern ideas of trial begin to dawn.

In Play and War, we see play at its most serious – life and death – but still playful. All civilized warfare has play elements in it, argues Huizinga, and to the degree that it leaves these elements behind it becomes less civilized. (Huizinga fully realized he was writing on the brink of a singularly unplayful war.)

Play and Knowing traces scholarship back to riddle contests between village wisemen and bards. This is very similar to Play-Forms in Philosophy, where he points out that the Sophists of Socrates' day were not scholars but professional athletes of debate. Their aims were not truth, proof, or knowledge, but victory in argument. (Huizinga does not mention it, but something very like this situation reappeared in the Middle Ages. Many colleges had regular debate contests in which Scholastic scholars battled each other in a rigid form of argument and counter-argument that you can see in the format of the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas.)

Play and Poetry is interesting simply as a reminder of how very different and odd the current paucity of popular poetry is in English-speaking cultures. In other times and places, it is much commoner and much more important:

The improvising of verse was an endowment hardly anybody could afford to be without in the Far East. The success of an Annamite embassy to Peking would sometimes hinge on the improvisatory talents of the ambassador. Each member of it had constantly to be prepared for all sorts of questions and know the answers to the thousand and one puzzles and conundrums that the Emperor or his mandarins saw fit to put. This was diplomacy at play.

And it shows some of the old unity of the bard figure before he divided into scholar and poet.

The Elements of Mythopoiesis looks at play in the realm of ideas. I particularly liked his discussion of personification:

...is not personification from beginning to end but a playing of the mind? Examples of more recent times lead us to this conclusion. St. Francis of Assisi reveres Poverty, his bride, with holy fervour and pious rapture. But if we ask in sober earnest whether St. Francis actually believed in a spiritual and celestial being whose name was Poverty, who really was the idea of poverty, we begin to waver. Put in cold blood like that the question is too blunt; we are forcing the emotional content of the idea. St. Francis' attitude was one of belief and unbelief mixed. The Church hardly authorized him in an explicit belief of that sort.
Which of us has not repeatedly caught himself addressing some lifeless object, say a recalcitrant collar-stud, in deadly earnest, attributing to it a perverse will, reproaching it and abusing it for its demonical obstinacy? If ever you did this you were personifying in the strict sense of the word. Yet you do not normally avow your belief in the collar-stud as an entity or an idea. You were only falling involuntarily into the play-attitude.

Play-Forms in Art examines the classical Greek distinction between the more plebian "plastic arts" and the more divine arts patronized by the Muses (of which music is one, and for whom it is named). Huizinga notes that the more aristocratic arts have a more obvious element of play about them, even to the degree that, in most languages, we "play music" but we never "play statuary."

The last two chapters make a historical survey of play in Western culture. See next section.

Chapter 11, Western Civilization Sub Specie Ludi, is even more interesting than the average chapter of this book, but I suspect that a modern historian might have more bones to pick with it.

For instance, he traces the decline of Rome in the changing role of play, such as the gladiatorial games, and regards the racing societies of Byzantium as a symptom of that empire's decay. However, Byzantium hung around for a very long time after the supposed "decay" set in, so I'm dubious.

In the Middle Ages, the prime example of play's influence on culture is, of course, chivalry, both in warfare and in the "courts of love."

In the modern period, he distinguishes the following cultural periods: Renaissance, Humanist, Baroque, Rococo, Classical, and Romantic. He seems fondest of the Renaissance and of the Baroque-Rococo periods, regarding play as being healthiest in those times. His discussion of the rococo period wanders into a fascinating little essay on the influence of play in dress as demonstrated in the evolution of the fashions for wigs.

He remarks wisely that "the nearer we come to our own times the more difficult it is to assess objectively the value of our cultural impulses." And indeed I have the most bones to pick with his last chapter, The Play Element in Contemporary Civilization. (We would undoubtedly still come under his meaning of "contemporary," since, writing in 1938, he explains that he means it to stretch as far back as the early 19th century.)

Huizinga sees the play function in decline all around him, no longer buildling culture up (except for a few bright spots like the Boy Scout movement) but corrupted and corrupting. He regards the then-current fascism in Europe as a monstrously bloated and corrupted version of clubs and fraternal organization, themselves a form of social play. I'll grant him that analysis and even call it an interesting perspective, but I don't see that we can be sure that modern play is so much less healthy than antique play. The code duello was a form of play, and very dubious morally. Ditto a lot of chivalry.

However, even these points of disagreement are interesting, and on the whole I found the book interesting and educational.

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011