Leisure and its Discontents

Josef Pieper and the Art of “Useless” Reading

Sometime between 1857 and 1859, the French painter, Jean-François Millet, completed his oil painting L'Angélus. This work shows a man and a woman ending their workday in the fields to pray the Angelus, the traditional prayer said by faithful Catholics three times a day (at 6:00 am, 12:00 pm, and 6:00 pm). In the fading daylight, the spire of a church can be seen in the distance. The bells of this church would have called the couple to end their work, signaling the time of prayer.

The signs of work are all around these peasants—the field where they had been working, their tools, a basket of potatoes recently harvested—and yet Millet’s painting is not about work but its cessation. It is about the inward calm that emerges when one turns from busyness to prayer, from labor to what Jesus called the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:42).

Inspired by Millet’s recollections of his grandmother saying the Angelus, the painting gives one the sense that prayer is not so much a pause from work, but that work is a pause from the real action of life, namely prayerful leisure.

“Leisure” wrote the German Catholic philosopher, Josef Pieper (1904–1997), “is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.”

What is Leisure?

Many may be unfamiliar with this older meaning of leisure. It is a sign of the times that the concept of leisure has almost completely collapsed into mere amusement, while modern terms that most closely approximate the older concept of leisure (meditation, mindfulness) possess a self-referential quality quite at odds with the more classical understanding.

To grasp the ancient concept of leisure, we must sit at the feet of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle. In Book X of his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle distinguished between leisure and mere amusement or relaxation, the latter being a mere remedy from the toils of work. True leisure, Aristotle argued, must involve the pursuit of those goods that are valuable in themselves, and not merely as instruments to other ends.

Aristotle’s concern to avoid the reduction of leisure to mere instrumentality was rooted in his understanding of freedom. A man is free, Aristotle taught, when he enjoys the leisure to study wisely, forestalling epistemic vices like prejudice, haste, ignorance, sophistry, etc. What is true of the individual is also true of the polis as a whole: a community is free when it enjoys the type of virtuous self-government that forestalls tyranny or anarchy. In Aristotle’s reading of the geopolitics of his day, the militaristic city state of Sparta ruined itself through lack of leisure, as they subordinated all of life to military utility.

The Soviet Crusade Against Leisure

A modern analogue to ancient Sparta might be the Soviet Union. It is well understood how Marxist philosophy undermined leisure by reducing men and women to homo laborans, to subjects who gained value only as units of the workforce. But it is less appreciated that Communism also undermined leisure by reducing the liberal arts to activities with a purely instrumental value, positioning them as means rather than ends. As I point out in my Touchstone article, “What's the Use?

In the 1846 text he wrote with Friedrich Engels, A Critique of the German Ideology, Marx envisioned a society where desire could be eliminated through men and women fulfilling their purpose as producers. Unsurprisingly, Marxist societies rarely tolerated art that kindled desire for things the state could not provide.

Paintings and sculpture produced in the style of socialist realism glorified the pragmatic anthropology of Marx, in which humanity realizes its proper end through productivity. To solidify this anthropology in the minds of citizens, Marx could never allow for purely gratuitous art; all creativity should be useful in serving an agenda. Even something as seemingly benign as the game of chess came under attack in the Soviet Union. In Live Not by Lies, Rod Dreher tells of a Stalinist-era commissar, N. V. Krylenko, who steamrolled over chess players who resisted the subversion of chess to pragmatic ends. Defending the philosophy that led to the brutal murders, Krylenko remarked, “We must condemn once and for all the formula ‘chess for the sake of chess,’ like the formula ‘art for art's sake.’”

The Capitalists’ Advance Against Leisure

In the post-war world, capitalist nations were not far behind in moving toward the cult of total work. In the emerging prosperity of post-war capitalism no less than in the collectivist visions of Marxist societies, human flourishing was coming to be defined simply by productivity. There was a corresponding danger that rest would come to be seen simply as the cessation of labor, valued for its restorative function in enabling men to return to work.

For many who revolted against this vision, the emerging prosperity of post-war capitalism offered new opportunities for recreation, while work was often viewed as a necessary evil to buy time for play.

Josef Pieper in Defense of Leisure

Eyeing these trends, the German philosopher Josef Pieper (1904-1997) wrote his 1948 classic, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, from which I already cited. In this work, Pieper responded to trends in the post-war era that were catching capitalist societies in the pincer grip between total work, on one hand, and the cult of recreation on the other.

Pieper argued that the answer to all three of these—the cult of total work, the notion that we rest simply so we can return to work, and the infantile cult of youth that idolizes recreation—is the idea of leisure, properly understood.

Following Aristotle, Pieper suggested that true leisure must involve the pursuit of those goods that are valuable in themselves, and not merely good as instruments to other ends. Pieper located the health of culture itself, including the liberal arts and sciences, within this larger realm of leisure.

Pieper’s work contains more than a few surprises about leisure in our recent past. One such surprise is that the inability to experience leisure was once considered a great sin. “At the zenith of the Middle Ages,” he explained, “it was held that sloth and restlessness, ‘leisurelessness’, the incapacity to enjoy leisure, were all closely connected; sloth was held to be the source of restlessness, and the ultimate cause of ‘work for work’s sake’.”

The Modern Crusade Against Leisure

The approach championed by Aristotle and Pieper is under assault again today. From the cult of fun to the hyper utilitarianism of Wokeism (which resurrects the Marxist concern to subordinate liberal arts to a utilitarian fixation for usefulness, a point I have discussed here), there is no better time to recover the classical Christian concept of leisure.

Towards that end, I will be writing a series of blog posts defending “useless” books and highlighting the joys of leisure reading. In the spirit of Josef Pieper, I want to suggest that some of the best books are those with no obvious utility value, yet offer the opportunity to embrace the inward calm suggested by the man and woman in L'Angélus.

In my forthcoming series, I will explore different contemporary book-lovers who have held ground against utilitarian approaches. I will also analyze factors in our society, from the internet to Christian legalism, that undermine our ability to enjoy books for their own sake, as ends rather than merely means. Finally, I plan to share some of the practices my friends and I have adopted for protecting our reading time, and especially to protect Bible reading from the twin dangers of distraction and utilitarianism. In the spirit of Millet's L'Angélus, I hope to encourage us to embrace reading with a contemplative spirit, leaning into the inward calm that arises from the turn toward permanent things.

has a Master’s in History from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020) and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023) and co-author with Joshua Pauling of We're All Cyborgs Now (Basilian Media & Publishing, forthcoming). He operates the substack "The Epimethean" and blogs at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox!
Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/leisure-and-its-discontents


Bioethics icon Bioethics Philosophy icon Philosophy Media icon Media Transhumanism icon Transhumanism Scientism icon Scientism Euthanasia icon Euthanasia Porn icon Porn Marriage & Family icon Marriage & Family Race icon Race Abortion icon Abortion Education icon Education Civilization icon Civilization Feminism icon Feminism Religion icon Religion Technology icon Technology LGBTQ+ icon LGBTQ+ Sex icon Sex College Life icon College Life Culture icon Culture Intelligent Design icon Intelligent Design

Welcome, friend.
to read every article [or subscribe.]