Leisure: The Basis of Culture

Leisure: The Basis of Culture

Publisher: Ignatius Press
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Format: Paperback
Pages: 145
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One of the most important philosophy titles published in the twentieth century, Josef Pieper's Leisure, the Basis of Culture is more significant, even more crucial, today than it was when it first appeared more than fifty years ago. This edition also includes his work The Philosophical Act. Leisure is an attitude of the mind and a condition of the soul that fosters a capacity to perceive the reality of the world. Pieper shows that the Greeks and medieval Europeans, understood the great value and importance of leisure. He also points out that religion can be born only in leisure -- a leisure that allows time for the contemplation of the nature of God. Leisure has been, and always will be, the first foundation of any culture. Pieper maintains that our bourgeois world of total labor has vanquished leisure, and issues a startling warning: Unless we regain the art of silence and insight, the ability for non-activity, unless we substitute true leisure for our hectic amusements, we will destroy our culture -- and ourselves.

"Philosophy--inevitably--becomes more and more distant, strange and remote; it even assumes the appearance of an intellectual luxury, and is felt to be a load on the social conscience, as the workaday world extends its claims and its sway over man."

"It is true to say that in the act of philosophizing we transcend the world of work and are carried beyond the world of work."

"The philosophical act, the religious act, the aesthetic act, as well as the existential shocks of love and death, or any other way in which man's relation to the world is convulsed and shaken--all these fundamental ways of acting belong naturally together, by reason of the power which they have in common of enabling a man to break through and transcend the workaday world."

Let me begin with an objection, an objection of the kind which scholastics called a Videtur quod non. Now of all times, in the post-war years is not the time to talk about leisure. We are, after all, busy building our house. Our hands are full and there is work for all. And surely, until our task is done and our house is rebuilt, the only thing that matters is to strain every nerve.

That is not an objection to be put lightly aside. And yet, whenever our task carries us beyond the maintenance of a bare existence and the satisfaction of our most pressing needs, once we are faced with reorganizing our intellectual and moral and spiritual assets—then, before discussing the problem in detail, a fresh start and new foundations call for a defense of leisure.

For assuming all too rashly, for the moment, that our new house is going to be built in the Western tradition—a thing so arguable that it might almost be said to be the decision which is hanging in the balance—it is essential to begin by reckoning with the fact that one of the foundations of Western culture is leisure. That much, at least, can be learnt from the first chapter of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. And the history of the word attests the fact: for leisure in Greek is skole, and in Latin, scola, the English “school”. The word used to designate the place where we educate and teach is derived from a word which means “leisure”. “School”” does not, properly speaking, mean school, but leisure.

The original conception of leisure, as it arose in the civilized world of Greece, has, however, become unrecognizable in the world of planned diligence and “total labor”; and in order to gain a clear notion of leisure we must begin by setting aside the prejudice—our prejudice—that comes from overvaluing the sphere of work. In his well-known study of capitalism Max Weber quotes the saying, that “one does not work to live; one lives to work”, which nowadays no one has much difficulty in understanding: it expresses the current opinion. We even find some difficulty in grasping that it reverses the order of things and stands them on their head.

But what ought we to say the opposite view, to the view that “we work in order to have leisure”? We should not hesitate to say that here indeed “the world of topsyturvydom”, the world that had been stood on its head, has been clearly expressed. To those whole live in a world of nothing but work, in what we might call the world of “total work”, it presumably sounds immoral, as though directed at the very foundations of human society.

That maxim is not, however, an illustration invented for the sake of clarifying this thesis: it is a quotation from Aristotle; and the fact that is expresses the view of a cool-headed workaday realist (as he is supposed to have been) gives it all the more weight. Literally the Greek says “we are unleisurely in order to have leisure.” “To be unleisurely”—that is the word the Greeks used not only for the daily toil and moil of life, but for ordinary everyday work. Greek only has the negative, a-scolia­, just as Latin has ­neg-otium.

The context of Aristotle’s words, and his other statement (in the Politics) to the effect that leisure is the center-point about which everything revolves, seems to indicate that he was saying something almost self-evident; and one can only suppose that the Greeks would not have understood our maxims about “work for work’s sake” at all. On the other hand it must be evident that we no longer understand their conception of leisure simply and directly.

This is perhaps the point at which to anticipate the objection: “What does Aristotle honestly matter to us? We may admire the world of antiquity, but why should we feel under any obligation to it?”

Among other things, it might be pointed out in reply that the Christian and Western conception of the contemplative life is closely linked to the Aristotelian notion of leisure. It is also to be observed that this is the source of the distinction between the artes liberals and the artes serviles, the liberal arts and servile work. And to the further objection that this distinction only interests historians, one might reply that everyone is familiar with at any rate one half of the distinction, from the fact that we still speak of “servile work” as unsuitable on Sundays and holidays. Though who nowadays stops to think that “Servile work” and “liberal arts” are twin expressions, and form, one might almost say, the articulation of a joint, so that the one is hardly intelligible without the other? For it is barely possible to think of “servile work” with any degree of accuracy without delimiting the sense with reference to the “liberal arts”.

All this, and much besides, might be adduced to show that Aristotle is more than a name; though it is true that purely historical considerations are no basis for an obligation.

But the immediate purpose was really to make it plain that the value we set on work and on leisure is very far from being the same as that of the Greek and Roman world, or of the Middle Ages, for that matter—so very different that the men of the past would have been incapable of understanding the modern conception of work, just as we are unable to understand their notion of leisure simply and directly, without an effort of thought. The tremendous difference of point of view implied and our relative ignorance of the notion of leisure emerge more clearly if we examine the notion of work in its modern form, spreading, as it does, to cover and include the whole of human activity and even human life; for then we shall realize to what an extent we tacitly acknowledge the claims that are made in the name of the “worker.”

Here and in all that follows “worker” must not be taken as defining an occupation, as in statistical works; it is not synonymous with “proletarian”—although the fact that the words are interchangeable is significant. On the contrary, “worker” will be used in an anthropological sense; it implies a whole conception of “man”. Ernst Niekisch was using the word “worker” in the sense when he spoke of the “worker” as an imperial figure”; and Ernst Junger uses the same term to outline the ideal image that, according to him, has already begun to mold the man of the future.

A new and changing conception of the nature of man, a new and changing conception of the very meaning of human existence—that is what comes to light in the claims expressed in the modern notion of “work” and “worker”. These great subterranean changes in our scale of values, and in the meaning of value, are never easy to detect and lay bare, and they succeed in our purpose and uncover this great change, a historical treatment of the subject will be altogether inadequate; it becomes necessary to dig down to the roots of the problem and so base our conclusions on a philosophical and theological conception of man.

Editorial Reviews

Pieper has subjects involved in everyone's life; he has theses that are so counter to prevailing trends as to be sensational; and he has a style that is memorably clear and direct. --Chicago Tribune

Pieper's message for us is plain.... The idolatry of the machine, the worship of mindless know-how, the infantile cult of youth and the common mind-all this points to our peculiar leadership in the drift toward the slave society.... Pieper's profound insights are impressive and even formidable. --New York Times Book Review

These two short essays by a contemporary German philosopher go a long way towards a lucid explanation of the present crisis in civilisation.... The first essay... should be read by anyone-and young people in particular-anxious to come to some conclusions about the nature of society." --The Spectator, London

Josef Pieper:
Josef Pieper

Josef Pieper was a German Catholic philosopher, at the forefront of the Neo-Thomistic wave in twentieth century Catholic philosophy. His views are rooted primarily in the Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas and in the teachings of Plato. In 60 years of creative work as a philosopher and writer, Pieper explicated the wisdom tradition of the West in clear language, and identified its enduring relevance.

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