Freedom Through Leisure in ‘Leisure: The Basis of Culture’

A philosopher explains how man's spiritual nature makes laziness and idleness the complete opposite of leisure
April 23, 2021 Updated: April 23, 2021

We are a society that all too often focuses on work, but do we ever stop and think about rest and leisure? What constitutes work, and for that matter, what exactly is leisure?

German philosopher Josef Pieper (1904–1997) delves deeply into this question in his classic work, “Leisure: The Basis of Culture.” Here, Pieper demonstrates that “overvaluing the sphere of work” in our lives is detrimental to individual lives and culture at large. He doesn’t suggest there’s no value in labor. However, we do have to ask to what end are we toiling?

The culture is affected by an attitude that places work above everything else. In fact, culture ceases to exist if work is the only thing that drives the machinery of life.

As Pieper writes, “Culture depends for its very existence on leisure, and leisure, in its turn, is not possible unless it has a durable and consequently living link with the cultus, with divine worship.” The impact of focus on work and a neglect of leisure clearly has spiritual consequences for Pieper. If we fail to nourish the spirit, then work too will become meaningless. Work only has meaning if it contains a link to leisure.

There are too many instances in our society in which leisure is associated, if not fully equated, with laziness or idleness. But for Pieper, this kind of state is a complete opposite of leisure because it denies that man has a spiritual dimension to his life. “Leisure,” writes Pieper, “it must be clearly understood, is a mental and spiritual attitude—it is not simply the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend, or a vacation. It is, in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul.”

Pieper understands that human beings are endowed with interiority, and in order to live a deep life, they must engage in contemplation. A person who experiences leisure is open to the world, and more importantly, to creativity. When we force rest on ourselves, there is a little chance that our minds will be open to the unfolding reality of life before us.

Throughout his book, Pieper conveys the idea that man is a fragmented being if he lives only for work. Leisure is a sphere of life in which “the truly human values are saved.” More than anything, leisure allows man to be whole and free.

“Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” by Josef Pieper, 1952.

Emina Melonic writes about books, films, and culture. Her work has been published in The New Criterion, Claremont Review of Books, Law and Liberty, and Splice Today, among others.