Christian, Culture, philosophy

Leisure: The Basis of Culture

leisure culture

Leisure: The Basis of Culture, by Josef Pieper. Originally published in 1952. 145 pages.

This book had been on my reading list for several years, but kept getting pushed down the queue. Thankfully, a friend of mine was reading it recently, and as she referenced what she gleaned, my interest in it was piqued enough that it moved to the top of my reading list. Before I offer my thoughts on this thoughtful book of essays, I’ll share the Goodreads promotional description of the book:

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 fifty years ago. Pieper shows that the Greeks understood and valued leisure, as did the medieval Europeans. He 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.

He 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 nonactivity, unless we substitute true leisure for our hectic amusements, we will destroy our culture – and ourselves.

These astonishing essays contradict all our pragmatic and puritanical conceptions about labor and leisure; Josef Pieper demolishes the twentieth-century cult of “work” as he predicts its destructive consequences.

This is book is a collection of essays exploring the meaning, significance, and implications of leisure on the soul of a culture. As I read it, I needed to keep that in the forefront of my mind. Rather than each chapter building upon the one prior, many of the ideas in the various essays overlapped. Once I was able to adjust to that, it was much more engaging and enjoyable to me. I was inspired on many levels as I read it.

In a culture as results oriented and productivity obsessed as ours, where the idea of the “Protestant work ethic” is etched into all of our DNA (even the most irreligious), Pieper offers a revolutionary thought:

The original meaning of the concept of “leisure” has practically been forgotten in today’s leisure-less culture of “total work”: in order to win our way to a real understanding of leisure, we must confront the contradiction that rises from our overemphasis on that world of work.

[…]

The very fact of this difference, of our inability to recover the original meaning of “leisure,” will strike us all the more when we realize how extensively the opposing idea of “work” has invaded and taken over the whole realm of human action and of human existence as a whole.

At first glance I questioned whether or not our culture, which seems thoroughly obsessed with being entertained, could ever be described as “leisure-less”. However, as I continued to read Pieper’s understanding and definition of leisure based on historical writings and philosophies, the situation became clearer. More than culture on a constant search for leisure, we are most accurately described as one in the grip of a sort of acedia; chiefly characterized by spiritual apathy and mental sloth.

The opposite of acedia is not the industrious spirit of the daily effort to make a living, but rather the cheerful affirmation by man of his own existence, of the world as a whole, and of God — of Love, that is, from which arises that special freshness of action, which would never be confused by anyone [who has] any experience with the narrow activity of the “workaholic.”

[…]

Leisure, then, is a condition of the soul — (and we must firmly keep this assumption, since leisure is not necessarily present in all the external things like “breaks,” “time off,” “weekend,” “vacation,” and so on — it is a condition of the soul) — leisure is precisely the counterpoise to the image for the “worker.”

The most fascinating bit of information that remained with me from this little book was the realization that the word leisure itself has its etymological roots in the word we translate today as learning, or more accurately, school. Whether one learns in most modern schools is a topic for another day, but it becomes abundantly clear that leisure, rather than an opportunity to engage in idle disconnection from work, was originally an opportunity to refresh our souls and expand our minds. Pieper put it this way:

Leisure is a form of that stillness that is necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. Such stillness is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power, as real, of responding to the real — a co-respondence, eternally established in nature — has not yet descended into words. Leisure is the disposition of perceptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real.

Given our recent discussion here on the reality of leisure as something other than idleness or physical rest, having the added building block of Josef Pieper’s insights about the effects of leisure on the soul was an welcome addition.

I would give it 5 stars but there were moments when it took me longer than usually to piece together the direction in which Pieper was headed. Whether this was a result of my stunted post modern ability to focus or his writing style I do not know. Nevertheless, because of it I am giving this book

4 out of 5 stars.

Note: Beginning tomorrow (3/6/2019), I will be logged out of WordPress until at least 4/22/2019. It is my sincere prayer and desire that those of you who commemorate the Lenten and Easter seasons have blessed, worshipful celebrations.