Category Archives: Unpublished Work

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.

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The Collected Poems of Northrop Frye


1.  In letter to Helen Kemp, 15 July 1932.

A man with a bad case of phthisis

Kept asking his family for phkhisses

Until his wife said,

“You can’t see your head

So you don’t know how rotten your phphiz is.”


2.  In letter to Helen Frye, 5 January 1939.

I could fly as straight as an arrow,

To visit my wife over there,

If I could excrete my marrow,

And fill my bones with air.


3.  Sonnet written on Frye’s 23rd birthday (14 July 1935).  In a letter to Roy Daniells.  Frye refers to it as “horrible doggerel, like all of my alleged poetry.”

Milton considered his declining spring

And realized the possibility

That while he mused on Horton scenery

Genius might join his youth in taking wing;

Yet thought this not too serious a thing

Because of God’s well-known propensity

To take and re-absorb inscrutably

The lives of men, whatever gifts they bring.

Of course I have a different heritage;

I’ve worked hard not to be young at all,

With fair results; at least my blood is cooled,

And I am safe in saying, at Milton’s age,

That if Time pays me an informal call

And tries to steal my youth, Time will get fooled.


4.  Among the annotations Frye made in his copy of The Wisdom of Laotse (1948, trans. Lin Yutang) is this holograph verse at the end of chapter 4.

Laotse’s Commentary of Genesis

In the beginning God created heaven and earth.

That was where the trouble started.

Before, there was chaos,

Which is what the wise man still seeks.

He divided light from darkness, dry land from sea,

But we got sea and darkness anyway.

Silly blundering old bugger,

Why couldn’t he have left well enough alone.


5.  Among the annotations to Frye’s copy of Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, this couplet scribbled in the margin of page 153.

When night lets fall her sable hood

How may one know which dame one scrood?

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