Review – Leisure: The Basis of Culture

by Daniel Gorenberg, written for Professor Margarita Mooney Suarez’s course, Christianity and the Liberal Arts, at Princeton Theological Seminary

Leisure: The Basis of Culture (Including The Philosophical Act) is a book consisting of two essays written by the German philosopher Josef Pieper in 1947 and delivered during his visit to Bonn in the summer of that year. He describes both essays as being “intimately connected” because they were “both written in the same summer, in a single breath” and “both spring from the same thought.”[1] The thought that is the source for both works is this: “Culture depends for its very existence on leisure, and leisure, in its turn, is not possible unless it has a durable and consequently living link with the cultus, with divine worship.”[2]

The relationship between culture, leisure, and divine worship are significant for Pieper because he is writing in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, an aftermath in which he believes a new crisis is emergent. The demands of Germany’s reconstruction – the overwhelming labor and effort required of all of its citizens – are ushering in a world of “total work.”[3] With the advent of this new world comes a new understanding of the nature of the human being, one that entails the absolute elimination of human freedom by eliminating divine worship. Pieper’s purpose, then, in each essay respectively, is to re-introduce and re-understand both leisure and philosophy in order to establish their essential reliance upon divine worship – the highest and last sphere of human freedom – and liberate them. “Suppress that last sphere of freedom,” Pieper writes, “and freedom itself, and all our liberties, will in the end vanish into thin air.”[4] His objective then, in both essays, is to demonstrate the need of leisure for culture, and the need of divine worship for leisure, thereby freeing the human being to be more fully human.

In Leisure the Basis of Culture, Pieper intends to establish the sphere of divine worship by first examining leisure itself. He accomplishes this through the course of five sections. In the first section, Pieper begins his project by attending to an objection which, summarily put, insists that there is no time for leisure – it is superfluous. In response, Pieper insists that, if Germany is to be rebuilt as a specifically Western country, then “it is essential to begin by reckoning with the fact that one of the foundations of Western culture is leisure.”[5]

A robust explication of the modern ideal of work immediately follows in the second section. Pieper meticulously demonstrates that this very ideal has its origination in a re-understanding of human intellectual activity and knowledge proposed by modern thinkers, most notably Immanuel Kant. Kant claimed that all of human knowledge is due to active intellectual effort, that “[k]nowledge, man’s [sic] spiritual, intellectual knowledge…is activity, exclusively activity.”[6] This understanding contrasts severely with that of the ancient and medieval thinkers who insisted that all knowledge involved “an element of pure, receptive contemplation.”[7] For them, the process of knowing was a simultaneous act of both ratio (active understanding) and intellectus (passive or receptive understanding).

There are multiple problems that Pieper finds in the modern understanding that all knowledge is work, but three are more significant. The first is that “if to know is to work, then knowledge is the fruit of our own unaided effort and activity; then knowledge includes nothing which is not due to the effort of man [sic].”[8] The second is that the difficulty required in achieving knowledge becomes the ultimate assessment of the worth or worthlessness – the truth – of that knowledge and, consequently, that difficulty is the assessment of value (moral or otherwise): “the more difficult a thing, the higher it is in the order of goodness.”[9] Third and last, if work and its entailed difficulty is the assessment and justification for human activity, then the human being, his or her full existence and experience, is reduced rather than expanded. This is because, Pieper thinks, human knowledges such as the liberal arts, and philosophy specifically, cannot properly serve any ends but themselves, lest they cease to be what they are.[10]

In the third section, Pieper offers an examination of leisure as it was understood by the medievals, in contrast to the modern re-understanding of it. Moderns consider laziness, idleness, and sloth to be synonymous with leisure; Pieper corrects this misconception by scrutinizing the medieval word for idleness, acedia. He argues that leisure is contrary to acedia because leisure is “a mental and spiritual attitude…of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being ‘busy’, but letting things happen.”[11] As an attitude, leisure contradicts the ideal of the worker in three essential aspects: (1) where work is activity, leisure is non-activity; (2) where work is toil, leisure is “contemplative celebration”;[12] (3) where work is social function, leisure is the expansion of the human beyond the boundaries of the world of work to the “superhuman, life-giving existential forces that refresh and renew us.”[13] This is the ideal form of leisure. However, leisure must be reconciled with the “social aspect” problem latent in “the totalitarian claims of the work world.”[14]

This Pieper accomplishes, in the fourth section, by explicating the notions of the proletariat and deproletarianization, arguing that the only sensible definition of the proletarian is that “the proletarian is the man [sic] who is fettered to the process of work.”[15] He continues, “[t]o be fettered to work means to be bound to this vast utilitarian process in which our needs are satisfied, and, what is more, tied to such an extent that the life of the working man is wholly consumed in it.”[16] Proletarianism is, thus, impoverishing and reducing.

Instead, Pieper proposes deproletarianization which enlarges the scope of human life, expands life to accommodate the liberal arts as properly understood and as genuinely distinct from servile arts. But this cannot simply be achieved through political, economic, or social adjustments as “[t]he provision of an external opportunity for leisure is not enough.”[17] The human being must be made capable of leisure. Pieper thinks that the only institution in existence that can offer this is the Church.

The fifth and final section is his elaboration of the possibility of true leisure as only being found in divine worship as exemplified in the celebration of a feast. This is the reason, for Germany and Europe at least, that the Church is the only institution, and Christianity the only faith, that can enable the human being to be capable of leisure. Mere Humanism is insufficient to enlarge and preserve the scope of human life because it occludes the divine and, therefore, the purely superfluous. As Pieper writes, “[s]eparated from the sphere of divine worship, of the cult of the divine, and from the power it radiates, leisure is as impossible as the celebration of a feast.”[18] In his final assessment, when they are removed from worship of the divine, “leisure becomes laziness and work inhuman.”[19] It is only through divine worship offered by Christianity in the liturgy and sacraments that leisure and work are reordered and re-placed, that human life and experience is enlarged, and that the human being is brought into the heart of the universe.

The Philosophical Act, the second essay contained in the book, is Pieper’s exploration of philosophy and the philosophical act. The essay itself elaborates on many of the themes presented in Leisure the Basis of Culture, and so serves as a sort of specification of them. In the first section of this essay, Pieper again describes the atmosphere of work and utility that has begun to suffuse every aspect of human existence: “the world of work is becoming our entire world; it threatens to engulf us completely, and the demands of the world of work become greater and greater, till at last they make a “total” claim upon the whole of human nature.”[20]

Philosophy (as well as poetry and prayer) transcends the world of work and is a “free knowledge” and this is what defines the liberal arts (of which philosophy is the highest art).[21] Since philosophy transcends the working world, Pieper must elaborate what the working world consists of and what lies beyond it. This elaboration is grounded in Pieper’s understanding of the human being as a spiritual being who can engage with “the world as the totality of being,”[22] the focus of the second section of the essay.

The third section of the essay is an exploration of the philosophical act, a constant search for wisdom that begins in wonder and marveling: “the beginning of philosophy is wonder.”[23] Wonder entails an incompleteness of knowledge which places philosophy inherently at odds with the utility demanded of the world of work.[24] There is no comprehension of anything in philosophy, only a perpetual “‘not yet’.”[25]

In the fourth and final section of his essay, Pieper explicates the relationship of philosophy to theology: “Theology is always prior to philosophy, and not merely in a temporal sense, but with respect to inner origin and their relationship to that origin.”[26] Theology precedes philosophy, supplying the impulse and guiding the course of philosophical inquiry; the only valid theology in the Western world, is Christian theology.[27]

Pieper’s work – both essays together – is meticulously organized and argued. His masterful appeals to ancient and medieval thought serve to effectively frame modern understandings and disintegrate their monolithicity, inducing his reader to think. And this is perhaps the great strength and weakness of the work. Pieper writes in Leisure that “the considerations put forward in this essay were not designed to give advice and draw up a line of action; they were meant to make men [sic] think. Their aim has been to throw a little light on a problem which seems to me very important and urgent…The object of this essay, then, is not to provide an immediate, practical guide to action.”[28] It misses the point to ask the question: What are we supposed to do?-how are we supposed to implement leisure? This, in effect, renders Pieper’s essays wholly theoretical and wholly philosophical (and so frustrating for those who sense the urgency of the problem and want an immediate solution). But, on his understanding, it could be no other way. For Pieper, the culmination of education is thinking and philosophizing, and it is found in leisure. This means that the thought he propones in his work cannot serve ulterior ends. As he writes, “Leisure cannot be achieved at all when it is sought as a means to an end, even though that end be ‘the salvation of Western civilization.’ Celebration of God in worship cannot be done unless it is done for its own sake.”[29] Thus, Pieper stands with John Newman in direct opposition to thinkers such as Paulo Freire who, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, thinks that all education is political and actional. For Pieper, education, at its highest and freest, is an expression of love and a celebration and worship of God engaged in for its own sake. However, here is a point of weakness.

For all of his argumentation, it is not clear that Christianity need be the only faith that can secure leisure; it just happens to be the historically true one. Although Pieper does limit his concerns to Western civilization, it requires no effort to recognize that there are many cultures across the world that are organized around many different religions, each with its own celebrations and forms of worship. So, while Humanism cannot secure leisure because it cannot call forth the human being into the truly superfluous and transcendent, another religion such as Hinduism presumably can. Pieper anticipates this problem and relegates its solution to the purview of history: historical investigation will determine the truth of Christianity.[30]

And yet, what does truth matter as long as the relation between culture, leisure, and divine worship is established and maintained? This might not have been an issue for Pieper writing in 1940s Germany, but for us who live in a globalized, religiously pluralistic society, the Christian faith must be demonstrated as essential and not accidental to Pieper’s thought in order for his claims to have the traction and effect that he originally intended, though perhaps such a demonstration is really our task as his readers.

Another concern is that, although his arguments and analyses are valid, they are inapplicable to the present. Pieper was writing after a cataclysm created an opportunity for a complete reexamination of Europe’s culture and values, top-down and bottom-up. That time has long passed and the world of total work is not emergent; it is reality. The responsibility for addressing this concern, of course, does not fall to him but to us, and an answer begins by pointing out that Pieper’s book is still being read, considered, and discussed today. If the purpose of his book is simply to encourage thinking, then it is continuing to accomplish its purpose even now. And that is enough to indicate that the world of total work is not a reality, at least not yet.

Overall, however, Pieper succeeds in his objectives. Of all the books we read in the course, I found his argument and analysis to be the most valuable in explaining education, its purpose, and the dynamics impacting our understanding of these. I would hesitate to recommend his book as a whole due to its conceptual difficulty. However, I would recommend certain sections, specifically the second and third from Leisure, to everyone considering or pursuing an education. I would also recommend the book for a class on Christianity and the Liberal Arts, particularly as a helpful and concrete development on Newman’s thought.

Pieper’s book is difficult in many ways, the greatest of which is its lack of a positive proposal. For me, personally, after considerable reflection, I find resonances between Pieper’s description of leisure as a mentality and an attitude, and the renewing of the mind that St. Paul exhorts in Romans 12:2. Both, ultimately, are transformations that we cannot accomplish or achieve, but merely receive as given by God: Christ whom we love and worship.

[1] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (Including The Philosophical Act), trans. Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 15.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 69.

[4] Ibid., 15.

[5] Pieper, 15.

[6] Ibid., 27.

[7] Ibid., 28.

[8] Ibid., 30.

[9] Pieper, 32.

[10] Ibid., 40.

[11] Ibid., 46.

[12] Ibid., 48.

[13] Ibid., 51.

[14] Ibid., 54.

[15] Ibid., 57.

[16] Pieper, 57.

[17] Ibid., 63.

[18] Ibid., 68.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Pieper, 78.

[21] Ibid., 87.

[22] Ibid., 101.

[23] Ibid., 111.

[24] Ibid., 116.

[25] Ibid., 121

[26] Ibid., 130.

[27] Pieper, 133.

[28] Ibid., 71.

[29] Ibid., 72.

[30] Pieper, 73.