Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Leisure and its threefold opposition

~by Joseph Pieper via Ignatius Insight. It's the middle of the work week, so here's a great excerpt to help you get through the rest of the pile of work on your desk.
Whoever advocates leisure nowadays may already be on the defensive. We have to face an opposition that at first seems to prevail. Things are not made easier by the fact that this opposition does not come from "someone else" but indeed springs from a conflict within ourselves. Worse yet, when put on the spot, we are not even able to define exactly what we are trying to defend. For example, when Aristotle says, "We work so we can have leisure", we must admit in all honesty that we do not know what this offensive statement means.

This, I think, is our situation.

The first question, therefore, is: What is leisure? How is this concept defined in our great philosophical tradition?

I deem it advisable to attempt an answer in such a way as to deal first with those opposing forces that could be labeled "overvaluation of work". This is admittedly a tentative expression. For "work" can mean several things, at least three. "Work" can mean "activity as such". Second, "work" can mean "exertion, effort, drudgery". And third is the usage of "work" for all "useful activity", especially in the sense "useful for society". Which of the three concepts do I have in mind when I speak of the "overvaluation of work"? I would say: all three! We encounter overvaluation of activity for its own sake, as well as overvaluation of exertion and drudgery, and--last but not least--overvaluation of the social function of work. This specifically is the three-faced demon everyone has to deal with when setting out to defend leisure...

... The ancients--who are for me the great Greeks Plato and Aristotle but also the famous teachers of Western Christianity--did not hold that goodness is difficult by nature and therefore will always and necessarily he so. They were well aware of the fact that the highest forms of applied goodness are indeed always effortless because they essentially flow from love. In this same way the highest forms of perception--the sudden flash of ingenious insight or true contemplation--do not really require mental labor but come without effort because they are by nature gifts. "Gifts"--this may well be the key concept. If we consider the strange propensity toward hardship that is engraved into the face of our contemporaries as a distinct expectation of suffering (a more typical trait, I believe, than the oft-deplored craving for pleasure)--if we consider this, then to our surprise we may face the question: Could perhaps the deepest reason be the people's refusal to accept a gift, no matter where it comes from?

Overvaluation of the social function of work. Not much has to be said to show how this trait dominates contemporary societies. We should, however, think not just of those totalitarian 'five-year plans" whose infamy lies not so much in their attempt to order everything as rather in their claim to provide the exclusive value standards for all aspects of life, not only industrial production but the personal life of individuals as well. Oh yes, the nontotalitarian world, too, can effectively be dominated by the dictatorship of "social usefulness".

At this point we should recall the ancient distinction between artes liberales and artes serviles, between "free" and "servile" activities. This distinction states that some human activities contain their purpose in themselves and other activities are ordered toward a purpose outside themselves and thus are merely "useful". This idea may at first appear rather outmoded and pedantic. And yet it deals with something of contemporary political relevance. The question, "Are there 'free' activities?", translated into the jargon of totalitarian societies would ask: "Are there human activities that in themselves neither require nor accept any justification based on the provisions of a five-year plan?" The ancients have answered this question with a decisive "yes". The answer in a totalitarian environment would be an equally decisive: "No! Humans are defined by their function. Any 'free' activity that does not serve a socially useful purpose is undesirable and should therefore be liquidated."

If we now direct our attention from the threefold overvaluation of work toward the concept of "leisure", then one thing becomes immediately clear: there is no room for it in such a world. The idea of leisure here is not only preposterous but morally suspect. As a matter of fact, it is absolutely incompatible with the prevailing attitude. The idea of leisure is diametrically opposed to the totalitarian concept of the "worker", and this under each of the three aspects of work we have considered...

... True culture does not flourish except in the soil of leisure--provided we mean by "culture" whatever goes beyond the mere necessities of life yet is nonetheless indispensable for the fullness of human existence. If culture is thus rooted in leisure, where, then, does leisure find its roots? How can we be enabled to "achieve leisure" (as the classical Greeks put it)? What can be done to prevent our becoming mere "workers" who are totally absorbed trying to function properly? I have to admit that I am unable to give a specific and practical answer to this question. The basic difficulty is such that it cannot be remedied with a simple decision, be it ever so well intentioned. Still, we can point out why this is so...

...Put in a nutshell, it is this: to celebrate means to proclaim, in a setting different from the ordinary everyday, our approval of the world as such. Those who do not consider reality as fundamentally "good" and "in the right order" are not able to truly celebrate, no more than they are able to "achieve leisure". In other words: leisure depends on the pre-condition that we find the world and our own selves agreeable. And here follows the offensive but inevitable consequence: the highest conceivable form of approving of the world as such is found in the worship of God, in the praise of. the Creator, in the liturgy. With this we have finally identified the deepest root of leisure.

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