True leisure and why should we strive for it

by Joshua Gow

The year was 1948. Three years prior, the United States of America shocked the world with the dropping of two nuclear weapons, causing the near elimination of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the west, much of Europe was in ruins following years of endless bombings, artillery processions, and heavy combat. The United States itself was slowly recovering from being attacked seven years prior. Much of the world lay in ruins. It was now a time to labor in order to rebuild western civilization as we know it.

It was in this year, 1948, that the German philosopher Josef Pieper published a work entitled Leisure the Basis of Culture. It seems odd that Pieper would offer to the world a piece that emphasized the need for leisure when the world was, justifiably, hard at work. In many ways however, the timing of Pieper’s classic was nothing short of providential, providing a message the world needed to hear at a time when the culture itself was being rebuilt. If only the world would heed.

At the heart of this work is an answer to the fundamental question: What is leisure? Pieper devotes much time to carefully defining this word and bringing it to life. Pieper essentially defines leisure as a state of total receptivity. This state of receptivity leaves one open to encounter and be renewed by creation around us. The receptive person is open to the present moment, is not busied with other tasks, and is able to receive the beauty and goodness surrounding them.

In my own reading of this, my heart immediately moved to various experiences of beauty in my life: Seeing the sunset reflected in a calm lake, looking through the oaken shelves of a vast library for the perfect book, sitting outside on a cool summer evening visiting with my wife, seeing the first smile of each of our children.

While these memories flooded my vision as I read Pieper’s description of receptivity, other readers may find different memories or experiences awakening their own imaginations. Regardless of the events that come to mind, what becomes universal is the experience shared in this receptivity. In each case, the recipient enters a state where time seems to stop, all worries and work cease, the person is struck by a profound sense of wonder (what Pieper and others call the philosophical act), and the person leaves this experience feeling rejuvenated and rested. This experience is leisure.

As Pieper expounds on this idea of leisure, the consequences of this development become explicitly Catholic, and the impact on culture becomes clear. This state of receptivity, of leisure, is nothing other than a state of contemplation, a state described ad nauseum in the writings of Church mystics for centuries. And the highest form of this contemplation occurs in worship, or the cultus. Why is leisure the basis of culture? Because all culture is founded on this state of receptivity, of contemplation and worship, of the cult. Without the cult, there is no culture.

Pieper’s brief work is very approachable and hits hard. His trademark integration and explication of Thomistic and Aristotelian philosophy is prevalent, but the uninitiated will find he speaks clearly and makes these concepts understandable. Pieper utilizes the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle not to flex intellectual muscle, but to show how these two great thinkers teach us how to live better lives. Consequently, readers will find that after working through just a few pages, they will be challenged to amend their lives.

In truth, this work was timely when it was initially published, and the world did not heed the voice of Josef Pieper. Rather than listening to a loving philosopher seeking to restore the central piece to culture as it was rebuilt following the war, the world at large continued in ceaseless work and ignored the need for leisure and worship. Because the initial warning was unheeded, and we have persisted in mindless labor without the necessary elements of leisure in our culture, our world today is in a worse place than the conclusion of World War II over 70 years ago. I offer this work to you all once again, in the hopes the voice of truth present herein may resound in your ears and inspire change. It only takes one person living leisurely to impact the world. If we fail to listen this time, will there be much of a culture left for the next generation?

Joshua Gow lives in Fargo with his wife and three sons.