On Work, Idleness and Leisure

Work is necessary for production and thus essential, not only the material quality of one’s life, but even in order to live at all. Therefore, work, both professional and domestic, is one of the largest aspects of the human living experience – and rightly so. Work is so predominant and necessary that the mantra of most of the twentieth century was, in the words of Max Weber, “One does not only work in order to live, but one lives for the sake of one’s work.” The logical conclusion of the Industrial Revolution was that work for work’s sake was the end of human activity. It was in working and therefore in being useful that man found meaning in life. Men were meant to be functionaries, filling useful roles in society in order to provide for the needs of life and it was in this that man had purpose. 

Well, the Industrial Revolution got it wrong. Work and production are vital to daily living and the health of the economy and society at large but labor is not the end but merely a means to an even greater, more fulfilling end. We are not meant to work to work but instead it is our work that allows us, in the time that we are not working, to pursue what really brings us alive. Generation Y realized this and rebelled against the old mantra of living in order to work. However, it was a reactionary response on a grand scale that sorely missed the mark.

Generation Y put their emphasis, not on their work, but on the free time that their labor allowed them. Yet, somehow, this has put society even further from true living than earlier generations were. In the eyes of society the following dichotomy exists: there are two states of living and they are work and time off from work “freeing” the worker to be idle. The first is characterized by activity while the second by inactivity. Generation Y chose inactivity. That’s not to say that Gen Y is lazy, just that they work so that they won’t have to later. Unfortunately, most of that sought-after free time is spent in passivity and “unwinding” from work. Consider that the average American household spends 8 hours a day watching TV – seven days a week makes that more than a full-time job. So, while both the workaholic mentality of industrial civilization and the reactionary response to it both constitute mindless activity the activity of focus of the former at least produces something useful while that of the latter produces nothing.

Another study revealed that over half of all of an individual’s free-time was spent watching TV:

Most people will realize that that is far more TV than is healthy – but why is so much time spent in passivity unhealthy? Well, beyond the obvious physical ramifications of a sedentary lifestyle it is unhealthy and unfulfilling for the same reason that living to work is. Because both the work and the rest from work engaged in by society are lacking in really engaging the human spirit, because both share the common thread of intellectual idleness. Now, of course, some people’s work is largely mental but there is a significant difference between the productive mentality of the functionary who works with their brain and the genuine creativity of free thought not bound to a use or a wage.

The real end that we must be striving for in life is not our work and it certainly is not entertainment – as addicting as it may be for so many. It is what the German philospher, Josef Pieper simply called “leisure.” Leisure, according to Pieper, was, in contrast to work, a “free” activity – meaning that, while leisure may be difficult does not constitute work. That is, it is not done because of its usefulness in producing some good or service but is a worthwhile endeavor in itself. In Pieper’s words it is the difference between the the “liberal arts” like philosophy, theology, painting, music or drama and the “servile arts” such as trades or many science-based academic majors like engineering or nursing. The former are forms of leisure and ends to be sought in themselves while the latter serves our work. Simply put, leisure is that purposeful (but not use-oriented) activity that seeks to broaden our minds and hearts, to expand us in our humanity. There are many activities that to some degree constitute leisure, but at its height, leisure is a festival: it is a celebration characterized by relaxation, effortlessness and ascendency. But, if “festival” is the height of leisure, what then is the height of festival?

The height of festival is worship. True, living festival is inseparable from worship. Even the secularist, who may deny the particular religion of any worship event, cannot ignore the deep cultural roots that grant worship so much festive power. One needn’t look any further than our greatest festivals of Christmas and Easter and compare them to the mundanity of Labor Day or even the short-fused frenzy of New Year’s Eve for this to become abundantly clear. As Josef Pieper put it in his book, Leisure: the Basis of Culture:

“Clearer than the light of day is the difference between the living, rooted trees of genuine, cultic festival and our artificial festivals that resemble those “maypoles,” cut at the roots, and carted here and there, to be planted for some definite purpose.”

The transcendence of religious worship connects natural man to the super-natural – or even super-human – and it is in this super-humanity of the divine in general, but Christian divinity specifically, that man finds the ultimate leisure, because modern American culture, even its broad-spanning vein of contemporary secularism, is founded upon the bedrock of Christianity and, even should we attempt to ignore religion and instead adhere to some vague sense of spirituality in the name of secularism, Christianity is the basis of Western culture and the human experience as we know it.


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