Leisure: The Basis of Culture

Leisure: The Basis of Culture (Including The Philosophical Act), by Josef Pieper ★★★★★

This book was a gift from an old friend, Dane Waterman. We had been discussing how Carlo Lancellotti had translated into English and made the English-speaking world aware of the writings and thought of Del Noce. Pieper, writing from Germany and somewhat contemporary to Del Noce, reflects similar thoughts. Their thesis relates to demonstration as to how Marxism and liberal thinking is presenting an alternative “gospel”. This is especially poignant as Pieper and Del Noce, both being Roman Catholic, passed away before a truly Marxist pope (the current pope) was installed.

The text is divided into two sections, the first being the topic of leisure, and the second section is a discussion of the philosophical act. The two lectures are complementary. In the first section, leisure is defined and developed as an essential part of society. Clearly, leisure is not “labor” to speak of, but is also is NOT laziness or idleness. Leisure (in Pieper’s sphere) is not the act of going on vacation or of watching a good movie. Leisure entails the act of contemplation, meditation, silence, and reflective conversations. Such activity is vital for a society that wishes to sell itself as a free and open society, but is also contrary to the ideology of Marxism. A phrase that I was taught as a child “Arbeit macht das Leben suß” (work makes life sweet) is prevalent in German culture, yet even there, the rise of poets, philosophers, and theologians more than answers how a Christian-based society grasps the need for leisure.

The second section of the book addresses the issue of philosophers. Why do we need them? What do they do? What does it mean to be a philosopher? All of these questions are answered in an oblique style fitting for a philosopher. Is this nothing but an example of Pieper in the act of self-justification? I don’t think so. This section was a bit muddier and not an easy task for me to read, though the final pages demonstrated a wonderful ending. The ultimate end of philosophy is that of identification with Scripture, which allows us the ability to know. Perhaps it might be said that all theologians are philosophers, though their focus is different. It might also be said that all people are philosophers, as we all develop and maintain a personal Weltanschauung, which affects the totality of our thoughts, actions, and behaviors.

I have one concern regarding this book, and would have loved to engage Josef Pieper in a challenge. He begins with the challenge of the great Greek philosophers from Thales to Aristotle. I certainly enjoy reading the classics of philosophy. Yet, Clement of Alexandria and other 2nd century Christian writers were quick to note that that the Greeks were plagiarists, and reflected thinking that existed well before their time, in the writings of Moses and the Old Testament. Thus, as Cornelius VanTil has repeatedly argued, and philosophical starting point of necessity must be Scripture. You cannot get to Scripture by pure reason starting with a tabula rasa. Pieper’s argument could have been much stronger by having his arguments originate in Scripture, rather than by originating through reason in the human mind and ending up in Scripture. This mistake is plentiful not just with the Roman Catholics, but also with the Protestants and Orthodox brands of the Christian faith.

Why read the Roman Catholics? Simply stated, because many of them are Christians just like the Protestants and Orthodox folk out there. It was John Zmirak (see his website at https://stream.org), a devout Catholic, who noted that he was praying for Pope Francis’ salvation. I could say the same thing for many well-known Protestants out there, such as with Tim Keller, Francis Collins, etc. About 30 years ago, an old teacher of mine, JI Packer, was dismissed from the Ligonier Ministry conferences by RC Sproul since he signed a statement encouraging Evangelicals and Catholics to engage in discussion. I totally agree with Packer, and feel that Protestantism is at a loss for not seeing how others think about philosophical and biblical issues from a slightly different slant. My personal denomination (the PCA, of which RC Sproul was a member) is diminished through failure to communicate with the entire body of the Christian church. Packer did not find that rapport with the RC community diminished his theology or message. Neither should we.

So, even with my disagreements with Pieper, I was able to find many gems in this small tome. A great book is not necessarily a book you totally agree with, but with a book that is able to stir your thoughts and to force you into that delightful activity that we call leisure. And my thanks to Dane and Bernadette for giving me this book.