Josef Pieper on the Importance of Leisure

‘Not everything is useless’, writes Josef Pieper in his counter-cultural work Leisure, The Basis of Culture ‘which cannot be brought under the definition of the useful’. Yet, in our pragmatic society we seem to disagree, only finding value in that which can be tied to productivity or efficiency. Underfunding arts while increasing funding for economics degrees and tearing down forest to create timber plantations are two such examples.

Chemistry, physics, medicine, banking, gardening, carpentry and cooking are valuable because they serve a clearly defined use. But there are things which, while on the surface ‘useless’, remain, in their own unique way, ‘useful’: painting, music, poetry, philosophy, and leisure. And it is leisure – in a world where everything is organised according to productivity and profit – that is most in danger of extinction, yet simultaneously the most important guardian of the inner life of the mind.

The ancients understood the importance of leisure. They worked in order to not work. That is, they worked in order to have free time afterwards. It is a mentality alien to our society, firmly believing as it does in the principle of ‘work for work’s sake’. We readily equate those who seek leisure with being idlers, sloths, or dole-bludgers. For us, productivity and busy-ness (or, business, if you will) is the name of the game. We must always be occupied, be busy, be productive, be useful.

And how guilty we feel on our days off! When we are blessed to have a free time, or ‘leisure’, we manically try our best to keep productive: doing chores, running errands and so forth. A day not spent ‘doing’ something is a day we feel we have wasted. The mentality of busy-ness has so infected us that we find ourselves unable to sit still. Free time is not received as a blessing but as a curse.

We are encouraged by a culture of frenetic amusements and relentless striving to never sit quietly with ourselves. We have been trained to always remain busy. If not working 40+ hours a week, then going out drinking, shopping, clubbing, seeing friends, doing chores, or spending hours scrolling through news feeds or watching videos on YouTube. We have, to a great extent, lost the ability to sit with ourselves.

As a result, when we finally are alone with nothing but our own thoughts, we feel incredibly bored. ‘Boredom is not a necessary consequence of having nothing to do’, writes William Deresiewicz in his landmark essay The End of Solitude, “’it is only the negative experience of that state’.

‘By obviating the need to learn how to make use of one’s lack of occupation’ he continues, our culture has ‘preclude[d] one from ever discovering how to enjoy it’. We have lost something eminently important, we have lost what Thoreau called fishing ‘in the Walden pond of [our] own nature”, in sitting with ourselves and being receptive to our inner thoughts and feelings.

As Pieper notes, compared with activity, leisure is essentially the idea of non-activity, a negative, ‘receptive attitude of mind’ that consists of ‘inward calm, of silence’ and of ‘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.

It brings to mind Paul Goodman’s 9 Types of Silence and the particular silence of passive receptivity where the ego, no longer seeking, striving, and straining, quietens down, and allows the deep substrate of our consciousness to find an opening to reveal its secrets.

We are a frantic society, uninclined (and seemingly unable) to sit still. In the pursuit of more and more; more wealth, more pleasure, more power, more experience; we have lost sight of the importance of nothing; of wanting nothing, seeking nothing, doing nothing.

We have (quite unfortunately) lost the ability to sit with ourselves and allow the quieter parts of our consciousness to speak up, something that is only possible when we calm down. Spending a Sunday alone in the study or lying on the lawn in the botanical gardens is an excellent place to start. Receptivity is just as important as activity, and embracing it will lead to a richer experience of life and a fuller understanding of self. It may not be ‘useful’ in any practical sense, but just because something isn’t useful, does not mean it is useless.

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