On Pieper's Leisure and Living Well

Leisure: The Basis of Culture was a five lecture series presented in Bonn, Germany, in 1947. Few short lectures, have, in the meantime, been more widely read and commented on than this carefully argued philosophical collection, which was reprinted by Liberty Fund in 1999. It remains one of the most challenging and stimulating short books ever written, one that quickly takes the reader to the heart of things, to places where the universities and the culture rarely have dared to trod. They sensed that for them this was a very dangerous book.

Pieper tells us right away that the “object of this short book is not to provide an immediate, practical guide to action.” The context of the essay arose from the then current discussions about what, after the Second World War’s ending in 1945, mankind ought to be about with its mission in the world, particularly after the devastation to which erroneous ideas had subjected much of the whole world.

In retrospect, from today’s vantage point, we can conclude, without much effort, that Europe and the world did not choose to follow Pieper’s guidance in these matters. Indeed, they came to embody many of the ideas that Pieper held were untenable. The subsequent, even more consequential errors we see in the meantime flowed from a refusal to accept an objective, intrinsic order found in all divine, cosmic, and human things, an order to the truth of which the human mind is fundamentally oriented.

We would have expected that the answer to the question of “What is to be done?” was immediately to rebuild the infra-structure, to insure jobs, to reestablish civil order and peace. These were no doubt worthy and necessary goals. Pieper does not reject these immediate goals. But he is aware that the intelligible roots of how and why these “practical” purposes are to be achieved can be skewered in various anti-human ways. Indeed, the prime ways that they can become destructive of the human good is to elevate work, the making of things, into the central purpose of both the individual and the culture.

Everything, including thought, can be subsumed under the aegis of work. Thinking then becomes just another thing to be made like any other artifact. It was the burden of Pieper’s essay to sort things out, to distinguish, and to clarify. No human enterprise is more important, or more neglected, than these endeavors.

What do the words work, leisure, business, contemplation, culture, academy, festivity, and worship actually mean? One of the chief pleasures in reading Pieper is his ability to be accurate, brief, and intelligible. He knows the etymology of words. He is attentive to the relation of word to thing; he thinks clearly about names. He knows that our minds exist to know what is. He also knows that much of our unknowing things are the result of our choosing not to know them lest we be obliged to do things we prefer not to do.

For the Sake of Something Else

This essay on leisure is published with another incisive sixty-four page Pieper essay entitled, “The Philosophic Act.” It is no accident. The act by which we affirm the truth of things that exist outside of our minds takes place beyond work and beyond politics. It governs them both to their proper ends and functioning because man’s final end, though inclusive of them, is transcendent to them. This knowledge of the order of things is not achieved by action or making things, especially not by not remaking what it is to be a human being. Rather, it is achieved by thinking through the consequences of what is.

Thus, Pieper is fond of citing Aristotle’s brief sentence that “we work in order to have leisure.” It is not the other way around, as it might seem at first sight. The confusion is usually the result of a failure to see the origins of words and ideas. The Greek word for leisure was skole, the word from which we get our word school, but it did not mean what we mean by school, a place of preparation.

The word for business was taken from the word, otium, the Latin translation of skole. The Latin word for a lack of leisure was nec-otium. This was the word used for business, for doing things, making things. Business, however important it may be, is precisely a lack of leisure. It is not something “for its own sake”, but for the sake of something else.

In English, the word leisure has come to mean free-time, or a respite. The word recreation came to mean a break in work, a brief break to let us go back to work. Our bodies need this relief to keep working. A life of work came to be seen as the primary purpose of man in this world. He lived to work. Such a view overturned the order of human good in such a way that even thinking became a work. The trouble with this view was that work for its own sake has no purpose. In effect, art and prudence were confused, while prudence presupposed no understanding of man’s end.

The Total World of Work

The net result of these considerations was that man became a product of his own sciences. He was a “piece of work” who could be restructured after the manner of a work of art. Man did not have a natural end given by nature. He was a product of the human mind’s capacity to reconstruct him in any way it pleased. This new concept meant that man was free of any standard about what it was to be a human being. He came to hold that his very rejection of what he was from nature was itself the primary sign of his freedom that was responsible to nothing but himself.

The purpose of making a human world and an orderly society is that, with them in place, we are free really to know how things are. This higher knowledge of what is is what limits economics, politics, and art to their own proper spheres of reality.

Leisure and work are both aspects of our capacity to know things. Leisure refers to that state of our mind wherein we simply desire to know things as they are. This is what our minds are—powers by which we know things. Once we know what something is, we may or may not use it or make something out of it.

Aristotle had pointed out that our knowing minds have three basic aspects. We can simply contemplate or know things for what they are. But, once we know something, we can also use our minds to rule ourselves. This ruling of oneself is the area of the virtues, of ethics and politics. Both ethics and politics are governed by man’s proper end which he arrives at through thinking, self-reflection on his already existing being or reality. As Aristotle said, “Man does not make man to be man but taking him from nature strives to make him good man.” The making of man to be man is a divine claim. This prior source of man’s origin and being is what is searched for in our leisure.

Man’s Gifts and the Joy of Existence

Pieper ends the book with a penetrating discussion of celebration, festivity, and worship. At first sight this will seem strange. But it logically follows from the general argument. If reality is not a construct of our own work, neither is it a product of our own minds. Our minds can know it, but they do not make it. Hence, what is primarily comes to us as a gift, not as a necessity or as a product fabricated by our own minds.

What is the proper response to the gift of being? It is first of all a celebration of what is given to us. Festivity means that we take the time to respond to what has been given to us. We need not do this, yet not to do so indicates that we do not yet know the meaning of what we have been given.

We cannot but begin to wonder about the nature of the being that stands at the origin and end of things. Does it address us as persons? Do we each exist from before our mother’s womb? To contemplate reality in the first place, is to acknowledge of what is that it is. We realize that what might be otherwise is not otherwise but it is as it is. These reflections, Pieper thinks, lead us to the notion of worship. We suspect that the universe was created so that within it we can find rational beings that recognize the truth of things in their divine origins.


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