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ARQ (Santiago)

On-line version ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.74 Santiago Apr. 2010 

ARQ, n. 74 Leisure, Santiago, April, 2010, p. 22-23.


Virtues of leisure

Carlos Cousiño*

* Director Programa Doctorado en Sociología, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile


The contrary vision of leisure and work is put on the table. On one side, leisure is seen as the most productive moment of intellectual productivity: one feels, thinks and observes in the stillness. On the other hand, work is understood as the urgent and necessary, giving place to the constant movement of consumerism.

Key words: Sociology, post-war, history. work, protestant reformation, religion.

The headline of the Düsseldorfer Mitteilungsblatt from July 21, 1945 stated: "the principal duty of each person is to work".  Shortly after, when the German people had just begun the painful work of rebuilding their country reduced to rubble after the end of the Second World War, Joseph Pieper published a short text highlighting the virtues of leisure. No one has written anything comparable since, not only in terms of a the concentration of ideas on a theme but in the audacity of the moment in which it was published. To praise leisure in the midst of the urgency of the work of reconstruction could be provocation of bad taste unless it was truly necessary to cultivate stillness. And for Pieper it was, to the point of feeling the need to make a defense of leisure.
His main argument can be reduced to the simple proposition that the frenetic compulsion to work hides intellectual, moral and emotional lethargy; worse still it hides, under the pretext of emergency and importance, the necessity to examine and know oneself. Is there any doubt that Pieper had good reason to call out to this destroyed people that had devastated Europe and  shamed the cultural tradition of the western world to sit quietly and examine themselves? However, we must also recognize that this people had an  indisputable need to work without ceasing. An it is this relationship between necessity and work that is ferrous and unavoidable. We begin by pausing briefly in their history.
A key trait of the modern age is to have inverted the relationship between work and leisure that was established in the classic cultures. For these, the prevailing one was leisure. In Greece, for example, work was the task of slaves, subjugated to necessity and thus unable to be free nor, consequently, a citizen. The latter was a man that was at his own disposal and was freed from the obligation of work. The space for work was the oikos —home—, from which originated the word economy. It was also a space of pure necessity and despotic authority. Leisure was, therefore, the condition of the free. 
For pre-modern western culture work was understood only as that which allowed for leisure. The concept of a contemplative life had clear primacy over the vita activa, just as the liberal arts of the free man stood over the servil, those that must satisfy needs through the production of useful things. With the Protestant Revolution and as Weber has showed us, this relationship has been inverted so that we know longer "work to live, but live to work".  For the followers of Calvin, work simultaneously acquires the nature of a conditioner as well as  is a sign of salvation. Faced with the insufferable doctrine in which each person is found, from birth, predestined for salvation or eternally condemned in which nothing done in life can alter this definitive divine designation, work serves as path to escape and forgetting, as a remedy for the enormous anguish that this uncertainty provokes. At the same time, work success can be considered as a sign of divine grace. This pitiful consolation is enough for man to turn his life over completely to his work.
Even taking this popular activism to its extreme, the puritanical turn continues to find meaning and importance outside of the realm of the human economy.
Recently in our contemporary age a disconnect has appeared between work with respect to its necessity and its significance it produces apart from economic activity. Firstly, this results from the displacement of the concept of need from the objective plane to the subjective: the need is conceptualized now as a requirement. Its worth it to say that this reinterpretation can only be made in the context of the economic affluence characterizing western societies. On the other hand, work is is legitimized by pure economic activity and its only meaning lies in consumption. Through its association with consumption, work obtains an inevitable compulsion. More still, this association sends all possibility of valuing leisure to the grave.
The price we pay for this is an expensive one. Leisure and stillness, by removing us from mundane activity, allows us to access experience that would otherwise be closed to us, or better said, are only possible through this non-activity. One of these, probably the most broad and important, is the experience of the gratuitous. Work makes us think in terms of effort and achievement and to understand ourselves as products of our work. North Americans express this magnificently with the formula of the self made man. What we are and what we have are the results of our effort, of our work. The experience of gratuity supposes the ability to escape from this egocentric activism. Only through leisure is one able to open themselves to the exuberance of being and his original nature. Through work one can only perceive the scarcity that must be overcome by the indefatigable work of man.
This is paired with the closure to all these experiences that escaped the "useful" dimension. And it is from this logic of work and consumption things appear either useful or useless. But this closes off certain significant realms of human experience. In all these one must be in the condition of the receiver, that is, still and open to what comes. The best way to neither see, nor hear nor appreciate what comes to us is to be too busy.
In fact, these experiences that escape the utility paradigm have needed protection, successfully or unsuccessfully, from the attempts of the work-consume world to be appropriated and colonized. In the attempt to flee the economic instrumentalization, art has preferred to take refuge in new and difficult languages.
Music became serial or dodecafonic to escape from the publicity jingle; the plastic became abstract, far from commercial photography, literature turned to more and more sophisticated uses of language and narration fled from the sales slogan.
Love, for its part, has always been subjugated to this tension that inevitable comes from the sexual character of human love. Love as a radical experience is always threatened by the risk of routinising. The lover craves the perpetuation of this moment shared with his beloved; he knows that the day breaks what the night founded; it suffers from the possibility that love acquires an everyday-ness that kills it. Eroticism fears being reduced to a reproductive sexuality, to a dimension of utility and necessity. It is for this reason that eros leans toward thanatos. Only the death of lovers can be redeemed from the dangers of institutionalization. The great love tragedy of romanticism, Tristan and Isolde, sublimely expresses this tension.
Only the lover's death could redeem their loves from the risks of institutionalization. The great tragic love story of romanticism, Tristan and Isolde, sublimely expresses this tension.
And this is without even mentioning the sacred. To open up to this possibility passes from denying the basic afirmation of materialism, inventor of the man-worker, according to which God is created by man being that it is a useful concept for resolving many social and individual problems. Work anchors us to this world and from there it is impossible to access the sacred experience that is almost always referred to as transcending earthly things. The same concept of religion expresses the aspiration to reunite these realms that man has divided. But it is not the activity of man that can do this, but the non-activity, maintaining oneself attentive and open to a God that comes to meet us. The only way to be available for this meeting is to be still.
The cost of sacrificing leisure to the frenzy of activism that cannot be manifested outside of consumption is too high. “¡Be still!”. This call is more important every day and is an imperative to understand, appreciate or enjoy the most uplifting experiences of man.


Cousiño, Carlos. “La desocialización del vino”. ARQ, N° 4, Wine vineyards cellars. Ediciones ARQ, Santiago, July 2003

Cousiño, Carlos. "La desocialización del vino". ARQ, N° 4, Vino bodegas viñas. Ediciones ARQ, Santiago, julio de 2003.
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