An Outline of Pieper's Leisure: The Basis of Culture

I recently read Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. If you intend to read it, or have read it, you might find this summary of the book’s argument useful. I think much of his argument is valid, though there are several points at which I disagree, but that is for another time. Here I attempt to summarize Pieper’s argument. If you find any flaws in the argument or find this useful, comments are welcome.

The context is post World War II Europe. In the middle of trying to rebuild everything, Pieper wants to argue for the centrality of leisure and, related, the pursuit of the liberal arts. He divides people into two groups, the educated class, which is an upper-level class that doesn’t live day-to-day on wages, and the working class, one that does. The “liberal arts”, the arts that make men free, are studied by that educated class. The working class, generally speaking, either does not have time or make time for such pursuits. Pieper’s desire is for more people to join that educated class and pursue the liberal arts, which involves changes political, economic, and spiritual.

Because I found this confusing as I read the book, it might be helpful to explain the “intellectual worker”, a term which he is bothered by in the work. In short, he sees the use of that term as an attempt to bring down the upper, educated class into a system of work that would make them unable or unwilling to pursue leisure/the liberal arts, like the average lower class worker. Now, the argument of the book in sequence.

The argument is broken into five sections. Section one sets up the distinction that drives the essay: Do we live to work, or do we work to live? Do we have leisure so that we may go back to work, or do we work so that we might pursue something more important, leisure? Modernists would have us focus on work, the ancients like Aristotle (or even thinkers of the Middle Ages) would have us focus on leisure. But what is leisure? It isn’t really defined in detail at this point (you must wait for section three), though here it is clearly related to the pursuit of the liberal arts. He wants to discuss the worker not in terms of what he does vis-à-vis occupation, but what he is, anthropologically speaking.

Section two focuses on the term intellectual worker (and variants like scholar, et al.) and the question of how knowledge is acquired as well as how it is valued. He dislikes the term intellectual worker because it has three faulty assumptions, that 1) human knowledge is exclusively attributable to discursive thought, 2) the effort which knowledge requires is a criterion of its truth, 3) and knowledge must end in some utilitarian social value. The first two are discussed together. The primary thinker with which he dialogues for these two points is Kant. For this view, Hercules and his labors provides the model. All knowledge is something you work for, and that knowledge is valuable in relation to its effort. Pieper chooses Aquinas as his companion and argues against point one that some knowledge is a gift, such as flashes of insight and strokes of genius, and so not all knowledge comes entirely from human effort. Related, the centrality of grace in the Christian tradition argues against such a toil-centric view of knowledge and virtue. Against point two, effortless work that comes from the training of our nature is more virtuous than fighting against our limitations to accomplish things. The example he uses to make his argument is the command to love your neighbor. For Aquinas, loving your neighbor with great effort because you are commanded to do so is good, while doing so effortlessly because you have trained your nature to be better is more praiseworthy. Bringing it back to knowledge, it’s not the effort that is important, but that it springs from a soul conformed to love. Pieper makes no clear argument against point three regarding utility. Rather, he sets up some important points to be developed later. The argument against point three takes the last three sections of the work to develop, so a little patience is necessary. So in his setup to this, Pieper turns to the distinction between the liberal arts (those that make you free and are ends in themselves) and their counterpart, the servile arts (those whose ends are not themselves and are utilitarian in nature). To reject this distinction calls into question the idea of the university. The university exists to form the whole of a person, not just his utilitarian value. The difference is education (wholistic) versus training (utilitarian). Recall that this is a translation, so the terms are less important than the idea that there is a distinction there. Pieper ends with noting the ancients believed the notion that there was more to life than its utilitarian aspects.

The third section focuses on the notion of wholeness, of being what God wants you to be, of being what you actually are. The antithesis of this is acedia, which manifests itself in both the slothful man and the man who works too much. Leisure is not sloth. Sloth/idleness is a “deep-seated lack of calm that makes leisure impossible.” Leisure is an attitude of the mind, calmness, silence. It is serenity that springs from recognizing mystery in the universe and contentment that the universe will take its course. Leisure is contemplative celebration, recognizing our concord with the meaning of the universe, a festival celebrating basic meaningfulness. Leisure is on a fundamentally different plane than work. This is not the attitude of the worker. The worker struggles as much as possible, and breaks from work (not to be confused with real leisure) exist so that more work can be accomplished. For the person on the over-work side of acedia, the tension and activity of work is easier to induce than the relaxation and ecstasy of being whole, and so is also sick.

The fourth section opens with the question of whether a defense can be mounted for leisure. He begins with some previous attempts, such as “art for art’s sake” and the argument that it’s our duty as heirs of classical antiquity to defend such things. But he doesn’t continue in this direction (I assume because he doesn’t think these arguments will work) and makes section four an excursus on the proletariat and deproletarianization. The “proletarian is the man who is fettered to the process of work” (57). The opposite would be the educated class, the class that can pursue the liberal arts. The proletarian must work because he lacks the resources. Those constantly working can’t raise themselves out of the servile arts to the liberal. Also, some in the proletariat must work because of an inner defect, because they are addicted to it (th same point made about acedia above). The proletariat will generally include the poor, but it is not limited to them. There is a discussion again on the “intellectual worker” as a category of people, which Pieper thinks is just a terminological fix for the real problem. The “intellectual worker” is still stuck working, and is still in the proletariat. The goal is to move everyone out of the proletariat, not everyone into it. So how do you deproletarianize things? Three ways: 1) proletariats need to be able to acquire property, 2) the power of the state must be limited, and 3) people must overcome their own inner impoverishment. Part of this is has to do with how we look at the the money we need to make. Are we making an honorarium or a wag? For example, Pieper contrasts Stalin, who said the worker should be paid according to the work he has done, and Pope Pius XI, who argued that the worker has the right to a wage that he can support himself with. The former tries to make everyone a proletarian, the latter tries to obliterate the group. “The central problem of liberating men from the condition lies in making a whole field of significant activity available and open to the working man” (63). To do this, political changes are necessary, but they are not sufficient.

The fifth and last section centers around celebration and worship. Celebration/festival is the root of leisure. The root of celebration and festival is worship in its sacrificial wastefulness and superfluity. So fixing the problem means a return to worship. Festival thrives on superfluity, which is anti-utilitarian and by definition isn’t simply rest to work once again. Work without festival is Sisyphian. Passion for work can become a cult, blinding people to true divine worship. If culture is breaking down, you have to return to the source. “Leisure embraces everything…which is an essential part of a full human existence” (70). This is important to recognize because “culture lives on religion through divine worship” (71). Work is attempting to replace worship as the centerpiece, and in this context the academic appeal to antiquity is useless because antiquity itself was built on something else, worship. So how do fix our current culture? We ultimately can’t force a fix through some path, like study of the past to fix culture. It must be rooted in worship rather than individual resolve. The Christian cultus is both an act of sacrifice (and so functions as a festival) and as a sacrament, so it is visible, allowing someone to escape the work and in leisure rise above it in ecstasy.

comments powered by Disqus