Leisure: The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper


  1. The soul of leisure, it can be said, lies in “celebration”. Celebration is the point at which the three elements of leisure come to a focus: relaxation, effortlessness, and superiority of “active leisure” to all functions.

Key Takeaways

  1. When a culture is in the process of denying its own roots, it becomes most important to know what these roots are. We had best know what we reject before we reject it. If we are going to build a chair, the first thing we need to know, above all else, is what a chair is. Otherwise, we can do nothing.
  2. This little book by the German philosopher Josef Pieper is simply a gem. No book its size will teach us so many true things about everything we need to know to understand what and why we are or about how to live a life worth living. This book is one of the first I recommend for waking us up to what life is all about, to what is essential to and glorious about our lives.
  3. Culture depends for its very existence on leisure, and leisure, in its turn, is not possible unless it has a durable and consequently living link with the cultus, with divine worship.
  4. The original conception of leisure, as it arose in the civilized world of Greece, has, however, become unrecognizable in the world of planned diligence and “total labor”; and in order to gain a clear notion of leisure we must begin by setting aside the prejudice—our prejudice—that comes from overvaluing the sphere of work. In his well-known study of capitalism Max Weber1 quotes the saying, that “one does not work to live; one lives to work”, which nowadays no one has much difficulty in understanding: it expresses the current opinion. We even find some difficulty in grasping that it reverses the order of things and stands them on their head.
  5. And in the same way, the essence of knowledge does not consist in the effort for which it calls, but in grasping existing things and in unveiling reality. Moreover, just as the highest form of virtue knows nothing of “difficulty”, so too the highest form of knowledge comes to man like a gift—the sudden illumination, a stroke of genius, true contemplation; it comes effortlessly and without trouble.
  6. The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.
  7. Education concerns the whole man; an educated man is a man with a point of view from which he takes in the whole world. Education concerns the whole man, man capax universi, capable of grasping the totality of existing things.
  8. I have never bothered or asked”, Goethe said to Friedrich Soret in 1830, “in what way I was useful to society as a whole; I contented myself with expressing what I recognized as good and true. That has certainly been useful in a wide circle; but that was not the aim; it was the necessary result.”35 In the Middle Ages the same view prevailed. “It is necessary for the perfection of human society”, Aquinas writes, “that there should be men who devote their lives to contemplation”—nota bene, necessary not only for the good of the individual who so devotes himself, but for the good of human society.
  9. Leisure, it must be clearly understood, is a mental and spiritual attitude—it is not simply the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend or a vacation. It is, in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul, and as such utterly contrary to the ideal of “worker” in each and every one of the three aspects under which it was analyzed: work as activity, as toil, as a social function. Compared with the exclusive ideal of work as activity, leisure implies (in the first place) an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being “busy”, but letting things happen. Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear. Silence, as it is used in this context, does not mean “dumbness” or “noiselessness”; it means more nearly that the soul’s power to “answer” to the reality of the world is left undisturbed. For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.
  10. leisure does not exist for the sake of work—however much strength it 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. Leisure, like contemplation, is of a higher order than the vita activa (although the active life is the proper human life in a more special sense). And order, in this sense, cannot be overturned or reversed. Thus, however true it may be that the man who says his nightly prayers sleeps the better for it, nevertheless no one could say his nightly prayers with that in mind. In the same way, no one who looks to leisure simply to restore his working powers will ever discover the fruit of leisure; he will never know the quickening that follows, almost as though from some deep sleep. The point and the justification of leisure are not that the functionary should function faultlessly and without a breakdown, but that the functionary should continue to be a man—and that means that he should not be wholly absorbed in the clear-cut milieu of his strictly limited function; the point is also that he should retain the faculty of grasping the world as a whole and realizing his full potentialities as an entity meant to reach Wholeness.14 Because Wholeness is what man strives for, the power to achieve leisure is one of the fundamental powers of the human soul.

What I got out of it

  1. Leisure implies n attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being “busy”, but letting things happen.