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.”