On Work and Leisure: In Support of Philosophy

Those who are in good health and are fortunate enough to adequately support themselves through savings and retirement income during their early old-age years, typically find themselves trying to figure out what to do with the increased amount of leisure time suddenly at their disposal.  One can only pursue entertainment, sports, travel, and social activities, and/or sit around reading novels while waiting for the sun to set for so long before going a bit bonkers.

A prevailing school of thought posits that spending too much time in such leisurely pursuits is unhealthy – that instead we should continue to work well into our seventies and eighties, be it part-time or even full-time. We should keep swinging the bat, as they say, and stay in the game. To do otherwise keeps us in the dugout waiting to be cut from the team.  This seems like common sense upon first view, but it is much more complicated, depending on what kind of person you are inside and the overall circumstances of your livelihood and well-being.

This post dives into a variety of notions about leisure/work balance.

How We Define Ourselves
I gained a keener understanding relative to the overall implications and meaning of leisure and work after reading several articles by Practical Philosopher Andrew Taggart, starting with a post he published on LinkedIn Pulse titled “Don’t Read This At Work.”  The impetus of Taggart’s post came from an article published in the New York Times (“Working Long May Benefit Your Health”) by someone who frequently writes interesting, well-researched books and articles about baby boomer work and retirement issues, Chris Farrell.

Farrell writes like a journalist, in easy-to-understand terms, and Taggart writes like an astute philosopher in often esoteric terms, but also relatively easy to comprehend. Both present strong points. Taggert is more of a catalyst for going much deeper into the nature of things if one takes the time, which is obviously not surprising since he has a Ph.D. in philosophy.

Taggart took issue with Farrell’s point of view that working during your retirement years is good for your health. For example, in response to a Columbia University School of Public Health official who was quoted in the article as saying—in relation to working during one’s retirement years—that “people need purpose, they need a reason to get up in the morning,” Taggart offered a one-word comeback: “Bleck.”  Overall, Taggart took the philosopher’s high road, noting that Farrell’s article made him “so angry” he “could barely contain” himself. He then goes on to demonstrate how work—typically defined in our modern era in terms of it being central to everything else in our lives— is actually “the least important thing” in our lives. “No longer do humans live for glory, for God, for truth, for beauty, for goodness but—are you kidding me?—they live for work,” Taggert laments.

At first glance, I thought Taggert’s post, sub-headlined “Delusions of Work, Delusions at Work?” was overly critical of Farrell, who provided a well-thought-out journalistic-style NYT piece that qualified his main theme at the outset: “The scientific research is inconclusive,” concerning the health benefits of staying in the work force during retirement years, Farrell wrote, “though it tends to tilt toward ‘yes.’” That seemed quite reasonable to me.

However, upon further examination and engaging in a brief online dialogue with Taggart, and then following up with what he shared with me, I learned a lot more about this leisure/work balance theme and started to dig into what he was truly getting at. For instance, in another Taggert blog post, headlined “Total Work, the Chief Enemy of Philosophy,” he explains how modern man has mistakenly defined work, or vita active, as the primary catalyst for a life filled with meaning and purpose. In the world of philosophy, “vita contemplativa must come first,” Taggart writes. “It is out of thought (whether considered, or later on, spontaneous thought) that good action arises.”

Enter Josef Pieper
Taggart was referring to notions about “total work” as delineated by German Philosopher Josef Pieper, who in the late 1940s accurately foresaw that “our lives would [increasingly] revolve around work,” or a time when total work entailed being “always on the clock. Ever behind, always in a rush toward, or just behind, an approaching, encroaching deadline. [Sound familiar?] Philosophy [on the other hand] seeks to put us in the presence of eternity.”

In an attempt to unpack all this, I read Pieper’s popular book that featured two manifesto-oriented essays, “Leisure the Basis of Culture,” and “The Philosophical Act.” The first essay is described in the foreword as being about leisure in the sense of “what we do when all else—politics, economics, daily duties—is done,” or the equivalent of today’s retirement years. The second essay is about “what it means to philosophize.” In addition, I read several scholarly articles about Pieper’s life and work.

The Importance of Now
Ultimately, I concluded that concepts similar to Pieper’s about work and leisure, which were widely read during the 40s and 50s—but fizzled out as we increasingly chased false, work-related status quos—need to come back into the mainstream, for primarily three reasons:

1) While, of course, we must work to survive. There is no denying the importance of work, but we also continue to place way too much value on making our jobs the centerpiece of our daily lives to a point where we have become almost zombie-like and unaware of the philosophical and more meaningful aspects of being alive; plus, the study of philosophy and the liberal arts are certainly in a death spiral, and that is a serious problem for our overall well-being as a global society and as individuals, in general.

2) The growth of automation and other new work-related technologies that are eliminating jobs may very well lead to shorter work weeks and more leisure time for millions of people around the world. According to a recent article in Fast Company, “artificially intelligent software programs, are predicted to eliminate 6% of the jobs in the U.S. in the next five years. . . Deloitte estimates that 39% of jobs in the legal sector could be automated in the next 10 years. Separate research has concluded that accountants have a 95% chance of losing their jobs to automation in the future.”

3) The first wave of U.S. baby boomers to reach age 65 started on January 1, 2011. The U.S. Census Bureau calculates that by 2020 55.9 million people in the U.S. will be 65 or older, and by 2030 that number will reach 72.7 million. How will all these boomers thrive in the twenty-first century? By staying in the workforce, at least minimally on a part-time basis, and not fully retiring, say many experts on aging.  As noted by Gallup, many Baby Boomers are reluctant to retire, and “nearly half of boomers still working say they don’t expect to retire until they are 66 or older, including one in 10 who predict they will never retire.” What will all these people do in their spare time?

A Long Time Coming – or Not
My call for a re-focus on Pieper’s and Taggart’s claims about work and leisure is not new. I found several articles published in the 1990s calling for the same thing. For example, in a 1990 article headlined “Common Wisdom: A Heroine for Pieper,” Anne Husted Burleigh discussed how her mentor-like relationship with a neighbor who was a hard-working and extraordinarily active mother of four epitomized how one could balance leisure and work.  When explaining Pieper’s themes concerning our overvaluation of work and general loss of meaningful philosophical thought, she wrote that “Pieper’s warning, offered in utter humility and love of Western culture, is all the more appropriate in 1990. For with startling rapidity the workplace has begun in the last two decades to replace the church and the home as the most honored and scared station in our lives.”

In another piece written nine years later in 1999, headlined “Josef Pieper: Leisure and its Discontents,” Roger Kimbal noted how “we are farther than ever from inhabiting a culture that esteems genuine leisure. But that distance acts as an anesthetic, dulling the sense of loss and, hence, the pulse of interest. We must stop to listen if we are to hear these arguments, and stopping and listening are among the most difficult things to accomplish in a world that rejects leisure.”

Making Leisure Time Work More to Your Benefit
In “Leisure the Basis of Culture,” Pieper explores how to be engaged in meaningful leisure time by first quoting Aristotle, who brought up the following in Politics: “Leisure is better than occupation and is its end; and therefore, the question must be asked, what ought we to do when at leisure?” The short answer: by philosophizing, and, more specifically, as Pieper explains:

By comprehending the assertion of the theoretical character of philosophy and its freedom; it does not, of course, in any way deny or ignore the world of work (indeed it assumes its prior and necessary existence), but it does affirm that a real philosophy is grounded in belief, that man’s real wealth consists, not in satisfying his needs, not in becoming “the master and owner of nature,” but in seeing what is and the whole of what is, in seeing things not as useful or useless, serviceable or not, but simply as being. The basis of this conception of philosophy is the conviction that the greatness of man consists in his being capax universi.

Of course, I had to look up capax universi. It’s Latin for “contains all.” Mitchell Kalapakgian in a New Oxford Review article published in 2004, titled “The Empty Self vs. the Rich Soul,” refers to this phrase by paraphrasing St. Thomas Aquinas—whose writings, incidentally, had a very strong influence on Pieper—as follows:

Man is capax universi, capable of understanding the whole of reality. Man philosophizes about all of reality from the origin of life to the end of human existence, and he contemplates all the mysteries and miracles from the glory of the stars to the wonder of love.  Man experiences a full range of emotion – the tenderness of adoring a baby, the affection between parents and children, the bonds of close friendship, the ecstasy of Eros, and communion with God. Man senses beauty in all its myriad expressions, from the human form and nature’s glory to music, painting, dance, poetry, and architecture. The inner life spans a wide distance from the lightheartedness of mirth to the sorrow of tragedy to the peace that passes all understanding. Thus, the inner life of man is a world copiously rich and full, capax universi, capable of loving and knowing, and designed to grasp the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Now that is reason enough to get up in the morning.


  1. Great concept George. As a retiree myself, often the challenge each day is exactly just what to do; how to spend this precious gift of time. Personally, if i can pull it off, i prefer not to work at a “job” but rather have my work be chores around the property and self enrichment, ie.,, gardening reading, writing (not ‘rithmetic) , music, grandkids. may sound selfish, but it works for me at present, as I gaze toward our mortal sunset.

    1. Not selfish in the least – what you are doing matches well with the concepts of leisure I mentioned in the post – and not letting work define you. Sounds like you are on a great path, Joe.

  2. Very interesting post, I began thinking of this topic several weeks ago and this gave me several very good references to look in to, thank you for that. In the end I do believe balance is key and that work is inevitable. After reading many of these referred texts I find that it is in interpreted definitions where we often find ourselves at odds. For instance, there may or may not be a difference between work and purpose, dependent upon the definition of work. For the development of skill is work but may be required to fulfill a purpose, and development/work is definitely required on the path of self-actualization. I think we also miss the mark by categorizing work as an obligatory commitment and leisure as all the things we want to do. When in fact there are many things in between the two. I look at things in three categories things I have to do, things I need to do and things I hope to do. The “have to” do always equate to not wanting to, like I have to mow the lawn, but I actually don’t mind doing it. However, it doesn’t contribute to my purpose in life! Therefore, the level of desire to complete each of these things in the variable areas of our lives (career, family, friends, home, community, self) are based on how they may ultimately contribute to our own personal agendas. The human agenda is of real interest to me, it seems that the idea of “total work” is on point for many people in today’s society, which is unfortunate. I talk to people daily about seeking their calling or purpose in life and see blank stares or even hear giggles. I mean, it is far easy to master a job with set expectations and a consistent reward system, than it is to truly know who you are or maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse and children. Knowing yourself and others takes real work, work that most people are no longer willing to tackle. Especially, when there’s no rules, no paid time off and no yearly increases. So here’s to my personal agenda, and maybe yours too…discovering humanity and its connection to the universe, and along the way my place in it!

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