Leisure and the Catholic Family

Two talks held at the Carmelite Convent in
Glumslöv, Sweden, 2009, February 28


by Clemens Cavallin (1)


I am honoured to have been asked to hold a talk here at the Carmelite convent. What I will offer you today will be something arising from my own life, placed as it is in the middle of the world. It is not on the same level, when it comes to spiritual matters, as your whole-hearted dedication to God in contemplation. The temptation on my part is then, when standing here, perhaps contrary to expectations, to become silent and listen to you: assuming a contemplative stance of my own so to speak. Nevertheless, I will, in an act of obedience, remain a representative of the vita activa, offering you not well-defined teachings, but material for reflection; thoughts given from one friend to another friend within a larger conversation.

The more specific request was whether I could present the basic thoughts of Josef Pieper’s essay on leisure, and I will begin to do that shortly, but when preparing that talk it evolved into a more general discussion on how to live in accordance with the Catholic tradition in the late modern world. This context not only more often than not constitutes an alien environment for the Catholic social and cultural project, but has also to a significant degree penetrated and transformed the interior of the church, and thus also us as individuals. As I see it, Pieper’s essay has many important insights to offer such a reflection on modernity and Catholic life. As a result, I decided to give you first a presentation of Pieper’s analysis of leisure and then a general discussion of how one can live today according to the tradition of the church, when we seem to have become thoroughly modern: modernity being precisely a repudiation of tradition to the benefit of a restricted form of human rationality.

Part I

A Catholic Understanding of Leisure

The basic malaise of the 21st century in the affluent parts of the world seems not to be Aids or cancer, but burnout, that is, unbearable levels of stress, which is ironic as wealth traditionally has enabled people to work less. And it seems that as we get richer we get more stressed. There are numerous attempts at addressing this, as spa weekends, slow food and yoga, but these solutions seem to function according to the same mechanisms that made stress so prevalent in the first place – a fast paced market ever striving to become more cost effective, with the ultimate goal of this efficiency constantly deferred. The escape routes from the strictures of impersonal economical optimizing which are on offer are in themselves commodities, advertised and consumed. It is as though modernity carries within itself some seeds which when maturing bring forth this grim inhuman harvest of overwhelming work. The resources for understanding this phenomenon are strangely absent within modernity and postmodernity itself: our present cultural discourse has great difficulties in laying bare the mechanisms that give birth to this modern form of total work, while paradoxically the resources to live a life of leisure is at hand as never before.

It is thus interesting to note that such a penetrating analysis was actually made within a Catholic context already in the first half of the 20th century. I think it would serve us well as Catholics to take it seriously, as we need to understand the processes of modernization. Otherwise it will be hard to extricate ourselves from the destructive qualities inherent in the structural pressure exerted upon us. These reflections on modernity – that I will later argue are so necessary for the Catholic social and culture project – are presented in an unpretentious little book by the name Leisure: The Basis of Culture written by the German neo-thomist Josef Pieper in the years immediately following World War II. This context is eminently suitable to the theme of the second part of my talk, that is, the reconstructing of a social structure, which in Pieper’s case was Germany after the terrible spell cast by Nietzschean modernity: the godless worship of human strength. That situation is in many ways parallel to the contemporary project of rebuilding the catholic family and with it the church as a totality; the ruins of devastated family projects are all around us, a family-scape much alike the cityscape of Berlin in 1945.

Pieper begins with addressing the seemingly misplaced focus on leisure, when the task laying before the German people is that of hard work in the effort of rebuilding, actually remaking their country as a modern liberal democracy:

To “build our house” at this time implies not only securing survival, but also putting in order again our entire moral and intellectual heritage. And before any detailed plan along these lines can succeed, our new beginning, our re-foundation, calls out immediately for…a defence of leisure.(2)

A defence of leisure brings us immediately to the problem of the intellectual divide that lies between premodern and modern ways of thinking, a feature that Alasdair Macintyre has made a point of in ethics; that is, although we may have the continuity of a word as ‘leisure’ or ‘virtue’, its meaning and connotations have changed.(3) There is a hermeneutic barrier introduced by the modern disavowal of tradition epitomized by the French revolution – during which even a new chronology was put into place, the revolution was thus the year 0; everything that came before was merely history. To recapture the meaning of leisure, we have to cross the hermeneutic barrier erected by modernity, and in this way gain a perspective of modernity from both sides so to speak, on the one hand from behind, from the premodern Christian culture, and, on the other hand, a view from ahead, from the reformulation of Christian tradition after late modernity. The latter perspective has all the advantages of hindsight, but faces the problem of disentangling itself from what came before, something which has to be achieved through an engagement with premodernity.

The notion of an intellectual worker is for Pieper a clear sign of the difference between the modern notion of work and that of the traditional Christian; the intellectual worker is “the modern ideal of work in its most extreme formulation.”(4) This proletarization of intellectual activity was well under way in the middle of the 20th century, but is in the 21st century carried through with a thoroughness that would have astounded even Pieper. The modern university is very quickly transforming itself into a system with absolutely no zones for leisure, everything should be measured, optimised according to narrow utilitarian criteria, which makes it very hard for the humanities to live up to their more lofty mission, making them more or less constantly lamenting the crisis of the humanities, without ever decisively finding the sources or clear structure of that crisis. At the same time, we see increasing levels of stress and burn out symptoms, a workaholic culture and some feeble attempts at addressing this with hedonistic forms of leisure. Even philosophy is now merely work in the service of useful activity, restricted to providing logical coherence to the sciences. The status of the liberal arts is precarious to say the least.

Pieper fights back this “unleashed ‘demonic power’ in history”(5) by reaching back to the synthesis of the Greek and Christian intellectual traditions achieved in the high Middle Ages. He chose to first highlight the distinction between ratio and intellectus, the two modes of human reasoning: the discursive and that of simply looking (contemplation, theoria). The latter is passive as it transcends the limits of the humanely possible; it is superhuman, allowing us a glimpse of what is beyond our natural reach; that which cannot be made into a commodity: it is the angelic intuitive form of gaining knowledge by direct vision. One could say that these two modes (ratio and intellectus) together furnish a model of rationality as a conversation with God.

Total work, which is Pieper’s word for the modern work ethos, implies a new version of what a human being is, a modern humanism which stands in a tensed relation to the classical Christian humanism. Our cognitive capacity is limited to ratio, to intellectual work, while the receptive, passive superhuman intellectus, the contemplative aspect of human cognition is lost or subdued. What appears is a new kind of man, the man of total work, who does not recognise any windows opening up to transcendence; it is a humanism with an inbuilt principle of despair. This modern man is a being totally devoted to economical action, buying, selling manufacturing, not allowing himself even a glimpse of what lies beyond the reach of the busy discursive reason. There is no room on the agenda for such useless activities, as what exists has been limited to the realm of ratio, everything beyond that is mere daydreaming.

And when we look into the face of the “worker,” it is the traits of  “effort” and “stress” that we see becoming more pronounced there and, so to speak, permanently etched. It is the mark of “absolute activity”/…/(6)

In this way, also the intellectual worker, the philosopher, is completely subjected to ratio, no effortless contemplative vision is deemed possible. The modern intellectual is performing a function for society, carrying out a form of social service as a specialist. He or she cannot then through intellectus perform an activity which is good for its own sake, as this concerns things beyond the finite material realm, which has relevance beyond the society that the ‘intellectual’ is presently immersed within. This tension between a Christian humanism and a modern humanism has also great repercussions for how education is organized, that is, whether there are goals of education besides that of making students fit incumbents of functions and roles in society. The question is whether a human being is something more than a cog in the social machinery, and if the answer is yes, how this transcendence should be addressed in education. Some woolly idea of Bildung is not sufficient as it lacks any real substance of what this formation should consist in, besides gaining a repertoire of useful cultural knowledge in order not to be embarrassed at the cocktail party. And no return to a literary canon will suffice as for the children of the revolution the whole notion of classics is suspect and arbitrary and for the grandchildren of the revolution it is incomprehensible. The canon is replaced by a plethora of contingent ranking lists, as a canon is part of a living tradition not a list reached by cool deductive reasoning or subjective whim. The value of philosophical and literary works is then deemed to reside in their concrete contributions to the smooth functioning of the social system with its immanent goals, or they serve merely to provide temporary forms of entertainment.

If we continue to follow Pieper through his text, we have now arrived at part III, which opens with a summarizing description of the ‘Worker’ which is characterized by three features: ”an outwardly directed, active power; an aimless readiness to suffer pain; an untiring insertion into the rationalized program of useful organization.”(7) For such a heroically modern person, leisure is merely another name for idleness and laziness. Pieper, through his mining of the texts of the high Middle Ages for cultural principles important for social reconstruction, turns this modern opposition on its head and argues that from the Christian perspective, leisure is actually the opposite of laziness. That idleness is in fact connected to a lack of leisure. Acedia, idleness, one of the seven deadly sins, refers to that the human being has rejected the intention of God for his existence, that “he does not want to be what God wants him to be, and that means that he does not want to be what he really, and in the ultimate sense, is.(8) So, Pieper proposes that the opposite of idleness is not the daily business of making a living, but “the cheerful affirmation by man of his own existence, of the world as a whole, and of God – of Love, that is, from which arises that special freshness of action, which would never be confused by anyone with any experience with the narrow activity of the ‘workaholic.’ ”(9) From acedia thus springs restlessness and despair, while leisure is the opposite of the ‘worker’ principle and provides a stillness that makes possible a receptiveness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality, and recognising the mysterious character of the world – a stance which stands in contrast to the anthropocentric use value attributed to the world by the maximising rational consumer.(10)

From this old, but new in the sense of rediscovered, meaning of idleness and leisure, Pieper can connect leisure with the festival, which forms the natural culmination of a spirit of affirmation, instead of consuming. The festival characterised by leisure is not there for work, as the modern vacation, but leisure together with contemplation is on a higher plane than the active life – a higher level without which the human being loses its humanity. The festivals of the materialist thus even for himself contain a claustrophobic atmosphere, ‘is this really everything,’ and when the goods are consumed leaves a yawning feeling of emptiness. Or its diminutive character bordering on the ridiculous makes any real feeling of festival impossible as in the Swedish ‘kanelbullens dag’ (the day of the cinnamon bun). The festival having leisure, the principle of affirmation both of the earthly and heavenly, as its foundation, on the other hand, is characterized by having at its centre religious worship, building upon that segments of space and time are given over to the gods. Worship thus punctuates both the geography and the rhythms of time with zones of holiness, sources of sacred power. These breaks from work are not there for work, but instead work is ordered to this higher level, so we work for leisure, we are not at leisure in order to be able to work. Pieper continues to press on to the heart of the matter and within worship he brings out sacrifice as the principle at the centre of worship and hence of the festival. Sacrifice, which is a voluntary giving up of goods, is impossible to understand for the modern rational man other than as a concealed business transaction according to the principle of do ut des or as an irrational waste of resources. Sacrifice is a giving up what is lower for something higher and manifests its highest form in love, when one gives up everything out of a pure act of disinterested love – a strange notion for modern man, other than as an intoxication of strong feelings that temporarily put his ratio out of function. Pieper’s conclusion is that “culture lives on worship,”(11) which means that the cinnamon bun cannot in itself provide a source of life for Swedish culture – it has to be sacrificed for something higher beyond society itself.

Having reached this point, Pieper engages in a reflection on his own probing of the catholic understanding of leisure, entering a meta-reflexive level. The essay was thus, according to him, not intended for an immediately practical purpose in accordance with his own characterization of philosophy as based on leisure, but it was made in order to encourage reflection. An activist stance toward leisure is, therefore, doomed to failure, because leisure is an activity that is not work in the sense of human industriousness, but it is like contemplation a readiness for receiving; it is a celebration not an agenda. The goal of leisure lies beyond the Catholic project; it is located in its transcendent goal which can be affirmed, but not merited nor comprehended in its totality. Pieper’s insights when contrasting the modern totalitarian work ethos with the Christian sense of leisure open up for the consideration of the importance of leisurely activities as art, philosophy and contemplative prayer, which are necessary to avoid the dangers of activism, human pride and despair. Celebrating is thus not merely a break from work, as in a party, or a social event like the Nobel dinner, but a rejoicing in the transcendent origin and destiny of the human being. Christian humanism gives the highest value to what seems to be useless for the utilitarian other than as recreation (the re-creation of the working man), or as an indulging in subjective pleasure or as an eccentric hobby. Although in the current cultural climate the problem of the total worker is recognized perhaps with greater insight than in 1940s, the immanentist humanism of the secularized west cannot offer a remedy that escapes the basic structure of total work. The radical alternatives are despair or wilful self-destruction in an irresponsible escapism.

Pieper’s essay on leisure has provided us with a glimpse into the riches of the Catholic tradition, but it has also highlighted the reconstructive work necessary for finding and living according to such principles. If we look around us within the Church, we will see how the ethos of total work is not absent: there are many signs of activism that disregards both worship and contemplation. This is all the more grave, I believe, as we cannot afford to take lightly his insights if we want to present a trustworthy witness in a world entangled in the web of utilitarian reasoning and mindless entertainment.


Clemens Cavallin is Senior Lecturer and Associate Head of Department for Internationalization at the Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. He is Visiting Instructor of Religion & STINT Fellow in the Department of Religion at Haverford College, Pennsylvania, during the fall semester 2013.  Dr. Cavallin’s research interests are broad and include Hinduism, Ritual theory and Catholic Studies. His thesis The Efficacy of Sacrifice (2002) was within the first field, more precisely focusing on Vedic sacrifices, while his second book, Ritualization and Human Interiority (2013) is within the second field of ritual theory. He is presently working on a biography of the Canadian Catholic artist and author Michael O’Brien.

Part II

(1)I did not give this talk in my capacity as associate professor at the University of Gothenburg, but as being a lay member of the Catholic Church, and it was addressed to professed nuns in a convent. The teachings of the Catholic Church are thus here taken for granted; something which cannot be done in my role as teacher and researcher at a secular state university. The talk has been slightly modified compared to the original version.

(2) Pieper, Josef. Leisure, the Basis of Culture (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 1998), 3.

(3) Macintyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: a study in moral theory (Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ. of Notre Dame P., 1981).

(4) Pieper Leisure, 8.

(5) Pieper Leisure, 37

(6) Pieper Leisure, 14.

(7) Pieper Leisure, 27.

(8) Pieper Leisure, 28.

(9) Pieper Leisure, 29.

(10) Pieper Leisure, 31.

(11) Pieper Leisure, 57.

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