Saturday, January 3, 2015

Leisure: a concept I've misunderstood

I only just finished reading Josef Pieper's essay, Leisure, the Basis of Culture (I haven't yet read the second essay in the book, The Philosophical Act). I need more time to digest it, but it was a stunning perspective-shifting thesis that gave me the feeling of "I should've known that."

Pieper's thesis is that leisure is an activity entirely different from the concept of work, that in fact leisure is inherently worship, where work is separated so that the Divinity exercises full rights over the activity of the worshipper. Like most people today, I suppose, I've always considered leisure something that is a break from work for the sake of rest and a little "mindless activity." Pieper argues that leisure is not basically a break from work, but rather that work is designed to enable leisure--that is, work is for the sake of leisure, not leisure for the sake of work (i.e. a little rest makes one more productive). Not only is work designed to enable leisure, but leisure is not mindless activity, but the opportunity to receive epiphany or illumination.

Pieper describes the activity of leisure the way an athlete today might describe being "in the zone." One has worked diligently to prepare for "the game," and when the time comes, everything "just flows" and the activity is "effortless" and one may even become "unconscious" of all things other than the object of focus. Maybe it is because I played so many sports for so much time for half of my life that the sports analogy seems to fit, but I'm not sure there isn't more to it, especially when one considers how much singular dedication and focus modern-day athletes put into their sport, and how sacramental each competitive engagement becomes, down to the rituals that athletes follow, religiously.

Another thought-provoking observation of Pieper's is how, after Kant, intellectual activity could only be justified when considered as a form of work; individual and societal labor producing a product for evaluation, consumption, and subject to economic analysis. I have often felt compelled to justify my own intellectual activity as "work" and it has always been a difficult thing to do, since much of the intellectual "work" I do has no definite outcome, no time-table, no product. I often have a hard time telling my wife how much time I'll need to "work" on the intellectual preparation for teaching, which is certainly a kind of work, but the kind of work that requires a measure of illumination born of the kind of leisure of which Pieper outlines.

As I said, I need more time to digest Pieper's thesis, but on the first reading it has stirred a lot of rethinking about the nature of work, its purpose, and just how much the modern West has imbibed the notion of "total work."

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