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Schola et Labora

December 4, 2020 24 min read
By Dr. Michael J. Naughton Director, Center for Catholic Studies, University of Saint Thomas
Msgr. James P. Shea President, University of Mary
A hiker overlooks a cloud-filled valley

Dr. Michael J. Naughton, Professor and Director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, spoke with Msgr. James P. Shea, President of the University of Mary, on a video call on October 14, 2020, to discuss the importance of leisure for human flourishing and its relationship with work, as well as Dr. Naughton's book on this subject, Getting Work Right: Labor and Leisure in a Fragmented World.


Monsignor James P. Shea (MShea): I’ve spent a good number of years reflecting upon and discussing with others the question of “getting work right,” and I’ve heard you speak on it several times. You spoke on it here at the University of Mary, years and years ago, for all the priests and deacons of North Dakota, and I believe you delivered the same talk in Belgium. That talk has heavily influenced my own work and presentations on this topic, having transformed my framework for thinking about work and leisure. So I’m deeply in your debt in this regard. And I still don’t get it right all the time, but one of the best ways to grow, I think, is to become a good hypocrite – in other words, you tell a bunch of people about good ideas, and then you slowly become accountable for them! So when I discovered that you had codified all that thought in a book, Getting Work Right, I ordered a copy and read it right away.

I was hoping we could start with what I take to be the theme of all this, which is that you can’t get Monday right unless you get Sunday right – you can’t get work right unless you get leisure right.

Dr. Michael Naughton (MN): Your point about being a good hypocrite is right off my wife’s page. When I go off to give talks, she will ask, “So, what are you talking about? Oh, leisure, really?” We are all works under construction, and we all have to admit our own faults here. When we’re speaking about the proper understanding of work and leisure, we’re not often speaking from the heights of the virtue that we’re striving for.

The thesis of the book – Getting Work Right – is that we’re not going to get work right until we get leisure right. Leisure and work are like breathing in and out, with this idea of receiving and giving. In my work, I give my life to all sorts of different things, and in my leisure, I am able to receive. So, this relationship between work and leisure is about the relationship between the active life and the contemplative life.

The word ‘leisure’ is somewhat problematic in our culture, because we tend to have a superficial understanding of it. We tend to think of it like amusement, or entertainment – it is what I do when I want to escape – but that’s simply not the Catholic view of things. To really get at this difference, look at the word ‘amuse.’ The Greek Muses were the goddesses of the liberal arts, whose special role was to refresh the human person. The liberal arts were seen as authentic leisure. The ‘a–’ at the beginning of the word negates that: amusement is the negation of authentic leisure and is rather to stare stupidly at something, which is often an apt description of someone watching television for hours on end. Unfortunately, for many people this is simply what leisure has become. Sometimes people work so hard that they’re so exhausted that the only thing they can do – or they think they can do – is to stare stupidly at a screen. To binge on Netflix or binge on watching some sport is such a passive activity. Sometimes it isn’t hard work that leads us into this sort of passive activity but rather something reflected in the old Roman saying, “give them bread and circuses.” We are content to watch the violence and the blood and the gore, or today the amazing plays on the football field. Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with watching television (at least, not all of it), and a good football game is great – but nine hours of it on a Sunday is not going to be life-giving for you.

Leisure and work are like breathing in and out, with this idea of receiving and giving. In my work, I give my life to all sorts of different things, and in my leisure, I am able to receive.

I’ve been quite taken by Joseph Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Pieper published it in Germany in 1947. Think about that: Germany has been decimated by World War II, and some academic philosopher comes out with a book called Leisure: The Basis of Culture. You have to imagine that people thought this guy was out to lunch, giving us one more irrelevant book by a philosopher sitting in an ivory tower without a clue as to what is going on in the world. But Pieper knew this would be the misunderstanding, so he starts off by saying – on the first page – I know a lot of you will think this is not a time for leisure, but, by the way, how did we get into this whole mess in the first place? Pieper understood that the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” – “Work sets you free” – is utterly false. Work will not make us free. Work by itself will enslave us, whether it be German Nazism, Soviet communism, or quite frankly, American capitalism. Any philosophy that is only about work will do serious damage to us. That’s why he concludes that leisure is the basis of culture: not leisure as amusement, but as an attitude of the mind, a condition of the soul, to receive the reality of the world. What puts us in that moment of receptivity? That’s the leisure question.

MShea: One of the things people wonder about in terms of the genesis of World War II is how it could have arisen from one of the most cultured civilizations in history. The pre-war German culture was extraordinary – look at their achievements of literature, and philosophy, and medicine, and opera, and law – and the entire culture was shot through with Christianity. It was not a secular culture. It was a Christian culture, and yet they had lost their way spiritually such that Hitler and his rhetoric was able to enrapture them.

MN: Every age is going to have its own particular challenges, and those challenges will be expressed in particular ways, so I don’t want to imply that we are like the Nazis or anything like that. But there was an element of that culture that disconnected from the Christian basis, from that kind of ability of receptivity, and the highly technocratic world we are living in now is doing much of the same thing to our society. We’re living in a culture in which we’re in danger of disconnecting from that deeper part of our humanity in terms not of our achievements, but of our receivements, so to speak. Pope Benedict presents this great idea in Introduction to Christianity: “A person comes in the profoundest sense to himself not through what he does but through what he accepts,” not through what he achieves but what he receives. This is where we have to make friends with hypocrisy a bit, as it is in moments of failure, of sickness, of there being something I just can’t do that we recognize that we are created realities, not simply doers. We don’t self-create, but rather we receive the gift of Creation.

MShea: I’m glad you brought up that quote from Benedict XVI, because I was just about to ask you about it. I have that quote written in my notes from when I first heard you speak on this topic. The idea of a person receiving the most profound sense of himself or herself, about our identity being based on what we accept rather than what we do, it’s an extraordinary insight.

MN: It really is. It makes my think of a good friend of mine, Mark Lowery. We used to teach high school together. Mark had to retire around the age of 60 from the University of Dallas due to Parkinson’s disease. Here is a man who was teaching and writing and doing all sorts of things, and his doing was interrupted. The beautiful thing was that he accepted it and was not bitter about it. He had this sense that the Lord had put him in this particular place, and there was no bitterness to it. This was really a case of Benedict’s line ringing true: the most profound moment of his life was not the books he wrote, nor his teaching, although all that was important. Work is important – we don’t want to neglect work here – but we have to recognize that we’re all going to die, you know, and the fact is that the moment of receptivity is what will prepare us for that moment of death.

MShea: There is a good contrast here against the American careerist mentality, which is captured in these great titans of business industry, people like Lyndon B. Johnson or Lee Iacocca, who achieved the top of the possibilities before them in terms of their own careers and yet – by their own admission and the accounts of others – were spiritually empty at the end of their lives.

MN: It is a challenge for a lot of folks who are moving into retirement, trying to figure out the purpose of their lives. Where do the deepest elements of life lie? Lee Iacocca’s line – that he had “flunked retirement” – rings true here: he knew who he was as CEO of Chrysler, but he was out at sea without the position. All of us who find ourselves in professional lives, who have jobs to do and a work to be done given to us by the Lord, struggle with this. Our identity is not just president of a university or director of an institute or professor or CEO. Those descriptions do not exhaust our identities.

Dr. Michael J. Naughton
Dr. Michael J. Naughton, Professor and Director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota

This is where education and the university should be playing a role. As Pieper points out, the Latin word for ‘leisure’ is ‘schola,’ which is where we get the world ‘school.’ I tell this to my students and say, “you are at leisure,” and they look at me like I’m nuts! “This ain’t leisure,” they say. But that’s what the Greeks and Romans and Christians understood, that a liberal education attempts to help us to see the reality of the world and receive it. The liberal arts free us and help us to recognize what our role in this world is. As we receive the world, we are able to start discerning what role we each have to play in that world.

MShea: The idea of placing our identities so firmly in the roles we play – and the sense of careerism around that – is so important when we consider student formation at universities. I think back to Lily Tomlin, who said, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”

MN: That is a great line, and it helps one to understand John Paul II’s understanding of the subjective dimension of work. He points out that each one of us has certain tasks to perform and goals to accomplish: we have to respond to people, make organizational changes, hit certain numbers, and so on. That is the objective dimension of work. But simultaneously, as we work, we change internally, and that is the subjective dimension of work. All too often, people don’t pay attention to what sorts of changes are going on interiorly due to our work. Even in really good, important work, we can become jerks, creating blind spots or getting stuck in our own egos and accolades. It’s important to have a good wife or good community or good friend who can stop you and say, “You know, you’re talking way too much about yourself right now. You’re talking way too much about your achievements.” Spiritual direction – or a good friend or good spouse – can really help us to understand when something is happening in our lives that we could not see otherwise, like that certain practices might be getting out of whack, and that helps us to reconfigure a bit. That subjective dimension of work that John Paul II talks about is so important to the nature of work. We all have a work to be done, but we can disorder that work.

MShea: One of the must helpful aspects of the way you situate these questions is the progression from the idea of work as a job, which leads to leisure as amusement, to work as a career, which leads to an understanding of leisure as function, and then to the highest understanding of work as a vocation, which gives rise to the possibility of contemplation. I’m interested in how we – especially those of us in leadership – can create a culture in which that vision of work can be lived out in the lives of those entrusted to us.

MN: That’s a great question, and it really is the question of the kind of culture we are creating in the organizations we find ourselves in. Part of our responsibility is to try to create the conditions in the workplace that can help others to foster the vocations that they have. In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict has this interesting line in which he offers one of the most profound descriptions of the principle of subsidiarity I have seen: “Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others.” When we find ourselves in leadership situations, we have to recognize gifts and then coordinate those gifts to achieve the mission of the organization. So it’s not just gift recognition, which is a great thing, but it’s also being able to coordinate those gifts with other peoples’ gifts, and I think that’s vital to the process of creating a culture in an organization. We need job descriptions, but we also need to be careful about not getting locked into them. There is someone here at the University of Saint Thomas, for instance, who was running certain programs, but she has this great gift for budgets, and I don’t. She has been able to help us with that, and she is enhancing all of us with that work. When we can tap in and see what peoples’ gifts are and try to develop those gifts and coordinate those gifts for the mission of the institution, we help them participate more deeply in terms of what they can bring, in terms of their own vocations. God is not a micromanager, and he has given us all gifts.

The tough part is that sometimes there will be a mismatch. Because of that, some tough conversations will have to take place, and that’s not pleasant. But I think that’s where the whole idea of gift recognition and gift coordination helps people to recognize what their vocation is within an organization.

Work will not make us free. Work by itself will enslave us, whether it be German Nazism, Soviet communism, or quite frankly, American capitalism. Any philosophy that is only about work will do serious damage to us.

MShea: In terms of those tough conversations – I’ve had them, and you’ve had them, too – when we create a culture in which a person’s complete value is tied to his or her function, there is a devastation when there is a mismatch and we say, “You’re not right for this.” If instead we are creating a culture in which people draw their true identity from something far greater and deeper and more profound, then there can be – not always, but it’s possible – a sense of relief and freedom in that kind of conversation. But you cannot establish that truth in the context of such conversations; you have to have set the culture beforehand.

MN: That’s exactly right. That’s why we always have to keep in mind what we are doing together: where are we going? How can we get there?

MShea: Right, because if the vision isn’t set upon the mission, then the gift recognition isn’t genuine in light of that but rather has a sort of transactional value to it. That debases everything, and that’s where human dysfunction takes over.

To change gears a bit, you have talked about habits of leisure – habits of resting and receiving. You categorize them as habits of silence, habits of celebration, and habits of service. Can you open each of those out for us? I’m also interested in the particular role the university has in teaching those habits.

MN: In terms of habits of silence, Pieper says in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, “only the silent hear.” Sometimes I kid around here at St. Thomas and say, “If I were in charge, I would bring back smoking on campus if I could get rid of earbuds on campus.” Students have this noise going into their heads constantly, and they’re kind of in a zone. Now, I own earbuds and I’m not against earbuds in themselves, but there is a sense that we have noise going into our heads every moment we’re awake.

The question of silence goes beyond external silence and includes internal silence, as well. That’s a challenge for me. We have these internal narratives, I call them “tapes,” that have been going for years, and we have to stop them. One tape is the unappreciated genius: “If people would just listen to me around this place, everything would be better.” Another tape is a recording of those internal debates I have with my colleagues that go on and on – and I win every one of these debates, by the way. And we have to stop them. But how do we stop them? Part of the answer is obviously to be found in the spiritual life: lectio divina, for instance, helps us to stop and hear the Word. But good education can also help us. My kids – one of my sons in particular – loves Dostoyevsky, for example. Dostoyevsky has a way of stopping you in your tracks, getting you out of your own thought process. Good literature will do that – it gets you out of your own, very small, parochial world. That’s what education should be doing, and I think that’s what the spiritual life will do, as well.

The question of the habits of celebration shows us why Sunday is such an important day. It gives us the ability to recognize that there is a transcendent reality, a larger reality than my own small world. My world is part of a much larger world. We are part of a cosmos, not a chaos.

Habits of service, then, keep us connected to that larger reality, to the poor and those who suffer. We spoke earlier about how the German nation could fall into the depths of violence and callousness to the sufferings of others. That should challenge every one of us. How many of us walk right past human suffering? Part of a liberal education should create a deeper, disciplined sensitivity to the sufferings of others.

So each of those disciplines – silence, celebration, and service – fit into the university, but they also fit more deeply our personal lives.

The liberal arts free us and help us to recognize what our role in this world is. As we receive the world, we are able to start discerning what role we each have to play in that world.

MShea: Bishop Barron has spoken widely about current research into the “nones,” and he speaks about how the Church’s path forward in terms of credibility and evangelization runs right through this question of service. The isolation and loneliness of contemporary experience – the earbuds and so on – call us to a radical sort of stern rebellion against that self-enclosure and to enter into a kind of service, which is something that opens the door for the Gospel to be heard.

MN: You see it all over the place. In Jean Twenge’s book iGen, we really see some profound data on that. It’s complicated and has a lot of different layers, and we don’t want to oversimplify it, but one of my concerns about higher education right now is some of this work they call critical theory – critical gender theory, critical race theory – because it says that everything is socially constructed. The problem is that when young people think that everything is socially constructed, they think, “Oh, I have to construct my own life.” And they are told they can be whoever they want to be and can do whatever they want to do, and this has basically led to a whole generation of people who are utterly depressed and filled with anxiety. When people believe they are self-created and that possibilities are endless, they are ultimately left confused and empty. If we don’t help them to see that there is a created order in which they participate, rather than an order they create, the Gospel can’t come through to them. And so I think this idea of creation is such an important part of what we have to draw upon. Einstein’s great line comes to mind here: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” There is something actually comprehensible here that is not of my making, but it is still made. That’s what a liberal education should help students to enter into.

MShea: I think you’ve placed your finger on the cusp of it, and it’s a very illuminating insight for me: the idea behind critical theory and so much of modern educational philosophy is that you have to construct your own reality. This goes back to Justice Kennedy’s strange statement in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” You’re right to say that it’s actually profoundly frightening to have to construct everything from scratch, and that’s why it is so liberating so find oneself in the current of a great tradition. And that’s where the university can play such a profound role in that liberation. Students can be shown the great tradition, in which generations of those who have gone before us have thought carefully about these questions. When students see this, they can locate themselves within a great drama, a great narrative, that exists already and does not need to be constructed first.

MN: I think you’re exactly right. All the language we have today about story and narrative is helpful, but it is destructive when it is not connected to a larger, grander narrative. Philip Rieff offers this great insight in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, where he talks about the importance of choice, but the fact is that choice makes no sense unless in the context that I have been chosen. I have been chosen for a work that needs to be done, and part of my life is figuring out what that is. That’s the great question. The unfortunate thing about our culture is that choice becomes the highest value. Rieff’s point is that your choice is not the highest value. Instead, the fact that you’ve been chosen is the highest value.

MShea: Very near me I have a book by a Trappist named Michael Casey called An Unexciting Life: Reflections on Benedictine Spirituality. I was out at Assumption Abbey in Richardton, North Dakota, and I found myself having trouble praying. Sitting in the choir stalls, I found myself just bored. One of the monks had this book resting in the choir stall with his breviary, so I opened it and read this paragraph – and just as you were making your last point, I pulled it back out. This paragraph is from the very beginning of the book, from a chapter called “Sober Spirituality”:

The very idea of living according to an externally generated rule seems absurd to many of our contemporaries who consider it a denial of individual choice and the consequent extinguishment of all creativity. In fact a consumerist culture constantly confronts us with such a multiplicity of meaningless options that we fritter away our power of choice through daylong involvement with making selections between trivialities. As a result, we are so entertained by the illusion of freedom that we never explore its deepest reaches, nor are we conscious when its native breath is constrained.
I was amazed when I read that, because it captures the problem beautifully. The choices that are always dangling in front of us are choices between trivialities, and so we lay waste all our powers.

MN: All that brings to mind Servais Pinckaers’s distinction between the freedom of excellence and the freedom of indifference. We are stuck in a culture of freedom of indifference, a kind of freedom that is indifferent to any larger reality. The freedom of excellence, on the other hand, relates to what we are called to do. Pinckaers gives the great example of the piano. If I go and bang on the piano and do whatever I want, I never come to the freedom to play the piano. I only come to the freedom to play the piano when I come to understand the piano.

When people believe they are self-created and that possibilities are endless, they are ultimately left confused and empty. If we don’t help them to see that there is a created order in which they participate, rather than an order they create, the Gospel can’t come through to them.

MShea: I wonder if we could speak for a moment to the question of the divided life. Some of the work we do with virtuous leadership in our school of business at the University of Mary touches on it, and “Vocation of the Business Leader,” the Vatican document you were involved in publishing, speaks of the divided life and the serious error behind it. I first heard you talk about it roughly a decade ago, and I’m sure you had thought about it prior to that. I wonder if you might offer some insights as to whether the problem has changed over time. We’ve already discussed difficulties facing the generation of college students today. Has the problem of the divided life gotten better or worse, or has it changed in any appreciable way, since you’ve started thinking about it?

MN: The first thing to be mindful of is what the divide is. I think the divide is between work and leisure, and I think that we have lost sight increasingly of what leisure can be about at its core, this idea of receiving. Because we are living in an increasingly technocratic culture, we are increasingly losing sight of a sense of leisure and a sense of receptivity. I think we are seeing more of that in younger people – but they yearn for it, they desire it. I teach a course on faith and work at St. Thomas, and in the next couple days, we will be exploring this question and our constant attachment to screens.

There is a new film out called The Social Dilemma, and it explores how our devices work really, really hard to keep us on our devices. They interview people who have been really high up in the management of the major tech companies, like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, and they confirm that these devices are trying to keep you constantly on the device. That’s really dangerous, and most people don’t realize what’s going on. They have this great line: “If you are not selling a product, you are the product.” There are algorithms – particularly for those who are connected to social media but even for email accounts – that seek to gather information and put more advertising in front of you, because the more you are on screens, the more you buy. That’s the worst part.

The good news is that data shows that a very high percentage of iGen – close to 50% of them – realize that they have an addictive problem to their smartphones. Data has shown that millennials are generally clueless to the fact of their smartphone addiction. So I think maybe a generation that has grown up on these devices has become much more cognizant of the sense that something is wrong. You see that with the high spikes of anxiety, the high spikes of depression, there is something wrong. They are not always clear about what they should do about it, but at least they recognize that there is a problem. That’s a good sign. But when we are clueless to the problem, we have serious work to do.

In Getting Work Right, I refer to the term techno-Sabbatarians – the idea that we need to turn our devices off. A lot of us need to stay connected for serious work reasons, but we have to find ways to disconnect. That’s the Sabbath. The Jews understood that work, consumption, and technology are not bad, but if we don’t disconnect from it all, it owns us rather than we it. We have to order it rightly, and that’s at the heart of the whole thing. That’s wisdom: the ability to order the goods that have been given to us to our proper ends.

MShea: I’m grateful that you’re able to say that even if there may be some ways in which the problem of the divided life is getting worse, there are some ways in which we have real opportunities.

MN: One last point on this. In my class on faith and work, in which we address the question of leisure, the most interesting conversations we have are always around leisure. I assign Leisure: The Basis of Culture to them – which the students tend to hate, because it is written by a German philosopher and can be tough slogging – but it’s the one book, I think, that has the most profound impact on them. It changes the paradigm. The insight they often come to is how dissatisfied they are with their leisure, and even if they’ve never articulated it before, they feel it. Our discussion of leisure is the most interesting and powerful moment of my class all semester, because they know something is wrong. Cracking the code on this question of leisure and work and their correct relation is central to human happiness, now more than ever.

Gavin E. Olson

Jan 7, 2021 11:20 pm

I found this article very intriguing. It pointed out truths that I had always felt, but maybe never came to realize. The balance of work and leisure is a difficult one to find, but as was described above, it is crucial to us living a happy and fulfilling life.  

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