“In our bourgeois western world, total labor has vanquished leisure. Unless we regain the art of silence and insight, the ability for non-activity, unless we substitute true leisure for our hectic amusements, we will destroy our culture.. and ourselves”
– Josef Pieper
This is the opening missive in an extended essay entitled Leisure: the Basis of Culture, one that I just finished reading and found particularly striking in its accuracy and conviction. The sentiment is postulated that total work as it currently makes the crutch of society, is dehumanizing and lacking in the spiritual and divine counterpart which is free leisure. In the essay Pieper explains how leisure was the foundation of Western culture, that hearkens back to Aristotle’s time, when he was writing his politics. He splits the hair between intellectual work and worker, Kant and the Romantics, how knowledge is related to work, and what the modern picture of work looks like now. He uses many greek terms, like acedia (meaning sloth or the inability to fully enjoy leisure), and brings in mythological figures like Sisyphus to represent the quandary of working for works sake, without taking the divine rite of ceremony between works. Attention is paid to the feasting days, when humanities gathered to worship, and let down their industriousness for at least one day a week in the name of his or her Gods.
Personally speaking, I have held the notion that our indigenous ancestors did not work as much as we do today, partly in reason that they were far more efficient than we are, and did not have a superfluous field of work that is so irrelevant to any sense of well being. Their ‘work’ revolved around procuring the basic needs of life, hunting for meat and fish, foraging wild food or growing it from the soil, procuring and bettering the shelter, midwifing, raising children, making tools and keeping them in good shape, fixing implements, boats, weapons, and tending the homestead.
These would not all be done in one day however, and a lot of leisure time was freed up midway the tasks. Some anthropological studies I have heard stated that our tribal nomadic ancestors worked as little as 3 hours a day, while agrarian people around 6 hours, while the rest of the day was spent in leisure; singing, practicing their faith, making jokes, sitting around a fire eating or drinking stimulating foods and plants, making music, dancing and laughing. All the finer things in life, many of them, as Henry David Thoreau spoke of in Walden, makes to better an existence. The simple and beautiful things that make us essentially human.
Fast forward to the 21st century and it is easy to recognize how industrialized, co-modified, regaled, regimented, oppressive, and labor intensive the modern working man and woman fits into his world. One does not work to live; one lives to work, but shall the objective be to ‘work so we may have leisure’. All spiritual tangents come when the mundane work is done and the sacred work begins. The sacral can be infused into normal work as well of course, but the objection is about man’s enslavement to his work.
‘But the Gods, taking pity on mankind, born to work, laid down the succession of recurring Feasts to restore them from their fatigue, and gave them the Muses, and Apollo their leader, and Dionysus, as companions in their Feasts, so that nourishing themselves in festive companionship with the Gods, they should again stand upright and erect. – Plato
My own bias reveals what I think about this social stratification, and my careful observations of the working world, and as a hard worker who also enjoys plenty of rest myself, I have reached a conclusion that man is rather foolish, an echo Nietzche in saying that most of his work is futile, and that he is the accumulation of dust, as the north Germanic rune poem reads. I encounter many folks and have during my travels who appear to be completely in bondage to their work, unhappy, misdirected and seeking a way out. During their time off, they ‘spend’ their time, literally or figuratively on experiences that have no substantial meaning or value like watching movies, or inebriating their mind with libations and speak no good words amongst others who are on the same level. Their energy is completely spent on their work, so often they will fill their leisure with more work, and eventually suffer burnout because they were never able to open the window for the divine to influence their leisure. Virtues can be obscured to the depth of masochism wherein a kind of believed true virtue only gains merit through struggle. Instead of mastering their natural bent in day to day life, to extract and refine the idle hours down into pure experience of leisure, the times are whittled away until they become recognizable, and he loses his will to power and his drive for spirit.
Aquinas writes “It is necessary for the perfection of human society, that there should be men who devote their lives to contemplation -nota bene, necessary not only for the good of the individual who so devotes himself but for the good of human society.”
Culture lives on in religion, and tradition through divine worship. And when culture itself in endangered, and leisure is called in question, there is only on thing to be done, to go back to the first and original source. The forced onset of total labor and man in perpetual work is like Sisyphus pushing his burden, never stopping to ask why? I think this book opens a lot of interesting materials and cover some ground that I have been perpetually looking to traverse in the classic literature. It is the only essay I know of in its kind, and hits close to home because I have always suffered my own questions and doubts of the modern workaday world, the relevancy of it all, and the importance of real work imbued with meaning. I think it is our job, our prerogative as human beings to truly embrace the being part of human, where leisure is allowed to thrive. Too often we are simply human doings, following a set of parameters and being far too good sheep. To step out of the constant, on tap supply, of doing and working oneself into the ground, take time out to write, lose your mind in a real work of great literature, recognize the ancient pagan holidays, and enjoy the finer strains of music, art or architecture that the centennial ages of yore have given us through leisure. Stop re-creating and re-acting and start creating new things, ideas, artworks and songs that out progenitors can behold and understand what it meant to live as full humans, all the way alive.