In Defense of the Man of Leisure

Be vs. Have
by Brother Michael Steele, LC | Source:
I struggled through customs and was standing in JFK’s international terminal. While I was waiting for my ride back to the seminary, a man caught my attention. His face was livid, and he was frantically gesturing and talking, or rather shouting to himself. Oh, poor guy, he must have mental problems. Then he turned his head, revealing a flashing gadget sticking out of his ear. It was my first encounter with the Blue Tooth.

The techno-gadget boom has and is radically changing our world. Increased means of communication allow us unprecedented access to any part of the world at any given moment. However, does there come a point when having too much of a good thing impoverishes rather than enriches us? Makes us poorer rather than richer? I appreciate being able to call half-way across the world at the flick of a wrist as much as the next guy, or taking instant and low quality photos from the cell. But doesn’t the uncontrolled and undisciplined use of technology enslave rather than liberate? It is OK to use these means, but we should be careful not to abuse them.

Wouldn’t having a Blue Tooth make us more effective, and proficient, more in control and in touch? At least this is what all the beautiful people advertising the Blue Tooth claim. So, why this man’s anger and frustration?

On the ride back to seminary, I pondered his situation. Why isn’t he happy? The thought occurred to me that happiness does not consist in having more, but in being more. And in order to be more, one has to reflect more, to get in touch with the deep reasons for existence and mysteries shrouded in the daily grind. And one can’t reflect and have vibrant experiences of those deep reasons if every waking moment is crammed full with noise. If this man was angry, full of tension, livid, my guess is, he just didn’t have the time to reflect and get a grip on the whole grand scheme of things.

Josef Pieper, in Leisure the Basis of Culture, shows that the man of leisure is most suited to access the source of happiness and is the cause of good culture. A man of Leisure is not a party dude, but one who has time to reflect on the meaning of reality and partakes in actions intrinsically perfective of his rational nature (ie. Philosophical reflection, the arts, etc). Leisure, as Pieper uses it, goes much deeper than pastimes or recreation. It isn’t just going on a two-week cruise to the Bahamas. It is an interior calm and attentiveness, a peace of soul, an interior climate of reflection and thought on the deep questions of existence. And so, in this sense, even the busiest chief executive can be a man of leisure, if he cultivates the right attitudes.

Pieper also shows that Divine Worship is at the heart of leisure; leisure is a positive celebration, an affirmation of the good of the universe. Everything is good, has meaning and order, and I somehow belong and partake in this meaning and order. So, there must be an “Orderer”, God, who is the source of this meaning. If I worship this “Orderer” I am participating in the most “leisurely” activity possible to human nature.

Even the pagan Greek philosopher, Aristotle, got that far, way before the enlightenment and the industrial revolution. Happiness, which he spells out in his Nicomachean Ethics consists in activity of soul in accord with excellence. This activity is the most intense, the most fulfilling, and highest man is capable of. For Aristotle it means achieving contemplation of the Divine. His view of the happy life for man is balanced and takes into account the material and social dimensions of man (man needs other people, food, clothing, etc.). His articulation of the happy life as the activity of soul in accordance with excellence or virtue, goes right to the core of what it means to be man, i.e. rational animal.

Unfortunately, for Aristotle the happy life seems to be locked within this world; the life of contemplation. He has an insight into happiness as an object found only in the next life, but it seems that for Aristotle we really can’t achieve it. And he is right. By ourselves and our own efforts, we cannot achieve loving contemplation of the Divine, because this is above our nature. It is possible only by supernatural intervention. However, Aristotle goes about as far as one probably can go using his reason without the help of revelation and the reality of the life of grace. To the objection that his articulation of happiness leads to a purely ego-centered ethics, we must recall that he wrote the ethics in the context of politics and was trying to find out man, his specific activity and what is the good life for him, in order to be better able to articulate how man ought to live with others in society.

So, even with the advent of the “blue tooth”, the reason why we’re still miserable as a culture could be because the “Blue Tooth”, apart from severing us from sacred solitude, cannot lead us to the source of the meaning of reality. Not that there is anything wrong in using a Blue Tooth. But it can be another intrusion into our already bombarded interior. In short, happiness does not consist in “having” more but in “being” more; more human. Maybe the next Blue Tooth version will be equipped with, “source of meaning of reality” compatibility. Good luck engineers!



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