On Leisure and Culture: Why Human Things Exist and Why They Are "Unimportant" - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

On Leisure and Culture: Why Human Things Exist and Why They Are “Unimportant”

Let me begin by citing two passages that graphically underscore the themes that I wish to consider here—the things of leisure and culture, of what is and its surprising origins. The first lines are from Gregory of Nazianzen, the great Eastern theologian:

What benefactor has enabled you to look out upon the beauty of the sky, the sun in its course, the circle of the moon, the countless number of stars, with the harmony and order that are theirs, like the music of a harp? Who has blessed you with rain, with the art of husbandry, with different kinds of food, with the arts, with houses, with laws, with states, with a life of humanity and culture, with friendship and the easy familiarity of kinship? 1

The second is from the Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga:

Real civilization cannot exist in the absence of a certain play-element, for civilization presupposes limitation and mastery of the self, the ability not to confuse its own tendencies with the ultimate and highest goal, but to understand that it is enclosed within certain bounds freely accepted. Civilization will, in a sense, always be played according to certain rules, and true civilization will always demand fair play. Fair play is nothing less than good faith expressed in play terms.. . . .To be a sound culture-creating force this play-element must be pure. 2

In each of these citations, we are admonished to do things that seem utterly useless, things not necessarily senseless, but still impractical.

Beholding the beauty of the sky or counting, as Gregory calls them, the “countless stars,” is really not good for much. No doubt, it can prod us to wonder why things are in this way, in this order, rather than in some other arrangement. It might even impel us to send up a few space ships to have a look about. Yet, Gregory obviously thinks that what we gain from this contemplation of the heavens is well worth our efforts. And what is this about civilization “always presupposing limitation and the mastery of self?” Surely Huizinga is being ironic?

Yet, the things of civilization are also mentioned—art, houses, harps, food, laws, and “the life of humanity and culture.” Gregory understands that these latter things, except for the rain, have a human component. But we still should wonder why we are said to be “blessed” with such humanly-fashioned things, almost as if they were “intended” for us to bring forth. They obviously refer us to a source not ourselves. We realize, at least implicitly, that we did not cause ourselves to be, to stand outside of nothingness. If cultural artifacts exist in some abundance, still they had to be brought forth by a being who had the capacity to create or develop them. But we did not give to ourselves this artistic or craft capacity to make or order things, any more than we created the beauty of the heavens or the countless stars.

In order that something higher might be achieved among us than just our essential being, we need to act. Rules and limitations, as Huizinga paradoxically tells us, therefore, need themselves to be discovered, formulated, and, more importantly, “freely accepted.” So our limitation and our freedom are not necessarily and always at loggerheads, as we are sometimes told. We need one for the other. Our freedom is directed to what is; we do not make or create either reality or our capacity of free will. To make a choice to have this thing is simultaneously to make a choice not to have that thing. We are only free to play the game if we agree to abide by its rules that limit us to play in the way the game is played. Otherwise, with no rules freely accepted, it is not a game and no one will play with us on any other terms. What the game is, its truth, limits our freedom to play it, that is, makes us free to play it because we accept the rules.

What is implied here is that our human life in the universe reveals something of this same structure, of knowing what we are, of learning the measure or rules of our being, of freely accepting them in order that we might be what we are intended to be, human beings, not toads or gods. We seem, by being what we are, as Plato taught us, to be ordered to “play” or to participate in some transcendent game or design whose rules we do not ourselves fashion.3Huizinga also observes that civilization itself requires a sense of limit and self-mastery. We cannot play a game while changing its rules in the midst of the playing. We cannot create a human culture while changing the structure of what it is to be human. “Man does not make himself to be man,” as Aristotle told us. He is already man, not of his own making. This fact itself is cause, in our souls, of the most curious of self-reflection. What is the ground of our being if we are not? The very faculty by which we consider what we are is already present in us, almost as if to say that we are meant to reflect on how we could ever come to exist since we did not cause the sorts of beings we are to come to be in the first place.

Why do things exist rather than not exist? If precisely “nothing,” in the most literal sense of the word, ever once, as it were, “existed,” no thing would still “exist.” Ex nihilo, nihil fit—a most basic of first principles of being. Why, among the vast diversity of things that do exist, are there also human things, clearly different from non-human things both above us and below us on the scale of being? Why does the existence of human things include the capacity to know the other things that are? Why can we only know ourselves by first knowing something that is not ourselves? And are these things that exist, human and non-human things, “important?” Important to whom? To what? For what?

We like to agree with Aristotle that nothing is made “in vain,” especially ourselves. Yet, who or what might “need” us, or at least want us to be? Leisure and culture are the conditions and circumstances in which we try to respond to such questions. These are the things we do when all else is done. Our lives are not, and cannot be, exhausted in the necessary. Our being is not intended merely to keep us in existence as if just living were our highest good. We know the purpose of a doctor when we are sick, namely to restore us to health. But what if we are “healthy”? What are the activities of health that fill our days? Surely they do not consist merely in efforts to keep us alive. We would like to know the answers to questions about what is just because we would like to know, just because knowing itself is a delight.

At first sight at least, such sophisticated-sounding notions as leisure and culture seem relatively insignificant compared to making and acquiring the basic necessities of life—food, clothing, shelter, economics, the production of things, war, trade. We are incessantly being urged by our churches, by our voluntary agencies, by our media to concern ourselves with the needy and the poor of various sorts. We sometimes wonder if this latter concern is not in itself an escape from or avoidance of more fundamental questions. With so many things wrong or lacking in the world, in any case, why on earth, of all things, are we to be worried about “culture” and “leisure?”

Is not this leisure something we cannot “afford?” And “culture” comes from cultus, the notion that the highest things arise from ritual worship of the gods. Could anything be more fanciful? This same accusation, of course, was that which used to be leveled at believers by Epicureans, Marxists, and sundry militant atheist positions. The concern for the highest things, it was charged with some urgency, deflected us from those things that must be done for the good of the world. Culture, religion, leisure, worship were luxuries we cannot afford. It is because of them, it was charged, that the more “basic” things were neglected.

Yet, there are those who suspect that if we do not concern ourselves with things that are not “necessary,” not “important,” we will never really get to those things that are commonly thought to be necessary in a worldly sense. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.” At first sight, such an admonition, even with its scriptural authority, seems absurd. It advocates the wrong priority. If we first produce “all these things” by ourselves, we then can worry about the highest things in good time. They might be nice, but we can get along fine without them. Surely we can only worry about the Kingdom of God after we have enough material things. Then we can waste time on such fanciful questions for which no one has any clear answers anyhow.

Nonetheless, Aristotle himself did tell us, in a famous passage, not to follow “those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but [we] must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything” (1177b31–78a2). Human things are political and economic things. While not to be neglected, they are not of highest importance. We must “strain” ourselves to seek the highest things. Aristotle clearly thinks that we can miss knowing what is important by concentrating merely on what we are in this world and its mortal activities.

We cannot, however, forget that haunting passage in The Brothers Karamazov in which we are warned that ultimately men would prefer bread to freedom. “For the mystery of man’s being,” we read in Dostoevsky, “is not only in living, but in what one lives for. Without a firm idea of what he lives for, man will not consent to live and will sooner destroy himself than remain on earth, even if there is bread all around him.” Such are indeed somber, yet also hopeful, words in these days of rapid population decline in Europe and in America, the effects of the culture of death. But these words remain apt commentary on the notion that man does not live by bread alone, a remark addressed to, of all people, the devil himself by Christ in the desert. The man who lives “by bread alone” is the man who lacks both culture and leisure.

To entitle, as I have, a book, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, leaves one open to certain obvious charges of denigrating the ordinary affairs of men, affairs most people take to be precisely “serious,” the ones on which they spend the most time. While both accepting the validity of the point being made, the first two reviews that I saw of this book, both written fairly soon after September 11, 2001, mentioned in fact the paradox of a book suggesting that human affairs were “unserious” over against the obvious dangers and perils of a new war and numerous signs of cultural decay. The book was written before September 11, though it was not actually brought out until December of 2001. In the meantime, I had written a number of hawkish analyses of the current war against “terrorism,” as it is called, the general outlines of which I approved. I likewise agree that many signs exist of—again to use that pressing word—“serious” civil decay, signs from rapid loss of population in the West, to the disorders in the family, to the legal reversal of many former sins so that they become “rights.”


But, to put things in perspective, I had come across C. S. Lewis’s famous lecture “Learning in Wartime,” given at Oxford in October of 1939, in which he said

The war creates no absolutely new situation. It simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been norma1. 4

From an eternal point of view, there seems to be little evidence that fewer love God in wartime than in peacetime. In fact, Scripture itself seems to suggest that, in many ways, times of prosperity and riches are more morally dangerous than times of want and poverty. Nothing suggests that the poor of this world reach eternal life proportionally less frequently than the rich. The old monastic literature seemed to be more concerned about the souls of monks in times of peace than in times of trial. Our sociological surveys likewise tell us that breakdowns in families, in society, in morality are much deeper in times of civilization and peace than in times of war when we are more likely to call upon the Lord, or at least see the need of some duty and honor.

But what about this notion of the “unseriousness of human affairs?” As I remind my friends, this title has a classical reference that any cultivated person should immediately recognize. It comes from a passage in the Seventh Book of Plato’s Laws. The context is one that is essential for us to understand. Plato does not think that political and economic affairs are worth nothing. He grants them “a certain importance.” He is aware that much of our time and energy are spent on them. But he asks of their relative importance not in light of themselves but in light of something more fascinating and absorbing. If we realize that Plato tells us what is in fact “serious,” we will better understand what he means when he tells us that our human affairs are “unserious.” What is serious, of course, is God.

In Plato there is nothing of the idea of “obligation” or “duty,” as we often think of our relation to God. Everything is rather a spontaneous reaction to the beholding of what is beautiful. The commandments themselves of course tell us to keep holy the Sabbath Day. They identify the Lord, our God. But revelation does not replace Plato’s main point here, rather it reinforces it. If we are admonished to keep holy the Sabbath or not to take the name of the Lord in vain, we are not to think that obeying such admonitions is the essence of what revelation is telling us. We human beings are easily distracted, both to ourselves, and to our own affairs.

The first three commandments of the Decalogue point not to ourselves, but to God. And our relation to God, as Plato intimated, is one rather closer to play than to work. It is one of those things that are “for its own sake” and not for anything we might receive. Josef Pieper put it well in his classic book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture: “And as it is written in the Scripture, God saw, when ‘he rested from all the works that He had made,’ that everything was good, very good (Genesis 1:31), just so the leisure of man includes within itself a celebratory, approving, lingering gaze of the inner eye on the reality of creation.”5Not only does God delight in His creation, but His creation is to delight in what exists. Human sin, in this sense, might well be called the “disappointment of God” in the creatures not delighting both in God and in what He has made.

The point is that we are to respond both to creation and to God not after the manner of need but of true delight. It is bound up with the very idea that God is complete in Himself, that He need not create anything, that if anything besides God does exist, it does not change God. We exist then not out of a need God had for anything, as if He lacked something, but out of His superabundance. And if God alone is “serious,” it can only mean that He does not lack anything including our praise or worship. Yet, this is why we exist. We are the creatures who exist to acknowledge in the universe the glory of God in itself, for its own sake. The completion of the universe in some sense includes this chance that the free creature will recognize what is not himself, will recognize God and respond to Him simply because of what He is.

The difference between ourselves and Plato is largely due to the fact that, with revelation, we have been given the proper way to express an appropriate worship of God. This is what the Mass is all about. It is that worship for its own sake because of the Incarnate God who offers this Sacrifice in our name, in our presence. Moreover, the word “serious” when applied to God does not imply a lack of delight and joy. It is in fact to be surrounded by music and song. But also it implies an accurate knowledge of God. Our worship has and must have an intellectual component. This is why the Church insists that we recite the Creed each Sunday, the Creed which begins “Credo in unum Deum. . . .” “I believe.”

The two words “leisure” and “culture” have curious meanings and origins. There is a famous discussion in Aristotle about health and the activities of health. He asks, in effect, what is the difference between what a doctor does and what a healthy man does? The point can be made indirectly. When a man is not healthy, he sees the doctor to help him become healthy. The doctor does not decide what it is to be healthy. But beginning from not being healthy, he decides how to restore us to health. Once we are restored to health, we have no desire or need to see the doctor, ever again. So the activity of the doctor has a natural limit or purpose, namely, what it is to be healthy, something the doctor does not constitute but only serves. If a doctor wonders about whether he should aid us in becoming healthy, he ceases to be ruled by the end of medicine and becomes a danger to all of us.

But once I am healthy, what do I do? What are the “activities” of health? We can only answer such a question by knowing what we are. The specialist in what to do once we are healthy is not the doctor. True, we can exercise, diet, brush our teeth daily in order to remain healthy, but these are not the activities of health. In short, all those activities or professions that are primarily geared to keeping us healthy or in being, worthy as they are, are not what we represent. I revert back to the word “strain” that Aristotle used when he told us to use every faculty we had to know as much as we could about the highest things, about what is, even if it be little.

What is leisure about? Essentially, it is about knowing, and knowing the truth, “to know of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not,” to cite Plato. In an old Peanuts, we see Charlie on the mound. He is earnestly looking at Lucy wearing what looks like an oversized baseball cap. She tells him, “Does this look all right? I’ve got the ball under my cap. I’m pulling the old hidden ball trick!” As Lucy walks away, we see Charlie on the mound yelling at Lucy who has a frown on her face, “How are we going to start the game if you have the ball under your cap?” In the final scene, Lucy turns around angrily to shout back at Charlie, “Do I have to think of everything?”6I suppose the proper answer to this exasperated question of Lucy is, “No, but you can think of anything.” This is precisely the Aristotelian definition of intellect: the capacity to know all things, to know what is. But it is not necessary that we think of everything, but we can, we have the capacity to do so. What we lack is time and opportunity—which just may be why we are given eternal life. “Thinking of everything,” especially the highest things, is precisely what we are about, even in this world.

But we are not just “thinking machines,” not just disembodied spirits. Every truth can have a reflection in our world, in this world within our own minds. We often forget that there is a pleasure also in just knowing, for no other reason than that we want to know something, to know its truth. We are indeed the lowest of the spiritual beings; we have to know first by knowing through material things. But we do know this way. And our knowing of things not ourselves is part of the “redemption,” as it were, of those things that have no intelligence, and even more so of those that do. We want to know most of all other persons, other spiritual beings precisely in their inner souls. We have a suspicion that we do not fully “exist” until we too are fully “known.”

Thus if our affairs are “unserious,” if God could do without us, how do we go about thinking of those dire threats against living improperly that seem to come from revelation itself? Indeed, they even come from Plato. God, if I might put it that way, seems to be in the situation of someone trying to enable or to encourage someone to enjoy the very best thing possible or even imaginable. But no matter what He does, the other person will not accept what is offered. And the only way the latter can have this gift is if he freely accepts it. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy,

. . . to a Christian existence is a story, which may end up in any way. In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he might be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man, not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn’t. In Christian morals, in short, it is wicked to call a man “damned”: but it is strictly religious and philosophic to call him damnable. 7

However we construe it, and adventure it is, if we refuse the gift that is offered freely to us, we must live with that refusal. And in this case, God could not give us His life unless we freely chose it. There is no datur tertium, no way to accept what it is unwillingly.

Even our taking ourselves seriously is suffused with laughter. I once came across the following item in a book called Poor H. Allen Smith’s Almanac. John XXIII is reported to have said that “it often happens that I wake at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide I must tell the Pope about it. Then I wake up completely and remember that I am the Pope.”8We would be in a terrible fix, I suspect, if our popes did not have some sense of the unseriousness of even their serious lives.

The subtitle of these reflections is “Why Human Things Exist and Why They Are ‘Unimportant.’” Human things exist but not of their own making. The cultural things that are of human making presuppose beings that did not make themselves. Human beings exist out of a superabundance of God who need not have created them. They are thus “unimportant” in comparison to their cause. But they are precisely human beings. This means they are beings with hands, passions, brains, and free wills. God deals with them according to what they are.

If I give a gift to someone I love, I do not want that gift to command or to coerce the elation of the receiver. Rather, I want the receiver really to delight in the gift and in the fact that I gave it. Joy is the delight in having what we love. Our unimportance in one sense means that we take a chance in our givings. We do not know what someone will make of our beautiful gift, and a part of ourselves. It means nothing to us, but disappointment, if we receive back an artificial or strained thanks. We want the thanks to be really from the freedom and the understanding, from the being of our love.

If we say that we want to know certain things not for our sakes but “for their own sakes,” it means that we can actually behold the existence and beauty of something, respond to it because we really know what it is. Paradoxically, in the background of this consideration is Augustine’s reminder that we are made for God from the beginning and that we cannot cease until we discover the rest for which we were intended. Yet, this is said not to depreciate or to minimize the beauty of the things that are not God.

Cultus and skole, culture and leisure mean that we accomplish the highest purpose in creation not in necessity or in obligation, but in delight and in freedom. What we really want is what is given to us. God, for His own part, does not want our praise because He commands it. He wants it because we see that what God is, is indeed lovely, worth our awe. What we create in our human way, in our leisure and culture, ought primarily to arise out of this initial realization. The world is only complete when finite beauty is the free response to divine beauty. Only God is “serious,” Plato told us. All else is “unserious.” But the seriousness that is God can only mean that He prefers that we love Him for His own sake, for the sake of His beauty, because we “see” it, delight in it, after the manner in which it is given to us, as a grace that we can chose not to accept. Without this possibility of refusal, there would be no adventure, human or divine.



  1. “Oratio 14, De Pauperum Amore, Roman Breviary, Second Reading, Monday, First Week of Lent.
  2. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (Boston, 1955 [1930]), 211.
  3. See James V. Schall, Far Too Easily Pleased: A Theology of Play, Contemplation, and Festivity (Los Angeles, 1976).
  4. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York, 1980), 21–22.
  5. South Bend, 1998 [1964], 133.
  6. Charles Schulz, Don’t Be Sad, Flying Ace (New York, 1990).
  7. Garden City, N. Y., 1959, 136.
  8. Poor H. Allen Smith’s Almanac: A Comic Compendium Loaded with Wisdom & Laughter, Together with a Generous Lagniappe of Questionable Natural History, All Done Up in Style (Greenwich, Conn., 1965), 21.

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