As we begin a new year of learning, although much compromised by our global pandemic, it is well to remember that this year may prove nonetheless to be a year of epiphany, a year when we happen upon a book that will jar us out of our natural complacency, open us to a genuinely new way of thinking.
I recall when I had precisely such a moment, although at the time I didn’t think so. It was 1969 and I was in a senior philosophy class—membership by invitation only, so I was quite chuffed---and our professor invited us to read books that were slightly outside the traditional canon, hardly peripheral, but not required reading in most mainstream philosophy classes.
This was my introduction to Josef Pieper, the German Catholic Thomist, whose seminal work, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, emancipated me from any slavish understanding of work—although it took a few decades for the full impact. Pieper reminded his diverse readership that human meaning is not tied to utility, that leisure is not the enemy of fecundity, and that contemplation is not the exclusive preserve of monks.
Of course, in a time of dearth, material and otherwise, this may seem like strange counsel. After all, people have lost their jobs, financial insecurity is omnipresent, and desperation around the quality of our education in straitened circumstances—primary, secondary and tertiary—naturally encourages us to think in only pragmatic terms, so talking about leisure and contemplation may seem like a careless indulgence.
But, in fact, doing so may be one way of injecting some solace and hope in a darkening landscape.