“So, what do you do?” is a common enough question, bandied around anywhere you'll find strangers trying to connect: parties, wedding receptions, hair salons. But it’s also a loaded one. Responding with “Well, I cuddle my cat a lot” or “Oh, I quite enjoy pickling” won’t cut it. Because in today’s workaholic society, with its productivity apps and ever-rising retirement age, ‘what we do’ boils down to how we earn a crust.
German philosopher Josef Pieper had some gems of wisdom to share on this. He was railing against the fetishisation of work above human dignity, fulfilment and soul-enriching leisure all the way back in 1948. In his thought-provoking manifesto, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, he ponders:
“What is normal is work, and the normal day is the working day. But... can the human being be satisfied with being a functionary, a ‘worker’? Can human existence be fulfilled in being exclusively a work-a-day existence?”
OK, so fair warning – it’s not the lightest of reads. Pieper’s philosophy is dense and deep, but his message is loud and clear, and as relevant as ever: our obsession with work is killing our capacity for leisure, and with it, our very humanity. And by leisure, Pieper didn’t mean slumping on the couch binge-watching the latest thing on Netflix. He meant a “condition of the soul” – that truly relaxed, contemplative state where you feel part of, and present in, the universe. Far from technology or KPIs, at one with the wonderful mystery of being.
Whether you forget yourself in nature, or find your bliss through music or dancing, true leisure involves a distinct element of letting go – “almost as someone who falls asleep must let himself go”. Pieper believed a “surge of new life” flows into us during this state, nourishing the spirit and opening us up to the kind of Eureka moments that rarely strike in a 9–5 environment.
And it’s these breakthrough moments that have inspired so many of humankind’s great cultural, scientific and spiritual advances. The disturbing corollary? Without leisure – and the inner harmony and epiphanies it brings – we’re basically just worker drones going through the motions.
Or, in Pieper’s words: “just human” as opposed to “truly human.”
Find out more about Pieper’s far-seeing philosophy here.
Image: Collins St. 5pm, by John Brack. At National Gallery of Victoria.