Jane Clark Scharl revisits Josef Pieper’s sensible words about work and leisure in “Josef Pieper’s Guide to Getting Over FOMO” in the Intercollegiate Review. I did not recognize “FOMO,” but Scharl graciously informs us that it means “fear of missing out.” It’s the less confident acronym for neurotics; type A folks use YOLO. Scharl explains Pieper:
In his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Pieper writes, “In order to gain a clear notion of leisure, we must begin by setting aside the prejudice . . . that comes from overvaluing the sphere of work.”
According to Pieper, we believe, mistakenly, in the philosophy of “total work,” which maintains that happiness can be achieved by work. Work he defines as anything “unleisurely”—literally any activity that has its end in the material world. We live today as if work were the most important thing we can do. From grade school up, we go school so we can get into college and get a good job, and then be happy and fulfilled.
But despite the urgent demands of bodies and matter, Pieper reminds us that we aren’t completely material. Humans have intellects, which can transcend matter through reason and reflection. So in order to be truly fulfilled (or fully filled, if I may), we must look for happiness in something that can likewise transcend matter—something other than work. That quest for happiness outside of work is called leisure.
For millennia, leisure was at the core of Western culture (and arguably an Eastern tradition, though that’s for another day). Whether we acknowledge it or not, Pieper says that “leisure is the centerpoint about which everything revolves.” But by the time he wrote his book in 1947, the philosophy of “total work” had pervaded Western society and degraded the concept of leisure to mean “doing nothing” or “free time.” We think of leisure as a void between periods of work, which we can use either to rest from work or fill with the “rewards” of our labor: stuff or experiences that work made possible for us.
But that’s an impoverished view of things. Leisure is far from idleness. Rather, it is the fullest of all time, because unlike work, leisure is dedicated to fulfilling the transcendent part of us. Pieper says leisure includes “relaxation” and “effortlessness,” because it requires us to be fully active, affirming “the universe and [our] experiencing [of] the world in an aspect other than its everyday one” (emphasis mine).
Scharl’s discussion of Pieper reminds me of the recent examinations of Common Core in the Intercollegiate Review and of how the new educational guidelines reduce childhood education to vocational training. A old style Marxist might suspect that the wealthy just want to dull the minds of the people while simultaneously training them to be efficient workers—well shaped cogs in the economy’s production machine. Yet, I fear that the truth is even worse—for the elite appear to want the same reduction of education even for their own schools—for their own children. Naturally, they want finer trappings with a pedagogical orientation toward higher earning vocations, but they remain committed to the belief that education equals vocational training. Gone are the days when the mighty captains of industry supported the cultivation of the human spirit (not to mention the more proper elite of the ancien régime). The industrialists of yore benefited from liberal education and had to have a broad grasp of the West’s history, controversies, achievements, and failings. Even had they come from secular families, they would have known more about the Christian religion than contemporary theology majors. Notwithstanding their possible tendencies toward philistinism, the culture at large would have impressed the importance of beauty and refinement on them so that they would have at least attempted to comply for appearance’s sake. Today, our commercial titans go to Silicon Valley, which is full of brilliant men whose interests and horizons largely correspond to their work. The t-shirt wearing, tieless man-children who pontificate at TED Talks after having read one Malcolm Gladwell book or having volunteered for a charitable stint in the Third World think themselves intellectual eagles, but they know less about the nature of man and of civilization than the schoolboys at Yale a century ago. The current plutocrats are themselves products of a degenerate society; while rich and powerful, they are spiritually emaciated and are too tunnel-visioned—indeed, too ignorant—to influence and lead the nation wisely.
For example, though his mother supported the Seattle Symphony, Bill Gates scoffs at traditional philanthropy to support the fine arts and humanities. Gates has given charitably for medical research and epidemiological missions, which are fine goals. Survival is a good thing, but flourishing is better. Yet, flourishing is too frivolous, too marginal for our latter day plutocrats to support. For the new elite is utilitarian in their morality, materialist in their metaphysics, and worse than Marx in their understanding of man and of the potential for human excellence. There are obvious exceptions, but our society’s technocratic managers’ coarseness and striking ignorance of matters beyond their specialized fields surprise and frighten me. The spiritual squalor of America’s rich matches that of its feral poor and compliant, complacent bourgeoisie—all is a consumerist wasteland where the nomads delight only in gadgets and in the meanest of pleasures.