Excerpts from Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, part 1

Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009). Originally published 1948.

[p. 19] Let me begin with an objection…. Now of all times, in the post-war years is not the time to talk about leisure. We are, after all, busy building our house. Our hands are full and there is work for all. And surely, until our task is done and our house is rebuilt, the only thing that matters is to strain every nerve.

That is not an objection to be put lightly aside. And yet,… a fresh start and new foundation call for a defense of leisure.

For assuming too rashly, for the moment, that our new house is going to be built in the Western tradition … it is essential to begin by reckoning with the fact that one of the foundations of Western culture is leisure. That much, at least, can be learnt from the first chapter of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. And even the history of the word attests the fact: for leisure in Greek is skole, and in Latin scola, the English “school.” The word [p. 20] used to designate the place where we educate and teach is derived from a word which means “leisure,” “School” does not, properly speaking, mean school, but leisure.

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….

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[p. 25] “Intellectual work” and “intellectual worker” are the signposts indicating the last stretch of the historical journey, a historical journey in the course of which the modern ideal of work was defined in its final and extreme form – for the terms are relatively modern…. The real meaning of the ideal of the world of “total work” reveals itself if one examines the inner structure of the concept of “intellectual work” and follows it down to its ultimate conclusions.

[p. 26] The concept of “intellectual work” may be traced back and explored in terms of various historical sources. It implies, in the first place, a very definite view of the mode and manner of man’s intellectual knowledge. What happens when we look at a rose? What do we do as we become aware of color and form? Our soul is passive and receptive. We are, to be sure, awake and active, but our attention is not strained; we simply “look” – in so far, that is, as we “contemplate” it and are not already “observing” it (for “observing” implies that we are beginning to count, to measure and to weigh up). Observation is a tense activity…. To contemplate, on the other hand, to “look” in this sense, means to open one’s eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision, and the things seen enter into us, so to speak, without calling for any effort or strain on our part to possess them. There can hardly be any doubt that that, or something like it, is the way we become sensorially aware of a thing….

[p. 28] The Middle Ages drew a distinction between the understanding as ratio and the understanding as intellectus. Ratio is the power of discursive, logical thought, of searching and of examination, of abstraction, of defining and drawing conclusions. Intellectus, on the other hand, is the name for the understanding in so far as it is the capacity of … that simple vision to which truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye. The faculty of mind, man’s knowledge, is both these things in one, according to antiquity and the Middle Ages, simultaneously ratio and intellectus; and the process of knowing is the action of the two together. The mode of discursive thought is accompanied and impregnated by an effortless awareness, the contemplative vision of the intellectus, which is not active but passive, or rather receptive, the activity of the soul in which it conceives that which it sees….

[p. 29] The use of ratio, discursive thought, requires real hard work. The simple vision of the intellectus, however, contemplation, is not work. If, as this philosophical tradition holds, man’s spiritual knowledge is the fruit of ratio and intellectus, … [p. 30] then it is not enough to describe this knowledge as work, for that would omit something essential. Knowledge in general, and more especially philosophical knowledge, is certainly quite impossible without work, without the steady labor of discursive thought. Nevertheless there is also that about it which, essentially, is not work.

The statement that “knowledge is work” – because “knowing” is activity, pure activity – has two aspects: it expresses a claim on man and a claim by man. [The first claim is that] if you want to know something then you must work…. But there is another, a subtler claim, not perhaps immediately visible, in the statement, the claim made by man: if to know is to work, then knowledge is the fruit of our own unaided effort and activity; then knowledge includes nothing which is not due to the effort of man, there is nothing gratuitous about it, nothing “inspired,” nothing “given” about it….

[p. 35] The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust [p. 36] everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.

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[p. 38] Is there a sphere of human activity, one might even say of human existence, that does not need to be justified by inclusion in a five-year plan and its technical organization? Is there such a thing, or not? The inner meaning of the concepts “intellectual work” and “intellectual worker” points to the answer “No.” Man, from this point of view, is essentially a functionary, an official, even in the highest reaches of his activity….

[p. 39] A functionary is trained. Training is defined as being concerned with some one side or aspect of man, with regard to some special subject. Education [by contrast] concerns the whole man; an educated man is a man with a point of view from which he takes in the whole world. Education concerns the whole man, man [insofar as he is] capable of grasping the totality of existing things.

This implies nothing against training and nothing against the official. Of course specialized and professional work is normal, the normal way in which men play their part in the world; “work” is the normal, the working day the ordinary day. But the question is: whether the world, defined as the world of work, is exhaustively defined; can man develop to the full as a functionary and a “worker” and nothing else; can a full human existence be contained within an exclusively workaday existence? … The doctrinaire planners of the world of “total work” [p. 40] must answer “No.”

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