Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

Transatlantic Blog

‘Regulated leisure,’ the basis of culture?

Every summer, as I prepare for much needed vacation, I am reminded of my favorite book, Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture.  It was written by the neo-Thomistic philosopher who condemned a world of “total work.”

The context in which Pieper’s masterpiece was authored is his native Germany in the late-1940s during a furious rebuilding of Europe after the Second World War. He argues for making time for not just rest, recreation, and the arts in our day, but most critically silent contemplation and worship.

Ultimately, for Pieper, this meant hard working individuals must be willing to be inactive in order to become receptive to wonder and offering praise: “Leisure is not the attitude of the one who intervenes but of the one who opens himself; not of someone who seizes but of one who lets go, who lets himself go.”

This was a prophetic admonishment for the next half-century’s hockey-stick economic growth in Germany and soon thereafter in many countries of the nascent European Union. Hard work was certainly necessary for an ancient continent whose core businesses and infrastructures had been all but flattened by blitzkriegs.

However, Pieper’s concern was not so much about working “too hard” or “too much”, but really about addressing a potential anthropological identity crisis, that is to say:  viewing our human worth merely in terms of what is “useful work or activity.” This was certainly the utilitarian understanding of man and his dignity as vigorously promoted by the European far left parties of his time, especially in East Germany and the rapidly expanding U.S.S.R.  As David Haines writes of Pieper:

So Pieper wants us to work less and play more? Some people will be very happy with this; however, as Pieper notes, contemporary people think about everything as a worker, and our society (as socialist as Germany was prior to the Second World War) has trained us to think this way. We have been trained to view every activity according to its usefulness. This is the problem that Pieper wishes to draw our attention to. If we view everything according to its usefulness, then we lose our identify.

In the end, for Pieper leisure is the basis for both culture and work, since it is in leisure, as he says, that we find “the surge of new life that flows out to us …[as in the] contemplation of a blossoming rose, a sleeping child, or of a divine mystery.”

Maria Popova, writes in an article about Pieper’s concept of leisure:

the most significant human achievements between Aristotle’s time and our own — our greatest art, the most enduring ideas of philosophy, the spark for every technological breakthrough — originated in leisure, in moments of unburdened contemplation.

It is little wonder, therefore, that European nations, who pride themselves in their creative and artistic heritage as well as their industrial successes, take Pieper’s 1947 epistemological and spiritual manifesto to heart. Fast-forward 70 yearsand we find some extreme cases in which European governments are seeking to actually regulate their citizens’ leisure time.

The latest peculiar example is the El Khomri labor law passed in French parliament 2 years ago and now having a broad impact in workplace culture. It was passed not coincidentally so during the traditional French summer vacation period of August.  Since then, France has mandated the right to refrain from work-related emails and other social messaging services after 6:00 pm. From this hour, it is it is forbidden for some businesses to require staff to remain connected with colleagues or superiors by electronic means. Thus, the El Khomri law “entitles” employees to “disconnect” from their on-line working community.

In a Fortune magazine article we read:  “the law requires companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff should not send or answer emails. The goals of the law include making sure employees are fairly paid for work, and preventing burnout by protecting private time.”

The intent of the legislation is to, therefore, to force employers to respect employees “off-line” time and not be tethered to their offices on like  “dogs [on] electronic leashes” as the French politician Benoit Hamon said.

There are some obvious practical concerns and unintended consequences of France’s leisure regulations.

  • What is the fine-line between colleague relations, which often blossom into confidential friendships of trust and interpersonal solidarity in the critical after-work hours? Would such leisure regulations ruin the fostering of such deep professional companionship and confidence that is good for the overall team spirit and long-term success of the company?
  • What about large international companies whose employees must communicate with each other across time-zones with as much difference as 6-8 hours? And isn’t their good compensation a way to reciprocate their generosity to the company through timely after-hours communications?
  • What about a working mother who would rather” disconnect” from 3:00-6:00 pm while collecting her children from school and preparing dinner and then “reconnecting” in the late evening with her colleagues on line?
  • Finally, and most importantly, why should we assume the employees are “forced” or “required” to communicate after hours? Are these communications not based on voluntary relationships and judgements that can vary on any given work day?

There are many exceptional circumstances that merit our rejection – whole or partial – of France’s El Khomri law and its copy-cat regulations in other countries, like in Germany where companies are now beginning to shut down email accounts during their workers’ vacations.  What is obviously wrong with the El Khomri law is that is that it assumes all workers:

  • are getting paid an “hourly wage” and not hired simply to “meet objectives”;
  • actually want rigid 9:00-5:00 working hours instead of flexible time;
  • do not have a passionate vocation and can’t wait to quit their “toil” each day;
  • are making valuable use of their leisure time (and not doing a second job) or involved in vicious pleasures after office hours.

The major “political” error made by France’s legislators is its intrusion into the private agreements made between employers and employees when seeking to guarantee leisure hours and prevent burnout. People’s personalities, personal issues, and overall passion for work vary incredibly from office to office. It is akin to the government attempting to fix a “just price” for a particular necessary commodity, like soap or milk, when it should be allowed to fluctuate per the specific market conditions and local needs.

The “anthropological” error, however, is more egregious. It tries to define the worker as a person who “works to live” in contrast with a person who “lives to work”. While for Pieper, the human person is neither one of these, he would have supported attitudes about work that are vocational and which allow workers to forget about exactly how much time they are spending on work while joyously fulfilling their personal calling in service of God and human society. Such vocational fulfillment is hardly a human toil per se, but a labor of love – a form of worship and praise for the gifts given to us from God.

(Photo credit: Bonhams. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Most Read


Michael Severance earned his B.A. in philosophy and humane letters from the University of San Francisco, where he also studied at the university's St. Ignatius Institute, a great books program. He then pursued his linguistic studies in Salamanca, Spain where he obtained his Advanced Diploma in Spanish from Spain's Ministry of Education before obtaining his M.A. in Philosophy and Modern Languages from the University of Oxford.