In his most famous work, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper famously contends that the modern elevation of work over contemplation cuts us off from the meaning of our existence. If allowed to fester any further, he warns, this tendency will transform Western liberal democracy into a realm of “total work” analogous to the Soviet “totalitarian worker’s state.”
Since Pieper is at pains to stress the dangers of hyperactivity and the necessity of recovering our dedication to the “purely theoretical,” we can easily fall under the misimpression that he is an enemy of action and a prophet of passivity.
This mistake is most easily countered by noting that Pieper’s purpose in calling our attention to the importance of contemplating reality is to call us into action on its behalf.
The nature of this call to action may seem peculiar. In his Introduction to Leisure, Roger Scruton comically compares Pieper’s advice to the command of a disgruntled American president rebuking a fussy public official: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”
Pertinent as this anecdote is, however, it is not quite true that Pieper is asking us to cease acting and simply stand around staring into the ether. For one thing, he reminds us that cognition itself is the fruit of a complex process demanding significant exertions of time, energy, and self-discipline. Contemplation, even if it is not “work” or “action” in itself, is therefore the fruit of activity that can be, and in many cases must be, strenuous in nature.
Also, it is worth noting that Pieper is anything but an enemy to the physical side of human nature. In his Guide to Thomas Aquinas, he exults in the saint’s remark that the best cure for a melancholic spell may be a good sleep, a hot bath, or a glass of wine.
In his delightful book In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, Pieper stresses that “an idle-rich class of do-nothings are hard put to it even to amuse themselves, let alone to celebrate a festival.” The reason is crucial to grasp: the essence of festivity, which is the highest manifestation of leisure, is the affirmation of reality, embodied in the sentiment that “at bottom everything that is, is good, and it is good to exist.”
Since the body and its needs are part of reality, and of human nature, their denial is an affront to reality and therefore an obstacle to contemplation in the true sense.
Pieper’s elevation of reality has two major implications for the realm of human action. First, it demands that each person, and society as a whole, make room for the regular and genuine pursuit and contemplation of truth. In this sense, other practical concerns must be subordinated to the highest of human activities. As Aristotle says: we work in order to be at leisure.
But this is not all. For the reality whose contemplation is our highest calling also includes the physical and the useful. Though these things must always remain subordinate to the theoretical, this does not mean that they must be kept to a bare minimum, or regarded as unfortunate necessities. To the contrary, Pieper shows that theory itself, by confirming and affirming the reality and hence the goodness of the practical, drives us back with joyful enthusiasm to the practical realm.
For Pieper, theory is something that both regulates and inspires practice. I can think of no better way of summarizing this relationship than saying that theory purifies practice, by stripping it of its delusory and therefore truly impractical excesses. Once theory has helped practice to become more perfectly itself, theory itself celebrates practice, and sends us back to work with a renewed energy.
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