Education and leisure

In light of recent essays by my two bosses at WCC, the Academic Dean and the President, I have been thinking about the nature of the place where I work.  What is a liberal arts college?  What is my job at a liberal arts college?

So I found myself back the at the font, so to speak, rereading a book that has taught me much over the years about education, about teaching—about humanity.  The book is Joseph Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture (translator, Gerald Malsbury; Sound Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998).  In this post I have pulled together a few of my favorite of Pieper’s sophismata.  They read well on their own, without commentary:

The Greek word for leisure is the origin of the Latin work schola, German schule, English school.  The name for the institutions of education and learning means “leisure.” (4)

The “liberality” or “freedom” of the liberal arts consists in their not being disposable for purposes, that they do not need to be legitimated by a social function, by being “work.” (22)

To translation the question [of the liberal arts] into contemporary language, it would sound something like this:  Is there still an area of human action, or human existence as such, that does not have its justification by being part of the machinery of a “five-year plan”?  Is there or is there not something of that kind? (22)

Leisure is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion in the real. (31)  Leisure is the condition of considering things in a celebrating spirit. (33)

The simple “break” from work—the kind that lasts an hour, or the kind that lasts a week or longer—is part and parcel of daily working life.  It is something that has been built into the whole working process, a part of the schedule.  The “break” is there for the sake of work.  It is supposed to provide “new strength” for “new work,” as the word “refreshment” indicates: one is refreshed for work through being refreshed from work.  Leisure stands in a perpendicular position with respect to the working process . . . .   Leisure is not there for the sake of work. (34)

While it is true that the one who prays before going to bed sleeps better, surely nobody would want to think of praying as a means of going to sleep. In the same way, nobody who wants leisure merely for the sake of “refreshment” will experience its authentic fruit, the deep refreshment that comes from a deep sleep. (35)

To be bound to the working process is to be bound to the whole process of usefulness, and moreover, to be bound in such a way that the whole life of the working human being is consumed.  This “binding” can have various causes.  The cause may be lack of ownership, for the proletarian is the “wage-earner without property,” who “has nothing but his work,” and thus he is constantly forced to sell his worker.  But such binding to the working process can also be caused by the dictate of the total-working state.  The proletarian is one who, whether or not he owns property, is constantly on the move “because of the practical necessities of the absolutely rational production of goods.”  In a third way, the binding to the working process can have its roots in the inner poverty of the person: the proletarian is one whose life is fully satisfied by the working process itself because this space has been shrunken from within, and because meaningful action that is not work is no longer possible or even imaginable. (42-43)

The distinction between the “servile” and “liberal” arts is related to the distinction between an “honorarium” and a “wage.”  The liberal arts are “honored”; the servile arts are “paid in wages.” (45)

And finally, one of my favorite lines of all time:

Only someone who has lost the spiritual power to be at leisure can be bored. (54)

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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7 years ago

Great,, Jeremy. And thanks for mentioning my post. I am glad it inspired you in some way to read Pieper. What’s funny is that one of the reasons I resigned from my other post as Academic Dean at another institution is because the president told me, explicitly, that I was not allowed to use the word leisure in any of my dealings in public, even if I carefully defined it in Pieperian terms!