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The Basis of Culture

By Josef Pieper
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Leisure by Josef Pieper

Leisure (1952) takes you back in time to learn how leisure played a central role in society, creating a space for both divine worship and intellectual contemplation. These blinks reveal the oppressive paradigm of total work that emerged in the post-war world and present a case for bringing leisure back into our lives.

Key idea 1 of 6

The post-war world drastically altered society’s understanding of leisure.

When was the last time you were truly at leisure? For many professionals, the notion of spending time with a non-work activity you love has all but disappeared.

While we might count a casual meeting with clients over lunch or a holiday in which you check your emails hourly as leisurely, the original meaning of leisure was different.

Leisure and work were once simply two different ways to spend time. For ancient Greeks, taking time to broaden your intellectual horizons was a true example of a leisure activity. The ancient Greek word for leisure is “skole.” Modern English transformed that word into meaning a place of learning, or “school.”

Ancient Greeks too held clear ideas on the relationship between work and leisure, reflected in the saying, “We are un-leisurely in order to have leisure.”

In sum, work was something to be done to make time for the good things in life. In fact, the only word the ancient Greeks used for daily work was “a-scolia,” essentially the negative form of the word for leisure. Work was the opposite of leisure, and leisure was the center of life and society.

By the twentieth century, things had changed drastically with the concept of “total work.” Now life revolved around hard work with little time for leisure.

In the years following the two world wars, this “total work” concept gave strength to individuals and families as they rebuilt homes, cities and lives. Consider sociologist Max Weber’s famous turn-of-phrase describing the findings of his 1934 study on capitalism: “One does not work to live. One lives to work.”

In the next blinks, we’ll dive deeper into the contrast between ancient and modern ideas of work and leisure, starting with differing takes on the nature of intellect.

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