Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Taking the Time

This past weekend I found myself wandering the halls of a much beloved home: The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.  (Now, I should note that while I am glad there are such wide varieties of artistic style as post modernism and abstract expressionism I do not regard myself as a connoisseur of the same for various cultural theory reasons that will come out as the life of this forum grows and evolves.)

I went to the West Gallery of Art-- the more classically built and oriented of the two gallery buildings.  It was the closing day of a special exhibit focusing on pre-Raphaelite photography and painting.  It was fascinating to see-- sometimes side by side-- the old black and white photograph that inspired the marvelously colourful and emotive painting.  It was typical of the pre-Raphaelites to focus on mediaeval and other historical topics; sometimes featuring characters from literature such as Ophelia, the Lady of Shallot, or Proserpine.  The overarching theme, seems to me, to be the sort of idealised beauty and emotion of particular moments.  There is no pointing to a cold form as in the pre-Renaissance masters or Neo-Platonic Christian icons.  Rather, there is a warmth that emanates from an individual person's beauty, the colours are inviting: deep, rich, and vibrant-- not cool and pale or faded.  The features of the face are important as well, conveying the feelings and moods of the subject with an astuteness that wasn't the point for the pre-Renaissance artists. 

Painters such as Millais, Hunt, and Rossetti typify the period-- especially given that there was ample amount of collaboration between them-- with the depth of adoration to psychical experiences in the person and moreover the near deistic devotion to nature.  There are undoubtedly others who can evaluate the technicalities of this particular artistic movement with greater adeptness than I can, yet while I took away much from gazing on the sublime renderings of ideas and loves on canvas (and other materials as well), what I really appreciated was the sense of time.  That is to say, time taken to be.

Our lives are often absorbed by the chores and tasks of everyday life: commuting, buying groceries, cleaning the kitchen, writing emails, etc.  But Josef Pieper, a German philosopher of the 20th century, did wonders to expose us to the necessity of taking time outside of merely work and recreation.

The true intellectual life requires us to not be mired continually in the "work-a-day" world as Pieper called it.  The life of the mind requires us to step out of that routine-- aptly enough, to take time away from it.  The term that Pieper uses to describe this time separate from work and recreation is leisure.  Leisure is a term that Pieper derives from Aristotle who in this way was the originator of Pieper's theory on leisure as expounded upon in Leisure: The Basis of Culture.  (Aristotle's notable treatment on leisure is to be found in the first book of his Metaphysics.)  Leisure in this sense is not at all the idea contemporary culture has.  To our contemporaries, we are at leisure when we "lazy about" watching television, munching on Sun Chips.  Yet, the word leisure in itself comes originally from the Latin word schola (school), which itself relates back to the Greek word schole (σχολείο).  Both words refer in some sense to the modern idea of school... and ultimately to education.

Leisure, therefore, if we are to take it seriously-- at least from its ancient roots-- is to be a time of study, education, and contemplation.  Rather than viewing our week as a mere process of work and rest (the work-a-day world) it should be impacted by time taken to educate: to converse deeply, contemplate a painting by simply being in its presence, or read something perhaps normally beyond our academic purview.  Leisure should be an occasion for the mind to exercise; not solely as an effort to learn, but as an expression of freedom (but this is a political point, and not something entirely suited to the nature of this essay.) 

If we take leisure in this way, we will open ourselves to a world of opportunity: a walk in the forest becomes an outing that absorbs the beauty of the cosmos and man's place within it.  A conversation with a friend need not abide to the confines of banal talk about the weather, but it can drift to the heights of debating the essence of virtue or the meaning of a turn of phrase in G.K. Chesterton's Everlasting Man.  Likewise, a trip to the art museum for the sake of one's romantic interest can fall into the pool of colour and transport us to an understanding of the notions and philosophies of the past-- in this way teaching us how to understand the past and engage with it, not merely on the pages of a written history but also on the living pages of our family and country.

Our leisure time is something precious that we must guard with fidelity and prudence.  It should be a time not only for relaxation, but moreover for educating and nurturing our minds in a love of knowledge and an appreciation of the beauty and goodness of the world.


  1. Hey Karl,

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. You have a wonderful way with words. You've managed to pack rather complex topics into a clear, concise, and lucid article. I'll never look at leisure the same way again!


  2. Like father, like son! If I did not read your name as author, Karl, I would have sworn your father wrote this blog. You surely must know how lucky you are to have had and have such a loving and nuturing father as a child and now as an adult for you to become such an astute and charismatic young man. Bravo to your father! Kudos to you!