Christianity and the Pursuit of Leisure

LEISURE: THE BASIS OF CULTURE. By Josef Pieper (St. Augustine Press, 11030 S. Langley Avenue Chicago, IL 60628), ISBN-10: 1890318353, 176 pages, $12.00)

It may seem that the quest for leisure has become a fetish for us moderns and the less said of it the better. But in his classic work Leisure: The Basis of Culture (recently republished by Ignatius Press), Joseph Pieper quickly opens our eyes with the suggestion that our culture does not suffer from the overabundance of leisure but, rather, its scarcity. This German born Thomist reminds us of Aristotle’s rather startling assertion that “the first principle of action is leisure.”

Drawing on the Western sages, both pagan and Christian, Pieper is careful to make 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 passivity 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.” He quotes St. Thomas Aquinas: “The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than the difficult.” This is in direct opposition to Kantian rationalists who denied that the contemplative life was superior to the active. They maintained that all virtue consists in action per se. Therein lies the modern egotistical need to constantly “assert” oneself as if to confirm one’s being.

Pieper explains that for the Greeks leisure originally meant education. It 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.

The arrival of Christianity expanded the meaning of contemplation further, by including the concept of prayer. The idea of the Sabbath, “and on the seventh day the Lord rested,” is an example of how the Church extended the freedom from servile labor to the entire community. What had hitherto been the prerogative of a few free men in a slave-based society eventually became the privilege of all. Unfortunately, it is a privilege that has been severely undermined by a new paganism, which is far less respectful of reflection and contemplation than many pre-Christian societies.

“Cut off from the worship of the divine,” says Pieper, “leisure becomes laziness and work inhuman.” Leisure: The Basis of Culture lays an unassailable theoretical groundwork for the recovery of healthy intellectual life that inspires us to take some concrete steps towards establishing a domestic refuge of Christian humanitas. It means keeping inane distractions to a reasonable minimum and substituting for them things like reading, creative activities and, most of all, prayer. In this way, all aspects of our life can be transformed—not just in terms of public worship, but in our social and artistic pursuits. In the meantime, an earnest practice of religion will give us a real appreciation of the important things in life, including the idea of leisure.

Matthew M. Anger
Chester, Va.

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