A Catholic Classic: Commentary on Josef Pieper's 'Leisure the Basis of Culture'
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I can just hear it now, "No way am I going to read a book about leisure by some Catholic philosopher that I have never heard of. Besides, philosophy is boring, and it has nothing to do with my life." I disagree! Philosophy has a great deal to do with our lives. Many of the things we do are informed by philosophy, whether that philosophy is good, bad or indifferent. We need clear thinking at the most basic level more than ever.The Western world has vanquished leisure. Unless we regain the capacity for leisure, we will destroy our culture--and ourselves.
"Leisure is an attitude of mind and a condition of the soul that fosters a capacity to perceive the reality of the world. Leisure has been, and always will be, the first foundation of any culture." The Western world has vanquished leisure. Unless we regain the capacity for leisure, we will destroy our culture--and ourselves.
KNOXVILLE, TN (Catholic Online) - I can just hear it now, "No way am I going to read a book about leisure by some Catholic philosopher that I have never heard of. Besides, philosophy is boring, and it has nothing to do with my life." I disagree! Philosophy has a great deal to do with our lives. Many of the things we do are informed by philosophy, whether that philosophy is good, bad or indifferent. We need clear thinking at the most basic level more than ever. Furthermore, Josef Pieper's book, Leisure The Basis of Culture, is not boring; I read it, and it blew my mind. I love it when someone is able to connect the dots and present the big picture in a way that is rational and meaningful. Pieper, who died in 1997 at the age of 93, was one of those rare people. He begins with the idea of leisure and then shows us how other ideas are connected to it. Unfortunately, I cannot do justice to his beautiful reasoning process. Therefore, I am going to focus on one aspect of his book--the connection between leisure and the world of work. For Pieper, leisure and the world of work represent two fundamentally different points of view, that is, two different ways of looking at ourselves and reality. As I see it, the connection between them is the act of "stepping outside the routine of our daily life." This connection refers to stepping beyond the world of work and into leisure. It is important because our understanding of human existence is ultimately derived from one of these points of view, and so is our fate. One leads to slavery; the other does not. To begin let us look at the idea of leisure. We commonly think of leisure as a non-work related activity, something apart from work. In this sense, leisure could be anything from taking a midday nap to non-stop entertainment. But this is not the true essence of leisure. Pieper informs us that the essence of leisure is an "attitude of mind" and a "condition of the soul." True leisure involves contemplation and being receptive to things as they are in themselves. It means being open to things without regard to their value or how we can make use of them. The only way that we can enter into true leisure is by stepping outside the routine of our daily life. The world of work does not refer to earning a living or attending to our practical needs. It refers to an obsessive-compulsive need to micromanage the supply and demand of all resources, including human beings. If leisure is an "attitude of mind" and a "condition of the soul," then the world of work is too. But the world of work is the antithesis of leisure. The world of work does not contemplate; it calculates. It does not receive; it takes. It is not open to what things are; it bases the value and meaning of things solely on the uses that can be derived from them. Based on this point of view, there is no value or meaning outside the utilitarian, material world of work. Thus, there is no reason to step outside the routine of our daily life because there is nothing to step into. But it is not possible for us to know the meaning of human existence while we remain in our daily routine. Pieper does not try to justify this idea. He apparently presumes that we appreciate its significance. Although most of us appreciate it, I believe that many of us do not. Therefore, I want to take a moment and try to justify this idea. Do you recall the cliché about seeing the forest through the trees? When we are standing in a forest, all we see are the trees. We may be able to know some things about the forest, but if we cannot see the forest, then it is not possible for us to know the meaning of the forest.
I recall another example from my math studies. It is worth touching on because math holds a persuasive power for people in our time, even if many of us may not be comfortable using it. Kurt Gö del, the twentieth-century mathematician, developed a famous proof called the Incompleteness Theorem. The first part of the theorem basically says that all logically consistent, formal systems (such as the physical universe, geometry, a car, a dog, or a person) are incomplete, meaning that not all of the elements of a system are derived from within it. In a more general sense, this theorem means that the ultimate meaning of a system cannot be found within it. In other words, its meaning exists outside itself. Geometry is a good example of Gö del's theorem. Geometry does not rest on proofs; it rests on assumptions, definitions and rules that are derived from outside the system. For instance, there are no proofs for the definition of a straight line or the parallel postulate. They are believed to be true, and these beliefs are derived from a certain understanding of physical space, which obviously exists outside the system. Thus, the meaning of Euclidian geometry, also called plane and solid geometry, is the study of two and three dimensional space. The meaning of Riemannian geometry is the study of elliptical space and Lobachevskian geometry, hyperbolic space. Yet, in spite of the overwhelming justification for the need to step outside our daily routine, modern man insists on finding meaning from within the world of work. According to Pieper, this world looks a lot like Marxism and communism, or any number of "totalitarian work states" which are inherently utilitarian (I believe socialism, which is a type of Marxism, and secularism also fall in this category). Perhaps the reason why Pieper calls the totalitarian work state the world of work is because he sees the meaning of human existence being reduced to a life of labor. Karl Marx viewed human history as a class struggle between the proletariat and the other classes over the production and distribution of goods. Historically, proletariats are a group of persons who do not own property, just their "power to work" in servile jobs. But in totalitarian work states even wealthy property owners and highly educated professionals become proletariats in the sense that everyone becomes subjected to the orders of others and consumed by the vast, utilitarian, economic process. Instead of freeing people who have been historically tied to a life of labor, totalitarian work states have merely reduced the meaning of human existence to that of a worker, not too unlike a worker bee in a hive. Consequently, Pieper sees humanity becoming impoverished, that is, forced to see itself in purely materialistic and utilitarian terms. Impoverished peoples and totalitarian states mutually attract one another. Pieper says, "The 'total work' state needs the spiritually impoverished, one-track mind of the 'functionary'; and he, in his turn, is naturally inclined to find complete satisfaction in his 'service' and thereby achieves the illusion of a life fulfilled, which he acknowledges and willingly accepts" (50). This quote blew my mind. Is this not what we are becoming--a nation of functionaries? We believe we have found the meaning of human existence in the world of work, and we accept the degrading conclusions it offers us. We act as though we believe we are just animals or a resource, and we allow ourselves to be subjected to inhumane, utilitarian processes in exchange for the promise of an easy life. But this idea is false. We cannot see the forest through the trees. It is not an easy life; it is a life of slavery or, as Pieper puts it, a life of spiritual impoverishment, and it normally ends in despair. Our hope is not in selling our souls for the promise of an easy life; it is in our search for the true meaning of human existence. When we step outside the daily routine of our lives, the first thing that we are confronted with is mystery. This mystery is greater than us, but it also includes the prospect of our growth, our becoming, and our destiny. Consequently, we are filled with wonder and hope as we strive to reach the full potential of our humanity. According to Pieper, mystery, wonder and hope are important experiences. For instance, these experiences help promote the development of leisure. And as leisure develops, so does culture. Pieper indicates that culture is almost synonymous with leisure. He defines culture as human achievement which transcends the utilitarian world of work. However, Pieper is not saying that culture is more important than our need to work or attend to practical matters. He is saying that we must not define ourselves according to the point of view he calls the "world of work." We must rise above this point of view if we are going to become fully human. In other words, we need leisure and culture. Culture includes the liberal arts, that is, poetry, art, music, and education. Pieper says the highest expression of liberal arts is philosophy, which attempts to connect the dots and see the big picture. Going back to an earlier analogy, we could say that philosophy attempts to see the forest through the trees, so that it can discover the meaning of the forest. As such, the pursuit of philosophy can be a way to step outside our daily routine and rise above the world of work. Then Pieper makes an astonishing statement: He says, although not in so many words, that the only way we can use philosophy to step outside our daily routine is if we first look upon the world with reverence and as a gift from the Creator. Thus, sound philosophy depends on theology, and the act of stepping beyond our daily routine ultimately rests on worship and sacrifice. Pieper also informs us that the most basic expression of worship and sacrifice is the act of "celebration," and the highest expression is the sacrifice of the Mass and the Eucharist. As you can see, the picture that Pieper shows us is large, indeed. However, the minimum I hope to have conveyed in this commentary is as follows: We must rise above the material world in order to correctly see ourselves and the world we live in. I believe this means that the fundamental premises of the modern, secular state cannot be trusted, in part, because the secular state refuses to rise above the material world. Consequently, much of the scholarship, education, morality, and politics of our time are fatally flawed. In addition, we must know that we are more than worker bees meant to service the queen and the hive. We are spiritual beings who aspire toward the heavens and eternal union with our Creator. ----- Michael Terheyden was born into a Catholic family, but that is not why he is a Catholic. He is a Catholic because he believes that truth is real, that it is beautiful and good, and that the fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church. However, he knows that God's grace operating throughout his life is the main reason he is a Catholic. He is greatly blessed to share his faith and his life with his beautiful wife, Dorothy. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.
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