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Catholic Social Teaching: The Recovery of Leisure and the Concept of Total Work

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
January 31st, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The Compendium teaches that, as the untiring God rested after creating the world, so men and women who are created in His image (but who tire) must rest.  For this reason, the Compendium insists that men and women are to structure their lives to assure that they "enjoy sufficient rest and free time that will allow them to tend to their family, cultural, social, and religious life."  This obligation is both social and individual.

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - The first principle of action, states Aristotle, is leisure.  For Aristotle, leisure is the purpose of all lack of leisure, of all activity, of all busy-ness, of all work.  For Aristotle, work is not an end in itself.  As important as it is, work does not take precedence in human life; rather, it is leisure which ought to take precedence.  Leisure is the keystone of the arch composed of the voussoirs of work.

This is the classic and the Christian view of things.  This is the approach to work and to leisure which the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church calls by its biblical name, rest.  The Compendium teaches that, as the untiring God rested after creating the world, so men and women who are created in His image (but who tire) must rest.  For this reason, the Compendium insists that men and women are to structure their lives to assure that they "enjoy sufficient rest and free time that will allow them to tend to their family, cultural, social, and religious life."  This obligation is both social and individual.

Public authority has the duty to assure that its citizens are not deprived of their proper rest, and that they are not deprived of time for divine worship "for reasons of economic productivity."   Employers also are under an obligation to assure that their employees have an opportunity for rest and divine worship.  Indeed, "Every Christian should avoid making unnecessary demands on others that would hinder them from observing the Lord's Day." (Compendium, No. 286)

For us moderns, the authentic notion of rest or leisure escapes us.  We are perplexed at Aristotle's statement which the philosopher Josef Pieper translates as, "We are not-at-leisure in order to be-at-leisure."  Why, we moderns ask ourselves, is the Sabbath day to be kept holy, and why are we to abstain from servile work on that day?

Really, it's because we have the whole thing backwards.  We think that work is the positive noun, and leisure is its negative, a form of "non-work."  In fact the ancients had it right.  Business or work is the negative of leisure.  Work was a form of non-leisure.  In Greek, the word for leisure is schole (the word from which we get the word school), and the word for business, ascholia, is the negative of schole.  The same is true in Latin.  The word for rest or peace-otium-is the main word.  Its negative-negotium (the word from which we get our word negotiate)-means business.

How did this change of attitude in leisure and rest and its relationship to work occur?  How did leisure become the negative of work instead of work being the negative of leisure?

According to Pieper, the loss of proper focus with respect to leisure or rest occurred because we lost the link between leisure and culture, specifically the culture of celebration, worship, sacrifice to God (what Pieper calls the divine "cult").  (The word "cult," by the way, which comes from the Latin cultus, has gotten a bad rap.  Its main sense which is entirely acceptable is "religious veneration" or "religious worship.")  This cult of the divine is intrinsically part of the notion of leisure as Aristotle understands it or rest as the Scriptures understand it.

Pieper attributes the modern inability to understand the concepts of work and leisure and their relationship to the cult of God to an altered conception of the human person and human existence.  This changed understanding of who man is and what he is made for changed the ethos under which man moves and breathes and has his being.  It is this ethos typical of modernity-which Pieper calls the ethos of "total work"-that is responsible for our inability to understand the role of work, its relationship to leisure or rest, and the link leisure and rest have to divine worship.

The modern ethos of "total work" has changed both the meaning of work and the meaning of leisure.  And it has completely written God out of the picture in regard to both work and rest.  So we cannot follow Aristotle on leisure, nor, more importantly, can we follow the significance of the Biblical concept of rest until we regain something of the pre-modern notion of leisure and rest. 

There has to be a resourcement--a retrieval and renewal--of the principle of authentic leisure.

Briefly and simplistically, the way the modern ethos of "total work" came about is this.  The Catholic Church, drawing upon the Greek concept of schole and the Latin notion of otium, upon such Biblical sources as the story of Martha and Mary in the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42), and upon the experience of monastic life, divided the Christian life into two: the vita activa, the active life, and the vita contemplativa, the contemplative life.  The Church gave precedence to the contemplative life over the active life, without intending to deprecate the latter.  These two kinds of lives were not mutually exclusive, and everyone was expected to have both an active life and a contemplative life, at least to a degree.

Based upon a misapplication of Scripture and the narrow principle of sola Scriptura, however, the Protestant reformers in the 16th century debunked the contemplative life.  From a practical perspective, the Protestants' intense dislike of the vita contemplativa can be seen by their suppression of the monastic orders (and convenient seizing of their properties) wherever they gained the reins of civil power. 

The Protestants also held a distrust of holy days and feast days, and so suppressed a whole series of holy days and the celebrations, liturgical and popular, associated with them.  This, of course, freed these days up for . . . you guessed it, work. 

Finally, the Protestants in the main held what the Protestant theologian Klaus Koch called a Tun-Egehens-Zusammenhang theory-the theory, which clearly contradicts Christ's teachings and Christ's own poverty, that there was a direct correlation between following Scriptural teachings and temporal wealth.  This theological error developed into a neurotic need to work for work's sake. 

The Protestant reformers, then, if they even recognized the vita contemplativa, certainly overemphasized the importance of the vita activa.  The sociologist Max Weber called this ethos the "Protestant work ethic," and the name stuck.

This notion-where work is life and life is work-is the notion of "total work," "total work" under God, but still "total work."  This concept was imported to the Americas from Europe in the form of the black-dressed and dour Puritan, and so it is also called the Puritan work ethic.

Once this Protestant ethos became secularized in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the popularization of the evolutionary and materialistic theory of Darwin in the 1800s, the already weakened tie to God of work and rest was completely rent.  When this happened, we entered into the world of what Pieper calls "total work" without any reference to God.  In a world of "total work" without reference to God, work becomes the preeminent thing.  It becomes absolute.  Leisure is then transformed into a simple refraining from work through entertainment or vacation for the purpose of recovering physically or mentally so that one may return to work.  Work is the positive thing, leisure the negative.  Leisure supports work instead of the other way around.

The whole thing is, as one might say here in Texas, bass ackwards.

How we recover an authentic sense of leisure when we live in a time of "total work" without reference to God is one of the challenges of our time.

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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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