Frye’s Review of Joseph Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture


In a letter to David Cook, dated 17 October 1985, Frye wrote that he was asked to review Joseph Pieper’s book for “an American journal,” but “then they decided that it wasn’t the kind of book they wanted discussed in their columns” (NFF, 1991, box 3, file 1), so the review was never published. Immediately under the title Frye typed “Leisure, the Basis of Culture. By Josef Pieper. Translated by Alexander Dru with an Introduction by T.S. Eliot. Pantheon Books. 169 pp. $2.75.” The date is unknown, but it is no earlier than 1952, the year the Pantheon edition was published. Frye refers to the review in Notebook 35.94, which dates from 1953. The typescript is in the NFF, 1993, box 4, file 3, alongside a number of other papers Frye wrote in the 1950s. The review, which follows, was eventually published in Northrop Frye on Literature and Society, CW 10, 325–29, where it is annotated. (He has a talk on “Leisure and Boredom” in the same volume.)

Review of Joseph Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture

In possessing consciousness, man has an advantage over animals at least as great as animals have over plants. Instead of merely adapting himself to his environment, he can transform his environment, and can satisfy not only his needs but his wants or desires as well. Thus his consciousness fulfils itself in work, and modern life has stressed the moral duty to work until it has reached, in Marxism, the conception of the triumph of the worker as the ultimate destiny of men. Yet this plausible and appealing conception seems to destroy both liberty and culture wherever it is realized. The reason is that in this view of work man is still regarded as a clever animal, whose consciousness carries out the orders of subconscious wants, just as a monkey’s desire to eat a banana will force him to solve engineering problems to get one. The desire may be individual or social, but the monkey with his banana and the bee with his honeyed thigh represent the laissez faire and communistic aspects of the same principle. However (to supply a missing but essential link in Dr. Pieper’s argument), man’s consciousness includes the awareness that he is going to die, and society geared for total work or total competitive scramble becomes, unlike an insect state or a colony of apes, possessed by an increasing panic based on clock time, “work for the night is coming” being its constant motto.

When a man refuses to employ his consciousness as a function of his animal being, and turns it directly toward reality, trying to ask himself disinterested questions about reality, he has performed a fateful revolutionary act. He has refused to work, not because he is lazy, but because he wants to do something specifically human with his consciousness. The renunciation of work in favor of something more important is what Dr. Pieper means by leisure, and he will have none of the attempt to come to terms with the moral pressure to work by calling the philosopher an “intellectual worker.” The Greek word for leisure is schole, the root of our word school, and the author traces the association of culture and leisure in Plato, Aristotle, and the Bible (the Septuagint translation of the first two words of the verse in the Psalms, “Be still, and know that I am God” is scholasate, “have leisure”). The basis of the conception of leisure in Plato is the symposium: Dr. Pieper does not mention Plato’s deep interest in an ideal state in which every man is absorbed by a specific job, and does it under the dictatorship of an intellectual worker.

Leisure so defined is very different from most of the things called leisure, and one wishes that the author had made the distinctions clearer. It is not rest, not slothfulness (psychologically akin to frantic busyness, as he shows) and above all not distraction, or breaking the rhythm of a hysterical production of goods by a hysterical squandering of them. Dr. Pieper founds his case on the traditional distinction between liberal and servile (i.e., utilitarian) arts, and, like Newman before him, he avoids all the intricate problems of casuistry raised by what one may call the social tactics of leisure. How far, for instance, does leisure depend on Veblen’s non productive “leisure class,” who have to be supported by the rest of the community? Or, on the other hand, how far is it true that no one can really be a disinterested philosopher if he owes his leisure to a privileged place in a class structure? How does one demonstrate that one has the capacity for leisure? If one has it and supports oneself, what is wrong with being an “ intellectual worker” as far as one’s social position is concerned? These and other questions come to mind, and perhaps they prove how suggestive the author is, but let us return to what he does say.

The gospel of work implies that we look at both nature and ourselves solely in terms of productive capacity, so that everything we get out of nature, including the philosophy of the intellectual worker, we owe to our own energy. (A link between dialectical materialism and metaphysical idealism, of the “man is the measure of all things” variety, appears dimly in Dr. Pieper’s argument, but is not made explicit. It would be interesting to know how far Lenin’s attacks on Berkeley, for instance, were an attempt to shout down precisely this difficulty in Marxism.) As soon as we begin to philosophize in a state of leisure, we look at the world and ourselves as data, as something given to us, and we begin to wonder, and to ask the unanswerable child’s questions that start with “why?” Philosophizing develops from wonder, and in wonder there is a certain recovery of innocence, a renunciation of pride. Philosophy is a love of wisdom, and we do not love what we possess, except as self love. We become disinterested when we love something apart from what we can clutch and grab, and wisdom begins in backing away from the muddle of passion goaded dither that is servile work, and thus making order, quiet, balance, and an uncritical exposure of an open mind to an independent reality a part of our experience. But as this experience is not possessed by us, though it possesses us, we find our intelligence assimilating to a universal intelligence, and the wisdom that we love turns out to be God. In losing the panic of clock time we have been brought to conceive a timeless being.

The link between working society and the leisure that seeks God is remembering the Sabbath, the setting aside of specific times, not for rest, but for freedom from servile work and for the worship of the gods. The holiday (i.e., holy day) and its cult are the focus of the leisurely revolution by which religion transforms society into the pattern of its own vision of eternal peace. Christianity opposes to Marxism a conception of life rooted in leisure and reason which moves outward from the holy day and tries to prevent all social classes, especially the proletariat, from being totally possessed by servile work. This is linked with the aim of “deproletarianizing” society expressed in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno.

Now if one simply stopped there, one would be involved in the paradoxes of quietism: Molinos’ doctrine that to act is to offend God is not far from an antithesis of leisure and work. In Christianity contemplation is ultimately the same thing as charity, and Dr. Pieper’s thesis needs, to complete it, a theory of liberal work, showing how leisure reenters the active world and informs its activity. This is all the more necessary because modern glorifiers of labour are by no means incapable of distinguishing free from servile work. Even Carlyle made it clear that drudgery was not what he meant by work any more than “dandyism” was, and Ruskin and Morris, especially Morris, drew the inference that real work was a sequence of creative acts in a free life. One of the freshest and most attractive pictures in English literature of a world at leisure is Morris’s News from Nowhere, the vision of a Marxist with no religious attachments whatever. The artist needs leisure, for genius cannot be driven to servile work like a machine, but the proof that he is an artist is still in his work. The philosopher needs leisure, but he needs it to build up a habit of philosophizing, and the result of that is work. One is disappointed to find that Dr. Pieper’s second essay, “The Philosophical Act,” mainly repeats the thesis of the first one, in more conventionally Thomist terms, and relying on arguments drawn from the chain of being which the reader may not find very cogent. Such a sentence as “And that is why an animal’s environment is limited: because the essence of things is concealed from it” may make one wonder whether the production of circular verbalisms may not be one of the occupational hazards of leisure.

The book, which has been admirably translated and is written with great charm, seems to me a straightforward piece of Catholic apologetics. This means that I disagree with Mr. Eliot, who has done the book the great commercial service of writing an introduction to it, and says it is nothing of the kind. He argues that philosophy outside the Roman communion would still be a “genuine” philosophy for Dr. Pieper, though not a true one. But this hardly gets us very far: besides, Dr. Pieper does not commit himself on the status of non Roman philosophy: he merely says that philosophy will freeze into a static system unless it keeps a “window open” on theology, and that for the modern world a non- Christian theology is not practically possible. It is at this point that the problem of reconciling theology with philosophy, to which Mr. Eliot draws attention, shows up in Dr. Pieper’s argument.

Neither the author nor his introducer clearly says that theology and philosophy cannot be reconciled on equal terms. There is no such thing as academic theology: all theology is part of the strategy of a church, and has the rationalizing of that church’s claims as one of its primary interests. The philosopher as lover of wisdom, however, is by definition academic: he wants to preserve the innocence of his initial wonder, and wants to see his philosophy unfold, not follow the pattern of something else, even the “great tradition”—for Dr. Pieper, like Mr. Eliot, follows the fashion of making this phrase a euphemism for approximate orthodoxy. He will keep a window open on theology, and will understand the relation of the wisdom he loves to a divine Logos, but he will subordinate the Church’s interpretation of that Logos to his own love of it, and will try to understand, rather than to commit himself dialectically. The dilemma of the uncommitted philosopher (beautifully expressed in Berdyaev’s Solitude and Society and one of the organizing themes of Simone Weil’s Waiting upon God) is as acute as ever in spite of all the efforts of neo-Thomists and the more ham handed Kierkegaardians to isolate it as “humanistic,” “aesthetic,” and so forth. It may be possible to Christianity to have its God and eat Him too, but it is not yet possible for a Christian philosopher to choose either the committed religious or the disinterested intellectual path and still get all the benefits of both.

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2 thoughts on “Frye’s Review of Joseph Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture

  1. robert wade kenny

    I very much enjoyed this review and will slip a paper version into my copy of Leisure. For me, Frye gets to the heart of thinking beyond Pieper’s volume in the third paragraph. He also frames Pieper’s issues with his customary clarity — a clarity that, as he would say, “educates the imagination”. Frye is absolutely right that one must read Pieper both “alongside” and “across” him. But I would say the same of Frye or any other very serious thinker. So I certainly would not suggest overlooking the book because of the last few comments Frye makes.


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