Leisure: The Basis of Culture

Part of my research regarding classical Christian education has me swimming in waters I would never have chosen of my own volition. One such eddy in these waters is entitled Leisure, The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper. You could be forgiven for thinking less of me for reading such a book, but you should also know that I think less of you for reading such a blog.

But hear me out.

Pieper’s thesis is that modern society often views busyness, or a world of ‘total work’, as essentially the pinnacle of what defines us as a culture. If you disagree that this perspective dominates us, merely note the nod of grim satisfaction you inevitably receive after telling someone your life is “busy.” You see? It doesn’t even matter if by “busy” you mean organizing corn flakes according to size and weight; to the modern mind, preoccupation is its own justification. Or observe the strange panic that envelops a student on the bus who suddenly finds himself empty-handed and empty-earbudded.

It’s understandable why we might think this way. The ideal ‘worker’ takes no breaks, and no vacations; he is bereft of any element of unpredictability that cannot be measured and quantified in a spreadsheet somewhere. There is a reason that machines are quickly becoming the new face of the manufacturing industry – that is because machine-like qualities are exactly what industry needs of its workers.

But humans, unlike machines, cannot simply be reduced to “those that work.” In fact, it is this compulsive, sabbath-less activity that summons what the medievals called ‘the noonday demons’ (pictured above); a kind of prevailing listlessness, embodied in the latin word ascedia.

What is ascedia? Pieper defines it as “the notion that a man does not give the consent of his will to his own being; that beneath the dynamic activity of his existence, he is still not at one with himself.” Aquinas, helpfully I think, adds a cosmic element when he describes it as “a flight from the divine that leads to not even caring that one does not care.” In other word, constant ‘doing’ frees us from the dreaded prospect of considering the nature of our ‘being.’ Who are we? What is our purpose? Why did I say that? In a world of work, you can avoid asking yourself those question.

The fact is that blind industry is no better than blind indolence. Both, when indulged in mindlessly, are equally viable modes of slavery, and it is this relinquishment of intention that tempts the demons of ascedia.

Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian explains:

“Compulsive shopping, an unnecessary second job, an over-scheduled day or week, involvement in more volunteer work and committees, and endless home improvements all provide substitutes for true leisure. A benefit of leisure is a change in rhythm, an opportunity to “be still” and recollected and experience the joys of an interior life and the pleasure of contemplation that Pieper describes as a “relaxed . . . purely receptive” beholding and “listening-in to the being of things.”  

But the problem for many today is that leisure is often viewed as synonymous with idleness, sloth, or simply ‘vegging out.’ But this, in Pierper’s view, is neither the classical, nor even a healthy, understanding of true leisure. This kind of pseudo-leisure is, in fact, results in “a deep-seated lack of calm, which makes [true] leisure impossible.”

Here we grow closer to the reason for why we rarely feel ‘refreshed’ after watching The Big Bang Theory for several hours. Mindless anything – be it talk, work, or play – is rarely restorative.

But the banishment of noonday demons requires more than a kind of Fergian, “be with yourself and center” philosophy. True, rejuvenating, leisure, Pieper says, is a two-fold exercise that begins with what he calls “the happy and cheerful affirmation of ones own being, his acquiescence in the world and in God.”

This is not merely an exercise in existential excavation. Peace with oneself is only possible following peace with one’s Creator. You can not rightly ‘know thyself’ without knowing God, who is the source and sustainment of self. That would be like the proverbial blind man assuming he “knows a trunk” without knowing the trunk as it makes up the whole of an elephant.

And it is here at the end of the road, away from all the traffic and push notification, that we find the Sabbath. Not the sabbath as the pharisees saw it; a binding, oppressive, joyless day, but as Jesus enunciated it: “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” God did not create the sabbath, conclude it was not good for the sabbath to be alone, and create man to be its helper.  But God created man as a creature of time and space – a creature that would grow mentally and physically weary, and find himself in need of helping Sabbath principle.

A culture of only work is not a culture, it is a mordor-esque machine; it is only as we adopt a healthy rhythm of work and leisure that we will draw near to the heart of what makes us human.


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