Leisure vs. “Total Work”

It’s time we take leisure seriously. Today, in our culture of productivity-fetishism, we have succumbed to the tyrannical notion of “work/life balance” and have come to see the very idea of “leisure” not as essential to the human spirit but as self-indulgent luxury reserved for the privileged or deplorable idleness reserved for the lazy

The Greeks completely disagreed.

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 10, Chapter 7:

Happiness is thought to depend on leisure; for we are busy that we may have leisure.

Aristotle, Politics, Book 7:

Leisure is necessary both for the development of virtue and the performance of political duties [part 9]

The whole of life is further divided into two parts, business and leisure, war and peace, and of actions some aim at what is necessary and useful, and some at what is honorable. And the preference given to one or the other class of actions must necessarily be like the preference given to one or other part of the soul and its actions over the other; there must be war for the sake of peace, business for the sake of leisure, things useful and necessary for the sake of things honorable. All these points the statesman should keep in view when he frames his laws; he should consider the parts of the soul and their functions, and above all the better and the end; he should also remember the diversities of human lives and actions. For men must be able to engage in business and go to war, but leisure and peace are better. [part 14]

Aristotle, Politics, Book 8:

We should be able, not only to work well, but to use leisure well; for, as I must repeat once again, the first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end; and therefore the question must be asked, what ought we to do when at leisure? [part 3]

Fun fact: Leisure in Greek is skole, and in Latin scola, the English “school”. The word used to designate the place where we educate and teach is derived from a word which means “leisure”.

In 1948, the German catholic philosopher Joseph Pieper wrote a book titled Leisure, the Basis of Culture in which he presented us with the concept of “Total Work”.

The original meaning of the concept of “leisure” has practically been forgotten in today’s leisure-less culture of “total work”: in order to win our way to a real understanding of leisure, we must confront the contradiction that rises from our overemphasis on that world of work.

Pieper explains these contradictions:

There is in fact no room in the world of “total labor” either for divine worship, or for a feast: because the “worker’s” world, the world of “labor” rests solely upon the principle of rational utilization. A “feast day” in that world is either a pause in the midst of work (and for the sake of work, of course), or in the case of “Labor Day”, or whatever feast days of the world of “work” may be called, it is the very principle of work that is being celebrated. — Once again, work stops for the sake of work, and the feast is subordinated to “work”.

Piper adds:

The simple “break” from work — the kind that lasts an hour, or the kind that lasts a week or longer — is part and parcel of daily working life. It is something that has been built into the whole working process, a part of the schedule. The “break” is there for the sake of work. It is supposed to provide “new strength” for “new work,” as the word “refreshment” indicates: one is refreshed for work through being refreshed from work.

Pieper’s views should resonate with any modern reader.

The frontier between us and the world of “total work” is pressing in upon us — a word in which there is no room for philosophy or philosophizing in any true sense of the word,

More and more, at the present time, “common good” and “common need” are identified; and (what comes to the same thing) the world of work is becoming our entire world; it threatens to engulf us completely, and the demands of the world of work become greater and greater, till at last they make a “total” claim upon the whole human nature.

Pieper asks:

Can the human being be satisfied with being a functionary, a “worker”? Can human existence be fulfilled in being exclusively a work-a-day existence?

The answer, Pieper writes is in understanding “leisure”:

Leisure, then, is a condition of the soul — (and we must firmly keep this assumption, since leisure is not necessarily present in all the external things like “breaks,” “time off,” “weekend,” “vacation,” and so on — it is a condition of the soul) — leisure is precisely the counterpoise to the image for the “worker.”

Leisure is a form of that stillness that is necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. Such stillness is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power, as real, of responding to the real — a co-respondence, eternally established in nature — has not yet descended into words. Leisure is the disposition of perceptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real.

To reclaim this higher purpose of leisure, Pieper argues, is to reclaim our very humanity — an understanding all the more urgently needed today, in an era where we speak of vacations as “escapes from work” — the implication being that we recuperate from, while also fortifying ourselves for more work upon our return.

Pieper writes:

Leisure is not justified in making the functionary as “trouble-free” in operation as possible, with minimum “downtime,” but rather in keeping the functionary human

This is why the ability to be “at leisure” is one of the basic powers of the human soul. Like the gift of contemplative self-immersion in Being, and the ability to uplift one’s spirits in festivity, the power to be at leisure is the power to step beyond the working world and win contact with those superhuman, life-giving forces that can send us, renewed and alive again, into the busy world of work

In leisure … the truly human is rescued and preserved precisely because the area of the “just human” is left behind.

Pretty amazing stuff, right?

Thanks for reading,


This site was instrumental in helping me organize this article: https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/08/10/leisure-the-basis-of-culture-josef-pieper/

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