Magazine article The American Conservative

Nothing Doing

Magazine article The American Conservative

Nothing Doing

Article excerpt

Taking time to be human in a workaholic world

I HAVE ALWAYS THOUGHT Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" contained one of the most bogus assertions ever put to music: "I see friends shaking hands, saying 'how do you do' / They're really saying, ? love you.'"

Not in D.C. they aren't. Here they're really saying, as they deftly produce a business card, "I'm the director of legislative affairs. What do you do?"

The city exerts siren's attraction on the sharpest political junkies, many of whom had already been involved in significant voter fraud by the time they reached the fifth grade. Every evening, a drama unfolds as the office exodus commences. Young people in business suits dart through the omni-directional foot traffic, careworn faces locked on their BlackBerries. They are on their way to the post-work gauntlet of happy hours, networking events, meet-and-greets, spinning classes, and yoga It is an active leisure, to be sure.

Josef Pieper (1904-97), one of the most important philosophers of the last century, had some choice words on this topic in his Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Turns out we moderns have it exactly backward: for the Ancients, leisure, not work, was the thing - and one of the foundations of civilization.

According to Pieper, the Greeks and Romans believed that "we are unleisurely in order to have leisure." This leisure is not just an absence of work, nor is it an inevitable consequence of our free time, such as it is. They were no doubt assuming a more expansive vision than "working for the weekend." For them, leisure was a positive reality, a frame of mind in which, by looking beyond the cares and anxieties of our daily world, we would paradoxically become more human.

This is because, for Pieper, as for Aquinas, leisure presupposes an assent to our humanity and our world. Those who refuse to accept the human condition are thus said to suffer from acedia, a kind of sloth that in Kierkegaard's words amounts to a "despairing refusal to be oneself." In this understanding, even the workaholic can be an idler, a person who, in rejecting the truth of his humanity, papers over that reality with frenzied labor. Aquinas further argued that idleness was the enemy not of work but of leisure and went so far as to call it a transgression of the third commandment's injunction to rest on the Sabbath.

The concept of leisure is also essential to the distinction between what were traditionally known as the artes serviles and the artes liberales. The liberal arts are - properly speaking - useless. Aquinas, in his commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics, puts it this way: "Only those arts are called liberal or free which are concerned with knowledge; those which are concerned with utilitarian ends that are attained through activity, however, are called servile."

The Medievale additionally made a distinction between ratio and intellects. Ratio was understood to be that form of searching thought that examines, dissects, and reaches conclusions. InteUectus, on the other hand, was the form that apprehends reality effortlessly, in which "truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye."

Knowledge was thought to be a function of both facets. InteUectus, however, was considered beyond the properly human, a kind of participation in the divine way of knowing enjoyed by pure spirits. It formed the basis of the vita contemplative - the contemplative life - whose devoted practitioners Aquinas saw as the leaven of the good society. …

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