Thoughts on Leisure

As a way of procrastinating from writing a paper on Unamuno, I recently bought Leisure: the Basis of Culture, by Josef Pieper. He has a number of interesting points, calling out modern culture (especially that to which he belonged – 1950s Germany) for having become a “world of total work,” with no place for leisure. Into that category he places any academic venture that has it’s end in itself, such as literature and philosophy, and leaves out any activity that is lazyness strictly speaking, such as doing nothing at all (and probably watching mindless TV and movies). As I am far too prone to do, I started thinking about education. Specifically, Pieper’s description of the difference between the servile arts and the liberal arts was quite interesting – I had been rather wondering if there was a succinct way of putting that. Briefly, the aim of the servile arts is useful work, things that we need to have people do so that we have food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and so on: it’s trade school stuff. The aim of the liberal arts is in themselves: they’re the things that lead to a better quality of leisure pursuits, interesting conversations, a better understanding, and a more polished mind. There is some overlap, but not as much as we pretend in our current century: or if there is, it’s an impoverishment of culture and of our understanding of what it means to be human. He mentions the difference between a wage and an honorarium, where a wage is payed for useful work, where the value of the money is in some way equivalent to the value of the thing produced; in the case of an honorarium, on the other hand, the thing being produced has no logical monitary value, and instead the academic is payed so that he can live – not for the work, per say. It’s somewhat difficult to draw the distinction in modern discourse, and I believe that’s part of Pieper’s point – if there’s any possibility of making money from knowing a liberal art, we are tempted to say that it’s useful, and, by extension, worth knowing, because of that possibility. When a liberal art will very likely not lead to a job and money, we find convoluted explanations for why it’s still useful; students are more likely to do well in those things that are useful if they learn it, or it teaches critical thinking, which is useful, or is a means to some other useful skill.

No, says Pieper, the liberal arts are good in their uselessness; they speak to the side of human nature that’s good for it’s own sake, like beauty and wonder and worship. Perhaps worship is the only thing we have left at this point that can’t be called into question on the basis of whether it will help a person get a job or pass a test or make money. It’s good because it is good, in and of itself, and those other things are quite beside the point. In the same way, philosophy or mathematics or literature are good for their own sake, because they show us something of the true and beautiful that we would otherwise not know, and any question of how their study may of may not be useful in a utilitarian sense is quite beside the point. A liberal art is good-in-itself, and can only be defended or rejected on that basis.

Pieper also discusses the difference between leisure and sloth, and maintains that sloth is just as likely to be found in one who is working all the time as in one who is spending all his time in leisurly pursuits, because sloth is fundamentally inattention to the work of caring for our souls, and becoming true human persons. Also, a person who is doing nothing at all or indulging in boredom or watching junky shows on TV is not engaging in leisure, but in sloth, which is its opposite. Proper leisure also aims to connect us to the harmony of nature and of God, as in the case of religious festivals.

So, then, the servile arts have their proper end in preparing people for work, the test of which is use, (though not necessarily money), and the liberal arts in preparing people for leisure, the test of which is becoming a more deep, interesting, thoughtful, and joyous human.

When separated from worship, leisure becomes toilsome and work becomes inhuman. This is the origin of secondary forms of leisure, which are as closely related to the absence of leisure as idleness… Mere time killing and boredom gain ground, which are directly related to the absence of leisure, for only someone who has lost his spiritual power to be at leisure can be bored.

All this together reminded me of education: for we aren’t doing a very good job of helping young people learn how to make good use of opportunities for leisure in Pieper’s sense. In truth, we teachers aren’t very good at it ourselves. That became very clear to me last year in Alaska – not only did the students not know what to do with themselves in the absence of work; that’s only to be expected from young people – but we didn’t either. We watched TV, pretended to work, surfed the internet, and had fairly fruitless conversations. Every once in a while we did something a bit in the style of Pieper’s leisure, perhaps in the form of a good conversation, a sports event, or a meal; but in general we (and by we I don’t necessarily mean everyone, but rather people who’s occupations I understood) hardly engaged in useful leisure at all. I don’t know enough of what the parents were doing to form a judgment on their disposition toward leisure, but it seemed something like ours.


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