The Thinking 

The Distracted Society

April 18, 2010


josefpiepersv4Leisure: The Basis of Culture
Josef Pieper

A Thinking Housewife Book Club Selection




When people become so distracted they accidentally leave their children alone in cars, the question arises. Is it possible we’ve reached some catastrophic overload? Are we distracting ourselves to death?

 Technology, many people would say, is the sole cause of the hyperactivity that seems endemic to our world. We can never go back to slower paced times. But this is a strange argument because technology does not use us, we use it. Is it possible people are frantically busy not because of their cellphones, computers and cars, but because energy and activity are our idols? If so, why? Why do we seem to worship effort?

This short and elegant book by the German philosopher Josef Pieper examines this important question. He writes:

Is it possible, from now on, to maintain and defend, or even to reconquer, the right and claims of leisure, in face of the claims of “total labor” that are invading every sphere of life? Leisure, it must be remembered, is not a Sunday afternoon idyll, but the preserve of freedom, education, culture, and of that undiminished humanity which views the world as a whole.

Pieper wrote the two very readable essays in this book, “Leisure: the Basis of Culture” and “The Philosophical Act,” at the end of World War II. The book was first published in 1952. It seemed a bad time to talk about relaxation, and the same could be said of today. This is no time to consider the need for leisure. The problem now is not rest, but work, and there is not enough of it. But one might as well say this is no time to consider the need for food or love. Pieper uses the word “totalitarian” to describe the claims of the modern sphere of work. He thus gives to the subject the seriousness it deserves and will always deserve.

More than 50 years later, one of the strangest manifestations of this world of ‘total work’ is the lifestyle of the average kindergartner who no longer spends his time playing and singing the ABC’s. He is a draft horse, a budding workaholic, his tiny backpack stuffed with math and reading worksheets. A high school student enrolled in “honors courses” might as well be taken to the central courtyard of the school and flogged or stoned, so overloaded is his schedule with assignments, AP exams and extracurricular feats. Then there is the stay-at-home mother whose schedule is stuffed with volunteer activities for school, church and sports teams. She is arguably more busy, more overworked than the career woman. In many cases, the home has become a scheduling center, not a place to live.

In short, it seems that everyone is a workaholic, even children and those without paid jobs. According to Pieper, the glorification of work is no accident, no unintended consequence of technology. It is the result of a “demonic force in history,” of intellectual currents that have commanded the proletarianization of everyone.  If these currents were not resisted, he predicted, the collective State would burgeon and people of all political persuasions would acquiesce to socialism and servile dependence. His words are chillingly prescient. He writes:

What, then, is proletarianism? If the numerous sociological definitions and terms are reduced to a common denominator, the result might be expressed in the following terms: the proletarian is the man fettered to the process of work…

… But to be tied to work may also be caused by coercion in a totalitarian state; in such a state everyone, whether propertied or unpropertied, is a proletarian because he is bound by the order s of others “to the necessities of an absolute process of production,”by outside forces, which means that he is entirely subject to economic forces, is a proletarian.

In the third place, to be tied to the process of work, may be ultimately due to the inner impoverishment of the individual: in this context, everyone whose life is completely filled by his work … is a proletarian because his life has shrunk inwardly, and contracted, with the result that he can no longer act significantly outside his work, and perhaps can no longer conceive of such a thing…

… The ‘total work’ State needs the spiritually impoverished, one-track mind of the “functionary;” and he, in his turn, is naturally inclined to find complete satisfaction in his “service” and thereby achieves the illusion of a life fulfilled, which he acknowledges and willingly accepts.

Pieper, who was Catholic, looks to classical philosophy and Christian thought to defend leisure against the claims of ‘total work.’ In both arenas, leisure is not just a restorative that enables a return to work, but a filling out of the individual. Aristotle said, “we work in order to have leisure.” In the moments when we are not preoccupied with utilitarian ends, we get down to the business of  knowing for the sake of knowing.

Thousands of years after Aristotle, we tend to think of knowledge as achieved only with effort and strain. This is a major reason why our schools are so unleisurely (ironically, as Pieper points out, the Greek word for leisure is scole, from which our “school” is derived). But knowledge is both ratio and intellectus, discursive rational thought and unbidden enlightenmentPieper writes:

The Greeks – Aristotle, no less than Plato – as well as the great medieval thinkers, held that not only physical, sensuous perception, but equally man’s spiritual and intellectual knowledge, included an element of pure, receptive contemplation, or as Heraclitus says, “of listening to the essence of things.”

Truth comes when we are not looking for it. Pieper, citing Aquinas, writes:

Our knowledge in fact includes an element of non-activity, of purely receptive vision – though it is certainly not essentially human; it is, rather, the fulfillment of the highest promise in man, and thus, again, truly human (just as Aquinas calls the vita contemplativa “non propie human, sed superhumana,” not really human but superhuman, although it is the noblest mode of human life).

Pieper finds in Kant and others the roots of our suspicion of leisure, our notion that anything effortless must be worthless. To Kant, contemplation was not the fruitful activity it was to philosophers of antiquity. Philosophizing was a “herculean labor.” Here we come to a key point: “But that is surely on the way (if not even closer) to the view,” Pieper writes, “that the effort of acquiring knowledge give ones material evidence of the truth of that knowledge.”

The good becomes that which is difficult. Virtue becomes that which requires effort rather than that which is good. If hard work in and of itself justifies some activity, we can see how an entire society might seek the difficult and evade what is natural and easy. Even play for a young child becomes suspect.

We all work. We all have everyday preoccupations upon which our survival depends. But, is it necessary that we be either busy or in the sort of vegetative state induced by popular culture and that passes for leisure today, the ‘total rest’ that accompanies ‘total work’? Ceaseless activity and distraction are a form of despair. “Spirit is the power of embracing the totality of being,” Pieper says. The reflective self inhabits the universal. He also possesses “the gift of self-reliance and independence that, in the philosophical tradition of Europe, have always been regarded as the attributes of the human person, of being a person.”

It’s pointless to campaign or fight for leisure, because it springs from an affirmation deep within. It is no accident that the Sabbath is commanded and that it demands no work, even the sort of work that the mad cyclists in spandex and expensive gear who pass my street every Sunday seem to be engaged in. At the beginning of his essay, Pieper quotes Plato:

But the gods, taking pity on mankind, born to work, laid down the succession of recurring Feasts to restore them from their fatigue, and gave them the Muses, and Apollo their leader, and Dionysus, as companions in their Feasts, so that in nourishing themselves in festive companionship with the gods, they should then again stand upright and erect.

True leisure is “festive companionship with the divine.”   Worship is the “fountainhead of leisure,” Pieper says, and this rings true when one walks into a mall or a supermarket on a Sunday and sees the crowds, not merely enjoying themselves but getting things done, almost as hurried and pressed as they are on a weekday. Looking at these crowds, one suspects they have not had that moment of rapture earlier in the day, that apprehension that stops the mind and transcends the workaday world.  

Beneath our ceaseless  activity and multitasking, there is a fear of passivity, a fear of truth, a fear of leisure.


                            — Comments —

Gail Aggen writes:

I wrote about something like this myself, though not in such a complex way, during Advent. I contend that people fear being still and being surrounded by silence because it is then that the mad din within themselves demands a reckoning. And it seems above all else, if not at work, people must be occupied with “entertainment”. When you cannot even have a minute of stillness in a waiting room in which to think or read a magazine because of the ubiquitous television streaming the 24 hour news or the Ellen show, you know that people have come to view quietness as anything but peaceful and relaxing.

In fact, just the thought of being still or not having “something to do” is absolutely terrifying to people. We have become conditioned by and accustomed to frenetic activity, (a strategy of the enemy if ever there was one) and behind that, because, like Adam who after sinning, hid from the Lord God in the cool of the evening, we cannot tolerate the sound of the still, small voice of Reality Himself. Nor can our deformed souls remember their own language in order to make answer, but must hide in the thicket of demonic, white noise.

Lisa writes:

Laura said, “In the moments when we are not preoccupied with utilitarian ends, we get down to the business of knowing for the sake of knowing.”

Oh, could that really be true?! (hopes, hopes, hopes) We’ve been made to feel for so long that if we are not always “doing something,” it is “LAZure”, rather than LEISURE.

I have been wondering if, with all the relocating and that every few years, our society never gets established enough in one area to have and make a real HOME, so that we DO have time for leisure… Each generation is having to reinvent the wheel of civilization and culture on a personal or family or community level. We never are able to benefit well from the on-site cultural equity built up by ancestors.

“…Houses today are not built and fitted out for comfort, beauty, or even elegance, but for “easy working” and nothing else. There are indeed such dwellings (I will not call them homes) and bleak and cheerless places they are, too.” – John Seymour, Forgotten Household Crafts, c. 1987 (but it covers so much more).

Hannon writes:

The effort of leisure activity is in evidence everywhere. Model airplanes, home repair, bird watching, all connote study and substantial exertion. Spectator sports and even shopping can leave us restless in their requirements of timing and planning. You say that “Ceaseless activity and distraction are a form of despair.” This seems to be true, but what exactly do we despair of? Is it empty habit or a genuine psychological fear of quiet, “meaningless” periods that we strive to conquer without knowing why? Maybe the disquiet is manifest in or occurs in those particular souls who experience the storm in moments of calm, from the outside so to speak, who thus gain a conscious perspective that simply does not strike others as important, or strike them at all.

This post made me remember something my mother remarked on when I was very young, that there are a great many people in this world who cannot bear to be alone. After all we are a gregarious lot by our nature. We know, too, there are others who are contentedly happy, perhaps happiest, in solitude. It seems natural to adopt habits or a mindset that reduces our recurrent trepidation.

Does it matter what actions are filling up the space and time we use to stave off despair? Pieper certainly suggests that it does not. Whether his vocation or avocation involves academic prowess, craftsmanship or commanding wealth (or watching TV, playing poker or texting) “[he] is a proletarian because his life has shrunk inwardly, and contracted, with the result that he can no longer act significantly outside his work, and perhaps can no longer conceive of such a thing…”. We face a grim future when whole societies are reduced to this type of insensibility.

Lisa wrote:

Each generation is having to reinvent the wheel of civilization and culture on a personal or family or community level. We never are able to benefit well from the on-site cultural equity built up by ancestors.

One of the primary causes of discord and conflict in the United States is our excessively mobile workforce, right up there with masses of propertyless proletarians.

Michael S. writes:

The phrase “total work” sounds eerily reminiscent of the phrase “total war” — as in Goebbels’s question, “Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg?”

“Do you want it — if need be — more total and radical than anything we could even imagine today?”

I’ve worked in my share of “high-powered” firms, and as a result, I think I have a pretty good idea of what “total work” looks like. I am most assuredly NOT interested. But then, I majored in philosophy. Speaking of which, Laura wrote:.

To Kant, contemplation was not the fruitful activity it was to philosophers of antiquity. Philosophizing was a “herculean labor.”

Well, I think we can all agree that reading Kant is a “Herculean labor” if anything ever was.


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