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Leisure and Its Threefold Opposition | Josef Pieper | From Josef Pieper: An Anthology

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Whoever advocates leisure nowadays may already be on the defensive. We have to face an opposition that at first seems to prevail. Things are not made easier by the fact that this opposition does not come from "someone else" but indeed springs from a conflict within ourselves. Worse yet, when put on the spot, we are not even able to define exactly what we are trying to defend. For example, when Aristotle says, "We work so we can have leisure", we must admit in all honesty that we do not know what this offensive statement means.

This, I think, is our situation.

The first question, therefore, is: What is leisure? How is this concept defined in our great philosophical tradition?

I deem it advisable to attempt an answer in such a way as to deal first with those opposing forces that could be labeled "overvaluation of work". This is admittedly a tentative expression. For "work" can mean several things, at least three. "Work" can mean "activity as such". Second, "work" can mean "exertion, effort, drudgery". And third is the usage of "work" for all "useful activity", especially in the sense "useful for society". Which of the three concepts do I have in mind when I speak of the "overvaluation of work"? I would say: all three! We encounter overvaluation of activity for its own sake, as well as overvaluation of exertion and drudgery, and--last but not least--overvaluation of the social function of work. This specifically is the three-faced demon everyone has to deal with when setting out to defend leisure.

Overvaluation of activity for its own sake. By this I mean the inability to let something simply happen; the inability to accept a kindness graciously, to be on the receiving end in general. This is the attitude of "absolute activity" that, according to Goethe, always ends bankrupt. The most extreme expression so far of this heresy can be found in a statement by Adolf Hitler: "Any activity is meaningful, even a criminal activity; all passivity, in contrast, is meaningless." This, of course, is an insane formulation, simply absurd. But "milder" forms of such insanity, I surmise, are typical of our contemporary world.

Overvaluation of exertion and drudgery. Strangely enough, this too can be found. Yes, we may even assert that the average ethical understanding of "decent" modern people is to a large extent colored by such an overvaluation of drudgery: goodness is by nature difficult, and whatever is gained without effort cannot have moral value. [The German poet] Friedrich Schiller has ridiculed this attitude in a ditty aimed at Kant:

Readily do I help all my friends--
Too bad, I do so with pleasure;
Much am I grieved that I, with this,
Can gain no virtuous treasure.


The ancients--who are for me the great Greeks Plato and Aristotle but also the famous teachers of Western Christianity--did not hold that goodness is difficult by nature and therefore will always and necessarily he so. They were well aware of the fact that the highest forms of applied goodness are indeed always effortless because they essentially flow from love. In this same way the highest forms of perception--the sudden flash of ingenious insight or true contemplation--do not really require mental labor but come without effort because they are by nature gifts. "Gifts"--this may well be the key concept. If we consider the strange propensity toward hardship that is engraved into the face of our contemporaries as a distinct expectation of suffering (a more typical trait, I believe, than the oft-deplored craving for pleasure)--if we consider this, then to our surprise we may face the question: Could perhaps the deepest reason be the people's refusal to accept a gift, no matter where it comes from?

Overvaluation of the social function of work. Not much has to be said to show how this trait dominates contemporary societies. We should, however, think not just of those totalitarian 'five-year plans" whose infamy lies not so much in their attempt to order everything as rather in their claim to provide the exclusive value standards for all aspects of life, not only industrial production but the personal life of individuals as well. Oh yes, the nontotalitarian world, too, can effectively be dominated by the dictatorship of "social usefulness".

At this point we should recall the ancient distinction between artes liberales and artes serviles, between "free" and "servile" activities. This distinction states that some human activities contain their purpose in themselves and other activities are ordered toward a purpose outside themselves and thus are merely "useful". This idea may at first appear rather outmoded and pedantic. And yet it deals with something of contemporary political relevance. The question, "Are there 'free' activities?", translated into the jargon of totalitarian societies would ask: "Are there human activities that in themselves neither require nor accept any justification based on the provisions of a five-year plan?" The ancients have answered this question with a decisive "yes". The answer in a totalitarian environment would be an equally decisive: "No! Humans are defined by their function. Any 'free' activity that does not serve a socially useful purpose is undesirable and should therefore be liquidated."

If we now direct our attention from the threefold overvaluation of work toward the concept of "leisure", then one thing becomes immediately clear: there is no room for it in such a world. The idea of leisure here is not only preposterous but morally suspect. As a matter of fact, it is absolutely incompatible with the prevailing attitude. The idea of leisure is diametrically opposed to the totalitarian concept of the "worker", and this under each of the three aspects of work we have considered.

Against the idolizing of "activity". Leisure is essentially "non-activity"; it is a form of silence. Leisure amounts to that precise way of being silent which is a prerequisite for listening in order to hear; for only the listener is able to hear. Leisure implies an attitude of total receptivity toward, and willing immersion in, reality; an openness of the soul, through which alone may come about those great and blessed insights that no amount of "mental labor" can ever achieve.

Against the overvaluation of drudgery. Leisure means an attitude of celebration. And celebration is the opposite of exertion. Those who are basically suspicious of achievement without effort are by the same token as unable to enjoy leisure as they are unable to celebrate a feast. To truly celebrate, however, something else is required; more on this shortly.

Against the overvaluation of social usefulness. Leisure implies that a person is freed for this period of time from any social function. Yet leisure does not mean the same as a "break". A break, whether for an hour or three weeks, is designed to provide a respite from work in anticipation of more work; it finds its justification in relation to work. Leisure is something entirely different. The essence of leisure is not to assure that we may function smoothly but rather to assure that we, embedded in our social function, are enabled to remain fully human. That we may not lose the ability to look beyond the limits of our social and functional station, to contemplate and celebrate the world as such, to become and be that person who is essentially oriented toward the whole of reality. And that all this be achieved through our own free disposition, which contains its own significance and is not "geared toward" anything.

True culture does not flourish except in the soil of leisure--provided we mean by "culture" whatever goes beyond the mere necessities of life yet is nonetheless indispensable for the fullness of human existence. If culture is thus rooted in leisure, where, then, does leisure find its roots? How can we be enabled to "achieve leisure" (as the classical Greeks put it)? What can be done to prevent our becoming mere "workers" who are totally absorbed trying to function properly? I have to admit that I am unable to give a specific and practical answer to this question. The basic difficulty is such that it cannot be remedied with a simple decision, be it ever so well intentioned. Still, we can point out why this is so.

It is well known that physicians for some time now have reminded us how important it is for our health to have leisure--and they are certainly correct. But: it is impossible to "achieve leisure" in order to stay or to become healthy, not even in order to "save our culture"! Some things can be approached only if they are seen as meaningful in and by themselves. They cannot be accomplished "in order to" effect something else. (Thus it is impossible, for example, to love someone "in order to . . ." and "for the purpose of . . .") The order of certain realities cannot be reversed; to try it anyway is not only inappropriate but simply doomed to failure.

Related to our question, this means: if leisure is not conceived as meaningful in and by itself, then it is plainly impossible to achieve. Here we should once again mention the celebration of a feast. Such a celebration combines all three elements that also constitute leisure: first, nonactivity and repose; second, ease and absence of exertion; third, leave from the everyday functions and work. Everybody knows how difficult an endeavor it is for us moderns really to celebrate. Indeed, this difficulty is identical with our inability to achieve leisure. The reason that our celebrations fail is the same reason that we fail to achieve leisure.

At this point there appears an inevitable consideration that to most people, as I have frequently experienced, seems quite uncomfortable. Put in a nutshell, it is this: to celebrate means to proclaim, in a setting different from the ordinary everyday, our approval of the world as such. Those who do not consider reality as fundamentally "good" and "in the right order" are not able to truly celebrate, no more than they are able to "achieve leisure". In other words: leisure depends on the pre-condition that we find the world and our own selves agreeable. And here follows the offensive but inevitable consequence: the highest conceivable form of approving of the world as such is found in the worship of God, in the praise of. the Creator, in the liturgy. With this we have finally identified the deepest root of leisure.

We should expect, I believe, that humanity will make strenuous efforts to escape the consequences of this insight. It may try, for example, to establish "artificial" feast days in order to avoid the ultimate and true approval of reality--while producing a resemblance of genuine celebration through the immense display of outward arrangements supported by the political authorities. In reality, the "organized" recreation of such pseudocelebrations is merely a more hectic form of work.

It would be a misconception to assume that this proposition regarding the cultic essence of all celebration and the cultic roots of leisure and culture would be a specifically Christian thesis. What in our days is called "secularism" represents perhaps not so much the loss of a Christian outlook as rather the loss of some more fundamental insights that have traditionally constituted humanity's patrimony of natural wisdom. I believe that our thesis on leisure and culture is part of this patrimony. It was the Greek Plato, long before Christianity, who in his old age formulated this thesis by employing the imagery of a magnificent myth. Plato asks whether there would be no respite for the human race, destined as it seems for labor and suffering. And he replies, Yes indeed, there is a respite: "The gods, out of compassion for us humans who are born into hardship, provided respite by granting periodic cultic celebrations, and by giving us, to join in our feasts, the Muses with their leaders Apollo and Dionysus, so that we may be sustained by joyfully conversing with the gods, and be lifted up and given a sense of direction." And the other great Greek, Aristotle, of a more critical turn of mind than his teacher Plato and, as is well known, less given to images from myth--even Aristotle has expressed the same insight in his usual dispassionate manner. In the same Nichomachean Ethics that also contains the sentence quoted at the beginning ("We work so we can have leisure") we read that we cannot leisure insofar as our human nature is concerned but only insofar as we possess the divine spark in us.



"Musse und menschliche Existenz", originally published in Tradition als Herausforderung (Munich: Kösel-Verlag, 1963). Translated by Lothar Krauth.



Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:

Author page for Josef Pieper
Philosophy and the Sense For Mystery | An excerpt from For The Love of Wisdom: Essays On the Nature of Philosophy
Seducing Minds With the Socratic Method | Interview with Peter Kreeft




Other Josef Pieper books published by Ignatius Press:

Josef Pieper: An Anthology
Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power
Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart
Divine Madness: Plato's Case Against Secular Humanism
The End of Time: A Meditation on the Philosophy of History
Faith Hope Love
Guide to Thomas Aquinas
Happiness and Contemplation
Hope and History
The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas
In Defense of Philosophy: Classical Wisdom Stands Up to Modern Challenges
In Search of the Sacred: Contributions to An Answer
Leisure: The Basis of Culture
On Hope
Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation




Josef Pieper (1904-1997) is widely considered to be one of the finest Catholic philosophers of the 20th century. He was educated in the Greek classics and the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Münster in Germany. His books have earned international acclaim from both Catholic and non-Catholic scholars. Read much more about his life and work on his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.



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