Concepts and Practices of otium

In accordance with the research program of the CRC 1015 Otium our project was centered on otium, or its German equivalent Muße, as a heuristic concept. As such, it opened up a variety of perspectives and insights into Machiavelli’s writings and Machiavellian writing as well as into early modern epistolary culture and political thinking, especially in Italy. However, it is hard, if not impossible, to translate the complex conceptual framework of the interdisciplinary research center into other languages. In Western traditions Muße might imply forms of leisure and idleness as well as different aspects of the Latin concept of otium such as peace (in the sense of an absence of threats of war or civil unrest), contemplation (esp. in the context of the vita activa vs. vita contemplativa dichotomy), and withdrawal (from society, professional life, or civil duty as well as into nature, the countryside, etc.). The term as well as the concepts and practices involved, thus, entail positive as well as negative aspects, which are often combined in intricate and often ambiguous ways. Otium pervades various social groups and their practices, while bringing about forms of social distinction. As a result, it uses different expressions, languages, and media according to its cultural contexts, which, at the same time, it (trans-)forms.


In Machiavelli’s political writing, the Italian notions of ‘ozio’ and ‘ozioso’ usually have negative connotations as they are related to military inactivity and, therefore, are often associated with symptoms of political corruption. In the Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio for instance “ozio” usually proves to be the opposite of Roman “virtù” and is often tied up with Christian pacifism and ethics. The readers of Machiavelli’s correspondence, however, come across an abundance of leisure practices. They range from erudite study and contemplative walks in the woods to gambling in the osteria, from erotic love with prostitutes or his artistic soulmate Barbara Salutati to the careful orchestration of Renaissance comedies. These performances of otium and leisure are often not labelled by the lexemes of ‘otium’ and other related terms. Even if Machiavelli generally stages himself as “ozioso” in his letters from 1512 onwards, and he does so in a rather negative tone, his actual activities show us a different and more discriminating evaluation of this ‘otiose leisure’ after his dismissal as secretary of the Seconda Cancelleria and the effects it brought about.


Throughout this project’s publications, and especially in the texts and comments of the database, we use different terms and translations in order to describe a variety of otium-related practices according to its different forms, uses, and contexts: for example, we tend to use the term ‘otium’ when the Roman tradition of the concept and the related practices seem to prevail; ‘leisure’ when rather popular or common practices of everyday life (such as social gathering, gambling, or erotic love) are concerned; and ‘otiose leisure’ in order to take into account individual, more ambiguous and intricate conjunctions of different aspects of Muße in general and Machiavelli’s ambivalent ways of staging himself as “ozioso” in particular.


The interdisciplinary dialogue of the CRC 1015 shed light on the different meanings and dimensions of otium and leisure in Machiavelli’s correspondence and its entanglement of humanist erudition and a more common everyday practice. What we call ‘Machiavellian otium’ combines Roman and vernacular traditions of otium, political and private dimensions of leisure and, most importantly, a situation of unemployment as well as a deliberate strategy of coping with social and political necessities, sometimes with the aim of overcoming them. The Latin concept of otium suggests a ‘period of peace’ or ‘ceasefire’. It is usually tied to social and political contexts and thus essentially correlated with the public sphere. The German notion of ‘Muße’, by contrast, is not limited to collective practices and has also important personal and hence more private dimensions. These complex semantics of otium and Muße were also examined by different subprojects and a working group of the CRC 1015. The insights gained by this inter- and transdisciplinary collaboration were very helpful in sharpening our own understanding of ‘Machiavellian otium’ as an ambivalent political practice. It is precisely this ambivalence, which can be treated as a latent politics of otium, that allows one to combine, but also contrast, these military, social, and philosophical connotations of the Roman discourse on otium with a more or less conscious mise-en-scène of leisure. This performance of the ‘ozioso’ is a rather individual and ‘private’ practice, and it can be articulated in habits and routines as well as in erotic, playful, and even grotesque poses on the part of an exemplary ‘Renaissance Man’, who adopts such practices in the process of his self-fashioning.


It is from the analysis of otium as a practice (rather than as a concept) that its political impact becomes evident; and it is from this pragmatic angle, that we hope to shed new light on a (somewhat different) ‘concept of the political’ in Machiavelli’s writings, which comprises both individual and collective dimensions of early modern politics.

Explore and quantify otium-related aspects in a significant selection of letters taken from Niccolò Machiavelli’s correspondence.

For the conceptual framework and the semantics of otium see:

Franziska C. Eickhoff, Der lateinische Begriff otium. Eine semantische Studie, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2021.

Judith Frömmer, „Out of office? Machiavellische und machiavellistische Muße in Machiavellis Briefwechsel mit Francesco Vettori”, in: Comparatio 14:1 (2022), 27—51.

Jochen Gimmel/Tobias Keiling u.a., Konzepte der Muße, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2016.

Benjamin Harter, „De otio – oder die vielen Töchter der Muße. Ein semantischer Streifzug als literarische Spurensuche durch die römische Briefliteratur“, in: Franziska C. Eickhoff (Ed.), Muße und Rekursivität in der antiken Briefliteratur. Mit einem Ausblick in andere Gattungen, Tübingen 2016, S. 21-42.

Monika Fludernik/Thomas Jürgasch (Eds.), Semantiken der Muße aus interdisziplinären Perspektiven, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2021.

Judith Frömmer/Andrea Guidi, „Machiavellian Missions. Vita activa and vita contemplativa in the Carpi correspondence between Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini”, in: id. (Hg.), Between vita activa and vita contemplativa: Letter Writing and Epistolary Cultures in Early Modern Italy, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2023.

Burkhard Hasebrink/Peter Philipp Riedl (Eds.), Muße im kulturellen Wandel: Semantisierungen, Ähnlichkeiten, Umbesetzungen, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter 2014

For problems of translation and the lexical meanings of otium and Muße
in different languages and resourceful applications in writing see:

Elisabeth Cheauré, “Faulheit, Muße, Kreativität“, in: Dobler/Riedl (Eds.), Muße und Gesellschaft, 267–288.

Ead., “Muße als soziale Distinktion“, in: Dobler/Riedl (Eds.), Muße und Gesellschaft, 163–178.

Monika Fludernik, „Spectators, Ramblers and Idlers: The Conflicted Nature of Indolence and the Eighteenth-Century Tradition of Idling“, in: Anglistik 28:1 (2017), 133–154.

Albert Schirrmeister, „Die gute und die schlechte Zeit der Muße“, in: Dobler/Riedl (Eds.), Muße und Gesellschaft, 317–334.