Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Leisure: The Basis of Culture Part I

I just finished reading Josef Pieper's brilliant book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture and I wanted to share pieces of its brilliance with you. If you are looking for a thought-provoking book to read, I highly recommend this one. He divides the book into two essays. The first essay has the same title as the book and the second essay is titled, "The Philosophical Act." At first I thought, "What does philosophizing have to do with leisure?" Growing up as I like to say, "somewhere between LA and Cairo"(Yes, I am a cultural gypsy...I think we make the best Americans, but that's an entirely different topic for another blog post of the future I suppose), I thought this book was going to reaffirm my "European" sensibility (I think its quite normal and delightful that my mom and my aunt can have coffee for three hours in the middle of the day) against the work-a-holism of America as one of my priests from Spain said, "The minute I got to this country I haven't had a minute to myself." And in a way, it does. But it does so in a much deeper, and religious way. It goes more deeply into the philosophical reasons why we have become workaholics, suspicious of leisure.

Pieper wrote the book in 1947 but its relevance for today is indisputable. You could have told me it was written yesterday and I might have believed you. In Pieper's time, his contemporaries might have thought that only two years after WWII that talk "Leisure" would seem a bit childish. Pieper makes the case that "Leisure" is the foundation of Western Culture. If Western Culture is going to be re-built, the true notion of being at leisure should be resurrected. In fact, the Greek word for leisure is the origin of the Latin "scola," which is the origin for the English word, you guessed it: school! "The name for the institutions of education and learning mean leisure." I guess when you look at it that way, (as education being the foundation for Western Culture and Civilization), it doesn't seem so childish after all. Obviously the original concept of Leisure is lost to us. Pieper goes on to say that "in order to win our way to a real understanding of leisure, we must confront the contradiction that rises from our overemphasis on the world of work." Aristotle's statement, "We are not-at-leisure in order to be-at-leisure" is almost heretical today. I guess that's where we get the popular question, "Do you work to live or live to work?" But what does it really mean to be-at-leisure? One could argue that we don't have a problem with Leisure! Just look around and see how much time and money is wasted on entertainment, video-games, and other idle, useless forms of "leisure." What we need is more productivity! But in fact, these idle activities are not what Pieper, the Greek Philosophers and the Medieval Scholastics meant at all by Leisure. To help us understand, Pieper reminds us that the Aristotelian concept of Leisure was the foundation for the Christian concept of the "contemplative life." However, to really understand Leisure we must look into the modern valuation of the work and further dig "more deeply to the very roots of a philosophical and theological understanding of the human person." In short, what does it mean to be human?

To be continued...


Marc said...

Leisure and culture, two very important ideas that define who we are.
Many people identify themselves by the hobbies that they do in their leisure time: "I like to read" or "I am an avid jogger" are things that describe who you are through what you do and enjoy.
Similarly, culture is how you identify your upbringing, or the formative period of your life. This can be of great insight in understanding an individual, and who they have become today.

However, I just wanted to warn you on many languages' use of heteronyms, or words that have different meanings but the same spelling.
For example the English word 'refuse' is both a noun meaning trash or waste, and a verb meaning to deny. This does not necessarily mean that to deny something is wasteful, even though the words are the same.

Similarly, you correctly noted that the Greek heteronym schola means leisure, but then proceed to use its other meaning, school, to conclude that "The name for the institutions of education and learning mean leisure." This is a logical fallacy that must be addressed.

The message that I got from your blog is that we should use our free time in order to philosophize and contemplate, and while I think it is fantastic if someone chooses to educate themselves in their free time, it should be up to each individual.
I believe that you can develop yourself in many other ways than leading an academic/contemplative life, for example by fostering relationships with your friends and family, or volunteering in your community.

I havn't read the other parts yet, but I am looking forward to it!
Thanks for writing this!

Simone said...

Thanks for leaving a comment, Marc. Pieper is not saying that we should all be philosophers in the proper sense. In fact, one who is "doing philosophy" in a utilitarian manner can be less leisurely than one who is fixing a car. Leisure isn't something you do--it's a way of being. To be at peace within oneself. To have this peace, you must realize that life is more than just what meets the eye. I encourage you to read the rest of the posts to understand better what Pieper is saying. After you read the rest of the posts, let me know what you think. Also, the earliest schools such as Plato's or the medieval universities were regarded as religious institutions.


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