Matthew Minerd, PhD. reflects on the Homiletic & Pastoral Review on leisure, as the basis of everything.
At the start of every semester, I know that I will need to undertake a kind of philosophical apologetics. I need to make my students see that philosophy is important. Indeed, it is really a matter of making them see that it actually exists, let alone that it is important! Thus, I need to induce some wonder into my students. This is done with relative ease by using Aristotle’s shocking claim in Politics 8.3: “As I must repeat once again, the first principle of all action is leisure.”1 With some success, this text adequately surprises my students, giving them a salutary bit of astonishment and, hopefully, a quick sight of that elusive beast—philosophical wisdom. Indeed, the very philosophizing born of such wonder is leisurely, above utility or usefulness:
It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize. . . . And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant (whence even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of wisdom, for myth is composed of wonders); therefore since they philosophized in order to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end.2
For those who have read (or, at least, have heard of) Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture, this theme is likely familiar.3 Still, the matter is important and always deserves reflection anew. It is human to want to be Martha, but what is most Divine in us—whether naturally or supernaturally—is that which is like unto Mary who sits contemplatively at our Lord’s feet (Lk. 10:38-42).
Aristotle’s own passage from the Politics serves as a very accessible text for reflecting on this matter. We will use it as our point of departure, and reflect on its implications not only for our curriculum, but, above all, its implications regarding the most important aspects of human activity.
The remarks come as Aristotle is considering how the youth should be educated—an important matter in the life of the city! In the passage in question, he notes that the customary education of his day has the students working on reading, writing, gymnastics, drawing, and music. With almost deceptive subtlety (or, really, limpid clarity) he sets aside everything except for music. He is not worried about questions of art appreciation or of literary education here. He is thinking of teaching basic skills that are useful for something else: “Reading and writing and drawing are regarded as useful for the purposes of life in a variety of ways, and gymnastic exercises are thought to infuse courage.”4
But, when he comes to music, there is some doubt about the matter. While many cultivate it for the sake of pleasure, this was not the reason why Athenian wisdom (according to Aristotle) placed it in the curriculum. No, he says, it was included there because nature aspires to something that is above usefulness: “But originally, it was included in education, because nature herself, as has been often said, requires that we should be able, not only to work well, but to use leisure well.”5 Indeed, I recall Msgr. Robert Sokolowski translating this passage very literally from the Greek, making the point all the more striking: “But originally, it was given a place in paideia because nature itself seeks: not only to be rightly fulfilling tasks, but also to ‘leisurize’ (σχολάζειν) nobly.”6
It is here that Aristotle makes the statement with which I like to shock my students: “The first principle of all action is leisure.” He then goes on to show that we work for the sake of leisure, and not vice-versa. While this seems to be self-evident, the regular confusion of my students stands as evidence that we do truly live in a world of nearly “total work,” a culture against which Pieper’s text marshals a formidable critique.7
It is very difficult to avoid understanding “leisure” as a form of relaxation or, even, “goofing off.” However, if we do not distinguish between leisure and relaxation, it will be impossible to avoid instrumentalizing the notion of leisure. Failing the articulation of leisurely activity as “that which is good in itself to do,” we will think all leisure is merely “rest” and that all “rest” is for the sake of work. Monday and the market will dominate all things, when, in fact, the pursuit of human (and Divine) goods should be the mark of all culture and all human activity—“ the first principle of all action is leisure.” It is leisure or slavery to the market and work—a kind of philosophical version of Christ’s words: “You cannot serve both God and money” (Mt. 6:24; Lk. 16:13).
But Aristotle wants to say that music is in the curriculum for a particular reason. To translate the matter to our own day, we could say that music is not in the curriculum to develop mathematical brain skills, to add to the young student’s resume, or merely to give a break during the school day. No, something nobler in us desires to experience music to the degree that we can. Though certainly finite, it is an honest good—a good-in-itself. Anyone who has somewhat experienced the beauty of a fugue by Bach knows well that sympathetically hearing (and perhaps playing) such things is truly human, nay almost divine. Such things are useless because they are above utility. I can express the matter no better than did Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange writing of metaphysical wisdom:
It follows from the definition given for wisdom that it has, like the truth that it knows, a value in and of itself, independent of the practical usefulness that may be derived from it, and from all material profit. If one says that it is “useless,” this is because it is above usefulness, and not because it is beneath it in dignity. Now, that which is above the useful and the delightful is the true and honest [good], which merits being loved for its own sake, independently from the advantages or enjoyment that one my find in it.8
Such discussions concerning leisure are not without warrant. Indeed, they are like the very seeds of a critique of much of our own curriculum. Merely consider how Aristotle’s remarks about the centrality of leisure can be marshalled as a warning to the well-meaning proponents of the “STEM” subjects (i.e., those of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). I once drove through a rather rundown city area, and saw a billboard bragging about the local school’s acquisition of a significant grant for encouraging these types of subjects in primary and secondary school. I wonder, however, what might be the ultimate outcome of the attitude that lionizes such disciplines that solely exist for the sake of practical and financial ends.
Strictly speaking, only two of those general categories, namely technology and engineering, readily fall into the practical-technical élan that so animates our society. I once read a commentary piece warning the proponents of STEM education that technology and engineering will risk overwhelming pure science and mathematics. The remark is well-founded. A friend who was studying for a Ph.D. in computer science once conveyed an insightful story on this point. As a young man, he wanted to study theoretical physics. However, his parents insisted that he pursue an engineering degree. He did so begrudgingly but craftily directed his studies so that he could work in theoretical image processing algorithms. His knowledge was still an applied kind of knowledge, but he did it for the love of the calculations above all else. He was looking for a kind of “scientific or computational leisure” (or at least quasi-leisure).
While it is all fine and good that we seek the betterment of the human condition, we tend to forget that not all things are for the sake of something else. The “good” is not merely limited to the useful. There is also the good that delights, and above all else, the honest and virtuous good, the bonum honestum. When all is said and done, we do not act so that we can seek. We seek so that we can find and, thereby, rest in the good that we have thus attained. Several examples are in order so that we can understand this well.
The first, and the most obvious, is the one that gives the broad thematic scope to Pieper’s claims. Do we work for the sake of leisure, or vice-versa? While many consider the Sunday football game to be a way of relaxing, thus perhaps getting ready for the coming week’s work, I doubt anyone would say that they live their familial life for the sake of work. Family life, though quite energetic, is also a true good-for-its-own-sake. It is leisurely in this sense. We do it because it is a true human good. (My students have insisted, however, that this can also be the case with watching football. I humbly defer to the experts in that matter, I suppose!)
Think, too, of the musician. There is something stultified about the organist whose only interest in his art is the earning of money. It is rare that we find this specimen, but perhaps we sometimes do find the organist who plays only to help at the small country church. Now, there is truly a kind of “moral leisure” involved in this activity, for while the organist is playing for the sake of something else (i.e., an act of religious worship), he or she is exercising the virtue of religion because this represents a true moral good. Still, when we think of the organist in abstraction, not as a man, but reduplicatively as such—the organist qua organist—we realize the great temptation to which the artist is exposed, namely of setting up the good of art as a domineering god that usurps the rights of the virtue of prudence (and, hence, the whole of the moral life):
What makes the conflict so bitter is the fact that Art is not subordinate to Prudence, as knowledge for instance is subordinate to wisdom, because of their objects. Nothing concerns Art but its objects; it has no concern whatever with subjects. Here is no definite line laid down as in the case of objective subordinations. Art and Prudence each claim dominion over every product of man’s hands. From the point of view of poetic or, if you will, working values, Prudence is not competent. From the point of view of human values, and the position of the free act, to which everything with regard to the subject is subordinate, there is no limitation upon its right to govern. To form a good judgment on the work, both virtues are necessary.
In finding fault with a work of art, the Prudent Man, firmly established upon his moral virtue, has the certitude that he is defending against the Artist a sacred good, the good of Man, and he looks upon the Artist as a child or a madman. Perched on his intellectual habit, the Artist is certain of defending a good which is no less sacred, the good of Beauty, and looks as though he were crushing the Prudent man under the weight of Aristotle’s maxim: Vita quae est secundum speculationem est melior quam quae secundum hominem. [The life that is lived according to knowledge is better than that lived according to the things of man.]9
It is only with the mastery springing from true sanctity that all such values are placed in their respective order, giving a true and holy meaning to human life! Nonetheless, the arts remain an honest good—indeed, they are like steps on the ladder that show us the beauty and grandeur of contemplation. Again, Maritain expresses the matter well:
Art teaches men the pleasures of the spirit, and because it is itself sensitive and adapted to their nature, it is the better able to lead them to what is nobler than itself. So in natural life, it plays the same part, so to speak, as the “sensible graces” in the spiritual life: and from afar off, without thinking, it prepares the human race for contemplation (the contemplation of the Saints) the spiritual joy of which surpasses every other joy, and seems to be the end of all human activities. For what useful purpose do servile work and trade serve, except to provide the body with the necessaries of life, so that it may be in a state fit for contemplation? What is the use of the moral virtues and prudence if not to procure that tranquility of the passions and interior peace which contemplation needs? To what end the whole government of civil life, if not to assure the exterior peace necessary to contemplation? “So that, properly considered, all the activities of human life seem to be for the service of those engaged in the contemplation of Truth” (cf. Aquinas, SCG, 3.37).10
There are many goods, many ends that are good for their own sake. Indeed, this situation will lead some, even minds of great strength, to wonder whether or not we can bring this unruly, multifaceted story into a unified narrative. How do we give a single aim without piously destroying all goods that fall short of the Good God of whom it is said, “No one is good but God alone” (Mk. 10:18; Lk. 18:19)? One feels well the situation once described by Yves Simon as he was describing the problem of the analogical predication:
Thus, in the issue of the divine names, the proposition, “Being, one, good, just, loving, and all terms expressing absolute perfections are predicated analogically of God and of creatures,” can be dispensed with, either by the agnostic method, or through a pious annihilation of the world. In all varieties of agnosticism, an affirmative proposition of which “God” is the subject is described as devoid of meaning. On the other hand, many metaphysicians and religious thinkers are driven, more or less consciously and consistently, by the very tendency to believe that being, goodness, and the other absolute perfections belong to God in such an exclusive fashion that they can never be predicated of a creature in an intrinsic way. The created world disappears into a vacuum, and it seems that God’s infinite perfection is fittingly exalted. All our metaphysical troubles are over. But not for long, since any such experience as that of pain or love or duty causes us again to touch the universe of finite perfection. It is the glory of Aquinas to have understood that the world of creatures, though caused out of nothing, ready to disappear into inexistence, and truly akin to nothingness, is full of reality, full of activity, full of life, and full of liberty.11
Well, we cannot solve the great problem of the union of the virtues in charity in this small article. Such lofty matters must be handled separately (and by proper theological authorities).12 Let us merely return again to our theme of leisure.
As he closes his excellent little text, Pieper proposes that human leisure is made justifiable by worship, above all divine worship:
The celebration of divine worship, then, is the deepest of the springs by which leisure is fed and continues to be vital—though it must be remembered that leisure embraces everything which, without being merely useful, is an essential part of a full human existence.13
It is understandable why Fr. Paul Scalia, in a talk based upon Pieper’s theme, included John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation, Dies Domini,14 as an ancillary reading. While profound Jewish thinkers such as Abraham Heschel and Aryeh Kaplan have expressed the way that the Sabbath is truly a gift of eternity in time,15 as Christians, we see the Day of the Resurrection as truly participating in the unchanging peace of eternity:
By contrast, the Sabbath’s position as the seventh day of the week suggests for the Lord’s Day a complementary symbolism, much loved by the Fathers. Sunday is not only the first day, it is also “the eighth day,” set within the sevenfold succession of days in a unique and transcendent position which evokes not only the beginning of time, but also its end in “the age to come.” Saint Basil explains that Sunday symbolizes that truly singular day which will follow the present time, the day without end which will know neither evening nor morning, the imperishable age which will never grow old; Sunday is the ceaseless foretelling of life without end, which renews the hope of Christians, and encourages them on their way. Looking towards the last day, which fulfills completely the eschatological symbolism of the Sabbath, Saint Augustine concludes the Confessions describing the Eschaton as “the peace of quietness, the peace of the Sabbath, a peace with no evening.” In celebrating Sunday, both the “first” and the “eighth” day, the Christian is led towards the goal of eternal life.16
And let us say with clarity—the Mass brings us into the eternal self-gift of the Crucified Christ to the Father. However, we must be careful not to confuse the wholly Divine action that comes to meet us in the Mass with our own act of religion by which we render to God some finite act of reverence. To make the subtle point clear, please indulge another lengthy quote, now taken from Jacques and Raïssa Maritain’s Liturgy and Contemplation:
To say that simple participation in the liturgical worship, no matter how attentive and exact one supposes it, carries the spiritual life to a more elevated degree than infused contemplation and, consequently, dispenses from all aspiration and preparation for it, would be to reverse the order of things, and to have a moral virtue—the virtue of religion—take precedence over the theological virtues, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
On the one hand, indeed, infused contemplation depends essentially on the theological virtues, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and is their common operation itself, through which the soul, carried into a superhuman mode of acting, is joined to God, and enters into the depths of God.
On the other hand, worship, and the liturgy, depend essentially on the virtue of religion; and the virtue of religion, as Saint Thomas teaches, having for its object not directly God Himself, but something to be done, certain acts to be accomplished with respect to God, and to honor God, is not a theological virtue; it is a moral virtue (ST II-II q.81 a.5), however eminent it may be (cf. ST II-II q.81 a.6), and therefore remains subordinate to the theological virtues (cf. ST II-II q.81 a.5, q.82 a.2 ad 1) and to the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (ST II-II q.81 a.2 ad 1).
Thus, liturgical worship is, in itself, an end of very great dignity; and yet there is a higher end—an end for which, and the longing for which, it must dispose souls. As we have noted earlier [in Liturgy and Contemplation, before this particular selection], liturgical worship implies the exercise of the theological virtues—it lives on faith, hope, and charity, which give rise to, and govern, the acts of religion. But of itself, it is a work—the noblest, most resplendent, and holiest work—of the moral virtue which is the virtue of religion. And it asks of those who take part in it that they ascend to the extent that they are able, towards that summit, where the theological virtues produce, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, an interior act which surpasses every operation of the human being externally manifested, in particular those operations which express, by voice and gesture, our union with the community of the faithful.
But is there not in Catholic worship something which surpasses the human order altogether? Yes, certainly. Not only, indeed, is it essential to Christian worship, to worship in spirit and truth, to put into play the three theological virtues; but God Himself intervenes in the worship which is rendered to Him, God Himself is present at the center of the liturgy. The center of the liturgy is Holy Mass, the sacrifice of the Cross perpetuated on the altar, the unbloody immolation in which, through the ministry of the earthly priest, the Eternal Priest offers Himself as a victim to His Father; the center of the liturgy is an act of an infinite and infinitely transcendent value, an act properly divine, without common measure with the highest works of grace in the human soul: because it is an act of God (using the instrumentality of the priest), not an act of man.17
Our ultimate attainment of happiness is not in an act that we undertake, but in a Vision that we will receive as an act of utter gratuity, not here in via but in patria. Having received that Vision, illuminated by the light of glory that will fortify our intellectual capacities,18 we will then rest, rejoice, and be at peace. This is the nature of Beatific Love—it rests in the Vision that we have attained (nay, rather, received, as the perfect gift from on high).19 Here below, we look for the glimmers in which the energetic stillness of that Vision is reflected. It is found above all in the Eucharist, but it is truly present (according to true and certain ways of analogy) in many other aspects of human life. The principle of Aristotle does hold at all the levels: “The first principle of all action is leisure.”
Of course, these words can only touch on some aspects of these great mysteries—ones that soar far above the level of the mere philosopher. I show, too, in enunciating them, that I hold the line with St. Thomas’s general account of the bliss of the Beatific Vision. Thomism is, of course, only one school, but as mine, I have presented the matter in this way.
However, for the sake of bringing us back to the philosophical level of our initial reflections, let us close with the words of Aryeh Kosman, an able interpreter of Aristotle. Having had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Kosman, I can attest that he is a true philosopher, and a man whose religious life as a son of Israel give a true, sapiential depth to his reading of Aristotle. Thus, I will end with his words, ones that express well the Divine Nature hidden in leisure.20 Think of it as being like catching a glimpse, albeit an infinitely distant one, of what we know by faith:
Mind represents living substance’s capacity to be determined by the object of consciousness while remaining itself, for the faculty of thought is the psychic power so to be determined without relinquishing determinate identity. This is what Aristotle means when he describes mind as impassive—ἀπάτης; it is incapable of being shaken in its identity (De Anima 3.4, 429a15-16, 430a18). It is this remarkable power of mind—the power to become all things and, yet, to remain steadfastly what it is—that makes it, I have argued, emblematic of the characteristic nature of substance. It is because of this that divine substance is not only the principle both of thinking and, in general, of the animate modes of awareness, but of substance itself.
One basic truth about animal substance has been slighted in this description. There is the truth of which I spoke [earlier in my text], the fact that we, at best, approximate the divine being that is at work being itself.21 But there is another side of this fact of which Aristotle speaks elsewhere. [He then cites On the Generation of Animals 2.1, 731b24-732a1.] . . .
There is thus for Aristotle another mode in which we reach for divine being. It is in the activities by which we engender and raise the young, something he observes in the De Anima, for whose sake animals do all that they do by nature, “In order that they might share in the eternal and the divine in the way in which they can” (De Anima 2.4, 415a30-415b1). This is an eros like the Platonic eros that nature has for its own perfected Form, but disposed diachronically in substance’s desire to reproduce itself. The emulation of divinity thus takes place in Aristotle’s view, not only in the activity of thinking, but in the activity of reproduction as well, in the complex biological social, and in our case, political and cultural acts by which substances pass on to their progeny the bounded activity of their mortal lives.22
Thus, adhering to the strictest laws of analogical predication, we can say in all things—from the most natural of familial activities to the eternal, supernatural bliss of the Beatific Vision—that leisure is not only the basis of culture; it is, indeed, “the first principle of all action.” Indeed, insofar as all beings are like finite refractions of the Divine Light, we can say, “The Eternal Leisure of God is the principle of all things.”
- Aristotle, Politics, 8.3 (1337b33). All selections from Aristotle are taken from The Complete Works of Aristotle, vol. 1 and 2, ed. Jonathan Barnes et al. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995). ↩
- Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1.2 (982b11-23). ↩
- Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Mentor-Omega, 1963). ↩
- Aristotle, Politics, 8.3 (1337b25-28). ↩
- Ibid., 1337b31. ↩
- Robert Sokolowski, “Aristotle’s Politics” (Lecture notes provided for PHIL 888, “Aristotle’s Politics,” The Catholic University of America, Spring 2013). ↩
- Yves Simon, ever the balanced and careful thinker, has some very good qualifying remarks that function as an excellent counterweight to Pieper. They both think from the general perspective of Aristotelianism, though Simon would qualify some of Pieper’s claims. See Yves R. Simon, Work, Society, and Culture, ed. Vukan Kuic (New York: Fordham University Press, 1986), 143-188. ↩
- Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Le sens du mystère et le clair-obsur intellectuel (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1934), 49 (my translation). ↩
- Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, trans. J.F. Scanlan (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1930), 66-67. ↩
- Ibid., 62-63. Of course, one can attenuate this by noting as well the maxim enunciated by St. Thomas concerning the fact that loving God is more noble than knowing him inasmuch as our knowledge of him (particularly in this life) is according to our mode of receiving that knowledge, while our love goes out to meet Him as He is. Maritain was well aware of this, so we must be kind to his rhetorical flourish. ↩
- Yves R. Simon, “On Order in Analogical Sets” in Philosopher at Work, ed. Anthony O. Simon (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 144. ↩
- See Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life: Prelude to Eternal Life, vol.1, trans. Sr. M. Timothea Doyle (St. Louis: Herder, 1947), 28-65. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Christian Perfection and Contemplation: According to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross, trans. Sr. M. Timothea Doyle (St. Louis: Herder, 1958), 129-146. ↩
- Pieper, Leisure, 60. ↩
- Fr. Paul Scalia, “Leisure the Basis of Culture,” accessed September 5, 2016 instituteofcatholicculture.org/talk/leisure-the-basis-of-culture. ↩
- See Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). Aryeh Kaplan, Sabbath: Day of Eternity (New York: National Conference of Synagogue Youth / Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, 1984). These texts are, each in its own way, profound reflections on this mystery. I forever owe a debt of gratitude to Fr. Stanley Markiewicz, O.S.B. for giving me the gift of Heschel’s text during a very difficult period of my life. It was light upon very dark days. ↩
- John Paul II, Dies Domini, n.26. ↩
- Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, Liturgy and Contemplation, trans. Joseph W. Evans (New York: P.J. Kennedy and Sons, 1960), 24-26. ↩
- See Aquinas, ST I q.12 a.2, a.5 ad 3, a.6, a.7. ↩
- The reader will likely benefit from Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998). ↩
- Granted, the reading (precisely by being faithful to Aristotle) is marked by the limits of a metaphysics of substance, as one finds in Aristotle. Whatever might be the temptation to critique this as a Thomist (for whom the distinction between existence and essence gives a new register to the Aristotelian understanding of act and potency), I believe that the great power of Aristotle’s thought is shown precisely in the fact that such lofty heights as these are reached by the Philosopher. ↩
- He does not mean to indicate that the Divine changes, of course, for that doesn’t reflect his precise point. Throughout the book in question, Kosman has been very careful to give an adequate sense of “act,” the energetic aspect of which he tries to capture by using “activity”—without confusing “activity” with motion or change. ↩
- Aryeh Kosman, The Activity of Being: An Essay on Aristotle’s Ontology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 233-234.