Total Work Newsletter #29: Announcing Extended Commentary On Josef Pieper's Leisure

Total Work Newsletter: How Work Took Over the World

Total Work, a term coined by the philosopher Josef Pieper, is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers as work, like a total solar eclipse symbolized in the logo above, comes to obscure all other aspects of life. In these newsletters, I document, reflect upon, and seek to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1800 and possibly as early as 1500.

An Announcement: After returning from sesshin in July, I’ve found myself less interested in reading news articles and commentaries. It gave me reason to reflect further on the direction of this newsletter. In the coming weeks, then, I’ll be including fewer links (perhaps no links in some), and I’ll be including more of my own reflections on total work. I may also be sending out issues sometimes once a week and sometimes once every other week.

In This and Upcoming Issues… I recently re-read Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. This is, I think, the fourth time I’ve read this book, and each time I’ve found it to be poignant and deeply insightful. In it, Pieper coins the term “total work” and worries over how work could become total. After reading it again, I decided that I’d like to write an extended commentary on the book in the next 6 or so newsletters. (More about this below.)


Elon Musk's 120-hour Weeks And AI-produced Art

#1 MUSK REMONSTRATED: An Open Letter to Elon Musk | 5 min. | Thrive Global | Letter HT Ernesto Oyarbide

Thrive Gloabal Sum: “Arianna Huffington’s open letter to Elon Musk: ‘You’re demonstrating a wildly outdated, anti-scientific and horribly inefficient way of using human energy.’”

Total Work Still: A helpful reminder that Musk’s 120-hour workweek isn’t a good idea yet still, fascinatingly, cast in total work terms. For instance; “So instead of putting in 120-hour weeks, FDR [Huffington writes] instead took a ten-day break on a naval ship. The trip drew criticism, but FDR knew what he was doing – he needed time and space to refuel. The result was the $50 billion Lend-Lease program, which has been described as his political masterpiece that provided a way for him to sell Congress on helping the Brits continue to resist the Nazis” (my underlining).

#2: THE DIVIDING LINE OBSCURED | AI Can Produce Art, Too | 2 min. | Axios | Newsletter

Axios Opening: “AI-generated art is selling for thousands of dollars to private donors and auction houses, leapfrogging from mere novelty.”

The Dividing Line Obscured: Many have argued (and in this I’m also paraphrasing the Axios piece above) that AI won’t replace the kind of work that involves creativity, only the kind of work centered on rote tasks. Fairly interesting AI-produced music and AI-produced visual art push at this distinction, inviting us to think again. One historical antecedent was the invention of the camera. Afterward or concurrently, we witnessed the rise of non-representational visual art. Could AI’s intervention likewise lead to a new inventive flowering in human-made art forms hitherto unimaginable?

Introducing Josef Pieper's Leisure: The Basis of Culture

An Opening Remark By Way Of Clarification

Leisure: The Basis of Culture consists of two essays: one on leisure and the other on philosophizing. It’s the former that I mean to comment on.

Pieper’s Searching Questions

Josef Pieper’s seminal essay, “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” (Musse und Kult), consists of lectures he originally delivered in West Germany in 1947. In the teeth of commonly held opinion, he argues that just after World War II, a cataclysmic war that threw civilization itself into doubt, was precisely the right time for West Germans not to throw themselves single-mindedly and myopically into reconstruction but rather to “stand there” (as Roger Scruton puts it in his “Introduction” [included below]) and think. What? Stand there–and think? Yes.

What would it mean for us to discover a deep stillness, a quietness, a great peace well beneath our frenetic, effortful, hubristic involvement in the “world of total work”? Does such a space of freedom still exist, and, if so, can we still, still discover it? These are but some of Pieper’s searching questions, which are, at bottom, about the human condition and the place of religion in modern culture.

The Organization of the Essay

Pieper’s essay is divided into five sections.

In Section I, he reveals to us the radical “transvaluation of values” (to quote Nietzsche), an astonishing, almost unimaginable shift from Aristotle’s aristocratic view that we non-leisure, if we must, in order to leisure to Max Weber’s Protestant-cum-democratic view that all of us must live in order to work. We are living in the aftermath of this epochal shift today.

In Section II, he very cleverly decides to analyze the birth of the neologism, “intellectual labor,” a word that forces a collision between what used to be purely contemplative (that is, the intellectual) and what has been servile (labor). What, he wonders, does such a neologism mean for us, and what does it tell us about the rapid progress of total work?

In Section III, he discusses the medieval vice of acedia (which he elegantly defines as “disagreement with oneself”) and the genuine sense of leisure (a “state of soul” in which the percipient is attuned to ultimate reality). His diagnosis is that acedia is at the root of total work.

In Section IV, he delves, if only tangentially, into politics. Specifically, he examines two concepts, “proletarianization” and “deproletarianization,” and deviates from the leftist view that everyone should be a worker under fair conditions; he sniffs this out as a way of perpetuating the process of work becoming total. Instead, he argues that we should “deproletarianize” ourselves by expanding the bounds of leisure for everyone.

In Section V, he asks, “How is leisure possible?” and “What is the ultimate justification” of leisure" (p. 52)? He then makes what, to modern eyes, is a very strange move, claiming that religious worship is at the heart of leisure. “It is,” he writes, “only within such [religiously-oriented] festival-time that the reality of leisure can unfold and be truly realized” (p. 54).

The Plan

In upcoming issues, I intend to write commentaries on each section (I, II, III, IV, and V). I’ll then, in the sixth commentary, take up critiques of Pieper’s book. One criticism is that Pieper’s argument rests on aristocratic presuppositions. Another is that he doesn’t take stock of the transformative potential of work. I’ll examine these objections (and others I come upon), and I’ll provide an overall assessment of this important book.

The Invitation

I’d suggest that you follow along by picking up a copy of Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture (I’d go with the St. Augustine Press copy). You can find a used copy for very little. Then you can ask questions or formulate objections to what I’ve written via email (email me at totalwork.us@gmail.com). This is an excellent way to look both at how total work operates in modern culture and to take stock of how it functions in your everyday life.

As an appetite whetter, I’m including Roger Scruton’s full “Introduction” (just below).

Until next time, may you find stillness and may you be still.

Stand Back And Be Still

Roger Scruton, "Introduction," p. xi

Scruton, "Introduction," p. xii

Scruton, "Introduction," p. xiii

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What I’m Reading…

1.) Recently finished:

  • John Hughes, The End of Work: Theological Critiques of Capitalism (2007). A generally positive view of work as, under the right economic conditions, a transformative act. The hero of this book is the artist and theorist Eric Gill.

  • Michael Pollan, How to Change your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (2018). A pretty favorable view of psychedelics (a) in the context of healing (psychedelic therapy) and (b) in that of mysticism (unitary experiences). More should have been written about the relationship between non-ordinary experiences brought about by psychedelics and those made possible by meditation.

  • Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1998/1948). The book was originally published in German in 1948 as Musse und Kult (“Leisure and Cult”) and as Was heist Philosophieren? (“What is Philosophizing?”).

2.) Currently reading:

  • Arthur Waley, The Way and its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought (1958). Waley’s extensive Introduction, which I’m two-thirds of the way through, details the historical and philosophical changes in Chinese thought before and around the 4th C. BCE. The book also provides a translation of the Daodejing, one of my favorite works of all time.

3.) Up next:

  • Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934).

Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?

Feel free to send comments, suggestions, thoughts, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <totalwork.us@gmail.com>.

If You’d Like to Become a Patron…

Thank you to my growing list of patrons! If you feel called to support my philosophical life, you can do so here <https://www.patreon.com/ajt>.

For Newcomers

Looking for some clarity about the nature and history of total work? Start by reading my brief overview of total work on my Patreon account <https://www.patreon.com/ajt>, Next, take a look at the first issue of this newsletter <https://www.getrevue.co/profile/andrewjtaggart/issues/total-work-newsletter-1-working-ourselves-into-a-frenzy-89819.> Next, check out my Quartz at Work pieces (December 2017- present), which are available here <https://work.qz.com/author/andrew-taggart>. Lastly, visit my website, totalwork.us <https://totalwork.us>, which is devoted to investigating this topic.