Leisure, Chapter 4

As I wrote earlier, I am having difficulty engaging Pieper’s thesis directly because I think we disagree on how to divide up the problem, and I don’t really have the time or interest to map out our differences in enough detail to go on and tackle his arguments. Worse, I’m not all that opposed to the practical outworkings of his conclusions, as far as I understand them; the only world where our differences would have implications for real life is a very, very different world than the one we live in today.

But I still have some gripes with his assumptions. And I was not surprised to see him quote the Pope Pius XI encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, because I recall my disappointment at having exactly the same gripes when I read through that a few months back. At heart, I think that the modern Catholic stance on the problem of labor, though enlightened and a valuable counterbalance to the capitalist ideal of all-encompassing work, boils down to a position of accommodation, one which grants that wage slavery is OK (or at least inevitable)and then tries to make conditions for the slaves as humane as possible, e.g. the work stays the same but the wage becomes a living wage.

Pieper takes roughly the same position with his idea of de-proletarianizing life, wanting to open up a bit of space for leisure in a life that is otherwise totally oriented towards work. And I have to suspect that this thinking is connected to his Thomist devotion to Aristotle and Plato, for whom the freedom of a free man depended critically on the existence of slaves to do what things are necessary to supply his needs. Pieper is apparently willing to admit that slaves could benefit from a bit of leisure, but not consider the possibility that it is wrong to divorce the servile and liberal arts—and then burden slaves with the first so that the free can wallow in the second. As Wendell Berry has repeatedly pointed out, man has an uncanny ability to take a happy solution and split it into two miserable problems. And I wonder if this ancient distinction between liberal and servile isn’t exactly that.

At one point Pieper touches on something that I think may have given rise to this illegitimate distinction, what Marxists call alienation of labor, the idea that a worker’s effort can be recast as a commodity, as something that can be bought and sold (and, consequently, wrested from his control). In a completely self-sufficient household, it is nearly impossible to put a price on individual acts of labor, or even to associate such acts with a product—what is the cash value of a morning’s worth of weeding, or a week of canning, or catching and killing a rooster for Sunday dinner?

And in such a context, the concept of enough becomes a concrete reality—what is the use of weeding when the weeds are under control, or canning more food than you can eat during a winter, or catching more chickens than will be eaten on Sunday? Leisure is then the time that becomes available once the work’s all done, once the needs of your family are seen to. In an agrarian culture this point comes as God sees fit, depending not only on the diligence of family members but on circumstances, the weather and the harvest and unplanned events and so on—but it does come. In the world of total work, it never comes for the worker. In Aristotle’s world, it never came for the slave, and came unearned for the free man.

I am not at all suggesting that the solution to Pieper’s problem is to abandon modern life and replace it with life as it was lived in this country in 1800. If doing so were possible I think it would solve the problem, but it is hardly possible to do as a society. So although I am skeptical of Pieper’s idea of de-proletarianizing life, it is not because I think it won’t work, but only that I think we have no reason to assume it will work—because Pieper (and Catholic social thinkers in general) have wrongly analyzed the problem. Adding in a bit of leisure may improve the lot of the modern-day wage slave. But it will at best produce a more balanced, more palatable slavery, and not tackle the problem at its source.

The good news, though, is that I think the problem can be addressed at the level of the individual family, to the extent that such families are able to abandon modern life and replace it with self-sufficient living. And this need not be a move to the homestead. I think that what the agrarian thought experiment above tells us is that the critical concept which has been lost is the idea of enough. To the extent that we can arrange our lives so that in various areas we reach a point of enough—enough schoolwork, enough hours at the office, enough friends, enough social obligations, enough enrichment activities for the kids, enough passive entertainment, enough sports, enough time spent on the internet—then leisure will naturally introduce itself.

The trick then, I suppose, is to figure out what to do with it.

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2 thoughts on “Leisure, Chapter 4

  1. “I think that what the agrarian thought experiment above tells us is that the critical concept which has been lost is the idea of enough. To the extent that we can arrange our lives so that in various areas we reach a point of enough—enough schoolwork, enough hours at the office, enough friends, enough social obligations, enough enrichment activities for the kids, enough passive entertainment, enough sports, enough time spent on the internet—then leisure will naturally introduce itself.”

    Thank-you for this. I am not at all interested in returning to true agrarian living, I am still worn out by my first effort but I am totally on board with learning to find beauty in “enough” and looking for life in life-giving things. Interestingly, if all American workers said this then the economic system would change.

  2. Rick, first of all, thank you for the posts on Leisure. They have been personally edifying to me. My copy of the book in coming on a slow boat from China (apparently).

    I found an interesting juxtaposition between today’s post and the graph on Chinese saving just below the post. Their saving has allowed us to maintain a sustained high level of entertainment (what most of us consider to be “leisure”) in this country. A satisfied (or, in this case, satiated) worker might complain about their life, but, will hardly make the effort to change anything.

    Godliness with contentment IS great gain! The problem is that darn contentment thing, isn’t it? I can’t have too much sports, internet, video games, cable tv, house (not the tv show), car, money, exercise, Red Green, etc.

    Thanks, also to Cindy for her comment.

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