Monday, September 18, 2020

Leisure Is the Meaning of Work

I don’t often agree with the English philosopher Roger Scruton. His views are too right wing for my taste. But I found myself nodding in vigorous agreement at this passage in his introduction to Leisure The Basis Of Culture by Josef Pieper:
We mistake leisure for idleness, and work for creativity. Of course, work may be creative. But only when informed by leisure. Work is the means of life; leisure the end. Without the end, work is meaningless—a means to a means to a means . . . and so on forever, like Wall Street or Capitol Hill. Leisure is not the cessation of work, but work of another kind, work restored to its human meaning, as a celebration and a festival.
We work to reach somewhere, to achieve something. If that somewhere and something is merely more work, we find ourselves stuck in a cycle without end. Work ends only in more work, for ever. That renders any work meaningless, just as eating purely for the sake of eating makes a nonsense of sitting down for a meal (and is the cause of most of the obesity in the developed world).

In many organizations, the reward for achievements at work is to be given more and harder work. You may call it promotion or advancement if you wish, but that is what it is: the reward for working hard is to be called upon to work harder. It comes, usually, with more money attached, but money is of little use if you have no leisure to enjoy spending it. Of course, your family may greatly enjoy spending your money, and have ample leisure to do so, courtesy of the effort you put in at work. I leave it to you to decide whether seeing them enjoying life while you labor is sufficient reward in itself.

When you think about it, even those who work selflessly to ensure their children have the finest education and the best chances in life are sometimes guilty of bringing about “work for ever and ever. Amen.” What future opportunities are they seeking to ensure for their children? Usually, they are working and hoping for a situation where each child gets a “good job;” which, of course, means condemning that child to working on and on throughout a lifetime to provide the same for his or her children . . . and so on, for ever and ever.

The meaning and end of work should not be more work. It should be some goal that transcends the means used to achieve it. Leisure, properly understood, is the freedom to enjoy life and the results of your labor: time not just to relax but to engage in all those humanizing and civilizing activities that make life work living. Without leisure, there can be no learning beyond the basic skills needed to work. No enjoyment of art, music, conversation, friendship, or love. None of the higher aspects of human life.

The restlessness of today’s work-for-working’s-sake culture has more to do with an inability to relax into the leisure we need to be fully human than any innate desire to get more money and possessions. We strive and strive because we cannot accept reality and our place within it. Instead, we toil to impose our will on the universe, to bend it to obey our wishes and demands. Of course, since we must inevitably fail in such an arrogant endeavor, all we get for our efforts is the opportunity to waste still more time and energy on trying to achieve the impossible . . . over and over again.

Leisure is the goal for which work is the means, not some unfortunate interruption in the tasks before us. Many people fail to take all their allotted vacation time, probably out of fear that “out of sight means out of mind,” and they will miss out on something while they are away. What will they miss? Mostly likely the chance to work still more. Time for leisure is the only true reward of work. Like everything else available to us, we may use that leisure well or poorly, to celebrate our humanity or reduce ourselves to brain-dead couch potatoes. Yet even the most limited use of leisure does not destroy its importance. It’s what life is for, after all.

I will leave the last word to Josef Pieper:
One the other hand, work itself, when deprived of its counterparts genuine festivity and true leisure, becomes inhuman: it may, whether endured silently or “heroically,” become a bare, hopeless, effort, resembl[ing] the labor of Sisyphus, who in fact is the mythical paradigm of the “Worker” chained to his labor without rest, and without inner satisfaction.

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Anonymous said...

Mr. Coyote,

It's a bit scary that every time I stop by your blog, there is an article which seems to hit home with respect to my situation. I suppose that alone may be speaking volumes about my current workplace :)

Having just finished the successful implementation of a major project, I've been told to look forward to -as you've predicted in your post- a new project with a complexity several orders of magnitude greater than the previous. This was supposed to be uplifting news, but I did not find it particularly inspiring. In fact, the prospect of yet another, larger, mountain of work made me want to find a large rock to crawl under.

At the time, I tried to write it off as just myself being lazy (everyone else seemed more than eager to dive in), but I could not shake the feeling that something was inherently wrong with the whole picture.

Reading your post, it makes much more sense. After devoting months of mind, body, and soul to work, the natural reaction is for one to want to step back and 'catch up' with the rest of life... not start the grind anew.

But tell that tidbit to those who are gung-ho on working and they will counter with "If we don't keep pushing, we won't be able to stay ahead of the competition". That is an unsettling but unfortunate truth -
if you won't do the work, someone else will gladly fill in. The 'lazy' have a lot to worry about, whether it be the competion or even ambitious coworkers looking for a leg-up!

I'm all for the notion of proving one's worth and being challenged by my work, but I wish it was easier to take a (guilt-free) time-out. I agree that we should all be entitled to one!

8:20 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

You have my sympathy. Indeed, there are always people eager to grab an advantage. I wonder how many are doing it because they truly believe in what they are doing, and how many are saying what they say because they know that's what is expected?

Laziness is the basis of all innovation. If people weren't lazy, why would they keep trying to find simpler and better ways of doing things? Or create machines to take on all the heavy lifting?

It's important to take whatever rest you need. If your organization won't wear it, think about a different career. It's your life, after all, to use as you see fit. You can't go on being creative and achieving marvels without a little time off now and then, whatever idiots try to tell you.

And never put yourself down by assuming everyone else is right and you are the odd guy out. Remember the tales about lemmings. I'll bet those lemmings are pretty gung-ho all the way . . . until perhaps right at the end, wouldn't you say?

Maybe you should and stand gracefully aside while the rest head for the cliff edge on their own.

9:28 PM  
cunniur said...

"In many organizations, the reward for achievements at work is to be given more and harder work." Amen to the right on observation. But how does one break the vicious cycle? One can complain (often taken as whining too much). The listener shows sympathy. At the end of the day, however, what's expected still needs to be done. If an organization can squeeze every last ounce of effort out of a worker, why should they give us a break?! :-(

8:25 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Well, Cunniur, I guess organizations will generally push towards the maximum they think they can get away with as long as such behavior is ignored or teated as unavoidable.

The best way to limit such actions is to make them socially unacceptable. Even organization bosses like to be seen as fine, upstanding members of their community. If enough people start to treat them as mean, money-grubbing tyrants, they'll change their behavior.

In the end, the only bulwark against tyranny in a free society is the opinion of the majority. That is why conducting open discussions of key issues is so important. Any why the more people who stop being apathetic, and start making their opinions and values known, the better. When elections come around, it would marvelous if everyone voted to express their actual views and didn't so slavishly follow party loyalties, IMHO. Nothing concentrates the political mind like fearing to lose votes.

Thanks for your great comment, and please—keep reading.

8:51 AM  
Tom Harris said...

Another view: set learning as the goal of work, let contemplation be the theme of leisure, and watch everything fall into balance.

See Work to Learn.

4:16 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...


I wouldn't disagree with that. Learning is a worthy goal for work.

The important point is that work should have some purpose beyond itself, whether it is serving others (as in Servant Leadership), learning, or having the time available to live life to the full.

Thanks for your comment. Keep reading, my friend.

7:08 AM  
kacia said...


11:57 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Kacia. I'm glad you liked it.

Keep reading, my friend.

3:30 PM  

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