Life is work, Life is leisure

When I first started working, I promised myself that I’d never be “that person”—you know, the one who lived for the weekends. As time went by, however, I found myself increasingly looking forward Friday rituals—“TGIF!” emails, the Starbucks run to celebrate the end of the week, weekend to-do lists. It did not take long for me to get from my Friday fixation to asking myself about the purpose of life.

In Leisure, Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper, a twentieth century German Catholic philosopher, talks about a connection between leisure and the world of work (i.e., world of utilitarian measures). For Pieper, leisure and the world of work are two fundamentally different ways of approaching reality, and our understanding of human existence is derived from one or the other.

Though we typically think of leisure as relaxation, entertainment, or other non-career related activities, Pieper says the essence of leisure is an attitude of the mind, a capacity for silence, and the ability to steep oneself in the whole of creation. We have leisure “[w]hen we really let our minds rest contemplatively on a rose in bud, on a child at play, on a divine mystery,” Pieper says. Leisure allows the appreciation of things for what they are, not what they can help us achieve.

He contrasts leisure with the world of work, which looks at life though utilitarian glasses. When Pieper refers to the world of work, he is not referring merely to earning a wage and making a living, which is necessary for our existence. The world of work is the mindset opposite that of leisure. It does not contemplate, it calculates and assigns value based on utility. Within this mindset, there is no room for leisure because it has no utility. The problem with dwelling in the world of work is that, by doing so, we never learn the meaning of human existence.

Pieper is not condemning the category of work. He recognizes both that it is necessary for sustainment of life and that God created man with the ability to do work. It is good for me to remember to be thankful for my job on Monday’s as well as Friday’s.  But those who find meaning only in how much they produce or how far ahead they get have forgotten what it means to be human. Life cannot be reduced to a formula to maximize output, and if we allow ourselves to forget that we are not just functionaries, we are subjecting ourselves to slavery of the mind and a kind of spiritual impoverishment, according to Piper.  Only when we step outside of the routine do we encounter mystery, wonder, and hope, which arise only from contemplation.

These experiences are what foster our ability for leisure, and on Pieper’s thesis, as leisure develops, so does culture. He sees the two as almost synonymous, defining culture as human achievement that transcends utility: poetry, art, music, education. Piper argues that the greatest capacity for culture comes from philosophy, because it is contemplation of reality. Though culture is not more important than our real need to work, it should be our capacity for leisure which defines us.

When I look forward to the weekend, it can be a good thing because in doing so, I am recognizing that there is something in me which is not fulfilled by a nine to five. But it is not just the act of ceasing from work that is needed. I must leisure. One way we can do this today is by placing a high priority on community and fellowship, making time for the horribly inefficient activity of being with friends, enjoying the company of other human beings. And in going to church on Sunday, we are partaking in the pinnacle of leisure and doing that thing which most fulfills our human purpose: we are worshipping the Living God. As Pieper says, divine worship is the foundation of leisure, and this is no small matter, if leisure is the basis of our culture.