Alex Watt

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Book Review: Leisure, the Basis of Culture (Josef Pieper)

Author’s Note: This review was originally written for a seminar class, hence the academic tone.

Photo credit: Steve Richey

Leisure may seem to be the defining fruit of Western affluence: Free time is more abundant than ever, as are the diversions with which to fill it. The availability of movies, music, games, and all kinds of hobbies, combined with a general lack of concern over the most basic needs in life, would seem to crown the typical Westerner a veritable king of leisure. Yet, according to Josef Pieper, leisure “is a mental and spiritual attitude — it is not simply the result of external factors.” It requires a man to be at one with himself, something rarely needed for many activities considered leisure today. By Pieper’s understanding of leisure, the modern world is in trouble.

Pieper was a twentieth-century German philosopher, and Leisure the Basis of Culture contains two of his essays: the first by the same title and the second entitled “The Philosophical Act.” The latter was originally given in the form of lectures, but both were written in the summer of 1947. They are inherently connected, since Pieper understands culture to depend on leisure for its existence, and leisure to be impossible without cultus, divine worship. Bringing his Catholic faith and a host of philosophers with him, Pieper carefully defines and defends true leisure, a leisure that the world of “total work” has never known. Leisure the Basis of Culture will help readers understand the nature of work as not merely utilitarian and of leisure as not merely resting from work. Though written more than half a century ago, both essays remain profoundly relevant.

Pieper begins by considering the etymology of the English word “school” — it comes from skole, the Greek word for leisure. This reflects the classical notion that school is not to train one for work but for leisure, and how to spend leisure well. Indeed, Aristotle says that men are “unleisurely in order to have leisure.” Pieper even notes one prominent observation of the distinction between leisure and the liberal arts on the one hand and servile work on the other: Servile work, especially in Pieper’s day, was considered unsuitable on Sundays and holidays. Pieper bemoans the modern notion of work, which has come to encompass all of human life. Such is the world of total work. Human life is enslaved to the useful.

In contrast to such a world, intellectual activity throughout most of human history has been considered a privilege and not necessarily work. Agricultural life, for instance, is difficult labor; moments of quiet thought are gifts. Even the Middle Ages acknowledged a kind of thinking that was not work, making the distinction between understanding as ratio and as intellectus; the former is logical thought that searches and examines and the latter is the simple intuition of truth.

Like intellectus, Pieper claims that leisure is not work. According to Pieper, leisure implies three things. First, it implies an inward calm and silence, a silence that allows one to hear the whole of creation. Second, leisure is an attitude of “contemplative celebration”; such celebration is not mere non-activity nor tranquility, but is like lovers silently drawing strength from concord. It receives the meaning of the universe with affirmation. Third, leisure is not a break from work merely to refresh one for more work. Pieper states emphatically that leisure does not exist for work, even if it does refresh; instead, it is on another plane. Lest leisure be mistaken for rest, Pieper clarifies that leisure “is not a Sunday afternoon idyll, but the preservation of freedom, of education and culture, and whole.”

Perhaps Pieper’s most valuable observations come toward the end of the essay, when he observes that if celebration is the heart of leisure, then leisure has the same justification as celebration — namely, divine worship, for there is no feasting without a god to praise. Picking up the theme of divine worship, Pieper notes that a temple is simply ground specially reserved, not to be used for agriculture or habitation like the land around it; worship itself involves marking off time, apart from working hours and days, to be unused, “withdrawn from all merely utilitarian ends.” Leisure, like a feast, should exist for worship; when severed from worship, boredom ensues and the vacancy is literally “killing time.” Apart from worship, Pieper says that “leisure becomes laziness and work inhuman.”

In the second essay, “The Philosophical Act,” Pieper considers the nature of philosophizing, recognizing that to consider such a question is already to do philosophy. Pieper makes a preliminary assumption that to philosophize is to step outside the workaday world — meaning that to philosophize transcends the world of supply and demand, the world of the useful, and does something “useless” instead. Citing Aquinas, Pieper likens the philosopher to the poet, as both are concerned with marvel and wonder. Wonder is not to know fully, and yet is not the ignorance of resignation, either. Wonder is to be struck dumb for a moment and then to search for the truth, and it is always accompanied by the joy of the beginner — the joy of the new and unknown. The one who wonders is between two extremes: between the ignorant, knowing nothing, and the divine, knowing all. The beginning of wonder is humility.

“The Philosophical Act” also connects theology and philosophy, maintaining that philosophy begins with an interpretation of reality, given by theology. Pieper borrows from the Catholic theologian Garrigou-Lagrange and suggests that the distinguishing mark of Christian philosophy is not having all of the answers but being inspired by the sense of mystery, more than any other philosophy — for even in the sphere of theology, it is not true that believers have solved every problem. Christian truths are both revealed and hidden; some are clearer than others.

Pieper is well-thought on leisure, and he is not alone. He draws extensively on other philosophers, including Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, showing that this conception of leisure is not new. Wise men have known that silence and leisure are necessary for a full human existence.

Leisure, the Basis of Culture is well-written and the act of reading it promotes the thoughtful leisure Pieper has in mind. Readers should keep in mind, however, that the book was written by a philosopher. It is not intended for a lay audience, though most Christians would likely benefit from Pieper’s clarity on the nature of leisure at least, if not of philosophy. Some passages require more than one reading, though James Schall notes in his preface that Pieper is remarkably concise and comprehensible, qualities not universal among German philosophers. Christians interested in thinking carefully and deeply about leisure, work, education, and philosophy would be well-served to read this book.

In addition to the sound arguments Pieper develops, the book has many small and unexpected gems of wisdom and insight. For instance, when Pieper is explaining that philosophy must transcend the workaday world, he notes in passing that it is like prayer: Though one may pray in a way that does not transcend the world, this is to reduce prayer to magic; it is “no longer devotion to the divine, but an attempt to master it.” Yet sometimes a Christian’s prayers do lack devotion, and a reminder like this can be apt, although it is a small note in a larger essay.

The church in particular must heed Pieper’s message; in a world of total work, it is easy to ignore the need for leisure. As a start, Christians can set an example by practicing leisure on Sundays, taking time to worship corporately and to rest, not by idly breaking from work but by actively rejoicing in the goodness of the world the Lord has made and in their relationship with him as Father. Taking an afternoon walk, singing a hymn, reading a good work of literature, praying, and listening attentively to music can all be ways to have a leisure the world does not know, but desperately needs. This leisure yields both sound philosophy and authentic religion; it is, after all, the basis of culture.

Posted on 05 Jul 2016.

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