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Leisure: The Basis of Democratic Culture

Louis Galarowicz is a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying history and philosophy. He was a participant in the 2020 Summer Honors Program course on “Liberal Education in an Age of Distraction” taught by Drs. Elizabeth and David Corey.


Democratic culture appears in decline. Voluntary associations recede in influence and number. Labor unions, civic groups, youth organizations, and religious communities struggle to gain members from younger generations.

Despite the media’s attention to student activism, most young Americans’ outlooks on politics and society are characterized by “delusionment and despair.”[1] There are eerie similarities to the social milieu of 1860s Russia, which Dostoevsky wrote about in Demons.

More risk-averse than previous generations, today’s graduates are thoroughly careerist. Personal goals and ambitions increasingly trump political ones.[2] If you were to ask Gen Xers or Millennials why they are not joining their parents’ organizations, or why they are not getting involved in politics, the answers range from “What would be the point?” to “I don’t need any more on my plate.”

The answers belie a common underlying view: participation in democracy and the public square is toilsome and unprofitable, and Americans would be better served by focusing on their work.

To Josef Pieper, the famous 20th century philosopher and author of Leisure: The Basis of Culture, this valuing of work over public life would be troubling. When Pieper prophesied the coming of the “world of total work,” it was the American future he foresaw, brought on by a regnant bourgeois culture which elevates work, efficiency, and success as objects of cult worship. Industriousness becomes the crowning virtue; meritocrats, celebrities, and athletes (the new social elites) all profess their commitment to “the grind.” All activities become justifiable insofar as they count as productive work, including work on ourselves, on our relationships, on our tans. According to Pieper, such a world is inimitable to healthy political engagement, which can only exist in an atmosphere of freedom and therefore requires a people with some measure of leisure.

Alexis de Tocqueville said that in a democracy, stability and order are maintained only when “the bulwarks of the influence of wealth” are constantly “ground down to the fine and shifting sand which is the basis of democracy.”[3] This process, which he describes as “incessant activity,” at first sounds like the careerist busyness that characterizes today’s culture. Yet the zeal de Tocqueville observed in New England towns was not “total work.” De Tocqueville emphasizes in his work that “freedom and stability” are requirements for active political life. Put differently, active citizens are those who have the leisure to be politically engaged. The New England townspeople’s participation in public life was voluntary and enjoyable. Their productivity was not productivity for its own sake; rather, it was characterized by a free and detached interest in the welfare of their communities. As a result, the municipal bodies were “alive and supported by public spirit.”

But in the world of total work––in our world––we have no time for leisure, and thus no time for proper political activity. What political activity we do engage in is motivated by fear, anger, and personal interest, none of which are constructive long-term. Worryingly, the total work attitude also undermines culture in general. De Tocqueville says succinctly that “democratic government … always presupposes the existence of a high degree of culture.” But as Pieper points out, “leisure has been, and always will be, the first foundation of any culture.” It is the capacity for receiving free gifts (as opposed to grasping for gain) which “effortlessly” invites “the highest realizations of moral goodness”[4] and creates culture. In our busy, careerist world, this process is impossible.

To reinvigorate democratic culture in America, we must save the concept and practice of leisure from annihilation by the world of total work. Only when Americans are engaging in politics in a spirit of detached freedom might our system begin to restore itself.


[1] Jonathan Zimmerman, Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know®, (Oxford University Press, 2016): 111.

[2] Jonathan Zimmerman, Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know®, (Oxford University Press, 2016): 21.

[3] Alexis de Toqueville Democracy in America: The Striking Characteristic of the Social Condition of the Anglo-Americans in Its Essential Democracy.

[4] Pieper, Josef. Leisure: The basis of culture. Ignatius Press, 2009. 59.