My Experience with Books
and a Review of
Leisure, the Basis of Culture
A College Entrance Essay
I Wrote Circa 2002
Books have been companions to me all my life. A great part of what I know comes from books and they have been strongly entwined with my development as a person. Here is an account of that dimension of my life story.
As a young boy I loved browsing through my Golden Book children’s encyclopedia set. This continued through my elementary school years and by the sixth grade I had graduated to reading the adult encyclopedia set. I did not force myself to read from those books; to me it was pure enjoyment. Growing up I always preferred non-fiction to fiction. History books written for young people were always favorites. My range of interests was wide, including the Crusades, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, feudal Japan, the Aztecs and Incas, the Spanish navigators and conquistadors, the Napoleonic Wars, the Civil War, and World War I. The books I read had maps and numerous pictures in them. This reinforced the entertainment aspect of my reading. The first lengthy book of fiction I read was James Clavell’s Shogun, which I believe I read sometime after the sixth grade. This tied into my interest in the samurai of feudal Japan. When I started to become fascinated by politics in Junior High the greater part of my reading became newspapers and magazines. Reading had previously transported me to bygone centuries; now it kept me informed on every detail of current events.
In high school I became much more serious and introspective. I started turning to works of literature, especially those which had a strong psychological dimension. My favorite author was Hermann Hesse. I identified with his lonely, alienated protagonists and their search for psychological wholeness and spiritual fulfillment. I read his book Steppenwolf over and over again. At this time I also began to read about philosophy and religion. I began thumbing through some of my father’s books which lay around the house, works by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Bernard Lonergan and Karl Rahner. Here was a completely different idiom, a vocabulary and mode of discourse unlike anything I had ever encountered. All of it seemed pretty important and it appeared to point to some answers I was seeking at the time. Still, I often found myself staring at these difficult pages as if confronted by Egyptian hieroglyphics. I decided to limit myself to secondary literature and works for beginners. One of the first books I read was Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, which provided a decent overview of the subject. I also read encyclopedia articles on most of the major thinkers.
I entered my study of philosophy fearing that somewhere along the line I might discover that God’s existence truly had been disproved, or that Christianity is a crock. I was heartened to discover that many brilliant men had been believers, even in recent times. I noticed that historians of philosophy with atheistic leanings tend to suppress that fact. They dismiss the medieval thinkers as pseudo-philosophers and downplay the theism of great non-medieval philosophers like Aristotle and Descartes. I was exhilarated when I read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. For the first time I encountered an extended battery of lucid and compelling arguments for the Christian faith, all written at my own level. I became much more intellectually confident in my religion. Unfortunately, I too quickly passed from the mere Christianity of Lewis to the more sophisticated Christianity of thinkers like Paul Tillich and Teilhard de Chardin. I became fixated on heady theories which were nominally Christian but which diluted much of the basic Christian message. Like the young Pascal I knew the God of the philosophers, but not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Toward the end of my sophomore year I persuaded my parents to buy me a set of the Great Books of the Western World (put out by the encyclopedia Brittanica). I felt ready to tackle the original works of those whom I was acquainted with only through secondary literature. I began reading the books in the summer and continued through my junior year. I started with the Iliad of Homer and then read works by the four major Greek dramatists. After that I worked my way through four of Plato’s dialogues, Aristotle, a little Plutarch, and then immersed myself in The Confessions of St. Augustine. I skipped Dante and Aquinas and moved on to the Renaissance thinkers, engaging Machiavelli and several of Shakespeare’s plays. In my senior year I sold my books to a friend who was going to St. John’s college in New Mexico, the curriculum of which is based around the great books. Looking back, it took a fair amount of discipline to read those works, especially with no support or supervision from anyone else. It was very enjoyable, though, and I have fond memories of a number of them. Those of Plato’s dialogues which I read were excellent, especially the Symposium. I also found The Confessions of St. Augustine to be a truly great book.
The year that I departed with the great books was the one in which my deep depression set in and in which I dropped out of high school. At that time I happened to start reading some secondary literature on Kierkegaard and dipped here and there into his actual works. Many of his ideas seemed very relevant to my emotional and spiritual state. His description of "aestheticism" as a human condition came disturbingly close to home. The person who leads an aesthetic life is one who lives solely for sensual enjoyment, be it crude (direct bodily pleasure) or refined (delight in the beauty of art and nature). Kierkegaard’s coup is to show that refined enjoyment is only that and not on a higher moral plane than crude sensual pleasure. The great curse of the aesthete is boredom. He selfishly combats it at all costs but can never permanently disentangle himself from it. Such was my case. I lived only to give myself pleasure but nevertheless was always bored. To cure this emptiness and despair Kierkegaard prescribes two things: A. a commitment to ethical life within one’s community, and B. an abandonment of oneself to God, what he calls "the leap of faith". There is no doubt that I should have followed Kierkegaard’s advice. In order for my life to be fulfilling I needed to sincerely care about other people, not only myself. More importantly, my faith in God, which was lukewarm and shallowly intellectual, needed to give way to a more intense commitment. Though it was necessary that I make that leap, it felt utterly beyond my powers at the time. It seemed heroic, saintly, mystical- not the wonderfully simple thing I later discovered it to be.
Frustrated by my inability to find spiritual peace, I began to resent the Christian religion. I soon resented ideals of any sort, feeling that they mocked my miserable existence. A fateful event was my reading of Nietzsche’s fiercely anti-idealistic The Gay Science. This is the book which famously declares that "God is dead". Also jettisoned in its pages is the concept of absolute truth as well as the ideal of selfless love. The book is not long on arguments (Nietzsche is very dogmatic in his anti-dogmatism) but it brims with wit and is graced by many beautiful passages. In place of the old Christian ideals Nietzsche advances a virile neo-pagan aestheticism. If Kierkegaard is right in saying that aestheticism is an illness, then Nietzsche’s solution to the problem is to put the patient on steroids. The aspiration toward beauty is fused with the will to power. I later realized that the problem with aestheticism is that beauty is pursued to the neglect of its sisters, goodness and truth. It is emptied of content and ultimately becomes boring. But the spell was cast. I discarded my faith and boldly sailed into a sea of spiritual darkness. I redoubled on my personal aestheticism, believing that to get things right I only had to put some extra energy into my self-seeking ways.
My reading for the next few years reflected my spiritual state. I was fascinated by Charles Baudelaire, whose verse and prose poetry were morbid and defiant enough to strike a chord with me. He wrote eloquently of ennui, that immense boredom which I knew so well. The most extended treatment of ennui I ever encountered was The Demon of Noontide: Ennui in Western Literature. In this book I saw my own condition mirrored in literature from the Classical world all the way up to the 20th century. Like Kierkegaard, many thinkers believed that the answer to ennui is to turn to God.
The last time that literature induced a major shift in my world view was 1999; during a brief respite from my depression I first tackled the philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Associated with the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, Marcuse was extremely influential upon the radical Left in the 1960’s. His philosophy is a highly original synthesis of Hegel, Marx, and Freud. A materialist aestheticism permeates his thought (perhaps this is what attracted me to it) and yet in his analysis of both society and the individual there is much depth. Though he is primarily concerned with the beautiful, the true and the good are not neglected to the extent that they are in Nietzsche. Marcuse changed my way of thinking by directing my attention toward the social organism. After years of blind individualism I had forgotten that I too was part of society and that many of my own problems were of a universal nature. In Eros and Civilization Marcuse draws attention to the fact that society demands of its members a level of repression over and above what is needed to defeat scarcity and provide for the commonweal. Technology has made feasible a drastic reduction of the amount of overall labor engaged in by man, opening up the utopian possibility of a society based around leisure and play. Nevertheless, the culture of toil is perpetuated by an obsolete work ethic and by the manufacture of false needs through advertising. People must continue to work full-time in order to buy mass-advertised gadgets and luxury items. This over-consumption is fostered so as to support the over-production which keeps everyone working. The absurdities of advanced capitalism are further explored in Marcuse’s second great work, One-Dimensional Man. The book’s central point is that modern society’s totalitarian nature almost excludes the possibility of there arising any genuine opposition to it. The proletariat, stupefied by mass media, has itself become a counter-revolutionary force. High art, once a gateway to an alternative dimension, has lost its transcendental quality through being commercialized. Philosophy also has lost its ability to oppose society as critical thought forms (as in Hegel and Marx) have given way to a shallow positivism. Writing in the late sixties, Marcuse did see a viable oppositional force in the student radicals. He quickly became their guru.
As I recognized that Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man were thoroughly applicable to the 1990’s I became angry. Less and less did I feel guilty about not fitting into this society. More did my alienation make me determined to fight the establishment. My chance came in December 1999 with the convention of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. I caught a bus to the city and joined thousands of people protesting the order of global corporate capitalism. In all honesty it was exhilarating to take part in that small piece of history. When I got home, however, my enthusiasm waned. Neither Herbert Marcuse nor memories of Seattle could keep me from slipping back into my usual depression. By my own ideology I should have been happy. I had ample leisure time, was not concerned with consumer goods, and was relatively immune to media indoctrination. Consciousness of worldwide injustice bothered me but that could not explain the darkness and emptiness of my life. The problem was that I did not have the faith in God which I was soon to acquire.
I will now fast-forward to the present and bridge into the next portion of the essay. It has been my pleasure to find in Josef Pieper’s book Leisure: The Basis of Culture a critique of work and defense of leisure which is thoroughly integrated into a Christian view of the world. By advancing the notion that leisure is meaningful only when grounded in religious devotion, Pieper bypasses the emptiness and anomie which lurk in Marcuse’s utopian vision.
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Leisure, the Basis of Culture, by the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper, is a slim volume defending leisure’s primary importance in human existence. Pieper uncovers the reversal of values which has resulted in the decline of leisure, outlines the possibility of leisure’s renewal in a world of total labor, and affirms religious devotion as the heart and justification of all true leisure. The book is brief enough to permit a full treatment of its development.
Pieper’s work opens with a passage of Plato concerning the institution of Feasts as a means of relieving man from labor and of elevating him to a state of companionship with the Gods. Coupled with this is a quotation from Psalm 46: "Have leisure, and know that I am God." These two excerpts make a fitting start to Leisure: The Basis of Culture, as Pieper derives his main arguments from the Classical and Judeo-Christian traditions. In line with the great Scholastic thinkers, he sees both of these traditions as complementary.
Pieper immediately draws attention to the radical disparity of the traditional and modern views on leisure. In the modern world, as he quotes Max Weber, "one does not work to live; one lives to work". Productive labor, especially that of marketplace, is not only a means toward achieving external goals, it is deemed an end in itself.
The ancient world, on the other hand, did not believe that one should live in order to work. To the mind of its great spirits one worked as a means to living, and to live was to have leisure. No less an authority than Aristotle declares: "we are unleisurely in order to have leisure." In his Politics leisure is described as the central point around which all other activity revolves. Along with many others Aristotle held that an existence wholly devoted to practical labor was not, and could not be a fully human life. (The great misfortune of the Classical era was that necessity or injustice condemned so many persons to continual servitude. Humanity in its authentic sense was seldom attainable by every human.)
Pieper next draws on etymology to uncover what was leisure’s unique association with edification. The word School is itself derived from the Greek skole, meaning leisure. Also worthy of note is that artes liberales (liberal arts) and artes serviles (servile work) were from the beginning twin, or more specifically, polar expressions. The sphere of the liberal arts, of education and true culture, was held to be essentially distinct from the opposing sphere of practical economic activity. Pieper finally makes the point that Ancient discourse on work knew only negative terminology. Practical labor is termed A-scolia in Greek and in Latin Neg-otium, a precursor of the English "negotiation". Leisure was to retain its status on into the Middle Ages. The Classic emphasis on leisure is continuous with the Christian ideal of the contemplative life, the vision into which it was gradually absorbed.
Since the end of the Medieval era the passage of centuries has seen the order of things turned directly on its head. As we have stated, the contemporary world is the world of the worker. According to Pieper, the general degradation of leisure has been exemplified in A. the devaluation by modern philosophers of intuition as an element of rational thought, and B. their devaluation of pleasure as a motive of ethical behavior. Lurking in this elimination of the effortless as a component of the good is a preclusion of man’s ability to open himself up to that which is gratuitous, given. Everything man has he must earn. This new ideal of complete self-sufficiency is subtly corrosive. Its religious implication is the rejection of grace.
In the next section of the book Pieper attempts to refute the claim that there is any kinship between leisure and the sin of sloth. This is an extremely vital issue and I do not believe Pieper’s argument is of sufficient fullness and clarity. Having done some independent research and making a few of my own deductions, I offer this expansion of Pieper’s treatment.
A defense of work for work’s sake on traditionalist grounds is sometimes mediated through the concept of sloth. Sloth or acedia is among the seven deadly sins. It’s frequent corollary or fruit is idleness (physical inactivity). Sloth, the term which is relatively more recent, strongly suggests laziness and sluggish torpor; it carries the connotation that the sin is identical with idleness. If indeed the sin of sloth is identical with idleness then it can be argued that leisure is a sin because leisure itself is presumed to be identical with idleness (if leisure is idleness and idleness is sloth, then leisure is sloth, a sin). The ultimate implication of the argument is this: because leisure is sinful, work, its opposite, must necessarily be virtuous. And here we have the modern ethic of work for work’s sake. This ethic of work is exploded by a return to the older, root term acedia. Acedia does not carry the connotation of being identical with idleness. Acedia is essentially a state of spiritual unrest. Physical torpor is only one possible daughter of acedia. At the height of the Middle Ages acedia was uniformly regarded as an incapacity for leisure. Thomas Aquinas defined it as a sin against the third commandment, the commandment of the Sabbath(!). He calls it a sin against the precept "which commands the mind to rest in God". Crude idleness is indulged in as a compensation for the incapacity for spiritual rest which is acedia. Work for work’s sake is merely a superficial flight from idleness; it is rooted in idleness, and ultimately, acedia. Things truly have been turned upon their head.
After the equation of leisure and mere idleness is rejected, Pieper develops the ideal of leisure so as to emphasize its essentially affirmative nature, its vitality. This is carefully done so as not to do injustice to the contemplative and receptive dimension of leisure, which is also essential. Leisure is revealed to have at its soul celebration and festivity. "The festival is the origin of leisure, and the inward and ever-present meaning of leisure." It’s chief characteristic is "the union of tranquility, contemplation, and intensity of life." Further, "To hold a celebration means to affirm the basic meaningfulness of the universe and a sense of oneness with it... In celebrating, in holding festivals upon occasion, man experiences the world in an aspect other than the everyday one." The key point is made that the purpose of the festival, of leisure, is not to refresh man for the sake of doing more work, but to elevate him spiritually, to fulfill the highest promise that is in him.
Pieper now turns to the very concrete problem of the proletariat, the vast body of men who remain fettered to the process of work. He identifies three central causes of men remaining submerged at the proletarian level. One basic compulsion to work is a lack of property. If a proletarian owns nothing but his capacity to work he is thus forced to sell it in the marketplace to survive. On the other hand, a totalitarian state may occasion man’s bondage to work through brute coercion. The third possibility is of man being trapped at the proletarian level because he is spiritually impoverished, having no inward capability of leisure. To achieve what he awkwardly calls deproletarianization, to elevate the mass of men above the level of mere mere servility, Pieper says that each one of the compulsions to work most be attacked. The wage earner must be given the power to save and acquire property, the power of the state must be limited, and the inner impoverishment of the individual must be overcome. The problem of inner impoverishment, of an incapacity for leisure, is the crucial one. It ties into the question: once the mass of men are freed economically for leisure, once the external preconditions have been met, what are they to do with their leisure?
In the final chapter of the book Pieper reiterates that the soul of leisure is celebration. He notes that if celebration is leisure’s core, then leisure can only be made possible and justifiable on the same basis as the celebration of a festival. "That basis is divine worship." It has been said that celebration by its nature involves an affirmation of the world. This is completely compatible with celebration as a religious affair: "We cannot conceive a more intense affirmation of the world than praise of God, praise of the Creator of this very world." Festivals have always been organized around divine worship. In the Classical world a feast without Gods was simply unknown. Ever since the French Revolution attempts have certainly been made to create feast days and holidays unrelated to divine worship (May Day, Labor Day), but their tepid pageantry and strained merriment have belied their essential emptiness. Neither can the mass entertainment of our own era, with all its narcotic qualities, be called genuinely festal. The world of total labor, as Pieper calls it, has no room for true festivity.
So what, ultimately, is to be done about it? How can we can restore leisure to its rightful place? Pieper makes the important point that the root of all leisure is not susceptible to the human will. Genuine leisure must be wedded to religious worship, and it is of the very nature of religious worship that its origin lies in a divine ordinance. Mankind cannot simply institute a new religion for the sake of saving civilization. Worship is either something given, fore-ordained, or it does not exist at all. Pieper now invites us to consider Christianity. The Christian, he says, can have no doubt about these matters: "post Christum there is only one true and final form of celebrating divine worship, the sacramental sacrifice of the Christian Church." The Christian religion, or cultus, is uniquely sacrifice and sacrament. Insofar as it is a sacrifice held in the midst of the creation which is affirmed by the sacrifice of Christ-- everyday is a feast day (the liturgy, in fact, knows only feast days). As for the sacramental character of Christian worship, it is realized in full visibility. It is through visible things that the worshiper is carried away effortlessly to a love of things invisible, just as in leisure man is carried away from the world of work. Pieper ends his book with this magnificent quote: "We therefore hope that this true sense of sacramental visibility may become so manifest in the celebration of the Christian cultus itself that in the performance of it man, ‘who is born to work,’ may truly be transported out of the weariness of daily labor into an unending holiday, carried away out of the straitness of the workaday world into the heart of the universe."