In a previous post I talked about how we have built a culture obsessed by work. Recognizing the historical American devotion to a strong work ethic, and the good things that come from hard-working, productive lives, perhaps we have overdone it. At times we act as if there is nothing but work.
As a counter-argument to a life obsessed with work, I mentioned the mid-20th century German philosopher Josef Pieper, who, in 1947 just after World War II, wrote a marvelous book called Leisure. He begins by saying it “seems, of all times, not to be the time to speak of ‘leisure.’ We are engaged in the re-building of a house, and our hands are full. Shouldn’t all our efforts be directed to nothing other than the completion of that house?” In other words, it’s time to go to work, not a time to be talking about something as cushy as leisure.
But this is exactly what we ought to be thinking about, Pieper contends, especially at a moment of rebuilding. Germany ought to be “putting in order again our entire moral and intellectual heritage,” he says. And then there is this: “Before any detailed plan along these lines can succeed, our new beginning, our re-foundation, calls out immediately for . . . a defense of leisure.”
What an interesting statement. Can we imagine our own country coming out of a time of crisis — say our current economic crisis — and regrouping around new foundational values, reaching into our “entire moral and intellectual heritage” and proclaiming that we will live differently from this point forward?
But of further interest, can we imagine any modern civilization establishing its foundational convictions on the basis of something called leisure?
Pieper saw the culture moving in the wrong direction, a culture obsessed with work, where our identities are totally defined by work, where work would be our primary source of meaning, where work would tie us down, bind us up, consume us. “To be bound to the working process,” he says, “is to be bound to the whole process of usefulness, and moreover, to be bound in such a way that the whole life of the working human being is consumed.” This is not good, we all recognize, though too often we seem powerless to resist the temptation.
Pieper proposes that to be fully human we must make room for leisure. He means by leisure a posture on life, a way of letting go, a way of listening and watching the world, a way of reading and reflecting, resisting the need always to control or build, a way of resting into a life where some things are not measured by the standards of work.
“Will it ever be possible to keep,” Pieper asks, “or reclaim, some room for leisure from the forces of the total world of work? And this would mean not merely a little portion of rest on Sunday, but rather a whole ‘preserve’ of true, unconfined humanity: a space of freedom, of true learning, of attunement to the world-as-a-whole?”
Pieper is well worth reading. He lays out a philosophical foundation, much of it theological as well, from which we need to work out the specifics for our own lives. But surely he is right about these things.