Leisure under Attack

by Penrod

I spoke with a person the other day who said that psychologists are lazy. "How about philosophy and philosophers?" I asked. "Oh Ish! Another lazy bunch." She was adamant that the state's contribution to education should not be used to subsidize "soft" things such as music, art classes, literature, etc., except perhaps as minors. The money should be spent on useful things—science, business, technological development, medicine, and the like.

Being both a psychologist and a philosophy major, I don't expect she thought highly of me. Talk about lazy! I only owned up to one of the two.

Though some contend that listening attentively is harder work that meets the eye, there's a lot to what my friend had to say. A person's body feels differently after a day in a chair in contrast to, say, a day digging ditches. But I disagree with my friend about the value of the "soft" stuff—of the liberal arts. The most precious value of education in the liberal arts for me lies in what it does to enrich personal life. It provides context for understanding, enhances the opportunities to enjoy life, and it enables increased appreciation for life. The educational tradition that supports these values, though under attack from many quarters in our time, has a long, venerable history.

Josef Pieper has written a book Leisure the Basis of Culture. Pieper asserts that the aim of human life is leisure and that the fruits of life, music, culture, personal understanding, and other ingredients for personal life are created out of conditions of leisure. He is illuminating and writes masterfully.

If one is convinced along these lines, he or she is aware of how easily the goal of leisure is ignored in favor of seemingly more pressing things. The problem is not the attention or activity required by some pressing matter, the problem is the shift of values that so easily comes with it. In the shift, leisure is no longer a legitimate aim, we cannot afford to think about such things under pressing circumstances. Short-term needs preempt long-term concerns with this shift of values. In light of the cost of needed military action, for example, efforts to curb environmental pollution take a back seat. Even though short term requirements may well increase long-term, world-wide problems, short term goals must take precedence. Isn't this unwise?

Challenges to the convictions about the central importance of leisure come in the form of questions like: Do I have the right to all the pleasantness required for the pursuit of leisure? Are there more pressing needs that preempt leisure's justification? Do I realize that someone must do the work? Is my leisure gained, as so often leisure has been, at the expense of slaves or the poor? Can I justify leisure in the midst of the dire needs of so many humans?

Though these are important questions, at this level of protest they are simply a bit of chatter. Leisure is not the same as idleness or absence of urgency. Leisure is frequently filled with vigorous activity. Leisure provides the soil for creativity and for building human civilization which is a central human objective. Read Pieper. Perhaps my friend won't get past the title, but you will be glad if you do.