This article was previously published in Sword & Spade magazine.

An entry into Pieper’s book, by Wes Hill.


In Leisure: the Basis of Culture, the late German philosopher Josef Pieper argues for a vision of human flourishing grounded on leisure. It is leisure properly understood, according to Pieper, that will restore Christian culture. Through leisure, man can return his heart, soul, and mind to Christ and give Him what is His due: proper worship.

Leisure: the Basis of Culture was originally a series of lectures given by Pieper in 1947 in the aftermath of World War II. At that time, Pieper says, the decision as to whether post-war society would be rebuilt in the Western tradition was “hanging in the balance.” Would the Europeans of his day embrace their Christian heritage and rebuild society on the shoulders of the best Greek and Scholastic thinkers? Pieper’s answer to the edge of the cultural precipice was to restore

Western civilization by “build[ing] our house in the European tradition” whose foundations are Aristotle and Aquinas. For Pieper, the restoration of Christendom, however, would first require the restoration of the heart of man. At the center of his project Pieper places, of all things, leisure. How could this be? Surely there was no time for leisure then. Following the Second World War it seemed there was only time to pick up the pieces of a broken society. So, to understand Pieper’s argument we must define leisure, and as it turns out, leisure is a tricky word.

In some ways, it is useful to understand leisure by defining what it is not. Leisure is not idleness. It is not about relaxing on the beach, taking a nap, or staring at the television. Yet, leisure is not concerned with activity; it is unrelated to your weekend, vacation, and spare time pursuits. Leisure stands opposed to toil; there is no busywork with leisure and no room for a busybody. Neither does leisure exist for the sake of work. As Pieper explains, “… however much strength [leisure] may give a man to work; the point of leisure is not to be a restorative, a pick me up, whether mental or physical; and though it gives new strength, mentally and physically; and spiritually, too, that is not the point.”

We learn from Pieper that if we embrace leisure for the sake of work, we will never discover its fruit. In fact, we end up with something rather wicked. Leisure put to utilitarian ends misses the point. Let us put it this way: are we to be refreshed from work or for work? If it is the latter, we have left the world of leisure and entered the “total work” state in which man is reduced to worker. By “total work” Pieper refers to the idea that, as Max Weber put it, “one does not work to live; one lives to work.” Under this view all social functions are for the purpose of turning out good laborers, so leisure is justified for work.

According to Pieper, this view is precisely wrong. The reduction of man to worker, and the reduction of leisure to social function, changes the “conception of the very meaning of human existence.” Man is robbed of his dignity; his value becomes tethered only to his usefulness. At its core, the total work state’s theft of true leisure is demonic. Everything is usurped for the total work state’s ends. Free time, vacation, relaxing — all of it is permitted only to produce the ideal worker. And yes, even religion is co-opted for the total work state’s purposes. It gives rise to the idiotic notion, “To work means to pray.” Holy days are cast aside, and we are given Labor Day, a cheap substitute, instead. Sunday blue laws are repealed under the guise of prosperity, and the worker is soon deprived of Sundays with God and family, having little choice in the matter.

In Pieper’s time, he could state with pride that “there is one Institution in the world which forbids useful activity, and servile work, on particular days.” Of course, Pieper was speaking of the Church, the one institution that requires its people to keep the day holy, as it should, since this day of rest was instituted by God Himself. Today, the notion that Sunday is reserved for God and family is long forgotten. If we are to restore the culture in keeping with Pieper’s vision, then taking a stand for Sunday is worth it. The Sunday obligation, the Mass, can never be about producing a better citizen, productive worker, or well-rounded person. The Lord’s day was given by God to man as a gift so that man might give back to God the worship that is due to Him alone.

Now, all this talk of “total work” may give the reader pause. Was Pieper against work? By no means, if we examine his argument closely. Pieper was in favor of work, but he drew

the line at a workaday world which wholly consumes the life man. At the root of the total work state, according to Pieper, we find a lack of property, government compulsion, and spiritual impoverishment. This third effect, spiritual impoverishment, often self-inflicted, may be the worst: “in this context everyone whose life is completely filled by his work…has shrunk inwardly, and contracted, with the result that he can no longer act significantly outside his work.” Daily we encounter the individuals that Pieper describes. We call them workaholics. They live an “illusion of a life fulfilled.” Nothing is free; everything is earned. Eventually, their souls are shrunken to a point that they can no longer accept the free gifts of God, and they become closed off to the life of grace. Pieper’s message to the total work state echoes the words of Moses to Pharaoh: “Let my people go.” Work alone cannot define us; it cannot be the source of our happiness; it cannot be the basis of a Christian culture. That is a task for leisure.

At the root of the total work state, according to Pieper, we find a lack of property, government compulsion, and spiritual impoverishment.

To this point, we have focused on what leisure is not. Now it is necessary to fill in the gaps. We must make the positive case for leisure. At its core, leisure is an invitation to rest in God. It should harken the famous words of St. Augustine, “Thou has made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Leisure tames the restless heart that otherwise may tend toward workaholism on the one hand and idleness on the other. Leisure is calm; it allows God’s plan to unfold. Leisure is silent because “only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.” Leisure is receptive, for we must soften our hearts to receive God’s gifts with humility. Leisure is contemplative; in it the “inner eye to dwell[s] . . . upon the reality of the Creation.” Leisure is confident; we can say with God, “It is good.”

Pieper is careful to stress over and again that leisure is unconcerned with utility, and this is where we encounter the intersection between leisure, education, and worship. He laments the exaltation of the servile arts (referring to studies directed toward learning a useful skill, e.g., the practice of medicine) and the decline of the liberal arts (those studies concerned with knowledge for its own sake, e.g., philosophy). The servile arts are concerned with only training in a particular skill set. This training produces a functionary whose value is measured by the world according to the results achieved. By contrast, Pieper argues, the liberal arts provide an education that is concerned with the whole man, and this education produces one capable of grasping the whole world, the universal, the catholic.

Pieper does not make the distinction to denigrate those trained in the servile arts but rather to demonstrate the connection between leisure and the liberal arts. Both leisure and the liberal arts are pursued for their own sake, unlike the servile arts which are directed toward some other (useful) end. In the total work state, only the servile arts can have value. Because it demands only labor, only worker bees should be produced by its schooling. The total work state, after all, needs more efficient, productive, tax-paying cogs to fit in its ever-expanding wheel. By contrast, Pieper argues for a world that makes room for the liberal arts, precisely because the liberal arts are useless in the eyes of the worldly. Should we make room in our lives for useless pursuits? We must, Pieper tells us, if we are to become more than mere workers. And here we reach Pieper’s ultimate point: with no room for the liberal arts, with no room for the useless, there is no room for leisure, and there is no room for worship. The “deep seated lack of calm” bestowed by the total work culture will never allow us to rest in God.

This brings us to the ultimate form of leisure, which is worship, described as “the deepest of springs by which leisure is fed.” Done well, it contains all the qualities of leisure: calm, receptiveness, contemplation, confidence. And done well, leisure is also a celebration. For it was given by divine ordinance. We can be festive about what God has done in our lives and the lives of the saints. Perhaps most importantly, worship cannot be bent to utilitarian ends. Worship is done for its own sake and for no other. It must be useless — at least in the eyes of the total work state. Worship is not useful; it is essential. So, to defend man’s right to leisure is to defend man’s right to God, and since leisure cannot be achieved as a means to an end, we cannot champion worship merely to save Western civilization, as noble a cause as that may be. That is not leisure properly understood, and the project will fail. We must direct our focus to God, to worship for His sake alone, and the rest will fall in line. From this, says Pieper, a true cultus will arise. The worker can then become man, and the total work state can become Christendom.

After examining Pieper’s argument, what can Leisure: the Basis of Culture teach us today? He admits to the reader that the book is not a practical guide, so it is our task to draw from its principles and apply them to our lives. Now, in 2020, it seems we are in the midst of dark times. As of this writing, we have seen a pandemic, political unrest, and record unemployment. We have seen fires, floods, and hurricanes. Violence and disrespect are dominant in the media. Around the world, our parish churches were closed for months. Some are still. The faithful have been away from the Mass, and sadly, the sacraments now seem distant to many. Yes, things seem bleak today, but they must have seemed bleak in Pieper’s time as well. He gave these lectures following one of the most horrific wars in memory. He knew of the atrocities committed in the name of his homeland. Yet, Pieper did not lose heart. And neither should we. He had faith that the restoration would come through right worship, the true rest in God that is at the core of leisure.

If we take Pieper seriously, the answer to much of our spiritual void comes by cultivating the atmosphere of leisure in our own lives. First, we can begin with a change of perspective. We must view ourselves and our neighbors as children of God, not as workers, not as functionaries, and not as means to an end. Second, free time, vacation, and entertainment all have their place, but we must not mistake these pursuits for leisure. Third, work, as important as it is to our families, employers, and communities, must be set in perspective. Work alone is not who we are, and it cannot be our measure of self-worth. Wherever possible, the total work state must be rejected in favor of society that makes room for the useless, because there we find room for leisure. But how?

Pieper’s message is to begin with leisure in our own homes. Sunday Mass must be the priority of our week. Sundays, as much as possible, must be reserved as a time for God and family. We can practice silence — absolutely necessary to leisure — by turning off the phones, the televisions, and tablets and learn to listen for God in the quiet times. We can do a better job of celebrating the feasts of the Church in our homes because, surely, we have something better to offer our children than Labor Day. We can practice leisure by practicing prayer. A life of true leisure has a habit of affirming truth, goodness, and beauty when you see it; say with God, “It is good.”

For Pieper, leisure is akin to the spirits of gratitude, festivity, and joy. All of them are an affirmation of a deep truth that his most loved teacher, Thomas Aquinas, followed to its very end: that God’s creation has a recognizable goodness. Today, however, the world is struggling with whether life is essentially good. With a restless heart modern man asks, is it good that I, and others, exist? Are we not just pollutants prone to violence and hatred? With leisure, Pieper tells us, we can see deeper into the truth of this world — really, with the eyes of God — and can say, clearly, it is good that we exist. To our neighbors we can say with knowing conviction, it is good that you exist. The world is anxious for this affirmation. And we, without anxiety, should be ready to offer it.


06 / 04 / 2021
Back to all articles