Leisure: The Basis of Philosophy

In 1947, Josef Pieper argued in his extended essay “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” that leisure, contrary to popular sentiment, is not equivalent with idleness or inactivity, but is rather a state of “recreation” and receptivity to God and to the surrounding world. Learning, or schooling, is a state of leisure because knowledge is gained not through toil but by openness to the truth. He writes,

“The mode of discursive thought is accompanied and impregnated by an effortless awareness, the contemplative vision of the intellectus, which is not active but passive, or rather receptive, the activity of the soul in which it conceives that which it sees. The ancients regarded intellectus as being already beyond the sphere allotted to man. And yet it belonged to man, though in one sense superhuman; the pure ly human by itself could not satiate man’s powers of comprehension, for man, of his very nature, reaches out beyond the sphere of the human. “Although the knowledge which is most characteristic of the human soul occurs in the mode of ratio, nevertheless there is in it a sort of participation in the simple knowledge which is proper to higher beings, of whom it is therefore said that they possess the faculty of spiritual vision.”

Work, or toil, according to Pieper, is a means to gaining leisure, or as he says in his rephrasing of Aristotle, “We are unleisurely in order to have leisure.”

In what is perhaps an implicit recovery of the importance of Pieper’s essay, Simon Critchley introduces the new NYTimes Online Commentary “The Stone” with the question “What is a Philosopher?”

the philosopher is the person who has time or who takes time. Theodorus, Socrates’ interlocutor, introduces the “digression” with the words, “Aren’t we at leisure, Socrates?” The latter’s response is interesting. He says, “It appears we are.” As we know, in philosophy appearances can be deceptive. But the basic contrast here is that between the lawyer, who has no time, or for whom time is money, and the philosopher, who takes time. The freedom of the philosopher consists in either moving freely from topic to topic or simply spending years returning to the same topic out of perplexity, fascination and curiosity.

Pushing this a little further, we might say that to philosophize is to take your time, even when you have no time, when time is constantly pressing at your back. The busy readers of The New York Times will doubtless understand this sentiment. It is our hope that some of them will make the time to read The Stone. As Wittgenstein says, “This is how philosophers should salute each other: ‘Take your time.’ ” Indeed, it might tell you something about the nature of philosophical dialogue to confess that my attention was recently drawn to this passage from Theaetetus in leisurely discussions with a doctoral student at the New School, Charles Snyder.

He goes on to say that this willingness to take time is not a dreamy, ideal existence but is one which endangers a person’s very life:

Nurtured in freedom and taking their time, there is something dreadfully uncanny about the philosopher, something either monstrous or god-like or indeed both at once. This is why many sensible people continue to think the Athenians had a point in condemning Socrates to death.

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2 comments so far

  1. youdie74 on

    Leisure is being in God’s love

    • everydaythomist on

      Beautiful!


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