School, work, and leisure now designate three distinct spheres of human activity. The opposition between work and leisure is obvious. Leisure is the time not occupied by our work, our free time, when we may do as we choose. School and work are related by a similar opposition. School is preparatory to work. Once we have finished our formal schooling, we are qualified for a particular kind of work. We thus embark upon a professional career.
But what about the relation between school and leisure? As with many words, the etymology reveals surprising significance.
The word school derives ultimately from the Greek word σχολή (scholē), which means “leisure, rest, ease.” But scholē can also refer to a “school.” And so the phrase σχολὴν ἔχειν (scholēn echein) can mean either “to have leisure” or “to keep a school.”
School, it turns out, is not always, or not only, preparatory to work. In fact, according to Aristotle, we “engage in work for the sake of being at leisure.” (ἀσχολούμεθα … ἵνα σχολάζωμεν, ascholoumetha … hina scholazōmen) (Nicomachean Ethics, book 10.7: 1177b).
Or, more literally, “we suffer the absence-of-leisure for the sake of being at leisure.” For the Greek verb that means “to work” (ascholeō)—like the noun for “work” (ascholía)—is formed from the word for leisure (scholē). The initial alpha of each word (“alpha privative”) indicates the negation or privation of the stem.
This means that the thing of primary reality to the Greeks was leisure (scholē); work (ascholía) was merely leisure’s absence. Where we tend to think of leisure as the absence of work, the Greeks turned the familiar opposition around. Leisure was primary; work was, literally, “not-leisure.”
The etymology of the word school (or rather of its German cognate Schule) is the point of departure for Josef Pieper’s brilliant essay Leisure, the Basis of Culture. Writing to his fellow Germans in the aftermath of World War II, Pieper endeavors to recall his readers’ attention from the pressure of daily life, and daily work, to the roots of European civilization—roots which, Pieper eloquently insists, can only receive their vital nourishment from leisure.
Crucial to Pieper’s argument is a distinction he makes at the outset between intellectual work and intellectual vision. “What happens,” he asks, “when our eye sees a rose? What do we do when that happens?” Do we observe and study it, counting and measuring its various features, in the manner of a botanist? Or is there not also simply a “relaxed” looking?
… simply looking at something, gazing at it, “taking it in,” is merely to open our eyes to receive the things that present themselves to us, that come to us without any need for “effort” on our part to “possess” them. (p. 9)
Is there not an analogous kind of intellectual “looking”: a faculty of the mind analogous to the eye’s simple gaze?
Pieper regards the view of Immanuel Kant as representative of a modern tendency to treat the life of the mind as exclusively the domain of work—the botanist’s counting, measuring view of the rose. Pieper quotes Kant’s claim that “the law of reason is supreme, whereby property is possessed through labor.” Knowledge is simply the product of intellectual work. The more one labors, and the more difficult the task, the greater one’s share of the domain of knowledge.
On the other hand, opposed to Kant’s view, is a long tradition of distinguishing between ratio and intellectus:
Ratio is the power of discursive thought, of searching and re-searching, abstracting, refining, concluding [cf. Latin dis-currere, “to run to and fro”], whereas intellectus refers to the ability of “simply looking” (simplex intuitus), to which the truth presents itself as a landscape presents itself to the eye. The spiritual power of the human mind, as the ancients understood it, is really two things in one: ratio and intellectus: all knowing involves both. (p. 11)
While the distinctive mark of ratio is an active, even aggressive, exertion, the “untiring vision” of intellectus “is not active but passive, or better, receptive—a receptively operating power.”
Moreover, our recognition (or neglect) of the receptivity of the intellect in the act of knowing has implications for our attitude towards knowledge itself—influencing whether we regard knowledge as akin to private property (the product of ratio) or a good available to, and able to be shared by, all—a gift received by intellectus:
… if knowing is work, exclusively work, then the one who knows, knows only the fruit of his own, subjective activity, and nothing else. There is nothing in his knowing that is not the fruit of his own efforts; there is nothing “received” in it. (p. 14)
Having established the difference between ratio and intellectus, Pieper next broadens his focus to consider the place of different kinds of knowing in modern society. He addresses in particular the redescription of the life of the mind—once considered a “liberal” pursuit—as “intellectual labor”—its sole measure being its contribution to the common utility.
Pieper here makes use of another traditional distinction—between what were once called “liberal” and “servile” arts.
“Liberal arts” … are ways of human action which have their justification in themselves; “servile arts” are ways of human action that have a purpose outside of themselves, a purpose, to be more exact, which consists in a useful effect that can be realized through praxis [action, activity]. The “liberality” or “freedom” of the liberal arts consists in their not being disposable for purposes, that they do not need to be legitimated by a social function, by being “work.” (22)
Pieper’s criticism of the notion of “intellectual labor” is that it eliminates the possibility of “liberal arts”—ways of human action that are intrinsically good, good in themselves, of value and delight quite apart from serving any useful function.
Pieper sees in modern life an exaltation of what he calls “the worker type,” which is characterized by three predominant qualities: 1) “an outwardly directed, active power”; 2) “an aimless readiness to suffer pain”; 3) and “an untiring insertion into the rationalized program of useful social organization.” (27)
With each quality of the “worker type” Pieper contrasts particular qualities of leisure:
Turning from a consideration of the older and richer significance of leisure Pieper’s essay culminates in a meditation upon the origin and fundamental meaning of the word culture. In brief, Pieper insists that there can be no genuine leisure without cult—religious worship: “if celebration and festival are the heart of leisure, then leisure would derive its innermost possibility and justification from the very source whence festival and celebration derive theirs. And this is worship” (50).
Or more succinctly: “Worship is to time as the temple is to space” (52).
Pieper considers Latin templum and Greek temenos—words meaning “sacred precinct” or “temple”—which both derive from a verb that means to “cut off” in order to separate:
a definite physical space has been “cut off” by enclosure or fencing from the rest of the land, whose surface was divided up for farming or other uses. These sectioned-off spaces were handed over to the possession of the gods and were not inhabited or planted but were removed from all practical use. Just so, through religious festival and for the sake of religious festival, or “cult,” from day-to-day time a definite period was separated off, and this period of time, no otherwise than the ground-surfaces of the temple and places of sacrifice, would not be used, and would likewise be kept from use. (52–53)
In contrast with a world of total work wholly devoted to the principle of rational utility, a world which leaves no room for “useless” time, religious festival opens up “a space of abundance and wealth.”
This is because sacrifice is at the center of festival. What is sacrifice? It is voluntary, a gift that is offered, and certainly not usefulness, but the very opposite of usefulness. Thus in the very midstream of worship, and only from there, comes a supply that cannot be consumed by the world of work, a space of uncountable giving, untouched by the ever-turning wheel of buying and selling, an overflow released from all purpose, and an authentic wealth: it is festival time. (53–54)
Pieper’s insistence on the inseparable connection between cult and culture may seem strange to us. It is not hard to find present examples of cult (in the sense of “worship”) bereft of any signs of culture. On the other hand, many pursuits of high culture now seem alien to religious cult. But as is still apparent from their verbal form, cult and culture share a common origin: the Latin verb colō, which means, first, “to cultivate, till, tend, take care of a field, garden, etc.”
Colō is the Latin verb for caring—caring that perceives the good of some thing or person and then preserves, supports, and nurtures that good. It involves the recognition of a natural order that is given—but one that needs our attentive help to be preserved and to flourish. Cult and culture belong together. The grateful, loving praise which is the essential act of worship should find a natural outlet in the manifold acts of loving care that create and sustain genuine culture.
Hot of the press is my friend and colleague Chris Shannon’s latest book: American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey through Catholic Life in a New World. From the dust jacket:
In scope, American Pilgrimage narrates the story of the Church from the dramatic efforts at evangelization in the colonial period, to the Catholic urban villages of the immigrant Church, to the struggles to reimagine tradition in the late-20th century. In shape, it follows this story through the Augustinian contours of the ongoing struggle between the City of God and the City of Man—a struggle that takes place between the Church and the world, within the Church itself, and within the soul of every Christian.
I got the idea for this newsletter from the newsletter of Prof. Alan Jacobs, Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University. I have long followed and admired his writing and wish to acknowledge a very general, but very deep debt of gratitude to him and his work. You can subscribe to his newsletter “Snakes & Ladders”—now on a temporary hiatus but with occasional surprise issues—here. He also writes a regular blog and publishes widely on a great variety of topics. Here are few of his recent essays: “Something Happened By Us: A Demonology”, “Recovering Piety”, “The Watchmen”; and one not so recent: “Beyond the Wild Wood”. And for help achieving a more tranquil mind amid the pressing troubles of the present, read his most recent book: Breaking Bread with the Dead.
Another newsletter very much worth following is Sara Hendren’s wonderfully insightful undefended / undefeated. In her own words, the newsletter is about:
ideas at the heart of material culture—the everyday stuff in all our lives…. If you’re interested in thinking more deeply about the things all around you—high-tech and low-tech artifacts, domestic and professional products, the tiny details and big systems that arrive in the form of our tangible worlds—you’re in the right place.
See her latest issue (an audio version), in which she graciously and clearly answered a question I had sent her about the topic of her previous issue, social practice art. If her newsletter catches your interest, read her book What Can A Body Do? How We Meet the Built World or watch this lecture in which she summarizes much of her work.
My thanks to Luke Maschue for sending Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation of Virgil’s first Eclogue into English dactylic hexameter. Very cool, and very difficult to do. Here are the first stanzas of the Latin and of the translation:
Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena;
nos patriae fines et dulcia linquimus arva.
nos patriam fugimus; tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas.
TITYRUS, thou in the shade of a spreading beech tree reclining
Meditatest, with slender pipe, the Muse of the woodlands.
We our country’s bounds and pleasant pastures relinquish,
We our country fly; thou, Tityrus, stretched in the shadow,
Teachest the woods to resound with the name of the fair Amaryllis.
Dominic Mosley has been busy translating Latin hymns into English poetry. He graciously shared some of his recent work, which I posted here. Here is an excerpt:
Resonemus et can-
Insigni nunc sympnonia
Sing with hearts made merry
Joy is necessary
Evermore in praising
To the Trinity.
I hope you share my delight in Dominic’s use of the adjective “alleluiatic.” “Alleluiatic symphony”—what a wonderful phrase!
My thanks to Felicity Egan for telling me about Latin Wordle. What a blast! Give it a try, if you haven’t already.
I wrote an essay recently over at Antigone Journal: “Socrates on the Blessing of Being Refuted.”