Leisure: The Basis of Culture

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?

By philosophy.

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.

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7 thoughts on “Leisure: The Basis of Culture

  1. This is a great entry. I have not read Pieper, but his perspective seems interesting, although I question the way he understands leisure and work.

    Leisure is one of the topics within western philosophy that I find most interesting, and I spilled too much ink during my university life trying to understand what Aristotle meant by leisure.

    But it seems to me there are activities besides contemplation that can be said to be leisure activities, but that is likely because the essence of work for me is that work is a set of activities that aim beyond themselves, that are done for the sake of necessity or survival. Anything that is worth doing on its account, and can be done for this reason is a possible leisure activity. This consequently widens the field of what activities can be said to be leisured beyond contemplation.

  2. There were a couple of typos in my last paragraph, so I have corrected them below. Sorry to spam your post.

    “It seems to me there are activities besides contemplation that can be said to be leisure activities, but that is likely because the essence of work, for me, is that work is a set of activities that aim beyond themselves, that are done for the sake of necessity or survival. In contrast, anything that is worth doing on its account, and can be done for this reason is a possible leisure activity. This consequently widens the field of activities that can be said to be leisured to include activities other than contemplation.”

    1. Excellent points; I love how you define leisure and work.

      Pieper may agree; he’s a Thomist, so I think he believes that there are instrumental goods (means to an end) and intrinsic goods (ends in themselves). In his view, the intrinsic is an attempt at fulfillment, and all intrinsic goods could be eliminated if we could find the one intrinsic good that ultimately fulfills us. Contemplation would then be the way of getting this intrinsic good.

      Not all would agree on this structure of the goods, but I think this is his logic.

  3. A wide-ranging yet penetrating essay, very interesting and beautifully written.

    Pieper’s take on philosophy seems like it would take us deeper into the world, not out of it, as we come closer to the objects of experience. Is the idea that in being absorbed in experiencing objects we lose the object/subject distinction that structures our world, and so leave that world?

    1. I’m not sure if you’re talking about Pieper or my writing on him. If the former, I agree (it’s a translation, but still beautiful). If the latter, then thanks! 🙂

      I think Pieper’s take would take us out of the world, if we look at the world not as the objects in it, but rather our normal engagement with them. For instance, how I experience a chair is not a property of the chair itself, but my associations and intentions regarding the chair. Many — if not the dominant — associations are utilitarian (acquisitive, work-related). But to see the chair “in itself” is to have a different experience, which is not of the world I normally experience. In this sense, I am out of the world (I am usually in)..

      Losing the object/subject distinction and even being taken in by wonder (and both may ultimately be the same, or rooted in the same fundamental experience) would definitely change our engagement.

      Maybe “out of the world” is not the best phrase for this.

  4. I’ve just found your blog and was pleased to read this post. It came to me at just the right time. I was referred “Leisure” by a good friend as I was dealing with the dilemma of whether or not it was ethical to work in the physical sense on Sundays. I didn’t however make it very far into the book before I was distracted from it. Reading your analysis has encouraged me to give Pieper another go. I have a feeling that by the end, I will not only have a new perspective on the meaning of work, but that my widened awareness of the potential to make work more meaningful will bring greater satisfaction to my work.

    Your analysis also brought to mind a talk I recently heard which discussed the phenomena of mind wandering throughout the day. This is most certainly not reflection, but merely idle thought. What was interesting to learn was that the majority of humans mind wander during tasks the majority of the time, and this mind wandering is the root of unhappiness. Even if the work you are doing is distasteful to you, focusing on that task will bring greater happiness to a person than mind wandering instead. But it seems to me that the element of wonder and reflection in human experience that you explained seems to be the antithesis and antidote to the mind wandering that most people do. If only people engaged in intentional thought more…

    1. Thanks! I enjoyed reading your comment, and you make great points.

      Wonder can be one way that focus can be rewarding. Another is the simple serenity of a focused mind. There are so many ways a focused mind can benefit us… where to start?

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