Leisure, the Sacred Gesture, and Human Dignity: Thorstein Veblen and Josef Pieper’s Understandings of Leisure


Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class sets out very specific definitions of words that we think we understand, use on a regular basis, and for which believe we know the definitions. However, Veblen challenges these assumptions, providing us with a new set of terms such, as “conspicuous consumption” and “vicarious leisure” as well as new definitions for familiar words and phrases that we thought we understood.  One of these terms, and the definition that he gives for it, in many ways determines the entire text: “leisure.” The Oxford English Dictionary provides us with a definition of this word that would have been in place when Veblen was writing at the turn of the last century. The dictionary defines the word this way: “The state of having time at one’s own disposal; time which one can spend as one pleases; free or unoccupied time.” However, Veblen demonstrates how our society, in particular our capitalist, pecuniary society, has altered our understanding of this word as it has warped our understanding of what is often considered its opposite: work.

Similarly, German philosopher and theologian Josef Pieper expresses concern for the societal twisting of the terms “work” and “leisure.” In his text Leisure, The Basis of Culture he also challenges our definition of the term “leisure” as the opposite of work as well as how we choose to spend our “leisure time.” For Pieper it is not simply “free or unoccupied time;” rather, it is time spent well and thoughtfully, time in the true art of celebration…and the complete opposite not of work, but of time wasted, that is of idle time.

Both authors reveal the distortion that leisure has taken on in light of a capitalist society in which we have lost any healthy relationship to work or money and so fall victim to Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption.” Veblen was critical of what he terms the leisure class, what we might now call, borrowing a term from the Occupy Movement, “the one percent,” but Pieper’s critique is more pressing for the rest of us, reminding us that how we understand the term “leisure” as a society dictates the health of the entire society as does the way that we spend our leisure time. It is not with merely “the one percent” that either Veblen or Pieper is concerned. Rather, it is how our definitions of “leisure”, which for Veblen can be seen most clearly in the leisure class itself, have warped and twisted our societal understanding of what it means to be a human being.

However, for Veblen and Pieper alike, the understanding of leisure is rooted in an understanding of sacred gesture. Velben sees good manners as sacred symbols indicative of “conspicuous leisure” very much connected to wealth and his “conspicuous consumption.” For Pieper, true, healthy leisure is rooted in celebration, and particularly in religious celebrations. Together their critiques of our social working definition of the term “leisure” point out the flaws inherent in our thinking and the dehumanization we express in our twisted “sacred” expressions.

Pieper begins his essay by providing the ancient Western definition of leisure:

“…for leisure in Greek is skole, and in Latin scola, the English ‘school’. The word used to designate the place where we educate and teach is derived from a word which means ‘leisure’. ‘School’ does not properly mean school, but leisure” (19-20). Such a definition immediately challenges our modern idea of leisure time as empty, frivolous space in our otherwise busy, work-filled schedules. Here, leisure is inherently connected to education and learning, to activity and thought. But Pieper further pushes this idea explaining that it is not just our understanding of leisure that is the problem; it is also our understanding of work. He explains, “The original conception of leisure, as it arose in the civilized world of Greece, has, however, become unrecognizable in the world of planned diligence and ‘total labor’; and in order to gain a clear notion of leisure we must begin by setting aside the prejudice—our prejudice—that comes from overvaluing the sphere of work” (20). By “total labor” he is referring to “a world of nothing but work” (20), our world which he contrasts to the Greek conception that “leisure [rather than work] is the center-point about which everything revolves” (21) as even the word for “work” demonstrates: “ ‘To be unleisurely’—that is the word the Greeks used not only for the daily toil and moil of life, but for the ordinary everyday work. Greek only has the negative, a-scolia…” (21). Such vocabulary implies a society much more focused on leisure, skole, than work. Indeed Pieper quotes Aristotle’s famous statement, “We work in order to have leisure,” by recasting it closer to its original terms: “We are unleisurely in order to have leisure” (20). This recasting also refocuses the conversation at its true center— not work, but leisure.

But none of this makes much sense until we see what Pieper actually means by leisure. What he does not mean is idleness, restlessness or sloth and actually links sloth in particular to an unhealthy attitude towards both work and leisure. Citing the Middle Ages he explains, “…sloth and restlessness, ‘leisurelessness’, the incapacity to enjoy leisure, were all closely connected; sloth was held to be the source of restlessness, and the ultimate cause of ‘work for work’s sake’” (43). He further links idleness to not only an unhealthy relationship to work and true leisure but to humanity itself: “Idleness…means that a man renounces the claim implicit in his human dignity” (43). It is this idea of human dignity that becomes essential to Pieper’s understanding of leisure and work. And becomes the point of connection between Pieper’s thought and Veblen’s.

Veblen’s entire text is focused on “the leisure class” but it might be better to refer to this group of people as “the idle class” or “the idle rich” which is more traditional. As the group of people he describes are, precisely due to their idleness, and in particular their conspicuous idleness, unable to engage in true leisure. It is not true leisure that Veblen seems to have a problem with. Rather it is demonstrative, flaunted, envied idleness, an idleness that Pieper claims diminishes human dignity, a theme that recurs throughout Veblen’s text as he references women and the service class, in many ways the victims of “conspicuous” and “vicarious” leisure. However, nowhere is this critique clearer than in his chapter titled “Conspicuous Leisure.”

In this chapter, Veblen explains that the most pressing imperative of the leisure class “is the requirement of abstention from productive work” (28) as “labour is felt to be debasing” (29). Such an understanding of both work and leisure exemplifies the unhealthy relationship that our society has to both of them, which Pieper has attempted to point out in contrast to the Ancient Greek notions. Work itself, that unleisurely activity that Pieper mentions becomes debasing rather than humanizing and leisure become mere idleness. But what is most interesting in both Pieper and Veblen’s texts is that these ideas take on a spiritual dimension.

Veblen develops this idea by acknowledging that a capitalist society perceives a certain ugliness to work: “It is felt by all persons of refined taste that a spiritual contamination is inseparable from certain offices that are conventionally required of servants” (29). Two things stand out in this quotation. The first is that Veblen alludes to “persons of refined taste” which in many ways sets the tone of the entire chapter, which will end with a discussion of manners and their role in a pecuniary society as defining those among the upper classes. And it seems that only these people, with their correct manner and idleness, and of course money, are able to see the contaminating quality of work. And this becomes part of the problem of conspicuous leisure. Any truly productive activity becomes debasing, and therefore the upper classes are able to see the lower, the workers, as less than human and somehow lacking in dignity. This is seen most clearly in Veblen’s discussion of women and the lower classes as the original objects of ownership (39-40).

The second idea that stands out here is Veblen’s use of the term “spiritual.” Veblen is not particularly fond of religion and this emerges in this text in its full force later on. However, in this chapter he makes several references to spiritual or liturgical ideas, usually negatively. Nonetheless, his use of these terms to describe social interactions is profound as it implies that capitalism itself somehow functions on a spiritual level. This begins to become more apparent as the text continues to describe the attitude of the leisure class:

“…vulgarly productive occupations are unhesitatingly condemned and avoided. They are incompatible with life on a satisfactory spiritual plane—with ‘high thinking.’…a degree of leisure and of exemption from contact with such industrial processes…has ever been recognized by thoughtful men as a prerequisite to a worthy or beautiful, or even a blameless, human life. In itself and in its consequences the life of leisure is beautiful and ennobling in all civilized men’s eyes.” (29)

Thus Veblen establishes a religious and moral dimension to the roles of work and leisure within a pecuniary society, pointing out as well that such roles are determined by “civilized men’s eyes” which leads directly into his discussion of manners, and it is here that his language takes on a particularly religious tone in relation to human dignity. He explains, “Manners presently came…to be possessed of a substantial utility in themselves; they acquired a sacramental character in great measure independent of the facts which they originally prefigured….good breeding is…an integral feature of the worthy human soul” (36).

Giving good manners the weight of a sacramental character once again gives the discussion not only a religious dimension but also gives manners a particular symbolic quality as sacraments are more than symbols. They carry a heavier weight theologically, as they “symbolize and make present the graces” which they represent (Catechism 1131). In Veblen’s analysis these manners not only reflect conspicuous leisure, as only someone with ample idle time (and so money) can master them—or even care about them—they also perpetuate the same pecuniary culture and emulation. As Veblen explains, “The knowledge and habit of good form come only by long-continued use…because good breeding requires time, application, and expense, and can therefore not be compassed by those whose time and energy are taken up with work….acquiring accomplishments that are of no lucrative effect” (36). So for Veblen manners are another reflection of conspicuous leisure and so of wealth and connected not to true leisure, as Pieper defines it, but to what is better termed “idleness.” This is especially evident in the last part of the above quotation, which concerns “accomplishments of no lucrative effect.” These manners do not produce anything, one of the constant critiques Veblen makes of the leisure class. So in this lack of production they once again reveal a type of wealth that need not work for monetary gain, but can instead pursue idle, demonstrative gestures. But gestures that somehow take on a sacred weight in this religion of conspicuous consumption.

It is this consumption of time that is at the heart of society’s misconception of leisure. Veblen explains, “…the greater the consumption of time and substance impliedly involved in [manners’] acquisition, the greater the resultant good repute” (37). Thus, the manners of “good breeding” and their sacralization reflect and result from a society which has equally sacralized the conspicuous wasting of time, that is idleness, baptizing it as the highest good of a pecuniary culture.

By contrast, Pieper in his critique points out that it is precisely this wasting of time that makes us completely incapable of leisure: “Idleness, according to traditional teaching, is the source of many faults and moreover of that deep-seated lack of calm which makes leisure impossible” (45). And it is in this discussion that Pieper places spiritual weight upon true leisure. It cannot be simply inactivity or lack of productivity. Leisure, by its ancient definition is something else entirely: “Leisure, it must be clearly understood, is a mental and spiritual attitude—it is not simply the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend or a vacation. It is, in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul….Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality” (46).

Thus Pieper also casts leisure as a spiritual activity, but whereas Veblen’s analysis of the spirituality of leisure is negative, Peiper points out the positive spiritual attributes of true leisure. This silence that leisure (rather than idleness) can bring to us is best seen in celebration, and so in the scared gestures, the “sacraments”, of such celebration. He explains, “Leisure…in its character [is] an attitude of contemplative ‘celebration’…. Leisure draws its vitality from affirmation…. The highest form of affirmation is the festival” (48-49). Thus, we remember the ancient Greek understanding of work and leisure. It is work that receives the negative definition: “to be unleisurely”, rather than leisure. Pieper, in his analysis of leisure as affirmative turns our modern conception on its head. Leisure cannot be idleness, cannot be simply the absence of productive work as Veblen’s critique elucidates. Veblen’s mistake is to fall into the idea of thinking of leisure via the route of negation. For him leisure becomes non-work, inactivity, and so can hold no affirmation of life or beauty or human dignity as it is simply an absence. And as such Veblen rightly condemns it. But it is not true leisure that he is condemning; instead, it is idleness. Leisure in its true form is active, affirmative, positive. For Pieper such affirmation is seen most clearly in celebration and festival, and this is where sacred gesture enters into his critique. For him “ ‘[l]iturgy’…means the essence of celebration, of sacred mysteries, ‘a sacred action surpassing all others’” (In Search of, 107). What makes the society that Veblen describes so grotesque is the fact that such “sacred mysteries” have been so twisted that they celebrate nothing, except perhaps the lifeless, negating, idleness of the wealthy, if such a thing can be celebrated at all. The sacred gestures remain in the form of good manners, but rather than affirming human dignity and life, they serve only to promote selfishness and greed.

So we can see that both Veblen and Pieper critique the modern understanding of work and leisure and both do so via the means of analyzing sacred gestures. Veblen in a critique of the cult of manners and “good breading, Pieper in an analysis of idleness, true leisure and celebration. While Veblen presents the negative twisting of leisure into a showy parade of wealth and a false sense of virtue, Peiper provides us with its alternative, a true sense of sacred gesture that embraces what leisure is at its core: freedom rather that slavery to social norms and pecuniary emulation. As Pieper explains, “Only in genuine leisure does a ‘gate of freedom’ open. Through that gate man may escape from the ‘restricted area’ of that ‘latent anxiety’ which a keen observer has perceived to be the mark of a world of work” (Leisure 51). Such a freedom, no longer bound to a world defined by work and inactivity, allow the human being to embrace her full dignity as something more than a producer…or in Veblen’s critique, a non-producer. Veblen’s critique of the leisure class is their lack of contribution to the society as a whole. And this is a fair critique. But buried more subtly in his argument is that as an entire society we have so distorted leisure that we have become enslaved to its dehumanizing opposite: idleness, which twists us and binds us to religion of pecuniary emulation and conspicuous consumption so that we, in the end, we lose our capacity to celebrate and so to be free. We lose our ability to be leisurely and so to be truly human.


Works Cited

The Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Washington, D.C.: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1997.

“Leisure.” Def. 3a. Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition; Online Version. Oxford English Dictionary, 1989. Web. 23 Dec. 2011.

Pieper, Josef. In Search of the Sacred. Trans. Lothar Krauth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991.

_____. Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Trans. Alexander Dru. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. Oxford: Oxford University Press,  2007.


Shannon Berry is a PhD candidate in systematic theology at the Catholic University of America. She teaches at The George Washington University and CUA.

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