The first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end; and therefore the question must be asked, what ought we to do when at leisure?
—Aristotle, Politics

The poore, the foule, the false, love can Admit, but not the busied man.
—John Donne, “Breake of Day”

Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration… .

—T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

One can learn a lot about a culture from the words and ideas it pushes into early retirement. Our own age is rich in such conceptual emeriti, as anyone who has pondered the recent careers of terms like “manly,” “respectable,” “virtuous,” or “disinterested” (to take just four) knows well. One of the greatest casualties resulting from this policy of premature superannuation concerns the word “leisure,” an idea that for the Greeks and for the doctors of the Church was inextricably bound up with the highest aspirations of humanity. For Plato, for Aristotle, for Aquinas, we live most fully when we are most fully at leisure. Leisure —the Greek word is σχολή , whence our word “school”—meant the opposite of “downtime.” Leisure in this sense is not idleness, but activity undertaken for its own sake: philosophy, aesthetic delectation, and religious worship are models. It is significant that in both Greek and Latin, the words for leisure—σχολή and otium—are positive while the corresponding terms for “busyness”—άσχολία and negotium (whence our “negotiate”)—are privative: not at leisure, i.e., busy, occupied, engaged. And for us? Of course, we still have the word “leisure.” But it lives on in a pale, desiccated form, a shadow of its former self. Think for example of the phrase—and the odious object it names—“leisure suit”: it goes quite far in epitomizing the unhappy fate of leisure in our society. 

For Plato, for Aristotle, for Aquinas, we live most fully when we are most fully at leisure.

At first blush, it might seem odd that leisure should survive predominantly in such degraded form today. After all, the United States and Western Europe have never been richer or more concerned with “quality of life” issues. By every objective measure, we can certainly afford leisure. (The real question is whether we can afford to lose sight of it.) We are daily confronted by an army of experts and a library of self-help books urging us to salvage “quality time” for ourselves, our family, our friends. What time could be of higher quality than leisure, understood as Aristotle understood it? (Cardinal Newman was right when he observed that, about many subjects, “to think correctly is to think like Aristotle.”) But all such remedial gestures serve to underscore the extent to which our society has devoted itself to defeating genuine leisure, replacing it where possible with mere entertainment (what the Greeks called παιδιά, “child’s play”), and disparaging efforts to preserve oases of leisure as the pernicious indulgence of an outmoded elite.

Probably the most profound meditation on the meaning of leisure is a little book by the German neo-Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper called in English Leisure, the Basis of Culture.1 It consists of two essays, the title piece (in German Musse und Kult, “Leisure and Worship”) and “The Philosophical Act,” both of which Pieper wrote in 1947. The two were published together in English in 1952 in a volume introduced by T. S. Eliot. It has just been reissued in a new translation with an introduction by the English philosopher Roger Scruton. Pieper, who died in November 1997 at the age of ninety-three, is pretty much a forgotten figure today. But in the Fifties and Sixties he commanded wide respect and exerted considerable intellectual influence.

The introduction by Eliot to Leisure, the Basis of Culture—the first of many books by Pieper to appear in English—is one sign of the seriousness with which he was regarded. Another sign was the book’s reception by reviewers. (The present edition includes excerpts from the original reviews.) The Times Literary Supplement devoted a long and admiring piece to the book, as did The New Statesman. The Spectator was briefer but no less admiring: “These two short essays … go a long way towards a lucid explanation of the present crisis in civilization.” The book was also widely noticed in this country: reviews from The Nation, The Chicago Tribune, Commonweal, and The San Francisco Chronicle are included here. The review by Allen Tate in The New York Times Book Review probably did as much as Eliot’s introduction to stimulate interest in Pieper.

It is doubtful that this new edition will generate anything like that level of response. One reason, of course, is that we are dealing with a new edition of material first published fifty years ago. But a deeper reason is that the loss Pieper describes was fresher in the late Forties and early Fifties than it is now. We are farther than ever from inhabiting a culture that esteems genuine leisure. But that distance acts as an anaesthetic, dulling the sense of loss and, hence, the pulse of interest.

Pieper not only wrote about leisure, he also requires leisure (I do not mean simply “spare time”) if his work is to be read properly. Not that he is “difficult” or overly technical. On the contrary, Pieper wrote with a glittering simplicity—for once a genuinely deceptive simplicity—but the tintinnabulation of unleisured life deafens us to such quiet dignity. We must stop to listen if we are to hear these arguments, and stopping and listening are among the most difficult things to accomplish in a world that rejects leisure. Pieper’s simplicity is the hard-won simplicity that comes at the end of an intellecutual journey. It is the fruit of confident mastery, like The Tempest or Beethoven’s Op. 135 quartet. Pieper had no use for jargon or technicalities. His favored form is the long essay made up of short sentences. His books—almost all are fewer than 150 pages—sport many quotations from philosophers—from Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant. And yet they somehow escape seeming academic.

In a curious way, this is at least in part because of the subjects Pieper wrote about. Although he wrote important books about Plato, he was first of all a specialist in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. His Guide to Thomas Aquinas, for example, is a splendid introduction to the intellectual and social world inhabited by the philosopher. It is true that Aquinas does not always elicit clarity and simplicity from his commentators. But Pieper wrote about him not as an academic subject but as someone who had irreplaceable things to say about the moral and intellectual realities of life—our life. He manages to make Aquinas’s vocabulary seem the most natural language possible for discussing the subject at hand. (He manages the same trick with Plato and Aristotle.) This is a testimony to Pieper’s rhetorical skill, the highest rhetorical achievement being to make itself invisible.

It also says something about the naturalness of the categories that Aquinas (like Aristotle and Plato before him) used to discuss moral questions. Pieper first made his name with a series of essays on the so-called Cardinal Virtues—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. These terms especially when taken all together—can seem curiously dated to modern ears. Yet in his book The Four Cardinal Virtues (1965) Pieper shows with beguiling straightforwardness that, by whatever names we choose to call them, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance are indispensable to the common realities of human life.

As is often the case with things that are indispensable, the importance of these principles goes unnoticed until they collapse. Then their centrality snaps into focus. In No One Could Have Known (1979), an autobiography that takes Pieper from his birth in a small village outside Münster to 1945 and the end of World War II, he recounts a chilling story from 1942 when he worked as a psychologist in the German army. Hitler’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union had put German troops deep into Russia. Pieper encountered a young man of eighteen “who still had the look of a child about him.” He wore the uniform of a volunteer “driver auxiliary” and worked for the Nazis behind the front. Pieper asked the boy what he did.

“Lately we did practically nothing but transport Jews.”

I pretended to be puzzled, not to understand. “Were the Jews being evacuated? Or where did you drive them?”

“No, they were driven into the forest. And there they were shot.”

“And where did you collect them?”

“The Jews used to wait in the market square. They thought they were being resettled. They had suitcases and parcels with them. But they had to throw them onto a big pile. And straight away the Ukrainian militia went after the things.”

“And then you drove them to the forest. But the shooting—you were told about it later; it’s only hearsay.”

Then the boy got very angry in the face of so much distrust and stupidity. “No! I saw it myself. I saw them being shot!”

“And what did you say about that?”

“Oh well, of course you feel a bit funny at first… .”

And then?

And then, presumably, moral anaesthesia takes over and you stop thinking about it. In one sense, Pieper’s work aims to provide an antidote to such moral insensibility. Philosophy, of course, is a futile weapon against tyranny. (A point underscored by Stalin when he contemptuously asked how many divisions the Pope commanded.) But philosophy is not at all futile in helping to create a moral climate intolerant of tyranny. (Which helps to explain why it can be said that in end the Pope prevailed over the tyranny of Communism.)

Not that we can necessarily trust everything that goes under the name of philosophy. In his introduction to the original edition of Leisure, the Basis of Culture, T. S. Eliot remarked on the widespread feeling that philosophy had somehow lost its way —philosophy, he added, in “an older meaning of the word,” as a source of “insight and wisdom.” Philosophy in this “ampler sense” had been overtaken by various technical specialities, of which logical positivism was a conspicuous example. (In retrospect, Eliot suggested, logical positivism will appear as “the counterpart of surrealism: for as surrealism seemed to provide a method of producing works of art without imagination so logical positivism seems to provide a method of philosophizing without insight and wisdom.”) Pieper’s chief importance was to provide a compelling counterexample. “In a more general way,” Eliot wrote, Pieper’s “influence should be in the direction of restoring philosophy to a place of importance for every educated person who thinks, instead of confining it to esoteric activities which can affect the public only indirectly, insidiously, and often in a distorted form.”

Philosophy, of course, is a futile weapon against tyranny.

Well, Pieper did provide the example. But it cannot be said that he provided the influence or restoration Eliot hoped for. With some notable exceptions, philosophy—or the activity that goes under that alias in the university today—is every bit as impoverished and lost in bootless specialization as it was when Eliot wrote forty-five years ago. More so, perhaps, if for no other reason than that there are so many more people calling themselves philosophers today than then. Logical positivism was sterile. But at least it made sense. Examples prove little, of course, since in the realm of human endeavor there is never a drought of absurdity. Yet it tells us something about the current state of philosophy that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, two much idolized French philosophers, should have published a book called What Is Philosophy? (1991) in which we learn that

philosophical concepts are fragmentary wholes that are not aligned with one another so that they fit together, because their edges do not match up. They are not pieces of a jigsaw puzzle but rather the outcome of throws of the dice. They resonate nonetheless, and the philosophy that creates them always introduces a powerful Whole that, while remaining open, is not fragmented: an unlimited One-All, an “Omnitudo” that includes all the concepts on one and the same plane.

Which means . . . what? Perhaps, as Messrs. Deleuze and Guattari tell us a bit later on, that “if philosophy is reterritorialized on the concept, it does not find the condition for this in the present form of the democratic State or in a cogito of communication that is even more dubious than that of reflection.” Or perhaps it is just ominous-sounding nonsense.

If Pieper is right, the current disarray of philosophy should come as no surprise. For philosophy in that “ampler sense” that Eliot spoke of (and that Aristotle famously observed in the beginning of the Metaphysics) depends on leisure. Philosophy in this sense is not primarily a mode of analysis but an attitude of openness: it is “theoretical” in the original sense of θεωρητικός: i.e., a contemplative attitude of beholding. It is one of the many ironies of contemporary academic life that what is called “theory” today means more or less the opposite of what the word θεωρία meant for the Greeks. For any self-respecting practitioner of the more modish forms of Lit. Crit., “theory” involves the willful imposition of one’s ideas upon reality. In its original sense, however, theory betokened a patient receptiveness to reality. In this sense, philosophy, the theoretical activity par excellence, not only depends upon leisure but is also the fulfillment or the end of leisure. Consequently, the obliteration of leisure naturally leads to the perversion of philosophy.

It also leads to a perversion of culture, at least in so far as culture is understood not as an anthropological datum but as the repository of humanity’s spiritual self-understanding: “the best,” in Matthew Arnold’s phrase, “that has been thought and said in the world.” Leisure guarantees the integrity of high culture, its freedom from the endless round of means and ends that determines everyday life. It was Pieper’s great accomplishment to understand the deep connection between leisure and spiritual freedom. “With astonishing brevity,” Roger Scruton observes in his introduction, “he extracts from the idea of leisure not only a theory of culture and its significance, not only a natural theology for our disenchanted times, but also a philosophy of philosophy—an account of what philosophy can do for us … in a world where science and technology have tried to usurp the divine command.”

Of course, there are many obstacles. For one thing, as Scruton notes, “leisure has had a bad press. For the puritan it is the source of vice; for the egalitarian a sign of privilege.” There is also the related problem of simple pragmatism. If “maximizing profits” is a kind of categorical imperative, how can leisure—genuine leisure, not simply periodic vacations from labor—be justified? What is the use of something that is self-confessedly useless?

Defending leisure is always an audacious undertaking. It was particularly audacious in 1947 when a war-torn Germany was desperately trying to mend its ravaged physical and moral fabric. Especially at such times, leisure is likely to seem a luxury, a dispensable indulgence that distracts from the necessary work at hand. Pieper acknowledges the force of this objection. “We are engaged in the re-building of a house, and our hands are full. Shouldn’t all our efforts be directed to nothing other than the completion of that house?” The answer is that the task of building or rebuilding is never merely a problem of engineering. If it were, human life could likewise be reduced to a problem of animal husbandry. Something more is needed: a vision of society, of the vocation of humanity. And the preservation of that vision is intimately bound up with the preservation of leisure. Even at a time of emergency such as faced Europe in the aftermath of World War II—perhaps especially at such times —the task of rebuilding requires a hiatus in which we can confront and reaffirm our humanity. The name of that hiatus is leisure. “To build our house,” Pieper writes, “implies not only securing survival, but also putting in order again our entire moral and intellectual heritage. And before any detailed plan along these lines can succeed, our new beginning, our re-foundation, calls out for a defense of leisure.”

Leisure guarantees the integrity of high culture, its freedom from the endless round of means and ends that determines everyday life.

We are not now in the exigent state of Europe in the late 1940s, but more than ever we live in a world ruled by the demands of productivity, the demands of work. Every human enterprise is increasingly subject to the scrutiny of the balance-sheet. “Rest,” vacations, “breaks” are acknowledged necessities, but only as unfortunate requirements for continued productivity. Consequently, “free time,” no matter how ample, is not so much a leisured alternative to work as its diastolic continuation. The world is increasingly “rationalized,” as the sociologist Max Weber put it, increasingly organized to maximize profits and minimize genuine leisure. Now, even more than when Pieper wrote, we face the prospect of a “leisure-less culture of ‘total work,’ ” a world that excludes the traditional idea of leisure in principle. Pieper found the perfect motto for this attitude in a passage quoted by Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: “One does not only work in order to live, but one lives for the sake of one’s work, and if there is no more work to do one suffers or goes to sleep.” It is part of Pieper’s task to show us how the attitude implicit in this credo “turns the order of things upside-down.”

It is a measure of how far the imperative of “total work” has taken hold that the opposing classical and medieval ideal—that, in Aristotle’s phrase, we work in order to be at leisure—seems either unintelligible or even faintly immoral to us. Even purely intellectual activity is rebaptized as “work” in order to rescue it from the opprobrious charge of idleness. The image of “intellectual work” and the “intellectual worker” presents us with a vision of the world whose ideal is busyness. René Descartes promised that by using his scientific method, man could make himself the “master and possessor of nature.” Three centuries of scientific and technological progress have done a lot to prove Descartes right. Pieper’s question is what happens when that technological model of knowledge is taken to be definitive of human knowing tout court. Presented with a rose, we can observe and study it, or we can merely look and admire its beauty. For the intellecutual worker, only the former is really legitimate. Wonder is “a waste of time.” It produces nothing, nor does it further understanding. In this context, it is worth noting that Descartes hoped to explain extravagant natural phenomena such as meteors and lightning in such a way that “one will no longer have occasion to admire anything about what is seen.” Far from being a prelude to insight, wonder for Descartes was an impediment to the technology of knowledge.

Of course, we should not wish to do without the extraordinary benisons of that technology. We live in a world deeply shaped by the Cartesian imperative, and the first response of any sane person must be “Thank God for that.” But our first response needn’t be our only response. Pieper’s point is that the discursive knowledge—knowledge whose end is the analysis, manipulation, and reconstruction of reality—is not the only model of human knowing. The word “discursive,” he points out, suggests a busyness, a “running to and fro” (dis-currere). Such knowledge “investigating, articulating, joining, comparing, distinguishing, abstracting, deducing, proving”—gives us power over the world. But it says nothing about our vocation in the world. The simplex intuitus, the “simple looking” (in-tueri: to look upon) that leisure provides, alerts us not to our power over reality but to our ultimate dependence on initiatives beyond our control. Thus it is that leisure is both an openness to reality and an affirmation of mystery, of “not being able to grasp” that which one beholds. “Human knowing,” Pieper writes, “has an element of the non-active, purely receptive seeing, which is not there in virtue of our humanity as such, but in virtue of a transcendence over what is human, but which is really the highest fulfillment of what it is to be human, and is thus ‘truly human’ after all.” Both sides are necessary if we are to affirm our humanity fully. Human knowing is in this sense a “mutual interplay of ratio and intellectus,” of discursive reason and receptive intuition.

It is one of the ironies of what Pieper calls the “world of total work” that although it underwrites our objective control of the world it also insinuates a corrosive subjectivism and relativism into our attitude toward the world. “The other, hidden, side of the same dictum … is the claim made by man: if knowing is work, exclusively work, then the one who knows, knows only the fruit of his own, subjective activity, and nothing else. There is nothing in his knowing that is not the fruit of his own efforts; there is nothing ‘received’ in it.” The moral aspect of this refusal is a kind of spiritual imperviousness, “the hard quality of not-being-able-to-receive; a stoniness of heart that will not brook any resistance.” In the end, it is like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass:

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

As this story reminds us, imperviousness is no guarantee of invulnerability.

It is worth noting that Pieper’s brief on behalf of leisure is not an attack on work as such. “What is normal,” he acknowledges,

is work, and the normal day is a working day. But the question is this: can the world of man be exhausted in being the “working world”? Can a human being be satisfied with being a functionary, a “worker”? Can human existence be fulfilled in being exclusively a work-a-day existence? Or, to put it another way, from the other direction, as it were: Are there such things as liberal arts?

In The Idea of a University, Pieper points out, Newman suggestively translates artes liberales as “knowledge possessed of a gentleman,” that is to say, knowledge born of leisure. A good index of the spiritual plight that Pieper describes is the widespread collapse of liberal arts in our society. More and more, so-called liberal arts institutions are really vocational schools at best (at worst they are circuses of narcissism); the σχολή, the leisure, has effectively been drained out of school as “job training” is taken to be the sole justification for education.

Again, Pieper does not dispute the importance of training. We cannot do without “the useful arts”—medicine, law, economics, biology, physics: all those disciplines that relate to “purposes that exist apart from themselves.” The question is only whether they exhaust the meaning of education. Is “education” synonymous with training? Or is there a dimension of learning that is undertaken not to negotiate some advantage in the world but purely for its own sake?

To translate the question into contemporary language, it would sound something like this: Is there still an area of human action, or human existence as such, that does not have its justification by being part of the machinery of a “five year plan”? Is there or is there not something of that kind?

To answer yes is to affirm the province of leisure. It is to affirm the value of uselessness, the preciousness of a dimension free from the realm of work.

Historically, the origin of this realm is in the world of the religious cultic festival, the “Kult” of Pieper’s German title. Leisure in the end is human action on holiday, on holy-day. A temple is a templum, a bit of space marked off and exempt from everyday uses: so too with leisure. Just as “there can be no unused space in the total world of work,” so there can be no unused time. Leisure snatches a measure of time from the precincts of purpose. What validates that exemption is the openness to reality that leisure presumes. The festival origin of leisure is ultimately a religious origin. In the formula of the Shakespeare scholar C. L. Barber, it traces a movement from “release to clarification” and yields “a heightened awareness of the relation between man and ‘nature’—the nature celebrated on holiday.” This is what underlies the link between leisure and worship. In this sense, the justification for leisure lies not in the refreshment it offers but in the reality it affirms.

It is only to be expected that a pragmatic age, an age dominated by the imperatives of work, would seek to counterfeit leisure in order to appropriate the appearance of receptivity without actually receiving anything. But the natural human appetite for leisure is not satisfied by simulacra. “A festival,” Pieper writes,

that does not get its life from worship, even though the connection in human consciousness be ever so small, is not to be found. To be sure, since the French Revolution, people have tried over and over to create artificial festivals without any connection with religious worship, or even against such worship, such as the “Brutus Festival” or “Labor Day,” but they all demonstrate, through the forced and narrow character of their festivity, what religious worship provides to a festival.

We may indeed be at the “dawn of an age of artificial festivals.” But if so we are at the dawn of an age without leisure.

It is fitting that in this encomium to leisure, Pieper does not seek “to give advice or provide guidelines for action but only to encourage reflection.” To the question “What is to be done?” the first answer must be: nothing. “There are certain things which one cannot do ‘in order to …’ do something else. One either does not do them at all or one does them because they are meaningful in themselves.” In Ash Wednesday, Eliot asked, “Teach us to sit still.” It is a difficult lesson. At the beginning of his introduction to Leisure, The Basis of Culture, Roger Scruton cites “an American president” (I wish I knew which one) who answered a fussy official with the command “Don’t just do something: stand there!” It is a bit of advice all of us—even the presidents among us—should learn to take seriously.

  1.  Leisure: The Basis of Culture, by Josef Pieper, translated by Gerald Malsbary, with an introduction by Roger Scruton; St. Augustine’s Press, 160 pages, $11.95 paper. St. Augustine’s Press has also reissued the original translation, by Richard and Clara Winston, of Pieper’s Happiness & Contemplation with a new introduction by Ralph McInerny; 126 pages, $10.95 paper.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 5, on page 23
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