Pieper: Leisure, the Basis of Culture

November 14, 2019

Leisure, the Basis of Culture
Josef Pieper
(Fontana, 1965) [1948]
140 p. Second reading.

To a certain way of thinking, the idea that leisure might be the basis of culture is akin to the notion that leisure suits might be the basis of fashion — appealing, but probably not true. But of course much depends on just what one means by “leisure”, and among the many wonderful things about this book is its excavation of an older, nearly forgotten sense of the word that has deep roots in our history.


In one sense, the common meaning of “leisure” — understood as “not work” — resonates with the meaning that Pieper is after. But any hint of slovenliness, triviality, or frivolity must be dismissed: for Pieper, leisure is a high and important business, the highest activity, indeed, that human beings are capable of participating in. Its domains are not sand beaches or movie theatres, but philosophy, poetry, and prayer.

Pieper approaches his subject through a series of traditional dichotomies.

Medieval schoolmen, for instance, made a distinction between two types of intellectual activities which they called ratio and intellectus. Ratio was discursive reason, “reasoning” in the prevailing sense, thinking logically from premises to conclusions. Intellectus, on the other hand, meant understanding, perception of the meaning of abstract concepts, intentionality, and knowledge of truth. The two are different — though not opposites, certainly, for intellectus is a precondition for ratio, which it underlies and informs. Ratio, like our ‘ratiocination’, is what a computer can be made to do — or could do, if it had intellectus, which it does not. To the medievals, ratio meant toil and labour, but intellectus meant illumination and possession. Ratio was a human activity, necessary in practical and speculative matters alike, but intellectus was on the boundary between humanity and higher realms, a kind of spiritual vision, undiscursive and unmediated, not earned by diligent effort, but received as a gift.

Perhaps this sounds esoteric, but I think the distinction in question is intimately familiar to all of us. It is one thing to laboriously work out the value of an integral, but quite another to understand the meaning of the number 3. It is one thing to prove a theorem about triangles, but another to understand what a triangle is. The two aspects of reason are both constantly present to our minds.

A related dichotomy which the medievals observed was between liberal and servile arts. Servile arts were practical in nature: farming, shoemaking, weaving, planning. There was nothing ignoble about them, for they required real skill and knowledge to do well, and, when used to the benefit of the common good, were good. But they were practical, means to certain specific ends, and derived their value from those ends. They were in that sense constrasted with the liberal arts, which had no such practical aim, required no economic justification, but were done because they were good in themselves, and were their own justification. Does such a sphere of activity really exist? There may be — there are — those who say that it does not, but the tradition of “leisure” is founded on the belief that it does. The liberal arts are rooted in leisure.

Or consider a third contrast — the most surprising thus far — which the tradition draws between leisure and sloth. We are today in danger sometimes of seeing these two as synonyms, but in the tradition they are antonyms. For St Thomas, for instance, sloth is closely related not to rest, but to restlessness, mindless activity. It is the condition of boredom, that peculiarly modern affliction that Pieper identifies as a consequence of the loss of the ability to be leisurely. The besetting vice of a workaholic is sloth, toil not ordered to a suitable and worthy good. The cardinal sin underlying sloth was called ‘acedia’, a word that has unfortunately no obvious cognate in English. Pieper relates it to Kierkegaard’s ‘despair from weakness’ (in The Sickness Unto Death): an unwillingness to be what one really is, a dis-integration of the self, a sadness in the face of one’s nature as a creature made by God. The opposite of acedia, and therefore of sloth, is not work, but instead happy affirmation of one’s being, love for the world, and love for God.

The highest form this affirmation can take is the festival, the communal celebration of the goodness of the world, and the highest form of the festival, in turn, is divine worship, praise of the Creator, which is the most intense form of affirmation of the world available to us:

“The most festive festival it is possible to celebrate is divine worship. And there is no festival which does not draw its vitality from worship and that has not become a festival by virtue of its origin in worship. There is no such thing as a festival ‘without Gods’ — whether it be a carnival or a marriage.”

We are not surprised to learn that festivals and divine worship are both closely allied to leisure as the tradition has understood it. (This angle is treated at greater length in Pieper’s wonderful book In Tune with the World.)


What, then, is leisure? Pieper unfolds the concept slowly, showing one aspect here and another there, but gradually a picture emerges. It has something to do with contemplation: leisure means “to open one’s eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision”. It has about it a kind of passivity: “A man at leisure is not unlike a man asleep”. It is something that we can prepare for, but not something we can will to do; Aristotle said that a man could experience leisure “not to the extent that he is a man, but to the extent that a divine principle dwells within him”. Like intellectus, it is effortless apprehension and possession of truth, or goodness, or beauty. It is an end in itself, a step outside the everyday world of ends and means. It reverences the world as something surpassingly good, and, especially through divine worship, embraces everything essential to a full human life.

The primary examples Pieper gives to illustrate what he means by ‘leisure’ are aesthetic experience, artistic expression and enjoyment, philosophical reflection, love, and religious acts such as prayer and worship. These useless things are the highest to which we can aspire.

Reverence is essential: it is only possible to be leisurely, in this ancient sense, if we can look upon the world as something deserving our reverence, something on which we refuse to impose our will but are disposed to simply receive and behold. We allow our will to be formed by what we encounter, rather than the other way around. This is a reason why we in the modern West have lost touch with the tradition Pieper shows us: the whole thrust of modern thought since Bacon and Descartes has been in the opposite direction: “knowledge is power” and the main thing is to impose our will on the world so as to attain mastery over nature. But the older tradition valued doing and making less than seeing:

“Man’s real wealth consists, not in satisfying his needs, not in becoming ‘the master and owner of nature’ [Descartes], but in seeing what is and the whole of what is, in seeing things not as useful or useless, serviceable or not, but simply as being. The basis of this conception of philosophy is the conviction that the greatness of man consists in his being capex universi.

The ultimate perfection attainable to us, in the minds of the philosophers of Greece, was this: that the order of the whole of existing things should be inscribed in our souls. And this conception was afterwards absorbed into the Christian tradition in the conception of the beatific vision: ‘What do they not see, who see him who sees all things?’ [St Gregory the Great]”


Pieper saw leisure as imperilled in his own day, embattled and eroded, of course, because of modernity itself, but facing a particularly acute challenge in his own time and place — post-war Germany — when an ideal of “total work” was gaining political and cultural strength. As the country tried to reconstruct itself, of what possible value could anything not contributing to that effort be? He saw leisure, with its children, philosophy and art, being attacked or discarded as useless. His distress at this turn, in fact, seems to have occasioned the writing of this book.

Today we are less threatened by a regime of “total work” — though I suppose that those required by their employers to carry around a cell phone might disagree. We are less threatened, at least, by this idea as a civic duty or moral obligation. But another threat has taken its place, especially in recent years. Let’s call it “total politics”. This is the view that no field of human action is finally apolitical: power and privilege infect all. It comes mostly from the left wing, where the premise is more widely accepted. Even a disinterested pursuit of truth, to this way of thinking, betrays an unjust privilege, for who but the privileged could afford to be disinterested? But if devotion to truth is just disguised oppression, then all is lost. By a self-fulfilling prophecy, we can fall back only on will and power. Moreover, if intellectual work is really always implicitly political, why should it not be explicitly so? Hence the drift of whole academic departments into advocacy. And art, too, finds it must pass muster with Vigilants, who police for compliance with political nostrums. And so the capacity for human activity to step outside the political, outside the kingdom of ends, becomes constrained. Those borders are patrolled. And leisure, in consequence, cannot unfold its wings.

We also, of course, face a juggernaut of “total distraction” powered by our communication technologies, an ocean of mental noise that drowns out the inner life and smothers leisure. But this is obvious.

It is a very real question whether intellectual work and academic freedom can, or should, survive in this kind of environment. Pieper in his day already perceived a devaluation in the very concept of “intellectual work”, as though one could hire a philosopher the way one hires an electrician. (We have heard of companies hiring ethicists to evaluate controversial practices. “The best ethicists money can buy.”) He saw academic freedom as contingent on the philosophical — that is, leisurely — character of academic work, and judged that it was abdicated to the degree that academic work became merely political or practical.


If leisure is as important as Pieper thinks it is, and is as embattled as it appears, we will naturally ask what can be done to improve its fortunes. And here we run up against a conundrum, for we have already said that leisure is precisely that realm of human experience which is its own justification, an end, not a means. But this implies that we cannot cultivate leisure “in order that” this or that good result may be achieved or this or that bad result avoided:

“When a thing contains its own end, or is and end in itself, it can never be made to serve as a means to any other end — just as no one can love someone ‘in order that’.”

We are concerned with a realm of human activity that cannot be instrumentalized without destroying it; it must be sought simply for itself. The only path, therefore, or at least the clearest, to a recovery of leisure seems to me the personal: to love it and live it. As a practical matter (so to speak), it means setting aside time for encounters with beauty; it means pondering questions that admit of no technical solution; it means reading widely and deeply in the best that has been thought and said; it means developing a practice of prayerful and attentive silence, and, preeminently, it means honouring and praising the Creator for the goodness of the world given to us.

Or so it seems to me, and in truth I do, in my own life, in a manner consistent with my other duties and undoubtedly hampered by my many faults, try to do all of these things. I do so in some significant measure under the influence of this very book, which I first read many years ago. It would even be fair to say that this blog, for lo! these many years, has been one means by which I have tried to “work my leisure”, to use a phrase from Aristotle. Without claiming that I have been notably successful, for it is always sobering to contemplate the disparity between one’s ambitions and efforts and one’s actual progress, I nonetheless own a debt of gratitude to this book for its, on the whole, good effects in my life. It has been a joy to read it again and find its wisdom undiminished.

One Response to “Pieper: Leisure, the Basis of Culture”

  1. blah deblah Says:

    I read, as an act of leisure (if that can be said), a blog that is written, again, as an act of leisure (if *that* can be said), on the subject of leisure.

    There must be a word for this sort chain but, alas, it is too sublime for me. There was a time, I think, when it was not: when I would have been able to formulate a description of what it its logic process was, or at least to have offered up a workable estimate or model. An act of ratio, as it were.

    Help! I feel like I am caught in some kind of house of mirrors, and I am supposed to believe it is good for me? So be it, then.

    Nowithstanding all that, another home run on your part!

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