Précis on Leisure

January 31, 2005

I wrote this précis for a humanities class in my senior year at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. The book is by Josef Pieper (1904-1997), a German Catholic philosopher. Leisure, published in 1952, was his first book in English.

Josef Pieper’s essay Leisure: The Basis of Culture makes startling claims: without returning to the ancients’ sense of leisure, culture will fail and humanity will become inhuman. Leisure itself is a sort of paradox, an labor-less state which nonetheless imparts the fruits of labor. The heart of the paradox is the worship of God, and from here Pieper says we must begin to renew leisure.

Pieper begins with the etymology of the word leisure. The Greek schole is the Latin schola and the English “school.” This discovery introduces one of Pieper’s central points: leisure is not idleness. Indeed, he cites Aristotle: “We work in order to be at leisure” (p. 4). This startling claim surely captures the reader’s attention at the outset.

Next, Pieper employs the classical distinction between the liberal arts and the servile arts. St. Thomas Aquinas’ definitions are concise: “Every art is called liberal which is ordered to knowing; those which are ordered to some utility to be attained through action are called servile arts” (p. 21).

Having prepared the table, Pieper now makes some introductions. We are first brought to Kant, who represents modern philosophy. He holds that true philosophy is work because knowing is always an activity (in Pieper’s explanation, it is exclusively discursive). Heraclitus represents ancient philosophy. He says there is a type of knowing which is a “listening-in to the being of things.” Medieval philosophy upheld the distinction, naming active knowing ratio and passive knowing intellectus. Pieper concludes that ancient and medieval philosophy acknowledged a passive “intellectual vision” which modern philosophy has rejected. This epistemological claim is a cornerstone for Pieper’s claims about leisure.

With the lines drawn, Pieper sets out to explain how modern society has destroyed the classical sense of leisure. By reducing even philosophy to work, the “world of total work” has absorbed intellectual culture. Kant’s claim that knowing is working clearly puts a demand on man. But Kant also claims that knowing the truth is difficult, just as his ethical doctrine holds that doing the good is difficult. In fact, their respective difficulty is also their legitimation. This exaltation of the difficult contrasts with the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. For him, virtue consists more in the good than in the difficult. In fact, virtue does not work against natural inclinations, but allows man to rightly follow them. The will’s highest virtue, love, makes things effortless. Pieper draws the reader back to the issue at hand: if man’s highest acts of will are effortless, then his highest intellectual activity ought to be effortless as well. This is contemplation. Pieper introduces a paradox: both loving and contemplating are states at which man receives without effort – but work is a necessary condition for these states. Not only does work precede them, but it most follow them: the gifts received in contemplation, for example, must be reexamined by intellectual labor afterwards.

The independent spirit of our age refuses gifts. Thus utilitarian philosophers introduced the terms intellectual work and intellectual worker to justify academic careers. This justification means a reduction, and Pieper understands the terms as contradictions. The terms are based on two false theses: first, that human knowing is only discursive; second, that effort becomes a criterion of truth. Combined with the utilitarian doctrine that only work contributes to society, academics become merely functional. The liberal arts lose their freedom. Philosophy is the most liberal of the liberal arts, but it too is made servile. Pieper insists that academics is more than career training, but that is actually what it has become in modern society. Educated now means specialized. The focus shifts from holistic vision to a disjointed study of parts.

The modern world has also done damage to the meaning of the term leisure. It is not, as is often thought, idleness. In fact, idleness is born of a lack of leisure or an inability to be still. St. Paul’s warning about “busybodies” comes to mind (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:11-12). Pieper recalls one of the seven deadly sins, acedia, an intense boredom of life and existence. Leisure is its antidote. Whereas work is an activity, leisure is a non-activity in the sense that we must be still in order to hear. If work is an effort, then leisure is a celebrating spirit – energetic, but not the kind of energy which strains us.

At the end of his essay, Pieper reviews some attempts to regain leisure. The first attempt merely argues art for art’s sake. The second attempt appeals to tradition, especially the classical and medieval traditions of Europe. The last attempt is humanism. Judging these inadequate, Pieper’s own suggestion is his most surprising claim: that the religious festival is the origin of leisure. So far from effortlessly transitioning to the state, man actually needs divine influence to be at leisure. The festival is necessary to leisure, as its sacrifice is the opposite of utility. Leisure without worship becomes toilsome. Work without leisure is inhuman.

But the greatest obstacle to renewing leisure is the proletariat, by definition a class bound to the working process. Pieper proposes three measures for their liberation: encourage the proletariat to accumulate property from their wages, limit the power of the state, and overcome the internal, spiritual poverty of the proletariat.

Leisure will liberate the working class from its work, the academic class from utilitarian demands, and refresh culture all at the same time. But if leisure is only possible in a theocentric world, can leisure be regained in societies which long ago began to venerate work in the place of God?