Leisure as the Basis of the Coming Renaissance
Johannes A. Niederhauser
It's Time to Build! We are told. But should we not begin to think first? Should we not focus on true leisure first before we fall again into the trap of materialism?
The question of true leisure is not a question of what we do when we have some free time from work. Rather, it is the question of all questions, for leisure is the basis of civilisation. Plato tells us in his dialogue Critias that Athens was born on the basis of scholé, when scholé arrived in their midst. Scholé is the Ancient Greek word we usually translate as leisure. For when the Athenians had turned their thought to true leisure they had directed their sense to the plenty, to abundance and also to an appreciation of the old and their ancestors. Simply put, their existence had become meaningful. That is to say, leisure is at the heart of the true polis when the polis comes into its own. It was through thinking, through directing their sense to a new horizon that Athens became Athens. It is time we begin to think again leisurely and idly so that we can ripen.
And only then can we begin to build!
Our economic systems – be they capitalism, socialism, communism, Keynesianism, or whatever other “-ism” – all are predicated on fundamental lack. Yes, humans have needs. This is undeniably the case. However, the needs with which we are concerned in our economic systems are ever only the most immediate and are only material. We only ever consider the useful. Is not meaning, or sense, our most fundamental need? Is not meaning utterly useless, i.e., outside the calculations of utility? Meaning has no place in the economic and political systems that we know today.
But this our age, as Goethe laments in his Maxims and Reflexions, is unholy since nothing is allowed to come into its own, nothing is allowed to ripen. Meaning does not flourish, A great forgetting set in centuries ago and the reckoning has come. We are living through it. We have forgotten who we are. We who do not yet remember who we have always been.
It is time we allow ourselves to ripen again - and this will happen only in thinking.
Goethe here continues: “The activity of commerce, the rush and rustle of paper-money, the swelling-up of debts to pay debts — all these are the monstrous elements to which in these days a young man is exposed.” What is “debt” other than the utter abyss, the black cloud of a future already lost which sucks us empty and leaves our world voided of meaning. Usury the existential trap, a tempocidal destruction of all genuine access to time and history, the freezing of our memory of who we are and have always been. The materialist response to the current crisis is to throw more money, more debt, more material into its own abyss.
What Goethe sees here is what Heidegger will come to call the insatiable will to will that wills ever more and can only give itself a ground, if it continues to will more at ever greater costs for all and ever more force and greater effort and ever smaller dividends and yields. More stuff, more material - could not have saved us either.
We live not in a polis that is a mirror of the good order of the cosmos. We live not in a virtuous polis of fellow humans, but in an “uncanny wheelwork” as Nietzsche calls our world. We exist in the grind of the “total economic management of the earth”, which Nietzsche saw as the inevitable condition we would be in for centuries to come. How sick and antihuman is a system that collapses when the world stands still only for a few weeks. Is this a world fit for humans, a world where stillness is a sin? What we have forgotten is what the Greeks called scholé, which is not some free time from work which we are sometimes granted; and granted if and only if all basic needs are met, no! As anyone who can see what drives this planetary uncanny wheelwork – the will to will that wills itself and wills itself so, why? Because it is so! We need more because we need more! – anyone who sees this for what it is knows that never will all needs be met, for the Will itself is lack, fundamental lack. True leisure does not and will never come once all basic needs and wants and desires are met. Instead, leisure itself is the cradle of civilisation, of the well-ordered polis. If anything, then the past decades can show us that never will basic material needs be met. This is also why it's possible - in hindsight - to point out that we should have had more of certain things.
The planet has ground to a halt. The New Atlantis is not sinking just yet, but it is beginning to show its fragility. Plato tells us in his dialogue Critias that Atlantis, this most magnificent city of its time, began to lose its ways when the Atlanteans directed their sense towards lack which led them to require a continuous in-flow of goods to still their insatiable appetites. The harbour of Atlantis never stood still. They turned their days into a restless frenzy and their nights into days – an uncanny wheelwork indeed.
In the same dialogue Plato tells us how Athens became Athens, the polis of the goddess Athene, the garden the fruits of which we still enjoy today. Athenians, before they became who they were, directed their sense towards lack. They had no room for the knowledge of the old, of that which has always been. They found no stance to take in the midst of beings and scholé was nowhere to be found. But once they directed their sense towards scholé they were able to remember their future, they were able to remember who they had always been. Scholé, the spirit of true leisure, entered them and they found the hold to ground the polis that became Athens – the true garden. With their sense directed at scholé, their spirit filled with it, Athenians turned to what Plato calls Mythologia, the knowledge of the old, the legendary. The old, as Aristotle tells us, is the name for being. To ti en, einai: that which always has been, being. The question of being, which we are forgetting, is the reminder of who we have always been. But the will to will blinds our eyes and hearts for this deep memory and true "innering", bringing into the inner of our hearts who we are. The will to will wills us to be enslaved by debt, numb from experience and death machines; the will to will wills us to “kill time” rather than allowing for the wonders of boredom to disclose to us who we are. For it is in our epoch through this horror vacui, the “horror” of emptiness, i.e., the appreciation that we are not in full control; that the empty is where something occurs; so that meaning can begin to shine forth. It is by directing our sense toward the old ways of being then that we can begin again to build proper cities, houses fit for humans, an oiko-nomia that does not destroy the earth, does not deplete meaning, does not use usury. It is then that we begin to dwell. As Heidegger says, genuine dwelling means to protect the earth. Yet, first we must begin to think.
Of course, now an obscene haste rules – more than before perhaps – to act, to do, to establish a new order of the world so that we can control this virus. IT’S TIME TO BUILD! we are told. But thinking is what we must attempt first. We must think, we who are the zoon logon echon, the living being which holds itself in lógos. We must gather ourselves to come to our senses, to the genuine human sense, der Menschensinn, which Goethe still remembers. Goethe also reminds us that all that is intelligent has already been thought; what we are to do is think again through the echoes of truth. Suddenly we are thrown back to ourselves, looking for a stance, for something to hold on to. We will not find this stance through an obscene haste. We will not find the hold with more material. We might find a stance again if we begin to be idle with dignity, which is to say we need to suspend - as if on a wing - for once the pressures of materialism so that we can begin again to find our being-human, to ground ourselves.
Let me quote a passage from Nietzsche’s Gay Science entitled “Muße und Müßiggang” – “Leisure and Idleness”.
“the breathless haste of America with which they work is already beginning to infect old Europe with its ferocity and is spreading a lack of spirit, Geistlosigkeit. Today one is ashamed of resting, and prolonged reflection almost gives people a bad conscience. One thinks with a watch in one's hand, even as one eats one's lunch while reading the latest news of the stock market; one lives as if one always "might miss out on something." "Rather do anything than nothing": this principle, too, is merely a string to throttle all culture and good taste. Just as all forms are visibly perishing by the haste of the workers, the feeling for form itself, the ear and eye for the melody of movements are also perishing. The proof of this may be found in the universal demand for gross obviousness in all those situations in which human beings wish to be honest with one another for once-in their associations with friends, women, relatives, children, teachers, pupils, leaders, and princes: One no longer has time or energy for ceremonies, for being obliging in an indirect way, for esprit in conversation, and for any otium (leisure) at all.”
Without leisure and without idleness we are spiritless, we are numb. There is no poetry in such a world - only effectiveness for the sake of effectiveness. All enjoyment is already only relaxation as if we were an ox under a yoke, a castrated animal carrying a burden it does not see. The question of leisure and idleness, make no mistake, is not some question about what we do in our spare time or now that we are locked in. No, the question of scholé properly and directly concerns itself with the question what it means to be human. To quote Ivo De Gennaro, “To be human is not a fact, it is a task.”
In 1949 the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper published an essay entitled Muße und Kult. Usually the title is translated in English as Leisure the Basis of Culture. Unfortunately, something significant is lost in this translation. Muße is scholé, the true spirit of foundational leisure. But Kult means worship. Without the divine we are only ever idolising ourselves in a fake leisure. True Ceremony is only possible with a view to the divine, with sacrifice. In his essay Pieper reminds his readers of one of the grand traditions of the Occident, namely of its contemplative cast, of those who by meditating and contemplation looked after that which is. Pieper feared that we all would become but workers in a world of total work.
What does it mean to meditate? One of the oldest sentences of occidental wisdom comes from Periander: meleta tan pan. This means: Take into care and consideration everything that is insofar that it is. To meditate means to care for beings, deeply and profoundly. "Meditating" in order to perform better at whatever task, or to cope with anxiety, is the utter voiding and destruction of the meaning of meditation and hence one of the pale horses on which nihilism has pillaged our lands.
Let us begin to direct again our sense, Menschensinn, toward the spirit of true leisure. That is to say, toward the plenty and fullness at the heart of things, the exuberance of being, the gift that thinking is, the amazement that anything is at all. For then and only then can we remember what we have always already been and build toward a genuine future, not some fantasy of total control and effectiveness. We are mortals after all.
How can we redirect our human sense?
By taking again the meditative stance of leisure and by moving beyond utilitarian calculations. Consider Heidegger’s interpretation of Dschuang-Dsi’s the Useless Tree. The tree no longer bears any fruit hence the peasant who owns the tree wants to cut it down. But Dschuang-Dsi invites the peasant to begin to see something else in the tree, another possibility. The tree is useless. Nothing of immediate use or yield can be made of it. Still, the tree invites us to sit underneath it simply in order to sit and so to come to our senses again. This is similar for the meaning of things. One cannot do anything with meaning. Meaning is profoundly useless, effectiveless, for the uncanny wheelwork. In fact, one could even go so far as saying that the uncanny machine requires meaninglessness for its operations. The useless is that which is beyond utilitarian calculations and which withdraws from them. Yet, thanks to this withdrawal other dimensions of meaning occur and open up in which the instrumental and the utilitarian have no place. True leisure that is grounded in itself and does not serve any operative aim is useless for the operations of the will to will. But as such true leisure is the source of meaning
– for that which is useless and without immediate effect is untouchable and enduring.