Josef Pieper. Leisure the Basis of Culture (Notes)

(Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1670)

Josef Pieper’s book is the next one to be discussed by the Philosophy of Education online Reading Network on Tuesday 16th November. This is not a book I would have thought about reading if I had not been attending these reading group sessions, and to be honest, it is not a book that has captured my imagination as much as some of the other books have (see posts under the PhilofEd category). But clearly the group member who chose this book feels it is important enough to discuss, and I have heard it described by others as an important text for our times, particularly I would think, for workaholics. If you have ever considered the question of whether you should live to work, or work to live, then this book/essay might provide some answers.

My copy of the book includes two essays, which were originally written in the form of lectures, given in Bonn, Germany, in the summer of 1947. The first is Leisure. The Basis of Culture; the second is The Philosophical Act. In this post I am only going to briefly consider the first. I may come back to the second at another time.

Josef Pieper was writing in Germany after the end of World War II, a time when Germany needed to be rebuilt, a time when a lot of work needed to be done. He recognised that the issue of work is at the centre of the economy, but he disputed the meaning of work. Who is work for? His book is about the primacy of leisure. He believed, along with Aristotle, that the real purpose of work is leisure.

“We are unleisurely in order to have leisure” (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics), where unleisurely refers to everyday work. A search online shows this often quoted as: ‘We work to earn our leisure’.

Whilst Pieper’s writing seemed out of place when first published, it now seems increasingly relevant, given that we live in a ‘total work’ culture where we always need to be doing something. Even when we are supposedly resting, we are ‘doing’. The reality is that we can’t escape work. It is always with us. We might expect that this would lead to vibrancy, but instead it often leads to boredom. If we don’t have something to do we are at a loss.  Boredom results from a problem with a person’s grasp of reality. As G.K. Chesterton said, “There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”

In this very short essay (68 pages in my version of the text), Pieper discusses knowledge, leisure, and worship. The essay is concerned with sociological and cultural realities, but also with what it means to be human and to live an authentically human life.

Starting with a discussion of knowledge, Pieper points out the connection between knowledge and leisure.

‘… 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.’ (p.21)

Pieper discusses how the concept of knowledge has changed in the modern world. Modern philosophy views knowledge as active and outward, but in ancient times it was receptive and open. For the Ancients and in Medieval times there were two different kinds of knowledge, ratio (discursive reasoning, examining, analyzing, picking apart) and intellectus (a receiving of what is true; knowledge as purely receptive, gazing on reality, contemplation of your own existence). The Ancients prized intellectus. In modern times the only kind of knowledge that is valued is ratio, which depends on our activity. Ratio favours the hard sciences over literature, philosophy and theology, science over wisdom, and what we can determine for ourselves over what we can receive.

This kind of knowledge (ratio) is associated with labour, effort, and suffering. ‘Hard work … is what is good’(p.31). ‘Man mistrusts everything that is effortless’ (p.34). Knowledge is valued only for its utility, how it serves the concrete, material or economic. It used to be that education and knowledge were sought for their own sake, free of utility. This is where we get the term liberal arts, which had a value in themselves, independent of utility. The goal of the liberal arts was to grasp reality itself. Today the liberal arts are not given as much weight as the STEM subjects. We learn how things work but we don’t ask why they exist in the first place. The liberal arts have now become utilitarian and knowledge has become exclusively active. Today we know by our own acting not by receiving; we value knowledge according to the effort put into achieving it, and to the extent that it is useful for the here and now, for society.

Pieper goes on to further discuss our mistaken understanding of the meaning of leisure. We think it’s about escaping from work, but this is not authentic leisure. Leisure is not a time to ‘veg out’, but rather to engage in active contemplation of reality. Leisure, Pieper writes, means a certain stillness, an inner absence of preoccupation, an ability to be calm, to let things go, to be quiet. This is the opposite of the modern demand for activity. True leisure has the capacity to receive, to be still and allow the mystery of life to reveal itself. It is found in simple things such as listening and being aware of nature. It is not about entertainment, which is often designed to keep reality from intruding.

Leisure requires a celebratory spirit or attitude, which comes when we affirm that the world is good and we appreciate its goodness. Leisure is only possible when we are in harmony with ourselves. Leisure is not there for the sake of work. It is useless. The power to be at leisure is the power to step beyond the working world. This takes some effort on our part to carve out those times and places where we are going to be at rest. We typically think that we rest in order to work, but that makes leisure dependent on work. It makes work the determining factor. Work is a good thing but can become a vice when it is removed from its proper place. Stillness, uselessness, and a celebratory spirit are characteristics of leisure.

Work should facilitate leisure. True leisure is a condition of the soul, not the absence of work. It’s not not doing something. It is doing something, but a specific type of activity, which allows things to happen and adopts an attitude of inward calm and silence. For Pieper the highest form of leisure is worship and the ultimate good in life is union with God.

Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10) could be rewritten by Pieper as ‘Be at rest, or be at leisure, and know that I am God.’ Pieper believed that we have to set aside time and space and be at rest, in order to realise who we are.

There are some key ideas in Pieper’s essay, such as Sloth (acedia) and the incapacity to leisure, Proletarianism, and Deproletarianization and the opening of the realm of leisure, which I have not covered here. I have just made notes on the ideas that stood out for me. I will be interested to hear what questions are raised by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network in relation to Pieper’s writing, and how they relate it to education.

References

Pieper, J. (1965). Leisure the Basis of Culture. Fontana Library

Sensus Fidelium. 2016. Leisure: The Basis of Culture – Rev Scalia

The Burrowshire Podcast. 2020. The Art of Leisure

Maria Popova. Leisure, the Basis of Culture: An Obscure German Philosopher’s Timely 1948 Manifesto for Reclaiming Our Human Dignity in a Culture of Workaholism.

Michael Naughton. 2010. Teaching Note on Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture. An Integration of the Contemplative and Active Life. https://www.stthomas.edu/media/catholicstudies/center/ryan/curriculumdevelopment/theologicalethics/NaughtonTeachingNote.pdf

Andrew (2021) Rethinking Leisure in the Age of Total Work

Source of image: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/93731235981297063/

3 thoughts on “Josef Pieper. Leisure the Basis of Culture (Notes)

  1. Bruno November 7, 2021 / 7:34 pm

    Thank you! I really enjoyed reading your notes!

  2. richardbategmxcom November 8, 2021 / 8:39 am

    Interesting Jan. I now know what school is. The Germans still seem very work/leisure orientated. Is there a genetic reason for this? All the best to you and John, Rick

    Sent using the mobile mail app

  3. jennymackness November 9, 2021 / 5:15 pm

    Thank you Bruno and Rick. Thinking about your comment Rick, I would suspect that the relationship between work and leisure is more related to culture, on a number of levels.

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