Total Work Newsletter #35: Critiques of Pieper's Leisure: The Basis of Culture

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 1500 and possibly as the thirteenth century.

Announcement: Starting in mid-January 2019, I’m be offering a 6-week (once a week) course on total work held over Zoom. It will be partly lecture, partly discussion, and partly consideration of participants’ struggles with total work. I’ve decided that I’d like to offer this in the spirit of the gift economy, so each participant will be asked to give however much he or she wholeheartedly can to support my philosophical life (about which, more later on). To ensure that the course is more personal in nature, I’ll be limiting the number of spots available. If this sounds interesting to you, then feel free to email me at; include in that email (i) some things about yourself, (b) where you live (city, country), and (iii) what kinds of things you’d like to discuss–be they intellectual puzzles or personal struggles–when it comes to total work.

Inbox Zero: A Representation

I accidentally took a smartphone photo of my inbox when it was at Inbox Zero. Not surprising to total work readers at this point, Google elected to represent work in terms of the work ethic (“You’re all done!”) while (also from the vantage point of the work ethic) it misrepresented leisure in the form of someone sitting reclined on a ‘lazy’ Sunday late afternoon, the sun, though still high, on its way to setting. You’re all done–and now you can relax! Oh, brother.


#1: SHARE | A Laborless Eden? | 10 min. | Public Books | Book Review

Public Book Opening: “A utopian fantasy has always served as an engine for scientific progress—the fantasy that, one day, we might harness enough fossil fuel, enough computing….”

Brief Overview: The reviewer (a) critiques the marriage of individual sovereignty and labor and (b) believes that a “politics of distribution” based on “the share” could be a way forward. The review, alas, is marred by the leftist snobbery and contempt indicated throughout by the tone of voice.

#2: COMPANY TOWNS | WeWork And Google Offices Are A Lot Like Exploitative Company Towns Of The Past | 5 min. Quartz at Work | Essay

QZ Sum: “Corporations began putting workers inside of bubbles long before they invented the modern tech campus.”

My Brief Take: This is my latest piece for Quartz at Work. My thesis is that tech campuses resemble company towns in key respects.

#3: ACTIVE REST | Vacation Is A Poor Substitute For Leisure | 5 min. | Quartz at Work | Essay

QZ Sum: “The most effective version of ‘rest’ is actually quite active.”

My Brief Take: This is a piece written by longtime Total Work Newsletter reader Paul Millerd. In it, he draws on the writings of Seneca and on Josef Pieper.

Late Medieval Views Of Manual Labor

In Restoration of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture (1987), George Ovitt, Jr. argues that medieval monasticism did involve a partial transvaluation of the value of manual labor. The key points are that, for personal spiritual reasons, manual labor was regarded as a means for subjugating one’s personal will and, for communal spiritual reasons, it was seen as a way to exercise charity since through it one could help to sustain other members of the monastic community.

However, to say this is to suggest that manual labor is, at its very best, an instrumental good insofar as it can be used to support and advance the deeper religious commitments of cenobites. Notice, though, that we’re considering a particular institution–namely, the monastery–which intends to be economically self-sustaining and which is thereby set apart from the operations of the larger social order. Later on, Ovitt, Jr. will go on to state the obvious about medieval society writ large: “certain types of manual labor, especially agricultural labor [but he could have also included mining], were considered to be burdensome, and the proper sphere of a particular, and lowly, social class” (p. 119) up through at least the twelfth century.

Hence, up through the twelfth century work has yet to “break free” and become an intrinsic good as it shall once we pass into modernity….

#4: WORKING CLASS | What The Working Class Is Still Trying To Tell Us | 5 min. | NYT | Opinion

My Brief Take: The NYT columnist David Brooks urges us to revisit the lives of the working class and see how we can build programs to support them–apprenticeship tracks, worker coops, etc.–around them. He also suggests (or implies) that the values of white-collar professionals are skewing our picture of economic and political reality.

#5: TECHNIQUE | The Tech Backlash We Really Need | 15 min. | New Atlantis | Essay

New Atlantis Sum: “Silicon Valley will only be strengthened by its present scandals unless we ask deeper questions, writes L. M. Sacasas.”

My Brief Take: Sacasas sets us off on the right course. What we need to ask are philosophical questions about the profound role of technology in our lives. He also urges us to see technique (in the sense Jacques Ellul used the term) as a formative part of our lives. Yet it would be nice to know what some of these philosophical questions we need to ask are. One he alludes to is: could liberal democracy actually be one of the conditions of possibilities for the emergence of technique? Another would be: which technologies actually erode human flourishing? (Jaron Lanier has recently made the case that pretty much all social media does just this.)

#6: TRIVIAL LIFE PHILOSOPHY | Jeff Bezos Tells New Amazon Employees There Isn't a Work-Life Balance. Here's What He Says Instead | 3 min. | Time | News HT Dev Aujla

Time Sum: Bezos thinks the term “work-life balance” is a “debilitating phrase.”

My Brief Take: I’m not a big fan of the term “work-life balance” either (though, as long-time readers of this newsletter might imagine, for very different reasons), but this discussion of Bezos’ “life philosophy” is silly at best and is delusional at worst. Silly because of its triteness. Delusional because few journalistic pieces I’ve read about being an employee at Amazon resembles this peachy “holistic” picture that Bezos describes.

A Human-centered Approach To Technology

In the opening chapter of The Restoration of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture (1987), George Ovitt, Jr. is criticizing the view of technological progress that hinges on the relationship between two variables–the use of certain machines and their enhanced productivity–in order to make room for a “human-centered” view of technology. So, he argues:

A human- or worker-centered approach to technology not only suggests another way of measuring progress, it also suggests another way of evaluating the contributions other cultures have made to the history of progress. Instead of focusing on the hardware of technological history–on machines and productivity–we might look instead at technology’s “software”–at the values that stimulate or impede innovations, at the effects of technological choices on individual workers or communities of workers. We must also be willing to acknowledge that standards of efficiency and productivity vary from culture to culture, and that resistance to technological innovations might reflect disparate social values rather than backwardness [cf. the Amish]. For example, the first great cathedrals built in the Île de France were constructed very inefficiently by modern standards. They took decades to complete; stones were transported over great distances at the expense of human and animal labor and without the aid of anything more than the simplest machines. Yet, as products of technology, these structures had no peer in Europe until the nineteenth century. The resolution of this paradox is possible only if we broaden the way we understand the word “technology.” Measured solely in terms of the machines used–wheelbarrows, manual or water-driven saws, animal- or human-powered lifting devices–the cathedrals are products of a backward technology; measured instead in terms of organizational skills, of pure (machineless) engineering, of long-term communal involvement, of aesthetics and structural durability, these buildings are technological marvels. If technology is the organization of human effort and the deployment of tools in order to make manifest human ideas about the use of the natural world, and not merely the history of disembodied mechanisms, then the notion of what constitutes technological progress must be reexamined. (p. 49)

To Ovitt, Jr.’s point, Daniel Rodgers, author of The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920, takes great pains to show that the adoption of the factory system in the US around 1870 led not just to the de-skilling of workers but also to a profound sense of alienation of workers from their work. This, then, would not count as progress from, say, the point of view of the Amish, who ground their choices and uses of technology on questions of the common good. “Would technological device X really be good for our family and for our community? If not, then we had better reject it.”

Japan's Total Work Culture

Why does Japan work so hard? | CNBC Explains HT Daniel Kazandjian

Critiques of Pieper's Leisure


In the last four issues (Issues #30-34), I’ve been discussing Josef Pieper’s book Leisure: The Basis of Culture–specifically and only the first essay, which also goes by that name. The essay could be summarized in the following manner:

1.) Leisure, not work, is the foundation of Western culture.– Where Aristotle invited his readers to non-leisure in order to leisure, Max Weber suggested that modern persons were living their lives with the chief purpose of working. Pieper’s observation helps us see that we have a choice: we can either live to work or we can work well while also opening ourselves up to a world beyond work.

2.) The Worker is the principal figure of modern history.– The Worker’s life is defined by (i) human agency (there is no superhuman force beyond human powers and my life is fundamentally of my own choosing), (ii) effortfulness (the Good just is the Difficult, the Struggle), and (iii) commitments to humanism (only the humankind project garners my attention and warrants my action).

3.) Acedia, the inability to be at peace with oneself, is at the heart of total work.– Pieper’s interesting claim is that acedia should not be construed as idleness (i.e., as the unwillingness to do work) but rather as existential restlessness, the inability to affirm existence. And so, what animates total work is the un-at-home-edness of the modern human being. (But see “What Pieper Misses” below.)

4.) Resistance to the claims of total work cannot be had through making ALL of us into Workers; it must come from honoring genuine leisure in the life of ALL of us.– Pieper worries that equality could mean transforming all human beings into workers. Instead, he urges us to change the social, cultural, and political conditions of our lives so that everyone can have the opportunity to be at leisure.

5.) The source of leisure is worship.– Perhaps the most controversial claim is that leisure is nested within a larger religious context. In the last issue, I suggested that “relaxation, effortlessness, and being at peace disclose themselves in and through genuine leisure” and also that genuine leisure is couched within the larger celebration or affirmation of the world.


As promised, I come now to consider the critiques of Pieper’s arguments. I elected to pick out four such critiques.

1. Return to an Aristocracy

It could be held that Pieper believes that the many would or must work so that the few would be freed from work. Therefore, Pieper is urging us to return to some kind of aristocratic society where slaves (Classical Greece) or serfs (medieval Europe) work to support the lives of free persons (Classical Greece) or clerics and warriors (medieval Europe). (Interestingly, this is the kind of worry expressed by Yuval Harari in Homo Deus apropos the relationship between an elite superhuman class and a useless class.)

2. Elitism

It could be suggested that Pieper is elitist in the strict sense that he believes that the active life is inferior to the contemplative life.

3. No Room for the Transformation of Work

In The End of Work: Theological Critiques of Capitalism (2007), John Hughes argues that Pieper cannot countenance the need to transform work, so to say, from the inside. “It seems,” he writes, “we are faced here with two quite different approaches: something like the transcendence of the opposition between work and leisure, on the one hand [the decision Hughes himself makes]; and the restraint of labor within clearly defined bounds that make room for leisure, on the other” (p. 168). It’s clear that Hughes believes that work, being alienated in the Marxian sense, ought to be transformed so that it more closely resembles the non-alienated form of craftsmanship or creative work exemplified in Hughes’ hero Eric Gill. Hugh believes further that Pieper’s “segregation” (p. 169) “seems little more than a stand off with the world of total work, leaving most of the worker’s time unaffected and still under the rule of utility” (p. 169).

4. Univocality of Work

Finally, it could be argued that Pieper fails to perform a conceptual analysis of “work” with the result that he is unable to parse out different conceptions of work.

In what follows, I offer my replies to all four critiques.

Reply to the First Critique

Is Pieper advocating that we return to an aristocratic society? Hardly. This critique is easily dispatched. Pieper makes no such claims that the many should work so that the few wouldn’t have to.

Reply to the Second Critique

Is Pieper elitist in this particular sense? Yes and no.

Yes, he does imply that the contemplative life is superior to the active life. Now, one of Luther’s critiques of monasticism was indeed that monks came to believe that their life of devotion was superior to that of laypersons. Yet we shouldn’t get Pieper’s position all tangled up with Luther’s pointed critique. For Pieper believes that all of us–not simply a select few–should find space in our lives for contemplation, and lest it be insisted that contemplation is a rarified activity, I don’t doubt that Pieper would count chanting, singing, prayer, meditation, perhaps ecstatic dancing, and other ritualistic acts as forms of contemplation.

No, however, Pieper cannot be said to be an elitist simply because he has been arguing that there is a vast hole in our lives, a space we may not be readily accessing in modernity, a space where “who we are” may touch “what there is.”

Reply to the Third Critique

Does Pieper succumb to the segregation of work from leisure when what is called for is a transformation of work? Here, things become a bit more nuanced.

To begin with, I think that Hughes is uncharitable inasmuch as he fails to see that a critique of total work may require the preliminary step of making room for genuine leisure. (As Kant once famously put it, he was going to engage in a “critique of reason to make room for faith.” The former is said to make possible the latter.) It is only from this vantage point that we can take both an appreciative view of Life and a critical view of the world of work we’ve inherited.

And yet, neither in this book nor in later books such as In Tune with the World and What is a Feast? does Pieper then proceed from this critique of total work to consider whether work could or needs to be transformed. It’s at this–call it–later point of his life that I find myself sympathetic to Hughes’ charge. Pieper everywhere implies that work is only oriented toward the useful and necessary (the servile or servile arts); nowhere have I observed him draw on a different Christian tradition.

Indeed, both in Daniel Rodgers’ The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920 and in George Ovitt’s The Restoration of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture, one can see that the Christian tradition has also, at times, drawn on the trope of God as the masterful craftsman and therefore of human beings, insofar as we’re made in the likeness of God, as also becoming excellent craftsmen. To transform work itself (about which more below) could mean placing creative work–the act of creating something beautiful, exquisite, or fine for its own sake–front and center.

Still, even the transformation of work, should it occur on a global level, would be insufficient unless work continued, as Pieper would have it, to be nested within a large context of contemplation. Yes, for some medieval monastics manual labor was also worship, but this cannot be the highest form of worship, which can only occur through study, prayer, and contemplation.

Reply to the Fourth Critique

Does Pieper imply that work is understood in one sense alone? I think he does, and this is my critique of his book. It’s because he’s unwilling to speak of a plurality of work conceptions that he fails, ultimately, to see that work too would need to be transformed.

I want to suggest that we can divide work conceptions into three very basic categories: the neutral, the negative, and the positive. The neutral conception of work would have it that we do whatever we need to in order to survive. (In a LinkedIn post in May 2017, I mistakenly implied that this was the only conception of what work is.)

The negative conception, the one that is most common in the Western tradition from Classical Greece to the end of the Middle Ages, holds that manual labor is a kind of toilsome drudgery: it may be necessary to do but it’s moderately to exceptionally painful to endure. (Sometimes, as in medieval monasticism, it was argued that manual labor was, e.g., good for one’s spiritual development, but that is only an instrumental good. Indeed, manual labor, being painful, is not itself good but is said to be good for, say, humbling one’s heart before God. Here see Ovitt, The Restoration of Perfection.)

Lastly, the positive conception says that work is how human beings bring something wonderful, interesting, beautiful, fine, etc. into the world. Something akin to this is what artists and entrepreneurs speak about when they speak about “loving work” because they love the act–the process and the fulfillment–of creation.

Because Pieper fails to perform a conceptual analysis on work, he is unable to see that his targets–the neutral and the negative conceptions of work–don’t define the entire field of what it means for human beings to work. He is right, of course, that there must be more to life than the useful and the necessary, but he doesn’t take up the possibility that the artist, being a quintessentially modern figure, could be a paradigm for “good work.” The transcendent God abiding in Himself must be paired with the immanent, creative God.

What Pieper Misses

I would like to end this five-part exposition of Pieper’s essay by considering both what Pieper missed and what he got right. Let’s start with the former.

I’ve already suggested that he missed the possibility that work needs to be understood plurivocally rather than univocally.

He also missed a critique that Heidegger, Adorno and Horkheimer, Ovitt, and Patrick Deneen (in Why Liberalism Fails [2018]) all make. It is that Francis Bacon, who argues that knowledge = power, sets the agenda for the ways in which work and technology have, in modernity, helped human beings to conquer the world. We have yet, I don’t think, to take full stock of the ways in which work and technology have been the twin forces that have enabled us to subdue the earth, the unintended consequence of which is the global ecological predicament we find ourselves in. Climate change, ocean acidification, rising sea levels, coral reef collapse, species extinction, and more are all unthinkable without the beliefs in (i) human agency, (ii) the good = the difficult, and (iii) the supreme humankind project.

What Pieper Gets Right

Let me single out, among many others, three things that Pieper definitely got right.

First of all, long before the term “concept creep” was coined, Pieper was able to see that work concepts continued to creep into virtually every domain of human life. Ovitt points out that some twelfth and thirteen century monks, who refused St. Benedict’s call for all monks to do some manual labor, coined the term “spiritual labor” to try to get around Benedict’s Rule. I draw your attention to this example because it illustrates something peculiar: why, even as far back as the end of the late Middle Ages, is the concept of work creeping rather than that of leisure? In key part, the answer may very well lie in the success of medieval, early modern, and modern technology, yet that cannot be the whole story. Surely, the intellectual-spiritual success of Luther and Calvin paved the way for the newfound belief that each person should be obliged to work. Only after work takes on a positive connotation both because of what it is and because of what it does to us and the earth can we think it a good idea to continue to affix work terms to many other things (working up the courage, working on myself, working through our problems, working on our relationship, doing the spiritual work, working on my drawing, doing good work, doing the work of God, doing a good job, getting things to work, etc.).

Secondly, Pieper had the vision to see that a new social ontology had been born. The loss of thick identities–those of family, of neighborhood, of town, and most specially of religious affiliation–is now almost complete. The global movement of human beings from the countryside to the city has brought about a transformation of our identities such that we are Workers who, at best, do what we choose, who work on the world to get ahead, and who seek fulfillment through our efforts. Our social ties are threadbare, our obligations few, our commitments to transcendence virtually non-existent, and what we are offered in our return for these sacrifices is our lifelong identities as Workers. Was all this worth it? Can we stand our existential loneliness?

Finally, Pieper’s view that genuine leisure rests on worship is stunningly insightful. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that worship comes from “worth + ship” and means “[t]he condition of being worthy or deserving; worthiness.” To worship is to bind oneself to what is most worthy or deserving. I do not care what name we give to this that is “most worthy”–this Dao, this sunyata, this God, this Source. I only care that we seek it and, in so doing, find ourselves.

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What I’m Reading…

1.) Recently finished:

  • Daniel T. Rodgers, The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920 (1978/2014). A beautifully written book that discusses the work ethic, which Rodgers suggests contains the following four elements: (1) a doctrine of usefulness, (2) a nervous fear of idleness, (3) a view of work as the means for success, and (4) an idealization of creative work. I doubt that the fourth element is an integral component of the work ethic.

  • George Ovitt, The Restoration Of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture (1987). Quite a good discussion of contrasting medieval views of manual labor and technology. Especially relevant were two of Ovitt’s theses: (1) that the “secularization of labor,” occurring in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, meant a hiving off of manual labor from the spiritual goals it had, at least in the Benedictine tradition, been nested within; and (2) that the Benedictine monastic tradition still offers us a humane consideration of the places of work, prayer, study, and contemplation in the life of a self-sustaining community.

2.) Currently reading:

  • Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934/2010).

  • Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (1984/1999).

  • Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (2018).

3.) Up next:

  • Yuval Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018).

Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?

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

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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 <>, Next, take a look at the first issue of this newsletter <> Next, check out my Quartz at Work pieces (December 2017- present), which are available here <>. Lastly, visit my website, <>, which is devoted to investigating this topic.