Common Wisdom: A Heroine for Pieper

Once again our family has been immersed in the all-too-absorbing project of college selection. College applications, as high school seniors and their parents know, usually require some formal essays on an assortment of topics. As an essay topic for one of her applications our daughter chose from a list of four possibilities a classic by Josef Pieper: Leisure, the Basis of Culture. Without a chance for discussion of the work, I knew that a teenager struggling by herself to capture the profundities of Pieper would find the great philosopher over her head. Because I was far too rusty to discuss Pieper without preparation, and I wanted Catherine to get the most from her reading, I got my yellowed paperback copy of Leisure from the bookshelf and began to educate myself.

I had not looked into Leisure, the Basis of Culture for a decade or more. My first reading of it had been many years ago when we still lived in Indiana. Perhaps the book now jostled fond memories of those years in Newburgh, for, as I read, the image of one friend from those years kept recurring. There in the pages of Pieper danced the graceful, lively little figure of Suzie Fischer.

Suzie Fischer is a small lady of infinite charm, warmth, intuition, and intelligence. She and her husband, Wayne, and their four young children were essential fixtures in our early marriage. They served not only as examples of happy family life but also were the solid, stable friends that every young couple should have to root them in the reality of the community. Suzie was to me what every young wife needs—a friend ahead in years just enough to introduce her to the solemn and delicate rituals of wifehood and mother-hood. Since our race began, older friends, sisters, mothers, and grandmothers have initiated young women into the rudiments of the social order. That Suzie in large measure performed this ancient function for me was not surprising. That she embodied so much of what Pieper cherishes, however, requires a bit of explanation of Pieper’s book on leisure itself.

Pieper’s Leisure, written in 1947, was a warning to the Western world to cling to its classical and medieval metaphysical roots. Fearing that the West was fast succumbing to the totalitarian effort to make man’s highest activity his work for the public good, Pieper reminded us that there is a higher good than utility. There is a higher good than work, even the noble and difficult work of rational thought. This higher good involves the part of man’s mind by which he intuits and contemplates, that receptive part of his mind known as the intellectus. With the other part of his mind, the ratio, man labors by reasoning discursively from point A to point B; with the intellectus he beholds and marvels at the wholeness of creation. The ratio requires effort; the intellectus requires receptivity, relaxation, and letting go simply to affirm the reality one sees. Both facets of the mind are necessary to the complete man; both are good; both are active in the sense of one’s being alert and paying attention.

When Pieper spoke of leisure, he meant something far different from spare time or the time off from work that one takes in order to return refreshed to work. He meant instead a contemplative attitude of the mind, a condition of the soul, an inner silence and calm, a receptiveness that looks at and affirms what has been given to us in creation. Leisure is both the occasion and the capacity for this serene appreciation of creation. When one is at leisure, beholding the world with effortless awareness, the intellectus is in full sway.

It is in leisure that we celebrate divine worship, or the cultus, which Pieper believed was the fountainhead and living substance of culture. Without worship, without that celebration or feast of divine being that is done for no reason other than that God is our highest good and the culmination of all good, we would have no genuine leisure; we would have only total work punctuated by meaningless spare time. Leisure, however, truly linked to divine worship, is time for no purpose other than affirmation of the gift of creation, time not for a utilitarian purpose of refreshment for more work but instead time removed altogether from use. Leisure, we might say, is God’s time, not ours. It is our receptive awareness that occurs when time stops and we simply behold what God has given us.

Without divine worship, Pieper thought, there cannot be leisure; without leisure there can be no culture, that flowering of mankind’s reflection on God and his creation. Without leisure, moreover, in which we honor the God who made us, we lose our freedom; we only work for something that is defined as society or the state. In a totalitarian state, consequently, there is no leisure, no divine worship, and no freedom.

Pieper deplored what he saw in the West as a vastly increasing absorption in total labor. Although acknowledging the necessity of work as a proper human activity, he nonetheless feared work when seen as the highest good and ultimate boundary of man’s life. He recognized that work, good and proper when done for the sake of something else—the something else being God’s honor and glory—becomes in-human, even a form of tyranny, when made a substitute for God. In total labor the human mind, with only its ratio in action and its intellectus refused opportunity to open the soul to God and His gifts, becomes a pinched and nervous thing that befits an automaton, not a human creature.

Pieper’s warning, offered in 1947 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 sacred station in our lives. There has been a new ethic afoot, in which the aim is to push as many family members as possible into the workplace. The success of this project is now deemed the criterion by which to judge both personal fulfillment and public policy. Such an ethic of immersion in work means a death knell for leisure and the culture that flows from it. The receptive and relaxed opening to God that signifies the intellectus in action requires the privacy and protection of home and church. In the workplace it is inert. This phenomenon of moving everybody into offices, or into the latest extension of the office—the day care center—has borne most heavily, perhaps, on young women, who are taught from little girlhood that the highest thing they can aim for is success in a career, that the boardroom table is a better thing than the dining room table, the briefcase a loftier thing than the diaper bag. This diversion of women to a new ethic is a loss for Western culture. Women, after all, the great beholders of babies, have a natural aptitude for contemplation.

Suzie Fischer was not of the new phenomenon. Her life was quite the opposite, and so I think of her as one who belongs in the pages of Pieper. I first met Suzie when I was a new bride and my husband’s cousin graciously had a kaffeeklatsch to introduce me to the neighbors. In walked a strikingly pretty little woman with shoulder-length dark hair; she wore a white trenchcoat. Walking purposefully toward me, she put forth her hand, and in a radiance of round eyes, a beautiful smile, and a sweet, bell-like voice she said, “Hello! I’m Suzie Fischer.” It was a greeting notable enough to begin a friendship, and I have never forgotten the graceful little figure in the white trenchcoat.

I soon learned what a choice blessing a friendship with Suzie could be. Her capacity for friendship was enormous. Friends were her garden, and she tended them with tenderest care. She could waste time on these roses of her garden, for she was a woman of leisure. She would laugh if she heard me say that, because no one was busier than she was in those days. But in Pieper’s sense she was a woman of leisure. Though her hands never stopped folding diapers or picking up toys, she could stop time.

“Come in,” she would call, when I walked up the hill in the mornings and knocked at her side door. “Have a cup of coffee, and here’s some pumpkin bread.” I would whisk crumbs from the chair and sit down at the table next to the east window. There were always bits of English china in the window sill, a pitcher or mug or an odd teacup, sometimes with cracks, but at least one was usually the beneficiary of a daffodil, a bunch of violets, or even a cluster of dandelions. Suzie would come with the coffee pot, and we would sit in the sunshine and talk. Two-year-old James, solemn and funny in his brown high-top shoes, moved in and out of our little feast. Amanda, who was four, was there, too, with her dolls, if she were not at nursery school. Matthew, age six, and Paul, age eight, were in school.

Suzie’s life was packed with activity—work, plain and simple. Cooking, cleaning, wiping tears, reading to children, nursing strep throats and family allergies, caring for a talented and hard-working husband, al-lowing for the unexpected. I recall how minutely she planned to get the family to her brother’s wedding on the west coast. Jamie was to be ring bearer and had a fine new suit for the celebration. When they all returned from the trip and my husband and I walked up the hill to hear of the festivities, Matthew tore out of the house, hailing us, “Hey, Mr., Mrs. Burleigh! Jamie didn’t be ring bearer. He acted bad and stayed home with the babysitter and ate boiled eggs and ham!”

Action-packed as Suzie’s life was, she could yet stop time and be at leisure. In her sunny kitchen she affirmed the gift of a friend, a cup of coffee, a slice of cake, a child’s smile or a child’s tears. She could marvel at a piece of antique lace acquired at a flea market, or with exactly the same delight that she would have shown over the grandest English garden she could exclaim over the bluebells and columbine in her minuscule garden beside the kitchen door. I really think that when she looked at her own small collection of perennials, outlined with a tiny white picket fence, she saw nothing other than the perfect English garden. Suzie never lived on work alone. Her intellectus was as active as her ratio; it pointed her toward a festal affirmation of life. When later she went back to school to take English literature, she embraced the works not only with her reason but with her whole being.

Suzie’s leisure stands in sharp contrast to the state of mind of young women today. Suzie had so much, and these young women seem to have so little. Suzie, of course, had nothing much materially. The young businesswomen I see in airports are smartly and expensively dressed. When they sag wearily into chairs in the boarding area, however, waiting for another delayed flight, I wonder whether they know what they are missing. How is it that they are persuaded they have chosen the highest life? And I wonder whether, in their devotion to work, they have friends. Work produces only comrades; friendship is the fruit of leisure.

Suzie had two good dresses, a black one for winter and a yellow and blue printed one for summer. She also had a husband who loved her, four bright children who learned to read, family and friends, a parish church, a few antiques, and a garden. All these gifts she beheld with delight and wonder.

In a few years the Fischers moved from Newburgh to Texas. Suzie cried; the whole family cried. After they left there was a big vacant spot that no one ever filled. We did not see them often, but when we did, we picked up without missing a beat. Once, after a happy lunchtime reunion at a restaurant in Rockefeller Plaza, Suzie and I walked outside and began to make our goodbyes. It was snowing. Suzie threw her arms around me in a big hug and exclaimed, “I love you!”

Eventually Suzie, too, went into the workplace. The family was in New Jersey now; it was expensive, and the children were in college. But in Pieper’s eyes Suzie was still a woman of leisure; she never saw her work as an end in itself. It was always for the sake of something else. Typically, as soon as she could, she gave up her job.

“I wanted to be there for Wayne,” she said, “for the family, and I wanted to be there for my friends.”

Today the Fischer children are grown, and all but one are married. Suzie and Wayne are grandparents. Even though Suzie is as youthful and pretty as ever, it is the right order of things that she is a grandmother. One so full of life ever brings forth new life. Today, too, she has turned her hobby of antiques into a, business. Still, though, she is a woman of leisure. She is in the business “for fun” and for her love of beautiful old things. Her vibrant intellectus insures that in leisure she can stop time in the affirmation and delight that links one to divine worship.


  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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