Man is not an economic being | Leisure, the Basis of Culture, chapter 4

posted in: homeschooling 2

I have mentioned before that I am weak in modern history. I am also weak on modern economic theory. I do my best to keep away from talk of “Marxism” and “Communism” and such primarily because I don’t have a firm enough grasp on the history and real meanings behind the words. Now here is a chapter where I really feel this to be a lack. I know I would be able to pull a lot more out of this if I was up on all that.

However, reading this chapter and trying to grasp its point, reminded me of college papers I wrote. In several classes our instructions were to write on a topic from a “Marxist” position. Not really grasping modern history, at first I wondered how I could do that. But I was taught that that meant evaluating the text (there were assignments like this in both English classes dealing with literature, and in Communication classes dealing with commercials or non-fiction essays) in economic terms. I figured that was harmless enough and actually it was always pretty easy, too. Boil everything down to economics, and you have some essential meaning. Ok, whatever, sure, I can do that.

And, then, I read this chapter and it clicked. What I was being taught is that the economy is fundamental. That meaning does come from economic factors. The world can be made sense of through economic lenses. Economy, money, as worldview. We really are all fundamentally Marxist. It is so easy to slip into. But thank heaven the world is created and it is not actually fundamentally Marxist, but Trinitarian. Money doesn’t make the world go round, God does.

My spell-check here doesn’t even recognize that as a word and wonders if I mean Unitarian. No, no, my friend, I do not.

Man is not an economic being

Is it possible to keep modern man human, to keep him from becoming identifiable only by his occupation, his economic and financial position? To keep him human we must not make all men identify themselves in economic terms (thus alleviating something by which the “total worker” can compare himself to), but to make all men see themselves as more than contributors to or consumers of the economy.

Pieper — or his translator — refers extensively to the terms proletariat and then by extension, the de-proletariatization of the populace. Because I am sketchy on my modern history and economic theory (I know, I know, but 16-century England is just so much more interesting!), I know I’m not seeing all his meaning. I’m looking forward to Dana’s post on this chapter, because she’s good about putting it all in historical context. So, to try to pull some sense out of it, I substituted different terms. I believe it’s accurate, or at least another applicable meaning, but I welcome correction or refinement in the matter.

Proletariat or “total worker” = someone whose identity and life meaning and purpose is defined according to economics = his job, his money, his consumption of goods. What else is there in life? Really, this is more widespread than we might think, because what ultimate goal do most people give for pursuing education? A better job.

De-proletariatization = Giving the average Joe something more than a paycheck and a credit card and “buying power,” giving him time and space to rest and teaching him how to be at leisure, how to think for himself and have interests that are not economically useful.

Useful, as he continually used it = contributing to the economy, whether by making or selling or buying. So, I don’t think he would count my backyard vegetable garden. It’s work, it’s useful for the family, but it’s not socially useful, it’s not a contribution to the country’s GDP.

Quotes to discuss

Italics are in the original, bolding is my own.

To be bound to the working process is to be bound to the whole process of usefulness, and moreover, to be bound in such a way that the whole life of the working human being is consumed. This “binding” can have various causes[:]
  1. lack of ownership, property (perhaps “place” in a Wendall Berry sort of way?)
  2. constant busyness and preoccupation with productivity (that is a stab at rephrasing; I was unclear what he meant in his second point)
  3. “The binding to the working-process can have its roots in the inner poverty of the person: the proletarian in one whose life is fully satisfied by the working-process itself because this space has been shrunken from within, and because meaningful action that is not work is no longer possible or even imaginable.
The total-working state [the state which defines itself, its status and health, by its economy] needs the spiritually-impoverished functionary.

That is not that we refuse to participate in servile arts, but we refuse to be restricted to them, limited to only the vocational to the exclusion of the free, the humanities.

[Proletariat binding to the working-process] is a general symptom…[We are] all ripe and ready to fall into line as ready functionaries for the collective working-state.

“De-proletarization” would consequently be the widening of one’s existence beyond the realm of the “merely useful,” “servile” work, and the restriction of the [servile arts] to benefit the [liberal arts].

Tying back to my opening comments, then, what we need is to get past our obsession with the economy and defining our society according to the state of the stock market or by some markers of depression or recovery, and even our obsession with seeing our own health and identity in all things economic: our job, our paycheck, our stuff we bought with that paycheck, our money in the bank, our ambitions. These things are surely a part of living in this world, but they shouldn’t define us. We should be people, interesting people, apart from our jobs.

Economics is not the center, holding the world together. Economics does not give life meaning. We were not made to be economic creatures; we were created, and we were not created simply to buy and sell. Buying and selling is peripheral, not essential. Money is a tool in life, it is not the meaning or purpose of life. We need to keep the essential at the center. We need to remain human and remain free.


Why are you pursuing the education you are pursuing, either personally or for your children? What is your goal? If it all boils down to the ability to get a job, then economic function is really what your worldview boils down to. Our goal should be to be educated to be better humans, wholly, and not merely (although certainly including) better workers. True education, then, never really ends and is one part of our sanctification throughout life. School is training on how to be educated, how to educate oneself, but education (becoming a more complete person; I’m not even limiting it to just reading books) shouldn’t stop once school is over.

What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Whatever education fails to make us better worshipers is an idolatrous education.


Stay-at-home moms should stop feeling bad they aren’t bringing in any income (although doing so isn’t bad, either) and stop trying to define their value in marketplace terms. Remember the article going around a year or so ago about how much a stay-at-home mom would be paid if she were compensated in the marketplace for her work? I was never sure whether the number was supposed to give me value or if it was meant to insult. Sure, it was 6 figures, but low six figures, and, as my slogan-quote by Chesterton goes: “The business done in the home is nothing less than the shaping of the bodies and souls of humanity.” Attaching any kind of monetary value to that seems to be a slap in the face to me. I don’t need any other value attached to my job. I am striving for a “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and telling me what I do is worth $100,000 a year is insulting.

Raising Boys

Now, I am raising boys who I hope will be men, men I trust who will well provide for their families. I don’t see educating them as humans, into better humans, into worshipers, into whole people, as exclusive to educating them toward being good workers or holding a good job. Certainly, working hard and working well is one aspect of being a whole person. However, it is not the sole aspect of being a whole person. And my aims are toward my boys being whole people, rather than toward any particular sort of job. I don’t care if they own their own business or have a white-collar job or blue-collar, whether they join the military or go to college or start something on their own or find an apprenticeship. I care that they work, that they fulfill their responsibility as heads of households to provide, but whether they are lawyers or plumbers, whether they are content to manage on $30,000 or pull down $100,000 doesn’t matter to me. Whether they are lawyers or plumbers, I hope they are respectable men with integrity, who read and think and can discuss a wide variety of matters cogently, who care more about their God and their family than about their financial ambitions. A good education is not “wasted” if the student graduates and does not become wealthy. And a good education is not necessarily synonymous with a college education. You can be well educated without college and you can have a college degree without being educated.

So, let us focus our parenting, our identities, our schooling, on what it means to be a complete person, a person who glorifies God by his thoughts and actions, a person who sees God in all creation and all aspects of life — not on whether or not our children will get into college or get a good job or whether we ourselves have any market value.

Other participants’ posts are linked at Cindy’s blog.
The book is available online, also.

2 Responses

  1. Mrs. O
    | Reply

    Hi Mystie, Really appreciated this article; but when I clicked on the link where you said the book was online, it says “This book is restricted.” It’s not available at my library either. My book budget is spent for the foreseeable future, so I’ll have to wait to read it for myself. But I really did appreciate your post on this chapter. (Now I’ll have to go find the rest of your posts on this; I’m quite behind again.) In His grace, Kay

  2. Bruce Charles Meyer
    | Reply

    Often, there is an interlibrary loan service at your local library. In my own library network, Minuteman Library System (MLS), there’s a menu of borrowing services, including the local home library, others inside of MLS, ability to search other Massachusetts (MA) libraries directly, and a single search site for the network of networks of MA library nets, including some academic nets. Then, I am told, there are national borrowing privileges. The local library help desk librarian will be able to help you with this search.

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