An Opening Remark By Way Of Clarification
Leisure: The Basis of Culture consists of two essays: one on leisure and the other on philosophizing. It’s the former that I mean to comment on.
Pieper’s Searching Questions
Josef Pieper’s seminal essay, “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” (Musse und Kult), consists of lectures he originally delivered in West Germany in 1947. In the teeth of commonly held opinion, he argues that just after World War II, a cataclysmic war that threw civilization itself into doubt, was precisely the right time for West Germans not to throw themselves single-mindedly and myopically into reconstruction but rather to “stand there” (as Roger Scruton puts it in his “Introduction” [included below]) and think. What? Stand there–and think? Yes.
What would it mean for us to discover a deep stillness, a quietness, a great peace well beneath our frenetic, effortful, hubristic involvement in the “world of total work”? Does such a space of freedom still exist, and, if so, can we still, still discover it? These are but some of Pieper’s searching questions, which are, at bottom, about the human condition and the place of religion in modern culture.
The Organization of the Essay
Pieper’s essay is divided into five sections.
In Section I, he reveals to us the radical “transvaluation of values” (to quote Nietzsche), an astonishing, almost unimaginable shift from Aristotle’s aristocratic view that we non-leisure, if we must, in order to leisure to Max Weber’s Protestant-cum-democratic view that all of us must live in order to work. We are living in the aftermath of this epochal shift today.
In Section II, he very cleverly decides to analyze the birth of the neologism, “intellectual labor,” a word that forces a collision between what used to be purely contemplative (that is, the intellectual) and what has been servile (labor). What, he wonders, does such a neologism mean for us, and what does it tell us about the rapid progress of total work?
In Section III, he discusses the medieval vice of acedia (which he elegantly defines as “disagreement with oneself”) and the genuine sense of leisure (a “state of soul” in which the percipient is attuned to ultimate reality). His diagnosis is that acedia is at the root of total work.
In Section IV, he delves, if only tangentially, into politics. Specifically, he examines two concepts, “proletarianization” and “deproletarianization,” and deviates from the leftist view that everyone should be a worker under fair conditions; he sniffs this out as a way of perpetuating the process of work becoming total. Instead, he argues that we should “deproletarianize” ourselves by expanding the bounds of leisure for everyone.
In Section V, he asks, “How is leisure possible?” and “What is the ultimate justification” of leisure" (p. 52)? He then makes what, to modern eyes, is a very strange move, claiming that religious worship is at the heart of leisure. “It is,” he writes, “only within such [religiously-oriented] festival-time that the reality of leisure can unfold and be truly realized” (p. 54).
In upcoming issues, I intend to write commentaries on each section (I, II, III, IV, and V). I’ll then, in the sixth commentary, take up critiques of Pieper’s book. One criticism is that Pieper’s argument rests on aristocratic presuppositions. Another is that he doesn’t take stock of the transformative potential of work. I’ll examine these objections (and others I come upon), and I’ll provide an overall assessment of this important book.
I’d suggest that you follow along by picking up a copy of Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture
(I’d go with the St. Augustine Press copy
). You can find a used copy for very little. Then you can ask questions or formulate objections to what I’ve written via email (email me at email@example.com). This is an excellent way to look both
at how total work operates in modern culture and
to take stock of how it functions in your everyday life.
As an appetite whetter, I’m including Roger Scruton’s full “Introduction” (just below).
Until next time, may you find stillness and may you be still.