I can still vividly recall my semester in Rome many years ago. Among the books we had brought to study that spring was Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. I had purchased the beautifully bound Liberty Fund edition (from which I’ll quote below) and couldn’t wait to plumb these two essays that Dr. Pieper had written in the aftermath of World War II, a time in which, it might easily be thought, leisure was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
While I remember enjoying Leisure, his ideas were not aimed at (and thus did not then entirely take hold of) a twenty-year-old who had neither held long-term employment nor started a business. Rather, Pieper’s ideal audience was composed of those who understood what a powerful (and difficult) thing it was to take any time away from the world of work to ponder greater things. Pieper predicted, even in 1952, the extent to which work would dominate the whole of our lives: “The world of work is becoming our entire world; it threatens to engulf us completely” (65). This “world of work” he referred to had already surpassed our hours spent “at work” and had begun to creep into our nonworking lives, that sacred time when we could, potentially, be at our leisure.
But at a time when the nature of culture is no longer even understood, at a time when “the world of work” claims to include the whole field of human existence, and to be co-terminous with it, it is necessary to go back to fundamentals in order to rediscover the ultimate justification of leisure. (49)
If we go back to fundamentals, as Dr. Pieper proposes, we must first clarify what leisure is not. It is not simply “free time” as we understand it, most commonly taken in the form of scrolling through whatever Netflix’s all-knowing algorithm proposes for you, or the endless delectations of Instagram, but time in which we as humans engage with what is real. Having finished the workday or the workweek subsumed in “what we do,” we take time to consider and reflect on why we are, how we are, or who we are, just to name a few possibilities.
Leisure is not the attitude of mind of those who actively intervene, but of those who are open to everything; not of those who grab and grab hold, but of those who leave the reins loose and who are free and easy themselves — almost like a man falling asleep, for one can only fall asleep by “letting oneself go.” (28)
Further, leisure is not something we simply engage in so as to be more refreshed for work: “No one who looks to leisure simply to restore his working powers will ever discover the fruit of leisure; he will never know the quickening that follows, almost as though from some deep sleep” (31). We must part company here with our rationalistic and utilitarian friends for whom the soul is fantasy and eternity simply uncomprehending night. Take some time to rest, surely, they will argue, citing Scandinavian studies about how rested workers are happier and less likely to get ill. But leisure as a way of being more human? What could you possibly mean?
National holidays provide opportunities to observe what our fellow creatures consider leisure. In the United States, very often this involves sports (more often viewing rather than doing), or shopping (with ads informing us that buying more stuff is the true reason for the season), or that worst of possibilities, running errands, in which free time becomes mere opportunities to accomplish that which we cannot otherwise do because of how work dominates our lives. But we might mistakenly consider these activities “leisure” because we unthinkingly miss the etymology of holiday, which of course, implies holy days.
Feast days and holy-days are the inner source of leisure. It is because leisure takes its origin from “celebration” that it is not only effortless but the direct contrary of effort; not just the negative, in the sense of being no effort, but the positive counterpart. (30)
These holy-days are one of many ways an intelligent civilization punctuates its existence. “If real leisure is deprived of the support of genuine feast-days and holy-days, work itself becomes inhuman: whether endured brutishly or ‘heroically’ work is naked toil and effort without hope” (48). A civilization with true leisure necessarily considers life in the present (and that to come) not a result of some cosmic accident but rather something wondrously and intentionally wrought.
Speaking of so-called cosmic accidents, the 2017 total solar eclipse that was visible in several parts of the United States was a wonderful opportunity to penetrate beyond appearances to the essence of things. While those of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s ilk exulted in the ability of “science” to predict the exact day and time of the eclipse, no one bothered to ask how such an eclipse was possible. Even if one were to concede that Earth formed itself out of the material of a large explosion, then situated itself in the Goldilocks zone between Venus and Mars, developed a magnetosphere to deal with solar wind, and acquired a moon to regulate tides, all by chance, we then have to add the cosmically contingent probability that the sizes, distances, and positions of Earth, moon, and sun were also randomly calibrated as to allow for such a wondrous event as an eclipse, which has occurred before and will occur again. Unblinking moderns may blithely respond, “Well, because…science!” but that’s only because they have neglected to comprehend that science is only a language by which we can understand Creation, not a pseudo-deity that deserves our homage.
What many felt that day as they gazed up into the sky, whatever their religious persuasion, was wonder. Wonder: that sensation of apprehending something beyond our understanding. All of us were taken out of the world of work, where wonder often doesn’t exist, and into that complicated world of relationships in which we as humans necessarily exist only in relation to everything else around us: “in a field of relationships where world and environment are necessarily incorporated, one within the other, and corresponding to the complex nature of man (as opposed to the simple nature of animal or pure spirit)” (93). Hence leisure is necessarily tied up with philosophy, with the considerations of these greater questions: “To perceive all that is unusual and exceptional, all that is wonderful, in the midst of the ordinary things of everyday life, is the beginning of philosophy” (102).
The acolytes of the Gospel of Wealth often scoff at European legal regulations that prevent some employers from emailing their staff after working hours or on the weekends. Yet such regulations are simply based on an intuition (formed within Christendom) that, without forceful and clear boundaries, the world of work will always threaten to overwhelm the real world, the world that truly is. Leisure will not come to us floating on a cloud but must be, particularly in our day and age, forcefully taken back. Dr. Pieper notes that “to philosophize is so essentially human — and in a sense to philosophize means living a truly human life” (116). This philosophizing, one of the ways we can take our leisure, holds a wonderful promise: “It is in these silent and receptive moments that the soul of man is sometimes visited by an awareness of what holds the world together…only for a moment perhaps” (28).
And it is in such moments that we are best able to contextualize the world of work, put it in its proper place, and actively resist its ever insistent desires to consume our entire existence.