Thoughts on Leisure the Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper

Leisure the Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper

So I have been stuck at home for almost three months as part of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order in Ohio. In this time, I have barely left my neighborhood. It has not been a vacation. Some days are all work. And some weekends were lost. I recall one cold and rainy weekend where I was excited for Monday to come just to have something to do. Time disappeared in the abyss of streaming services and gaming. As Josef Pieper points out in Leisure the Basis of Culture, not all time off from work is really leisure.

In Pieper’s essay he identifies that society is obsessed with work and has so transformed that even time off is at the service of the “world of work.” According to Pieper:

A break in one’s work, whether of an hour, a day or a week, is still part of the world of work. It is a link in the chain of utilitarian functions. The pause is made for the sake of work and in order to work, and a man is not only refreshed from work but for work.”

Interestingly, Pieper connects the cardinal sin of acedia to the the failure to achieve leisure. Acedia is often, and confusingly, translated to to spiritual sloth, which gives the narrow impression that it is the not feeling excited to go to church or forgetting to pray, which focuses on the symptoms as opposed to the cause. Pieper defines acedia in a novel way citing Kierkegaard as the “despair from weakness” or the “despairing refusal to be oneself.” Under this definition of acedia, man will slip into despair by the refusal to be “one with himself”. And a man who cannot stand himself will never be at rest, even when on a break from work, because he cannot stand his own company and seeks satiation and distraction even when at rest.

You would think that since 1947, when Pieper wrote his essay, things would have improved given the amount of time currently devoted to Netflix, Facebook, and ESPN. But arguably things have gotten worse.

Leisure requires more than a diversion or a substitute activity, rather it is “primarily an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being ‘busy’, but letting things happen.” Which might explain why I don’t feel particularly refreshed after a weekend binge watch session.

Much like how experts warn that technology use cuts into our sleep by keeping out minds perpetually busy, technology also cuts into our leisure by replacing silence and eliminating uncomfortable, but worthwhile, boredom:

Leisure is not the attitude of mind of those who actively intervene, but of those who are open to everything; not of those who grab and grab and hold, but those who leave the reins loose and who are free and easy themselves–almost like a man falling asleep, for one can only fall asleep by ‘letting oneself go’.

Unfortunately, in this short work Pieper does not devote much time to how man is to recapture true leisure. He correctly points out that celebration is at the core of leisure and that modern holidays do not have have much if any celebration. What is missing is that modern holidays lack the essential element of divine worship. Where divine worship is missing, holidays are dressed with the “sham festivity” of obligatory social media posts, holiday sales, and binge watching, but are little more than a break from work and a means to an end. From Pieper’s perspective, the more that man can engage in true worship, the more man will be able to engage in true leisure.

It is worth the effort to try and achieve the leisure that Pieper describes. A few suggestions that came to mind in achieving leisure by creating a spirit of celebration and divine worship in your life:

  • Participate in worship. Mass, meditation, and prayers before meals and other formal worship. These literal forms of worship preserve celebration in our lives.
  • Disconnect from technology occasionally to avoid slipping into inactive sedation instead of active leisure. While at first the absence of technology can result in painful boredom, it does not take long until your mind wonders to interesting and productive thoughts.
  • Plan festivities for holidays that are out of the ordinary and give things up in order to enjoy them on special days. Life is boring in the absence of festivities. Rather than going with the flow to participate in consumer holidays, have actual parties. Enjoy your best food and drinks and the company of friends and loved ones.

Overall, Leisure the Basis of Culture is worth reading to define the problem of lack of true leisure in modern society and some of the causes of this deficiency. Pieper leaves it to the reader to determine how best to inject leisure back into society, which is a worthy initiative.

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