What could a text written in Germany more than a half-century ago teach us about our contemporary lives? Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper’s classic work “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” still matters in an age of “busyness.”
Pieper, “leisure” properly understood is not just “sitting around,” but
is a disposition of the heart and mind to receive the reality of the
world as it is given to us; to receive life as a gift. This work still
speaks to us today in several ways.
First, Pieper offers a richer idea of what it means “to know” in the Catholic intellectual tradition.
Knowing isn’t just analyzing, but attending in a
receptive-contemplative way to the whole of reality. Pieper challenges
the notion that all human knowing can be reduced to deduction, logic,
measurement and technique. Knowing is also composed of receptivity, of relational knowledge.
We only know certain things, for example, by being in love. The depth
of knowledge acquired in being in love with other people and with God
can’t be quantified, measured or captured by a technique. For Pieper,
both of these kinds of knowledge are important to a flourishing life.
Second, contemplative/meditative rest is indispensable to being human.
Such rest also gives rise to insight and even innovation. In a
knowledge economy, the efficiency of our work comes from great ideas,
not necessarily how long we sit as our desks. As many of us know from
experience and recently supported by neuroscientists, ideas often tend
to arise when our minds are at rest. Think about how often insights
emerge when you are driving or wake up in the middle of the night or are
out for a run.
Third, leisure reminds us of the indispensability of the humanities and the liberal arts in a STEM age.
Science, technology, engineering and math are certainly critical, but
not at the expense of literature, the arts, philosophy, religion,
history and language. With the Catholic humanistic tradition of
education in mind, Pieper affirms a more holistic, wisdom vision for
Fourth, Pieper names one of the fundamental ills of our time – Acedia. Etymologically, the term acedia
(as I wrote about in a previous column) means “lack of care” and refers
to a paralysis of the interior life. It’s manifested in our constant
restlessness and instability. It can mean doing everything (busyness)
but the one thing we should be doing. In the monastic tradition,
instability literally referred to the temptation of the monk to leave
the cell, to acquire a change of scenery, as a superficial answer to a
deeper interior instability. In contemporary life, it is characterized
by the frenzy for novelty. Acedia manifests itself in the need
to continually change one’s occupation, geographical location or life
commitments, and in smaller ways, in the impulse to excessively check
our social media.
Finally, the cultivation of leisure is more relevant than ever in a “sabbath-less” society.
If you’re entrenched in youth soccer or any equivalent, like we are,
you know firsthand that the traditional times reserved for the sacred
are no longer sacred. But leisure, as Pieper argues, at its root is
connected to the sacrifice and sacramentality of worship. The most
intense form of festival connects creatures to their Creator. The
Eucharistic celebration offers us not pragmatic results, but the
abundance and generosity of true wealth. The Sabbath is a day of
rediscovering our true humanity.