Leisure: The Basis of Culture, ch 2

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Was some of this chapter still German? Are you sure this is in English? I was totally lost and had really no idea what half this chapter was talking about.

I picked up this book last year and started, and after chapter 2 never picked it up again until now. And now I remember why. I’ll keep going now that I have group motivation, but only if he becomes more intelligible to me. It’s no fun slogging through a book that still gives you no meaning after really trying. Seriously, I’m not exaggerating, half this chapter might as well have been in German for all the meaning I was able to get out of his sentences.

I’ll mention in my post the parts that I did understand and like, and I’ll heckle every one else on their posts about the parts I didn’t understand.

But, there’s no summary of this chapter, because I really don’t know what his point was or what he meant by any of the terms he used.

Leisure, the Basis of Culture
Chapter 2

Pieper’s Main Point

I have no idea. He talked about intellectual work and intellectual vision, and he argued with Kant (but when he mentioned what Kant said it made sense, and when he rebutted it he did not make sense). He doesn’t want philosophy boiled down to utility, and there was something about effort being bad, but necessary, a little good, but not all good, but not that we can do away with effort.

So, my best guess is that he wanted to prove his point in his style. You can only grasp his meaning in spurts of “vision” that come as pure grace, no amount of work or effort at understanding his writing (in this chapter anyway) will yield fruit.

Quote to discuss

What are the “liberal arts”? Thomas Aquinas provides some conceptual clarification in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics: “Every art is called liberal which is ordered to knowing; those which are ordered to some utility to be attained through action are called servile arts.” Six hundred years later, John Henry Newman said as follows, “I know well that knowledge may resolve itself into an art, and seminate in a mechanical process and in tangible fruit; but it may also fall back upon the Reason which informs it, and resolve itself into Philosophy. For in one case it is called Useful Knowledge; in the other, Liberal.”

“Liberal arts,” therefore, are ways of human action which have their justification in themselves; “servile arts” are ways of human action that have a purpose outside of themselves, a purpose to be more exact, which constists in a useful effect that can be realized through praxis.The “liberality” or “freedom” of the liberal arts consists in their not being disposable for purposes, that they do not need to be legitimated by a social function, by being “work.”

My thoughts

Thankfully, his discussion of liberal arts was during a period of relative lucidity. So, I’ll just throw out examples I think illustrate what he’s trying to say, and the rest of the book club people can tell me if I’m right or not and the rest of my readership (who have made it this far) can tell me what they think “liberal arts” means and if “servile arts” degrades labor and service. Are there liberal arts? Are they useful? Do they need to be in order to study them? Are there servile arts? Are they lesser than the liberal?

Ok, examples.

History. Liberal study: A love of a particular time period or a particular people results in your reading for pleasure about them, even though it makes no difference to your day to day life. Servile study: You are a politician and look for good and bad examples of leadership through the ages. Liberal study: You believe God made the world and is weaving a purposeful history through the big picture and the individuals, so you have a curiosity about the flow of history or about individual biographies because you want to catch glimpses of that Plan. Servile study: You are a general commanding an army, so you study the history of war and of battles to get ideas and to see how great minds have done your job in the past.

Language. Liberal study: The inherent logic in grammar structures, the evidences of the ravages of history on grammar structures, the love of words leads you to study grammar and your own native tongue. Servile study: You don’t want to sound stupid, so you learn what you need to know to not mess up too badly (YOU are in luck, it’s hip to sound stupid and use the language improperly! No one cares!). Liberal study: Languages fascinate you, so you want to learn another one to get a better idea about how words work. Servile study: It’s very marketable to know Spanish these days. Studying a foreign language (or at least Latin roots) usually increases one’s SAT scores.

Literature. Liberal study: You read literature to experience the world through another’s perspective, to get insight into how people work, to see what questions always have and always will plague man and how people have answered them — and how that can affect these fictional lives. Servile study: You read for entertainment only, to forget your own life and drown in someone else’s instead.

Ok, all those make the liberal arts sound grand and the servile arts to be shallow and callous. Is the distinction there what Pieper is making? And, is that how we should be looking at it? Sure, I’ll grant that we shouldn’t see Utility to be the chief and only end, but I don’t want to go the opposite route and glorify head-in-the-clouds, Platonic Forms of art-as-end-in-itself and somehow cheapened when it’s worked out practically.

Pieper goes on to say that the sciences (medical, natural, economic, etc) need to be applied for a functioning society, but calls out for us not to forget that these things should also be studied for their own sake, as worthy of being pursued academically, philosophically, unpractically.

So, by the end of the chapter, I think I get that by “Intellectual Worker” he’s talking about college professors being reenvisioned into researchers and “productive,” “scientific” laborers in their own fields, rather than as intellectuals and philosophers. Sure, college professors should be philosophers, and can be philosophers only. However, it seems his arguments could be construed to honor the perpetual student who never gets a job, and I’m not going to go there.

So, then, Pieper wants not only the humanities (as we currently see them) as liberal arts, but all the sciences and maths as liberal arts, also. What do you think about that? What does that even look like?


Edit to add: The link on “chapter two” will take you to Cindy’s post with the links to all the participants. Dana had very helpful insight into Pieper’s context. My take-away: It really was still in German. He wasn’t writing a book, he was speaking to his people at a particular time, and it got made into a book. So no wonder I didn’t/don’t get parts.


All my Leisure book club posts are indexed here.