The Message of Leisure & Scholé: Chapter 4 – work is for leisure, not leisure for work

As a summer special, Scholé Sisters is publishing a blog series through Josef Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture. This is the book that brought scholé back into our vocabulary. Instead of writing about the book or writing additional commentary, however, we’re taking a thought-by-thought paraphrase approach, chapter-by-chapter. Like The Message is to the Bible, so this series is to Leisure: common idiom, loose paraphrase, with some clarifications and connections and elaborations added for the reader’s benefit. Enjoy!

Previously: Chapter 3 – The nature of leisure

Now that we’ve looked at what leisure is, what prevents it, and why we need it, let’s look deeper into the why, into not only its inherent value but also its outlook in being achieved in modern society.

That is, we will ask the obvious question: Is leisure even possible in today’s world?

After all, we want not only a small portion of true leisure on Sunday in corporate worship (already too rare in people’s lives!) but also expanses of time, even daily, reserved for being truly and fully human. Such time is free time – not time to do with as we want, to spend on our own passions and selfish desires, but time to truly learn and become attune to the full reality of creation around us and of God Himself.

Is such an experience regularly possible for the one who sees himself first and foremost as a Worker, as a wage-earner and productive member of society? No. It is possible only for the one who sees himself first and foremost as a worshiper, and then becomes determined to worship only what Who should be worshiped.

Orthodox believers looking to live an intentional and God-honoring life are not the only ones who have noticed the harm in the trend toward defining value exclusively in monetary terms. But when the call to unity and resistance is founded on art or tradition or humanism, the center does not hold and the resistance is futile. Such calls do not have what it takes to withstand the demands of a society whose motto is “It’s the economy, stupid.”

No. It’s not the economy. It’s the people. And people are more than functionaries, contributing to a GDP. People are eternal beings, and the more they forget that or lose touch with that, the less satisfied, more disillusioned and despairing they become.

Attempts to counter the growing disillusionment and despair that are yet grounded in a trust in the economy as society’s ultimate end and good are doomed to fail. We cannot raise the value of a human being – or even the work of a human being – by assigning an economic value to each person and each output. Equality is not reached through such means, nor is freedom.

Instead, we all become slaves when we are defined by what we contribute to the economy, for then we are bound to that economy. We are its slaves, the state’s slaves.

Even if we should grow rich materially as slaves to the economic process, we will correspondingly grow poor spiritually.

A person whose value, identity, and very life is all tied up in the economic value he produces becomes shrunk from within, unable even to perceive reality apart from his work.

In fact, the state whose primary concern or method of evaluation is its GDP requires a spiritually-impoverished population serving as cogs in the machinery of the economy – they need workers who do not ask moral or ethical questions and who do not have higher allegiances and differently ordered priorities.

But that is precisely what true education does: It brings a person outside of himself and outside of a world of selfish gain. It shows him how broad and deep and high is creation, how holy and worthy God is, how much more there is to the world not only than the economy, but than himself.

The liberal arts are what are taught to men who are to be free – free from vice, free from slavery to the economy, free from poverty of the soul.

Such an education can be given to those who work and do contribute to the economy, who do have useful skills they enjoy, who do earn a wage. But, given that education, their wage will not define them, nor be the most important personal descriptor they know.

If the only kind of work we recognize and reward is paid work, we have a truncated view not only of the world, but of humans and how humans ought to be valued.

A state that recognized human needs and human values would not demand all waking hours as potential working hours. As in premodern Christian societies, there would be time – whole days, in fact – where people were expected not to work, but to live on a different plane.

The Ten Commandments offer us just such a societal outline. In taking one day as a day not only for rest from useful labor but also as a day of worship – not only for one class of people but even for the slave and the foreigner – God reminds us that we are whole people and that our work does not save us.

We all need rest that is not a mere break, but rest that is as full or more full of meaning than our day jobs. We need meaningful activity that is not contributing to the economy. Such activity is true leisure.

It is true that there must be a robust and stable economy of plenty for there to be leisure, otherwise we would all be completely occupied with subsistence. However, it’s not enough to only have the plenty necessary for leisure. The plenty must be given in service to the leisure, not the leisure time in service of creating the plenty.

In our lives and in our mindset, which serves which? Does our free time serve us only insofar as we are refreshed workers again? Or does our work support us in what is truly meaningful in our lives: our lives of leisure, when we remember and embrace our spiritual significance.

Do you have spare time or do you give it all to getting ahead in the workaday world?

If you have free time, with what is it filled?

That answer reveals whether or not you have leisure. It is not the schedule you keep, but what you do with the time you have.

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