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    Leisure: The Basis of Culture {Chapter 3}

    October 6, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    I must confess that this week’s reading was harder for me than last week’s. I have no idea why, for I read the chapter earlier in order to give myself time to chew on it, and I read both translations this time, one of them online and the other with real pages to flip.

    It wasn’t that I didn’t comprehend, it was that I struggled. I still struggle, for instance, with a reflexive definition of leisure which smacks of Buddhism: some guy, sitting on a hill, becoming one with the universe by doing…absolutely nothing. And yet, I know that this is not what Pieper is talking about because he himself writes:

    Idleness, in the medieval view, means that a man prefers to forgo the rights, or if you prefer the claims, that belong to his nature. In a word, he does not want to be as God wants him to be, and that ultimately means that he does not wish to be what he really, fundamentally, is.

    What is the man-on-a-hill, if not forgoing the claims that nature has upon him, at least in a general sense? I remember a homeless man I met once in Santa Monica. I think I’ve brought him up here before, for he is the reason I was jaded in regard to the homeless for quite some time. This man, named David, was homeless by choice. He had a sort of transcendent aura about him, like he was above the things of this world. In time, I learned that he had, in the words of Pieper, forgone the claims of nature. He had not just abandoned the world’s luxuries, but also his responsibility to feed, clothe, and protect his wife and child.

    Because of this I have this desire to tread lightly, to make sure I know exactly what leisure is and isn’t. I know in my mind that Pieper was giving this lecture in Germany immediately after the conclusion of World War II. I know that the Germans had given themselves to, as Neil Postman would call it, technopoly and a mechanical/technological view of mankind. In this view, there is no room for any sort of transcendence–no soul, no wisdom, no abundant spiritual life.

    However, comma.

    I also try to balance that by the fact that I am living in a culture which values entertainment more than work, for the most part. So the struggle here is the opposite — instead of fighting Total Work, we fight sloth, idleness. Though leisure is neither total work nor idleness, I still find myself juggling these concepts, trying to be careful that, in the end, I let Scripture tell me of the Ideal Type.

    One thing that is helping frame all of this for me is, naturally, the CiRCE talks. I wish I had all of my mental notes down on paper, because then I might know who pointed this out, but in one of the {many} lectures, someone explained that when Descartes resolved to begin with doubt, the result was a foundation of anxiety. I thought of this when I read:

    [I]dleness, according to traditional teaching, is the source of many faults and among others of that deep-seated lack of calm which makes leisure impossible.

    Ours is a restless age, and yet I do think I’ve met folks who are exceptionally restless. One of the things that stands out about these people in my memories of them is that they are incapable of relaxing. They can’t sit and have a conversation. They can’t relax during a meal. At the same time, they are drawn to escapism in the form of television, video games, trashy novels, and/or movies, claiming that it helps them “relax.” James Taylor wrote:

    To be placed at a 45 [degree] angle in a reclining chair, drink in one hand, remote control in the other, in front of the television, is not leisure but something closer to sloth of mind and body.

    I like a decent movie as well as the next person, but I have noticed that anxiety and sloth seem to be a matched pair. We seek out the sloth because we feel we “deserve” it after so much anxiety, and yet the mystery is that the two seem to feed on each other. In my own life, the more I have let go of sloth, the less my anxiety becomes.

    And so, interestingly enough, we come to the word leisure being quite akin to a word I like to use: transcendence. It is more a state of a soul than anything else. A person can have back-to-back days which are almost identical, and one can be leisurely and the other anxious, and the difference is the state of soul. Pieper says:

    [L]eisure implies {n the first place} an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being ‘busy’, but letting things happen.

    Letting things happen. This little phrase resounds in my soul. One of my big desires is that our learning has time to let things happen. It is hard to balance, for I really do think that, for instance, spelling needs to be done almost daily, for my son to grow up free. We can’t just chase liberty without giving the children the tools to preserve it. However, it is also true that if I just rush through a daily list the souls of the children will be far from formed.

    Today was a day where I had to force leisure into the situation because we had bumps everywhere in the road. My toddler was cranky. My baby was ambivalent about napping, but not happy anywhere. The little girls wanted to practice walking in high heels. My son tackled said girls every chance he got. It was all I could do to force leisure into the situation, for chaos had the upper hand most of the morning.

    One of the ways I have learned to “force” leisure is to be willing to compromise with the To-Do list. I couldn’t live without a list; I’d just read a book and ignore my children and that’s a fact. However, if the list becomes a dictator, there is no leisure. There is only the rush to plow through and get it done. Somewhere, there has to be room to discuss, for instance, what exactly is the nature of a bad king.

    So sometimes, we let a lesson go until tomorrow. Sometimes, we extend the school day, finishing a reading later in the afternoon, or even at night. Sometimes, we reorganize our plan in order to accommodate the learning. Sometimes, we keep learning while we’re eating our lunch. Sometimes, we practice Latin at the grocery store.

    The flexibility, the openness to learning whenever and however it happens is so necessary, and yet so not an inborn quality for most of us. It certainly isn’t for me. But now that I am beginning to learn it, there is a sweetness about our days that wasn’t there before. Pieper writes:

    [T]here is also a certain happiness in leisure, something of the happiness that comes from the recognition of the mysteriousness of the universe and the recognition of our incapacity to understand it, that comes with a deep confidence, so that we are content to let things take their course.

    Read More:

    -More book club entries over at Cindy’s.
    -Online version of Leisure: the Basis of Culture
    -A couple helpful definitions…acedia in the Dictionary and over at Wikipedia

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  • Reply Laura A October 8, 2009 at 10:37 am

    “I like a decent movie as well as the next person, but I have noticed that anxiety and sloth seem to be a matched pair. We seek out the sloth because we feel we “deserve” it after so much anxiety, and yet the mystery is that the two seem to feed on each other.”

    An excellent point and a pet theory I’ve been nursing for some years. I remember how a vet school roommate I knew once stated it: “I’ve been studying for exams so hard and so long that I really have no idea what else to do.” So you seek something entertaining, not something that draws connections or draws you closer to God in a lasting way. I’ve done it, too!

  • Reply Mystie October 7, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    That swing between needing the to-do list, following the to-do list, and letting go of the to-do list is what gets me, also. Really, when I’m honest, there are as many days when it’s *my* bad attitude, laziness, headache, frustration, whatever that makes me want to or actually ditch the day’s task as it is child-related wild cards. And so how can I expect my children to buckle down when I can hardly make myself buckle down?

    Seeing the priorities of the to-do list helps, though, and I’m realizing that it is better to cut the spelling rather than the nature drawing, and having Hans read a book and then draw a picture or copy stuff from it is a good replacement if I am needed elsewhere (he *loves* doing it, too)…and letting him pick things out in a book or in the backyard and letting him observe them and talk about them instead of having my own agenda “to get through” and check off for the day has been a way I’ve introduced leisure and learning — and it’s less stressful and demanding on me, to boot!

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts October 7, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    Mrs. H,

    Never apologize for hijacking. I encourage such things. 🙂

    I like how you connected it all to our relationship with God. Sometimes, in my arrogance, I am tempted to believe that leisure could exist out there somewhere separately from the God who gives us His rest, which is ridiculous, I know! It is so true that it is only in knowing and trusting Him that we can hold our lives and all the details in them with open hands.

  • Reply Dominion Family October 7, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    Sorry, I went off on spelling. It had nothing to do with anything you actually said except the word ‘spelling’ and maybe restlessness. I used to really stress over spelling and it always took up so much time.

  • Reply Mrs. H October 7, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    Love the end part of this post because it sounds like me – only put into much better words! My days are just as you describe. One day things sail along and the next we all seem to be at each others throats. Some days the school work flows so nicely and I don’t stress out if all things aren’t finished, but other days i turn into this Nazi teacher barking out orders at every turn.
    I know in my heart it all comes down to what Mystie wrote about leisure being a soul at peace, with deep faith and trust in God. If my relationship with God is on track, my soul has rest, and I can be at leisure. At leisure to enjoy this world, confident that it’s all in His hands. At leisure to celebrate in our families and perform our daily duties. Without God’s peace and thus leisure, we feel restless. I think this is where my school problem comes in. When I’m restless it’s either work really hard to hide it or at the other extreme be lazy (these are the days I read unschooling blogs :)). Again these thoughts came from Mystie.I’m working and searching really hard right now to bring myself to the center of this pendulum.

    OK well enough! I’m sorry for the rambling nonsense and hijacking of your comments:)

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts October 7, 2009 at 6:16 pm


    I am glad I’m not the only person with angst. I personally am not restless in a typical sense (meaning I don’t find much to be boring), but I am full of angst about this world. It’s a different type of restlessness, but it is anxiety nonetheless. I respect that Andrew accepts people where they are at, as far as their restlessness. I will have to think about whether I do that with my children during lessons or not…Hmmm…

    I used spelling for my example mainly because I felt like I kept using math! 🙂 But also, I’ve been thinking about what we do for spelling lately (I was already planning to post about it today) because I love what we do…but I always feel restless when we do it, and it tends to be what I cut when time gets short. I just don’t like doing it because I don’t find it very exciting. However, I really do think it is the best way to “do” spelling, even though it is far from Charlotte Mason…I’ll explain later today when I have time.

    By the way, I found what you said over at Rick’s blog helpful:

    I am also still unsure of what all of this means in terms of the goodness of work. Maybe it simply means being content with our wages and not sticking our noses in other people’s business.

    Yes, maybe so…

  • Reply Dominion Family October 7, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    I feel your pain, Brandy. One reason I think this concept of leisure interests me is that I am a bit of a restless person. I am easily bored. I just hate it when a teacher: tells me what he is going to tell me, tells me and tells me what he told me. I could scream when this happens. I found it interesting that at the Circe apprenticeship it was obvious that several people in the room, a room we were in for 8 hours a day, were like that including the teacher. Andrew encouraged everyone to take notes, Twitter and FB while participating. It was as if he accommodated the restless rather than force them to sit still and pay attention. I found that extremely helpful and also I think it said a lot about Andrew’s confidence as a teacher. I am still pondering the meaning of it all.

    I could ramble about this all day. One reason I think it is a great dialog is that moms teaching their children at home are constantly having to balance teaching and learning.

    You mentioned spelling and I would love to discuss that in depth. At the tutorial I am helping with the students main worry is spelling and I have to practice their spelling words with them. They learn to spell almost entirely by sight. In my home I do not use a major spelling program anymore. Some of my children naturally spell well and some don’t. I use two computer drill programs for spelling and it is no burden on me at all. Both of my little boys are excellent spellers. I do correct any bad spellings and I firmly believe as Charlotte Mason taught that a child should never ever look at the wrong spelling on a page. I try to always correct spelling within seconds.

    I have used time consuming spelling programs in the past but I have learned that spelling is one subject that doesn’t need that sort of time commitment. Most spelling programs do not help bad spellers and they certainly are not needed by the good ones.

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