Leisure: The Basis of Culture
Liberty Fund, 1952, 137 pages
Reviewed by Steve Elliott, June 6, 2005
Big bombs come in small packages sometimes. Here is one. Written by a well-respected Catholic philosopher, originally in German, right after WWII, this is a very rare jewel of modern philosophical writing. After a great introduction by none other than T.S. Eliot, the book takes on two basic ideas or parts. In the first, Pieper sets forth four arguments to set forth that leisure constitutes the basis of western culture. In the second part, he generates four more discussions to show what is involved or constitutes the “philosophical act.”
I am hard pressed after only one reading to be highly critical of a work that was so awakening to me. Perhaps I can be more critical in later days, but for now I can really only sing its praises.
“The original conception of leisure, as it arose in the civilized world of Greece, has, however, become unrecognizable in the world of planned diligence and ‘total labor’; and in order to gain a clear notion of leisure we must begin by setting aside the prejudice – our prejudice – that comes from overvaluing the sphere of work.” With this and like thoughts Josef Pieper sets out to defend the notion that the world needs more leisure. He clearly distinguishes between the “new” concept of leisure as a rest to get us back to work refreshed and the old manner of seeing work as a means to get us back to the state of leisure where life, the good, the beautiful can be sought and contemplated. Only when such is back in the driver’s seat of our culture will be actually win back some semblance of knowing what to do with a culture.
Really taking the Kantian view of thought as work to task, he seeks to demonstrate that while thinking requires effort, it is not labor. The essence of the liberating or liberal arts is to make us those able to be people of leisure. The manual arts ready folks for labor, the liberal ones free us from having to work. This just is not the way the enlightened industrial mind thinks. I probably sound like someone seeking a way out of work just by writing this review. In reality, I believe Pieper takes us to the heart of what my life’s work is all about: preparing students to be free people.
I found so much throughout this book that I can only enjoin the reader to get a copy (a hard bound one) and feast on it for the rest of your life. It is a great book, and perhaps one of the most momentous reads of my life.
We are too busy as a culture to preserve our culture. That fact cannot be denied after reading the vision of philosophical action set forth in these pages. With forthright and almost sermonic speech, the author refutes the notions in our culture of efficiency, ends only, instantaneous gratification and almost no reflective thought. I should reread this text in near proximity to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and see what the combined effect would be on my life. I highly recommend this book to anyone who cares about anything “like” life.