Friday, September 18, 2009

Leisure: working hard or hardly working

Having just finished Sertillanges’ book The Intellectual Life, I was struck by the similarities and differences between it and Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture.

Both authors share the same concern: they are living in a world in which the life of the mind is being marginalized. Pieper discusses how the world of work is consuming all other aspects of life, especially the activities which encourage reflection. Sertillanges sees industrialists playing dice when they could be reading Pascal instead.

The authors diverge on the question of what constitutes the intellectual life. Pieper maintains a firm distinction between philosophy and work. As a professor once told me, “Philosophy is NOT is completely useless! That is why it is so important.” Philosophy, in this picture, is an end in itself. It enables a person to escape the confines of the cave and to see reality as it is.

This permits Pieper to present Philosophy in joyful terms. It is akin to festivity. Like other forms of festivity, we do not see them in utilitarian terms. Instead, they are the moments in which we escape, at least momentarily, our work-a-day world.

Sertillanges, I think, would reject such a distinction. He sees philosophy as a type of work. A nobler type of work, but work nonetheless. The intellectual has obligations to his fellow man which require him to sacrifice his private wants for the sake of a greater good. He must return to the cave and share what he has learned with others. Or better yet, encourage them to leave the cave also. This presentation of philosophy subordinates it while at the same time revealing how much is at stake when one engages in it.

This debate, whether the contemplative or active life is superior, goes all the way back to Aristotle. Thus, I’m not embarrassed to say that I can’t solve it. Pieper and Sertillanges are both Thomists, so you have to look at other sources for the divergence. Plato was an important influence on Pieper and you can see it in his understanding of philosophy as type of “divine madness.” Sertillanges, on the other hand, argues that the Intellectual, to be a true Intellectual, must accept Divine Revelation. That doesn’t seem right since it would disqualify Aristotle; however, one can see that revelation’s aid transforms the philosopher’s attitude toward others. The Platonic view cultivates an indifference towards those mucking around in the cave, while the religious view suggests charity towards one’s neighbor. Christian revelation, which is believed by many to subordinate politics, might actually take it more seriously than Platonic Philosophy in this picture.

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