I recently read Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture, which includes an essay titled The Philosophical Act. These two works complement each other so tightly, that they should be considered one work.
Pieper starts with work. He argues that work has become ubiquitous, to the point that it is an ideal. We think of ourselves as workers, and value ourselves based on the work we do or can do. Just witness the shiftlessness many feel upon retiring. Without work, many lose their identity. So pervasive has work become, that even our leisure serves work. Leisure has become a break from work, something to do so we can become more refreshed, so we can return to work more productive.
In short, we live to work.
Allow me to digress. Although Pieper does not say this, I wonder if he would agree that work is an attitude of achieving, doing, and/or acquiring. If so, then leisure not only serves work, it often is work. Think of the stereotypical tourist on vacation, rushing to and fro to “see” all the sites, as per a to do list, stopping only long enough at any place to take pictures, to prove he was there and thus accomplished the task, acquired the memories. Of course he was never there. How could he be, when his point was to have it done with so he could say he did it?
Back to Pieper. If leisure serves work, then what is true leisure? Well, the clue here is that it must be totally independent of work. Yet if work has so permeated our life that it is now our whole world, then leisure must take us out of the world. Yet how do we leave the world, even if temporarily?
Philosophy is not what many think. It is not a body of knowledge, analysis of views, or argumentative techniques. Rather philosophy is a specific act — the act of being open to what is. Philosophy is the use of a more receptive — rather than active — form of intellectual engagement with a subject. Pieper calls this “the philosophical act”, and it forms the second part of the book. The philosophical act is contemplation, and it’s the intellectual equivalent of a gaze. It’s a receptive taking in of a subject without trying to dissect or analyze. When this is done, one experiences wonder, along with joy and confusion.
Yes, confusion. This isn’t about answers (although one tries to understand). This is about a way of being with the thing. One gets no answers, but experiences awe, an inability to intellectually grasp the thing in its entirety, and a hope that one can grasp it all. For Pieper, answers are unimportant, while wonder is all important. In fact, he feels this is what philosophy was and should be. This view even informs his take on Socrates.
Pieper states that the purpose of Socratic dialogues was to bring people into wonder. The subjects in those dialogues are asked about things they thought they understood. Then through discourse, they were led into an intellectual dead end of their own making. Seeing a thing they believed existed (like justice), and yet failed to intellectually grasp left them in a state of wonder. This wonder was an invitation to contemplation. Having failed to intellectually grasp, they were invited to do the only thing they could; intellectually gaze — take in the being of the thing and become awed by the existence of this thing they could not fathom. In fact, Pieper even claims that Socrates said that philosophy begins in WONDER, and not doubt as is often said. And this beginning is not the beginning of the philosophical enterprise, but of each philosophical act.
Pieper ties the philosophical act with religion. Since my interest is philosophy (and his arguments here are more tenuous) I won’t discuss that. Besides, what he provides outside his religious claims is enough to warrant reading this book — regardless of one’s creed.
Back to leisure: how does this philosophical act liberate one from work? The liberation is two fold. First, one engages in this act with no purpose in mind. This is the opposite of the work attitude, which concerns itself with acquiring, doing, having. So to even start on this enterprise is to turn one’s back on the (working) world. Second, it changes one’s attitude to this world. For to wonder at things is to radically change one’s relationship to them. We go from users and manipulators, to those struck by awe. We see the world and the things in it in a new light, and in this we transcend the world, even if temporarily.
This is leisure. It is what society forgot, and it is what the working world is rapidly taking away.
Pieper provides serious food for thought. On a personal level, I love my job, and have even said I do not wish to retire. What would I do if I did? Have I embraced the archetype of the worker, or do I love what I do for its own sake? Yet even if I love my work for its own sake, by so strongly identifying with work, aren’t I still defining myself as a worker? Upon what grounds do I exist if not for work?
The deeper question here is not what I — or anyone else — should do without a particular job, but what do we do in the absence of anything work-like. It is a more existential crisis that asks upon what basis do we live our life, what our life is for, or even if that is the right question to ask. It is the existential crisis that hits many upon retirement, whereupon they finally can stop working, and realize that without work, the don’t know who they are. Working hard, sacrificing their (then) present for a future promise, they find the promise fulfilled, only to realize too late that they want none of it.
Does a life of contemplation — of taking things in, being wondrous, delighted, finding our being in that — serve as the answer? While temporary for the worker, does it become more ubiquitous with the non-worker (such as retirees)? Does one retire to a life of contemplation?
Further Reading: Lecture notes on this book; this helps clarify many parts of the book. While I may not agree with all of the professor’s interpretation, most of this is spot-on and worth reading. It may even be useful without having read the book.