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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
28 Dec 2005

Christianity and the Pursuit of Leisure

by Matthew M. Anger

"And what of the opportunity to retire to the society of the best men, and to select some model by which we may direct our own lives? But we can do this only in leisure." — Seneca, On Leisure

It may seem that the quest for leisure has become a fetish for us moderns, and the less said of it the better. But Joseph Pieper quickly opens our eyes with the suggestion that our culture does not suffer from the overabundance of leisure but, rather, its scarcity. He would remind us of Aristotle's rather startling assertion that "the first principle of action is leisure." Taking time off from work means more than just bouts of amusement amidst purely utilitarian commotion and toil. Socrates' called leisure "the most valuable of possessions," emphasizing that it is the cultivation of the mind for the purpose of fostering and developing virtue.

In a long and productive life that evinced the mental and spiritual repose he defended in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, German born Joseph Pieper emerged as an outstanding Catholic thinker of the twentieth century. T. S. Eliot said of him that "however difficult his thought may sometimes be, his sentences are admirably constructed, his ideas expressed with the maximum clarity." As such, Eliot considered Pieper a philosopher who aimed at concision and insight rather than inflated verbiage and obscurantism.

From the outset it is clear that Pieper's view of leisure is at odds with commonly held leftist stereotypes — that it is nothing more than upper-class parasitism (according to writers like Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class). The problem is that most moderns justify every activity according to pragmatic or hedonistic principles. By contrast, Pieper makes a clear distinction between leisure and idleness. The former refers to the contemplative side of man, the ability to passively receive knowledge and wisdom. This same sort of humility is at work when we accept God's grace. In a key phrase, Pieper says that "man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift." By that same token, the contemporary attitude that the goodness of work is directly related to the effort expended is a false one, since St. Thomas Aquinas says "The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than the difficult."

It was Kant and the rationalist intellectuals who began ridiculing the belief that the contemplative life was superior to the active. All virtue, they said, consists in action per se. This reaches the modern existentialist extreme in which any action is "good" simply because it is action. As Sartre believed, "To do something is to create existence." Therein lies the egotistical need to constantly "assert" oneself as if to confirm one's being, whereby even a lewd or criminal act is better than no act at all.

The idea of leisure was transmitted to us from the Greeks. Their word for it, skole, also means school. That was because education was time spent in intellectual activity, apart from servile work, which permitted men to contemplate higher things — not just technical learning but inquiry into human society and individual responsibility. For the Christian, this contemplation is given an even greater meaning in prayer. The idea of the Sabbath "and on the seventh day the Lord rested" is an example of how Christianity extended the freedom from servile labor to the entire community. Thus, what had been the prerogative of a few free men in a slave-based society eventually became the privilege of all. But it is a privilege that has been undermined by a new paganism which is far less respectful of reflection and contemplation than were the ancients.

Pieper complains of a "proletarianization" that is widespread throughout Capitalist and Socialist societies alike. What he meant by this was quite different form the Marxist definition. A proletarian is one who is totally dedicated to servile work, be it physical or intellectual. Thus while most people assessing their goals in workplace seminars will place personal development ahead of career, their actions tend to belie such claims. Not surprisingly, there are many reasons for the modern worship of labor, which no one today would have the honesty to refer to as servile, since it is a punishment for the sin of Adam. One reason for the supremacy of labor, says Pieper, is due to the "inner impoverishment of the individual" in secular society who can no longer conceive of anything of value outside the 24/7 paradigm. The only reason for the proletarianized man not working is death.

The fact that Pieper equates religious festivities with leisure gives a better understanding of what the word should mean. He says that "celebration is the core of leisure" which leads us to the further conclusion that "leisure can only be made possible and justifiable on the same basis as the celebration of a festival. That basis is divine worship." He concludes that our modern "holiday" (the contrived festival) cannot compete with the old Holy Days. Since the French Revolution "attempts have repeatedly been made to manufacture feast days and holidays that have no connection with divine worship, or are sometimes even opposed to it: 'Brutus days,' or even that hybrid, 'Labour Day.'"

St. Thomas says that leisure is not simply a "lack of work." Rather it reflects a spiritual viewpoint that causes a man to accept that there are priorities greater than the ones he sets for himself. According to Pieper, it is a receptive frame attitude of mind and a contemplative attitude that possesses the capacity for "steeping oneself in the whole of creation." For the scholastic philosopher, idleness and the incapacity for leisure correspond with one another. They are the opposite of true leisure and meaningful work.

St. Augustine advised one of his disciples: "I pray thee, spare thyself at times." Pieper could probably say more about the purely practical side of man's need for rest, especially in an age when frenetic entertainment and nerve-racking vacations place their own demands on people's free time. In The Intellectual Life, A.D. Sertillanges, O.P. wrote that "relaxation is a duty," and notes the necessity of physical rest prior to engaging in active leisure of the intellectual sort. Nevertheless, Fr. Sertillanges agrees with Pieper in condemning the false view of "recreation" that allows people just enough time off so that they can climb back on the treadmill with renewed vigor. Mental repose and reflection thereby becomes inferior to the world of "total work." Leisure: The Basis of Culture provides a good analogy of why this should not be so:

[H]owever true it may be that the man who says his nightly prayers sleeps the better for it, nevertheless no one could say his nightly prayers with that in mind. In the same way, no one who looks for leisure simply to restore his working powers will ever discover the fruit of leisure....

In a materialist society there is no room for divine worship or for the feast. The modern world of work reposes upon the principle of "rational utilization." Pieper says there may be "circuses" to supplement the "bread," but such mass entertainment is hardly a true festival. The traditional idea of the festival was one of generosity. In divine worship, there is no calculated return on our time. The same goes for celebrations with friends and family. A world where people refuse to receive (or give) freely is a world lacking in charity. "Cut off from the worship of the divine," says Pieper, "leisure becomes laziness and work inhuman."

When we read about the saints we are struck by their amazing activity. And yet this superabundant activity was counter-balanced by a more salubrious pace of life. One day Bl. Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Sisters of the Poor, saw a young religious racing pell-mell down a corridor. She brought her to a halt by saying, "You're leaving someone behind you." The Sister turned around and asked, "Excuse me, my good Little Sister, but I can't see anyone..." "Yes, you are. You're leaving God behind. He's letting you run on ahead, for Our Lord... was never in a hurry like you are."

We suffer the added disadvantage in that our intellectual dissipation is rendered easier by technological devices which have invaded even those places that were hitherto safely removed from the noise and temptations of the world. But it would be misleading to make too much of this and posit the blame on external conditions versus internal dispositions. As older spiritual works testify, even the pre-moderns in their more bucolic epochs grappled with intellectual distraction, lack of purpose and the neglect of supernatural antidotes.

In sum, Pieper lays an unassailable theoretical groundwork for the recovery of healthy intellectual life, and we should be inspired to take some concrete steps towards establishing a domestic refuge of Christian humanitas. A return to leisure must come about in ways suited to our age and circumstances. It means keeping inane distractions to a reasonable minimum and substituting for them things like reading, learning, creative activities and, most of all, prayer. In this way, all aspects of our life must be transformed — not just in terms of public worship, but also economics, politics, arts and entertainment. In the meantime, a sincere practice of religion will give us a real appreciation of the important things in life, including the idea of leisure.


Matthew Anger is a freelance journalist who has written essays on history, philosophy and literature from a Catholic perspective. He lives with his wife and eight children in the Richmond, Virginia area, where he is employed as a web/multimedia designer. In addition to Seattle Catholic, he contributes to The Latin Mass and Homiletic & Pastoral Review. He also maintains Imlac's Journal, a philosophical blog.

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