Leisure, chapter 1

Cindy Rollins’s collaborative reading group has decided to tackle Joseph Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. I don’t know if I will be able to participate for the whole length of the book; usually my take on such writings is more disruptive than edifying, and although I expect to learn a lot from reading the book, I suspect that Pieper and I will end up disagreeing on a few fundamentals.

But here are some notes and reflections on the very short first chapter.

  • When I first began reading Cindy’s posts on how important leisure was to learning, the idea didn’t resonate with me at all, not because she was being unclear, but because she was speaking familiarly about some ideas I had never even thought about. As she continued to write about leisure, I decided I wasn’t ever going to understand this until I developed a clearer understanding of leisure.

    So I turned to the (online) dictionary, where the very first definition of leisure was “freedom from the demands of work or duty.” In my experience, that is a critical precondition for learning certain things, especially the most important things. There is no point of setting yourself the goal of learning such things, whether in a certain span of time or after a certain quantum of study; you may come to understand such things in a flash, or only after an indeterminate span of study, or not at all. The best you can do is point yourself in the right general direction and be satisfied that the study you do, although generally valuable, is not guaranteed to yield specific results.

    Given that, you must be free from the demands of work and duty in order to learn such things.

  • I agree with Pieper that modern society is mistaken to embrace the idea that “one does not work to live, one lives to work.” But I am also suspicious of Aristotle’s formulation that “we work (literally, are unleisurely) to have leisure.” If leisure is the goal, there is the danger that it will crowd out work, that we will end up sacrificing quality to get the work done more quickly.

    I’d rather see a more balanced formulation, one that establishes both work and leisure as essential aspects of life but also recognizes that neither is to be preferred to the other. Work provides us with leisure, leisure can inform our work; we need both, and can be grateful to God that He has set things up this way.

  • I think that Pieper (and Aristotle before him?) prejudices his case by contrasting the liberal arts and the servile arts. I looked up servile, and the definitions all centered around slavishness—most clearly in “characteristic of, proper to, or customary for slaves.” My problem with this is that there is no collection of tasks that is natural to slaves; they do what masters tell them to do, presumably because masters don’t want to do those things, not because it would be inappropriate for a free man to do them. This may be a classic basis for the work/leisure distinction, but I don’t think it is a good one, since it will likely end up defining work as “all those things I don’t like doing.”

5 thoughts on “Leisure, chapter 1

  1. Yes, I don’t think the reason we work isn’t strictly so we can not work (although I suppose God worked and then rested, and we all work here on earth until we reach our heavenly rest….so perhaps there’s a way to construct the argument that way). We work here and now because God ordained work. Work isn’t a product of the Fall, and since it was a part of Eden I bet there will be “things to do” in the new Heavens and Earth.

    The distinctions that came up in Cindy’s comments thread have me thinking on the servile topic. A farmer’s work is work of a free man because he does it as a free agent, an owner. My husband does work for a company who takes government contracts, and my husband cannot do his work the best he knows how because it’s not allowed or desired. He is not free to think independently about the issues at hand; he has to follow instructions and cater to the bureaucracy. His freedom to even work in accordance to the nature of problem-solving and software development are limited by those paying him.

  2. Rick,

    You always seem to feel badly about stirring the pot during book clubs, but personally I always like it when you do. Yours is a fresh perspective, and much appreciated.

    With that said, I struggled with the view of work, too.

    I think that the contrast between liberal arts and servile arts is helpful. On the CiRCE website they have a brief definition of the liberal arts:

    These seven are called the liberal arts because they are both the arts that every free person is free to master and the arts that are required to be free. A community that fails to master the arts of the trivium cannot be a free community. For example, he who is not a master of the art of logic is a victim of manipulators, both external (in society) and internal (in the soul), while he who is not a master of the art of rhetoric will be unable to express his thoughts appropriately.

    I think the idea, though, is not to completely avoid the servile arts, but rather to use the liberal arts to build a mature man, and then allow that man to engage in his vocation as a mature man. The servile arts teach a skill, but they do not liberate in that they do not teach precise maturity.

    Of course, we are talking about formal education, because we all know that chores build character.

    I, too, think that my definition of freedom is different from Pieper’s. For instance, one nuance would be that I think I am NOT free in that there are so many things I don’t know how to do. The name of the game in our culture is delegation. No one in my neighborhood even mows their own lawn (except us). Having slaves (or lots of highly technological tools) would keep me “free” perhaps in Pieper’s eyes, but I still wouldn’t know how to do things. In trying to make our home, little by little, more self-sufficient (we laid our first egg this morning! it was a group effort, as all the ladies stood in a circle and looked at it until we collected it.), we learn to do things (work-type things) that make us free from needing other people in order to survive. (I don’t mean in a community-type way, but more in a grocery-store way.)

    Now I’m rambling. Sorry!

  3. Believe it or not, I experienced a similar response to Cindy’s promotion of *leisure* and felt compelled to challenge her musings.

    I’m trying to reserve total judgment of Pieper’s analysis, looking for the forest amongst all the trees, and put myself in his shoes.

    He states that our modern valuation of work and leisure sharply differs from that of Antiquity and the Middles Ages that it may be difficult for us to understand.

    Furthermore, once into Chpt II, we begin to read about the history of work, as if in 1948, the idea was at a pinnacle. Weird, huh? But I think these philosphers were reeling from an overabundance of nationalism and pogroms.

    Hope you stick around, even if we might disagree :)

  4. I just recently picked up a used copy of a book that I am sure is outside of my normal thoughts on such topics as it covers. But I do think it is important to read things with which we do not always agree. As I am sure you well know, it leads to greater understanding of the issues, often gives insight, and may even on some occasions challenge our comfort zone a bit. American society in general has become far to much of a ‘select only things with which I agree.’ The obvious closed mindedness that results can be seen everywhere.

  5. Rick,
    When I first heard this connection between leisure and learning, It resonated with what I saw happening in myself and in my family. In a sense the liberal arts are not necessarily the formal arts. A farmer may gain certain kinds of knowledge that belong to the sphere of the liberal in a completely different setting than the professor. It isn’t too much of a leap to think of the philosopher farmer, the warrior poet. Those distinctions make a full man.

    As I say this week, I think where things get interesting is that the old set of thinking allows for the other but the current way of looking at work only sees the quantifiable. In the end that which is quantified is needed but lesser.

    I think key words are: freedom and fruit.

    I am tempted to get completely weird in this whole study because I think we are slipping into barbarism as a society. Part of that is that we are all worker bees now. Any hint of someone not being a worker bee is quickly ostracized such as the new agrarians or the woman at home.

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