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Be Still and See: Leisure, Labor, and Human Dignity in Josef Pieper and Blessed John Paul II
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In two classic essays, written in 1947 and published together in English translation under the title Leisure, the Basis of Culture, the German Roman Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper argues that the source of human dignity is found in leisure, a sphere of life free from work. He warns against recent philosophic and social tendencies that would reduce all human affairs to work, punctuated only with occasional necessary periods of rest or recreation. He claims that the very survival of Western civilization depends upon an explicit and public restoration of respect for a realm of human endeavor transcending the notion of utility. Grounding his argument in what he sees as a venerable and self-consistent tradition of philosophy and theology—epitomized in the works of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, and undermined in key parts by modern philosophers such as René Descartes, Francis Bacon, and Immanuel Kant—Pieper understands his position to be harmonious with that of the Catholic Church's social magisterium, whose famous efforts to defend the dignity of labor he interprets as demanding not so much the exaltation of work as such, but rather an extension of leisure to the working classes.

Though Pieper's work has generally not received the attention it merits, it has succeeded in deeply impressing numerous readers over the years, including T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and contemporary political and cultural minds such as Gilbert Meilaender, Roger Scruton, Ralph McInerny, Roger Kimball, James V. Schall, and Thomas Hibbs. Given Pieper's credibility among so many who share his concern for the application of the classical Christian intellectual patrimony to the challenges of our day, it is interesting to consider one such prominent voice that, at least initially, does not appear to support Pieper's thesis. In 1981, Blessed John Paul II published the encyclical letter Laborem Exercens. In this writing, beginning from prior magisterial teachings on labor, John Paul seeks to stress more strongly than before the centrality of work not only to "the modern 'social question,'" but to the good of human life as such. He describes work as not only related to but even constitutive of man's vocation, dignity, and imaging of God in the world, and defines work so as to encompass seemingly all intellectual activities, which Pieper emphatically insists upon classifying as leisure and not work. In developing a "spirituality of work," John Paul goes so far as to call Jesus Christ "a man of work" and his Gospel "the gospel of work," and seems to suggest that Christianity nullifies the distinction between servile and liberal arts, whose recovery Pieper considers a necessary condition for the preservation of human freedom and flourishing (LE, Preface, nos. 1-3, 24-27; Leisure, II, IV).

Can John Paul's interpretation of the Christian wisdom on labor be squared with Pieper's reading of this same heritage? Or is the former in effect a refutation of the latter? This paper will seek to answer this question through a more detailed analysis of the claims made by each author, considered in light of the philosophic and theological tradition in which each sought to ground his thought.

Pieper on Leisure and the Threat of Total Work

To grasp Pieper's case in defense of leisure and against the progress of what he calls "total work"—a mode of existence in which the overvaluation of work leads to the nearly complete neglect or suppression of leisure and the goods it secures—we must first grasp precisely what he means by leisure and by work. Though in the modern context leisure emerges as a realm that must be preserved from the imperious claims of work, Pieper draws his understanding of these terms from classical and medieval philosophy, which distinguishes between σχολή or otium—time spent on matters of intrinsic worth—and the negative concept ἀσχοἰα or negotium, signifying a lack or deprivation of such leisure. To the classical mind, leisure is closely associated with the ultimate and perfect good of man, and therefore with human freedom and the artes liberales, while work is tied to the realm of necessary, contingent, and subordinate goods, and hence to the artes serviles. In contrast to the modern...

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