Leisure, Chapter 3

Still reading Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture, still contemplating the many proto-thoughts it has given rise to. Here’s the latest batch.

  • Pieper’s discussion of acedia reminds me of Pascal’s observation that unhappiness has a single source, namely man’s inability to stay quietly in his chamber. Here’s the passage in context:

    139. Diversion.- When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home. / But, on further consideration, when, after finding the cause of all our ills, I have sought to discover the reason of it, I have found that there is one very real reason, namely, the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely. Whatever condition we picture to ourselves, if we muster all the good things which it is possible to possess, royalty is the finest position in the world. Yet, when we imagine a king attended with every pleasure he can feel, if he be without diversion and be left to consider and reflect on what he is, this feeble happiness will not sustain him; he will necessarily fall into forebodings of dangers, of revolutions which may happen, and, finally, of death and inevitable disease; so that, if he be without what is called diversion, he is unhappy and more unhappy than the least of his subjects who plays and diverts himself.

    At one point Pieper characterizes acedia as a dissatisfaction with who we are, with our place in the creation. At another point he calls it a restlessness. Wouldn’t it be fair to call this a lack of contentment?

  • I’ve seen plenty of the restlessness that Pieper describes, and I agree that modernity has turn reality on its head in calling such industriousness a good thing. I’ve seen the irresistible desire to just do something not only waste valuable resources but do actual damage. I’ve known people who have gone to great lengths to do something not only unnecessary but costly, only because the alternative is to do nothing (and improve the situation thereby). I’ve seen people occupy their time so fully with purportedly important but ultimately trivial activity that they were unavailable (and unaware) when the actual need for positive action arose. And I’ve seen the people who act that way rewarded greatly for their busyness, while the positive good done by people who paused and reflected—and then acted in a simpler, more effective way—go unnoticed, or even denigrated.

  • In learning to play music in an ensemble, one of the least intuitive concepts I’ve ever encountered was the skill of knowing when not to contribute, of recognizing where silence is superior to a played note. I was reminded of this while listening to a series of talks by Robert Fripp, an experimental musician I admire a lot. He was talking about the latest configuration of his ongoing band King Crimson, and complaining about the fact that, although his bandmates had learned to thrive in the spaces he left in his own playing, he’d never managed to convince them to provide similar space for him.

    That may sound mysterious, but it makes more sense if you consider a simple and practical version of that lesson which I learned early on as a bass player. I was mentioning to my teacher, Brandon Story, that I was finding it enough of a challenge to find the chord changes while keeping solid time and good tone; the fancy stuff I heard top-flight bass players play would likely always be beyond me. Brandon told me that, at least in old-time and bluegrass circles, that “weakness” would prove to be a strength; old-time and bluegrass ensembles prefer extremely simple bass playing, since the overall sound tends to be busy and fancy bass lines are an unwelcome distraction. Since then I’ve learned to be content playing the simplest of accompaniments, and I’m often surprised by the compliments I get as a result.

    I’m also reminded of a story that Pete Wernick tells about being on stage with a large group of world-class musicians. One of Pete’s maxims is that a player should always be trying to do just that thing that improves the music. As they played, he realized that with so much going on the group sound didn’t really need an extra dose of his own world-class banjo playing, so he began chunking (roughly, pinching two strings on the backbeat), which is about the simplest thing a banjo player can do, and many would think the most boring and least glorifying. He was standing next to Tony Rice, perhaps the best bluegrass guitar player ever, certainly for the past thirty years. Rice turned and watched as Pete chunked, then drawled in his damaged, gravelly voice, “Yeah!” Pete says it was one of his favorite compliments ever, to have an expert truly recognize what he was doing and appreciate it.

  • Pieper calls leisure “a form of stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality.” I take this to mean (at least partly) the recognition that the role one plays in the unfolding of God’s plan is not creative or controlling but reactive—reality confronts us, and we respond. Later he quotes a poet as saying that leisure is a “trust in the fragmentary, that forms the very life and essence of history.”

    Lately I’ve been reading Jacques Ellul’s The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, where he uses stories about the prophet Elisha to demonstrate his idea that while God is in complete control of history, he does not exercise that control by dictating the actions of individual people—circumstances arise, and people respond to them as they will. It doesn’t sit well with a simplistic view of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, but some version of it is necessary to make any sense of the otherwise ridiculous stories found in II Kings, e.g. the pivotal moment in Namaan’s story when his servants tell him to go ahead and give it a try, what could it hurt? or the lepers’ decision to deliver themselves up to the Syrians who are besieging the city.

    Such puzzles are the justification for Ellul’s bold claim in The Presence of the Kingdom that a Christian’s proper goal is not to do anything, but simply to be a good Christian, prepared to be used in small or large ways (or not at all) as God sees fit. To pursue this goal it seems to me that a Christian’s default stance needs to be leisurely, watching events unfold, studying and pondering human behavior, training himself to live uprightly, responding to the moment rather than constructing and executing intricate plans for establishing the kingdom. As Pieper says, “leisure is not the attitude of the one who intervenes but of the one who opens himself.”

  • I think the anti-leisurely attitude is motivated by the thing spoken of in the observation by T.S. Elliot that men “constantly try to escape / from the darkness outside and within / by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” In other words, there is a search on for something that will deliver us from the need to “trust in the fragmentary, that forms the very life and essence of history”—at least, as far as our limited view of God’s grand scheme goes.

  • Since these thoughts are largely an affirmation of what Pieper writes, I should say that I am still skeptical of how he seems to consider leisure to be a higher thing than labor. I think instead that leisure and labor are complementary things that need to be kept in balance. Perhaps Pieper thinks so too, and I’m just not understanding him. But he seems to consider the contemplative life superior to the labor-distracted life, epitomized by that great thinker St. Thomas Aquinas.

    I’d disagree, not just in abstract terms but in practical ones. I think one of the most destructive trends in modern Christian life has been the elevation of the Christian teacher to a place of high honor. I don’t think contemplative study was meant to be a man’s primary occupation, and I would offer the weirdly unbalanced life of today’s professional pastor as Exhibit A in my case.


9 thoughts on “Leisure, Chapter 3

  1. Nice application with music and your bass playing.

    I am suspicious of Pieper’s promotion of the contemplative life, as if there’s supposed to be a separate *class*. I think I purposefully ignored that proposal, even tho it would fit with the High Middle Ages context.

  2. @Dana: Your suspicions are right on, given that Pieper is Catholic. And you don’t have to go back to the Middle Ages to find people living the contemplative life, though it’s much rarer now than it was even 40 years ago.

    Might not Pieper’s (and St. Thomas’) preferring leisure to labor be rooted in Jesus’ telling Mary that Martha had taken “the better part” (Luke 10:40-42)?

  3. Rick, I haven’t read Ellul’s book, but you make me want to. Your reflections coincided with something I’ve been pondering lately, namely the idea that Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven. Now that I have worked with wild yeast at various temperatures, I realize that this is a slow, patient process. I can see how yeast is called to be yeast, and God will deal with how it spreads in the loaf, and actually that is a really comforting thought.

    In other news, I share your suspicions of the contemplative life as a class of people, or as superior to labor. I am much more inclined to think that work is a healthy, beneficial thing. I also think about Romans 12:1, where our bodies are presented as living sacrifices, which is a spiritual act of service. It seems that the mind/body or physical/spiritual divisions are not so cleanly made, but rather that man is a whole being, and so physical acts are also spiritual, while spiritual/mental acts are also physical.

    Thank you for your long post. I liked your thoughts.

  4. Believe it or not, I think you do get what Pieper is saying and I found myself nodding along with you.

    I am also still unsure of what all of this means in terms of the goodness of work. Maybe it simply means being content with our wages and not sticking our noses in other people’s business.

    What I am comfortable with is my own understanding that all learning takes place from a place of leisure or maybe time. It can’t be forced.

    I am also aware that the time I have had over the last 30 years has given me a chance to take in a lot. I am happy for that chance but I too have my suspicions about a leisured class of scholars separated from the world.

  5. You are making me want to read Pieper and Ellul.

    As for work vs. contemplation, it seems that the Benedictine Rule addresses this with its ora et labora, “prayer and work.” I would like to assume that Pieper is well aware of this?


  6. Yes, I’ve been drawing the connection between the stay-at-home homeschooling mom as the modern day Benedictine. They were supposed to perform beneficial and physical labor as well as contemplate and pray, but they were withdrawn from the hustle and bustle and jostle of the marketplace.

    Your music analogy is fascinating; thank you.

  7. I really like your point about contribution to a musical improv group. In painting, that concept might be called “negative space.” In basketball, maybe it’s sharing the ball? Or in many every day situations, we might call it not letting too many cooks spoil the soup. At any rate, it makes perfect sense to me that the best contribution is not always the most ambitious, and I like the way you apply it to other endeavors as well (in your second bullet point). It seems like a good axiom of humility.

    About a possible work vs. leisure dichotomy, I agree with others here that “ora et labora” meant a balance, not a dichotomy. I’m sure I’m not the only one who does my best thinking while cleaning house.

    One thing Pieper may be getting at (my copy is delayed and I can’t sit at the computer long enough to read it online, but I’ll read it eventually), is that stressful, hectic work is not conducive to contemplation. And much modern work, particularly that which is strongly dependent on technology, is hectic and stressful. At any rate, I remember going into my cubicle job (in the early ’90s) each day hoping that this would be the day I lived a genuinely Christian life at work. When I got there, I found that I simply hit the ground running and never stopped to think. Manual labor, however, usually leaves some of the mind free. I think the monks understood that.

    And while I know that many professors live an unbalanced life, C.S. Lewis redeems the type for me somewhat. We was no manual laborer, but at least he believed in a good, long walk.

  8. Laura,

    I’m glad you mentioned Lewis. It reminded me of a Ken Myers interview I heard many years ago, with Lewis scholar Clyde Kilby. In the interview Kilby mentioned that Lewis would insist on ending each day of study with a long walk, because it put him back in touch with reality. To Lewis, it was the world of scholarship that was unreal.

    Through the magic of the internet, here is the Mars Hill Audio description of that interview:

    “The brain is the organ of truth; imagination is the organ of reality.” With these words, Clyde Kilby, author of The Christian World of C. S. Lewis, sums up Lewis’s view of the importance of imagination to understand reality, since reality will not submit to being apprehended simply by rational thought. Kilby compares two “ways of knowing”: we may believe we can know the bird in the lab, but truly the best way to know is by viewing the bird on the wing, in its unscientific, “real” state. Lewis took this knowledge with him throughout his life, manifesting it in his imaginative works as well as his daily life. Kilby contends that the reigning view of nature is that it is nice but not necessary. Few understand that our imagination is encouraged, and our understanding of reality is thus augmented, through the opening of our senses to God’s immeasurable beauty and intricate design in nature, according to Kilby.

  9. Excellent! Our homeschooling philosophy in a nutshell, right down to the bird walk.

    Also, I just discovered those Mars Hill Audio free interviews recently and I’m really enjoying them.

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