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.