This book is A Lot. It’s basically a Christian philosopher arguing for the value of Tao, that is, work-transcending leisure.
The upshot is that Josef Pieper warns us of turning all our life into work, which would be Bad. Two caveats: The “us” he is trying to convice are influential Germans after the war, who are undertaking the rebuilding of society. In the most part this work served to argue strongly in favour of keeping Sundays special. And: Pieper is a German Catholic philosopher from a Jesuitic tradition. That’s not a bad thing (and at least the Jesuitic tradition makes sure his work is readable and entertainingly spirited), but it influences the presentation and backdrop.
If you’re going to read this book, I hope you don’t like Kant (or are really secure in your attraction), because it opens with a wonderful thrashing of Kantian values, especially his tendency to only accept actions as virtuous if they are no fun. Virtue is no fun and philosophy has to be work to ✨count✨. Pieper (who is at least adjacent to neo-scholastic tradition) counters with a medieval distinction between ratio (abstract, focused, logical) and intellectus (effortless intellectual intuition). It’s the basis of two different perceptions of humans: Kant assumes we suck, so we need to work against our nature to become good. Aquin (and with him, Pieper) assumes that we’re pretty alright, and we just need to work to find the good versions of our impulses.
Then he goes into a disturbing trend: Increasingly, everything including intellectual effort is labeled as “work”, whereas before the difference between work and not-work followed pretty much the border between the artes liberales – art, culture, music, philosophy etc – and the artes serviles - mechanical arts, manual labour, architecture, anything tied directly to a purpose. In his opinion, this comes with a cataclysmic cost. If everything turns into work, then
- there’s always a demand that you could (and therefore, should) work right now.
- every action is under scrutiny to be useful, productive, functional.
- you will be bound by a latent anxiety to be productive.
- because humans still look for meaning everywhere, people will try to infuse their regular labour with deep meaning. And if you look at the presentation of working culture, that’s definitely happening! “Why do you want to work here?” - “To pay the bills.”, said nobody.
- you can’t have any philosophy, no academia, no deep introspection for its own sake, because those are not work, don’t exist to serve a purpose (even though, of course, they help and improve things as a consequence).
- you will be tempted to perform the motions of deeper actions, but as long as you do them to some purpose, you fundamentally misuse them. Meditation can calm you down and improve your life and your performance in many ways, but if you meditate to become more productive, you are not meditating.
- you will try to get breathing room by taking breaks, but no matter if a break is ten minutes or five weeks long, it’s still a break from work, and so only exists within the framework of work, and won’t help you on a fundamental level.
Those are good points and they have aged very very well, I think. It’s especially interesting to mix these considerations with the discussions around emotional labour, and how that isn’t generally seen as worthwhile or even real.
As somewhat of a side note, he introduces the word acedia, which was a fundamental sin before being abandoned in favour of sloth. Acedia is the feeling of numbness and despair, of desparately not wanting to be yourself, of being out of touch with who you are and what matters to you, of feeling restless. It’s a common feeling in the reals of depression and burnout and has been described in detail by early Christians (think desert fathers).
As a solution, he argues that you need true leisure. He basically writes a love song to leisure, similar to 1 Cor 13 in style and content. True leisure will serve to truly transcend work, to break away from the concept. True leisure, he says, is effortless, an attitude of non-activity, of being calm and letting things happen. Of being receptive and contemplative instead of searching things out. Of being cheerful and trusting and open. Of having a light touch, a loose grip, of being in touch and tune with yourself and the world around you. It serves not to improve yourself and your productivity so that you can be a better worker, but to allow you to stay human.
The purest form of this, in his opinion, is not prayer or meditation or something otherworldly like that: It’s celebrations, feasts, parties. Anything that joins people in a shared positive purpose. (Here, the fact that humans need more than just breaks in between work segues into a short “and therefore god exists”, but if that’s not your kind of thing, it’s pretty easy to ignore.)
All in all: I don’t agree with everything it says (actually, I disagree with half of it easily), but I disagree in interesting ways that made me think a lot about culture and work and spirituality.