Wednesday, January 30, 2013

LEISURE: THE BASIS OF CULTURE – A BOOK REVIEW


Leisure: The Basis of Culture & the Philosophical Act. Josef Pieper. Translated by Alexander Dru. 1963. Reprint, Ignatius Press, 2009. 143 pp. $12.99. ISBN 978-1-58617-256-5.

            This book is composed of two articles written by the German philosopher Josef Pieper. Though the two articles are intimately connected, they form two distinct works; as such, this book review will begin by giving a brief introduction to the works in question, followed by and exposition of each of the works individually. The two articles that are included in this book, Leisure: the Basis of Culture and The Philosophical Act, were both published in 1947, and, as such, were written during the cultural crisis in Germany that followed the Second World War. Not only did Pieper have the cultural crisis in mind when he wrote these articles, but he was also writing in light of the works of the most well-known German philosopher of the time – Martin Heidegger. As such, any reader who is familiar with Heidegger will find themselves running into many expressions that have a distinctly Heideggerian sound and feel. It should be noted, however, that, although a prior knowledge of Heidegger, especially his Introduction to Metaphysics, certainly helps understand much of what Pieper says, it is not strictly necessary. Anybody will be able to harvest an enormous wealth of wisdom from these two essays, regardless of whether or not they have read Heidegger.

            In Leisure: the Basis of Culture Josef Pieper sets out to make the reader think. This is, in fact, the proposed purpose for the essay, “Well, the considerations put forward in this essay were not designed to give advice and draw up a line of action; they were meant to make men think. Their aim has been to throw a little light on a problem which seems to me very important and very urgent, and is all too easily lost to sight among the immediate tasks in hand.”[1] What is the problem that Pieper sees as being “important and very urgent”? Perhaps we could summarize the problem as, the rise of the cult of work,[2] and the loss of Leisure. This, of course, seems like a strange problem to the contemporary reader. “So, Pieper wants us to work less and play more?” Some people will be very happy with this, however, as Pieper notes throughout this article, most contemporary people think about everything as a worker, and our society (as socialist as Germany was prior to the Second World War) has trained us to think this way. We have been trained to view every activity according to its usefulness. This is the problem that Pieper wishes to draw our attention to. For, so Pieper proposes, if we view everything according to its usefulness, then we lose our very identity.[3]

            Pieper begins with an objection that, although it is tied to the reality of life in post-war Germany, could just as easily find analogies in our contemporary world. The objection could be paraphrased as follows: “We don’t have time for leisure because our society is in shambles and we need to put all of our time and effort into trying to rebuild it.” In response to this objection Pieper replies that, if we truly wish to rebuild our society, and make it stronger than it has ever been, then we need to build it upon leisure, truly understood, for, Pieper claims, “it is essential to begin by reckoning with the fact that one of the foundations of Western culture is leisure.”[4] We have not yet gotten past the first page of the article. Pieper then goes on to contrast the way in which the ancient and medieval philosophers emphasized leisure, with the way in which contemporary people emphasize work. The modern person works in order to live, and lives in order to work, but, for the ancient and medieval philosopher, this was a strange way to view the world; rather, they would say that we work in order to have leisure.[5]

This leads us into a brief discussion about how the medieval and ancient view of the relationship between work and leisure (not to mention how they understood these terms), influenced their understanding of the importance of the contemplative life, as well as the relationship between the liberal arts (that which is done as an end in itself) and servile work (work that is done for some other end). This is contrasted with the modern view of work.  In the following section he explains the notions of intellectual work and intellectual worker. In this section Pieper shows how the contemporary notion of a professional philosopher (something which he says, in the article the Philosophical Act, is impossible)[6] was born. Modern philosophers viewed thinking philosophically (not to mention morality) as work. Pieper, however, notes that this claim falsely put rejected a vital part of philosophy – contemplation. He then explains the medieval categories of ratio and intellectus, and explains that a proper understanding of humankind, and philosophy, must include both aspects of human knowledge. Philosophical knowledge is gained, not only through hard work, but, also, through contemplation – which can only be truly done when one is truly and actively being leisurely. He explains that “the essence of knowledge does not consist in the effort for which it calls, but in grasping existing things and in unveiling reality.”[7] Pieper then turns to a comparison of the liberal arts with servile work or arts, as well as the distinction between training and education. Our society has turned every human activity into work. It is a fact, in our contemporary society, that even those who study philosophy, the highest and most liberal of the liberal arts,[8] must give an answer to the question: “But what are your studies good for?”

In the third section Pieper goes on to explain the difference between the contemporary view of leisure (idleness), and the medieval conception of leisure. In this section Pieper gives a detailed explanation of what leisure is. He describes it as a mental and spiritual attitude, an inward calm that is silent in the presence of reality. Leisure is a receptive attitude of mind that contemplates reality, allowing it to impress itself upon the contemplating human. Leisure is serenity in the face of a reality that is often difficult to understand, and mysterious. Leisure is to not try and force things to go our way; it is the attitude of non-intervening. Leisure is celebration of the goodness of creation, and is that for which we work. In the fourth section he explains the contemporary view of work, how contemporary man is tied to work, and the importance of properly distinguishing the liberal arts from servile work. In the final section he concludes by explaining that true leisure is the celebration, and that truest and most intense form of celebration is the worship of God. In this final section he notes that when we attempt to remove God from our lives – from our servile work, our liberal arts, and from our leisure – we end up with an inhumane view of work (leading to a religion of work), laziness, and boredom. He notes the relationship between leisure and culture, and notes that the only way to truly participate in both is to engage in the true celebration and worship of the true God.

In the second article, The Philosophical Act, Pieper sets out to discover what it means to philosophize. Though this article is full of references to Heidegger, as well as many Heideggerian terms, it will be a very interesting read even for a person who is unfamiliar with Heidegger. In the first section he notes the contemporary understanding of work and the all pervasive notion of utility. This is contrasted with those activities that go beyond the safety of our self-built cage – philosophy, poetry and prayer. Each of these activities can be corrupted, but, authentic philosophy, authentic prayer and authentic poetry break open the cage, and thrust us out into that which is beyond. He begins the next section with the following claim, “To philosophize, then, is to take a step beyond the everyday world of work.”[9] This description leads him to consider the two important elements of this description. What is a world, and what is man’s world? Though much of the terminology is distinctly Heideggerian, Pieper engages these questions with an Aristotelian-thomistic twist which will be very interesting for anybody who is well-versed in Heidegger’s thoughts. In the third section Pieper explains how philosophy is a constant search for wisdom that finds its point of departure in an authentic wonder, or amazement, about the world in which we find ourselves. In the fourth, and final, section Pieper explains the relationship of philosophy to theology, and, argues that the only true philosophy is a philosophy that attaches itself to a true theology. He then proposes that, contra Heidegger, that the only true philosophy is a Christian philosophy. This last section, though it will be interesting for anybody who has read Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, will be of interest to all those who would call themselves Christians, and especially for the Christian philosopher.

All in all, this is an amazing book. By far it is the best book that I have read in a while, at least since the last book that I read by Josef Pieper! It has a distinctly existentialist flavor, and, seems to give phenomenological explanations of the philosophical act. This book is a must read for any philosopher, Christian or otherwise. I frequently have complaints about almost every book that I read, but, I have to say, that reading this book as a distinct pleasure, like drinking earl grey tea and eating dark chocolate.


[1]Josef Pieper, Leisure: the Basis of Culture and The Philosophical Act, trans. Alexander Dru (1963; repr., Ignatius Press, 2009), 71.

[2]Ibid., 20, 69.

[3]Ibid., 39, 56-58.

[4]Ibid., 19.

[5]Ibid., 20.

[6]Ibid., 113.

[7]Ibid., 34. Anyone familiar with Heidegger will immediately notice the affinity that this description of knowledge has with Heidegger’s understanding of how we know being, as well as the term “unveiling”.

[8]Ibid., 38.

[9]Ibid., 93.