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.


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.

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

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The Crisis in Culture: Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: The Crisis in Culture. Its Social and Its Political Significance

Hannah Arendt starts this chapter (Chapter 6) with the comment that the new phenomenon of mass culture, which is a culture of mass society, is of growing concern among intellectuals, to the extent that she sees a crisis in culture. She discusses this problem of a crisis in culture in terms of its social and political significance, in what I have come to realise is her usual thought-provoking way, challenging the reader to think in the gap between past and future.

For Arendt, culture helps to create the world. This humanly created world is made up of durable, lasting, non-consumable things that occupy our attention and make our world meaningful and lasting; things such as monuments, paintings, poems. The threat to this enduring and lasting world comes from the rise of consumerism and mass society, where people have excess time for leisure and entertainment, and the means to purchase this. The more society consumes cultural goods, the more it transforms culture into entertainment. The crisis in culture in terms of its social significance began when society started to monopolise culture, and people wanted to use culture for their own purposes and to increase their social status (p.198). The most effective way to do this is to loot the history of culture, and to make things accessible to the masses not just by reproducing them, as in printing many copies of a book, which Arendt is not opposed to, but by changing them, as in making films of a book, or translating a book, such that the original, lasting, durable book is in danger of being lost. Arendt writes that we risk losing these lasting cultural objects which give a sense of durability and continuity in our world by changing them and turning them into entertainment (reduced to kitsch in reproduction, p.204); we lose the sense of taking care of our world. This threat to the enduring and lasting world, which is how Arendt explains culture, is for her, the social significance of the crisis of culture.

“The point is that a consumer’s society cannot possibly know how to take care of a world and the things which belong exclusively to the space of worldly appearances, because its central attitude toward all objects, the attitude of consumption, spells ruin to everything it touches.” (p.208)

“This earthly home becomes a world in the proper sense of the word only when the totality of fabricated things is so organized that it can resist the consuming life process of the people dwelling in it, and this outlast them. Only where such survival is assured do we speak of culture, and only where we are confronted with things which exist independently of all utilitarian and functional references, and whose quality remains always the same do we speak of works of art.” (p.206)

Moving on to a discussion of the political significance of the crisis of culture, Arendt writes:

“Generally speaking, culture indicates that the public realm, which is rendered politically secure by men of action, offers its space of display to those things whose essence it is to appear and to be beautiful. In other words, culture indicates that art and politics, their conflicts and tensions notwithstanding, are interrelated and even mutually dependent. …….. The common element connecting art and politics is that they both are phenomena of the public world.” (p.215)

The political significance of the crisis of culture, comes, for Arendt from a loss of judgement. Culture, and to be cultivated, involves judgement. In all political judgement there is the need for agreement, a common sense of what is beautiful. To have a political culture we have to see the world in a common way, and have a common sense. “Judging is one, if not the most, important activity in which this sharing-the-world-with-others comes to pass.” (p.218). We have to produce this through acts of judgement that woo (Kant) and persuade us that the judgements are meaningful and important.  Political judgements are aesthetic not just logical; they are judgements of taste, not rooted in absolute truth. They humanise culture. For political judgement we must put ourselves in the space of many perspectives to create a public political common sense.

The loss of judgement equates to the loss of ability to make common sense (i.e. sense that is commonly held between people) judgements and, as such, is a threat to the lasting, durable, common nature of our society. Political culture means that we make a judgement to embrace a common truth, not because it’s true, but because it is who we are, and it unites us as a people (see Chapter 7 Truth and Politics). Politics for Arendt is not about truth, but about opinions and judgements. The crisis in political culture is when we put truth above friendship, above commonality, above respect. Politics requires fidelity to friendship over truth. Today we often see that both sides in a political argument claim they are speaking the truth, when actually they are arguing over judgements about opinion.  Opinions are not truth. Certain opinions over time can become common sense in a political society. They are not true in a logical sense, but become common truths in our world. Arendt calls these prejudices, which can sometimes be taken as a political truth.

“Culture and politics, then, belong together because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision, the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world, and the decision what manner of action is to be taken in it, as well as how it is to look henceforth, what kind of things are to appear in it.” (p. 219/20)

Hannah Arendt’s concern is with worldliness; to give the world lasting durability. She places value on worldliness because there is a certain humanity to a world that is immortal. Part of what it means to be human is to belong to a world in which you can act in public in ways that matter. The crisis in culture matters. Culture is those goods that all of us come to recognise as worth preserving. The rise of mass society and multi-cultural society makes this process harder, politically and socially, and may well no longer be possible.

As with all the chapters in this book, this has been a fascinating chapter to engage with and think about. The irony ….  that I am reading a translation of Hannah Arendt’s book, that I watched the film Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta last weekend, and that I have found the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College video discussion on this chapter very thought provoking …. is not lost on me! I have relied on resources other than Arendt’s original work to engage with her ideas, the very action that she claims is leading to a crisis in culture.


To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. The freely accessible video presentations and discussions produced by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, have been very helpful, thanks to Roger Berkowitz .

  • Arendt, H. (1961). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics

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