Family, Leisure, and the Restoration of Culture

By R.J. Snell


R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. The following is adapted from an address given at the Portsmouth Institute’s 2018 Summer Conference on the theme, “Faith, Family, and Civilization.”


About two years ago, my wife, Amy, was reading The Awakening of Miss Prim, the surprise bestseller by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, which meant reading a good deal of the book aloud to me as I vainly tried to sleep. Both title and cover appear designed to alienate middle-aged fathers like myself, as does the blurb: “a young woman leaves everything behind … [and] finds her outlook on life and love challenged in every way.” Hmm. As someone who usually reads despairing mid-century Italian fiction or the Patrick O’Brien naval series, I hardly seemed to be the target audience. But as usually happens, Amy prevailed; I read Miss Prim, and rather liked it.

The novel begins with Miss Prudencia Prim arriving in a quaint French town of bakeries and small businesses, described as “a flourishing colony of exiles from the modern world seeking a simple, rural life.” Miss Prim does not particularly care for it, although she is herself looking for a refuge from modern life, convinced that “all that was worth admiring, all that was beautiful and sublime, seemed to be vanishing with hardly a trace.” Motivated thus, she had replied to a “small ad printed in the newspaper. Wanted: a feminine spirit quite undaunted by the world to work as a librarian for a gentleman and his books. Able to live with dogs and children. Preferably without work experience. Graduates and postgraduates need not apply.” A very odd list of requirements, and she hides the fact that she has a graduate degree and previous professional life.

Upon her arrival, Miss Prim hurries to her new place of employment, finding a somewhat ramshackle manor:

Looking in, Miss Prim saw a large, untidy room, full of books and children. There were many more books than children, but somehow the way they were distributed made it look as if there were almost as many children as books. The applicant counted thirty arms, thirty legs, and fifteen heads. Their owners were dotted about on the rug, lying on old sofas, curled up in dilapidated leather armchairs. She also noticed two gigantic dogs lying on either side of a wingchair that faced the fireplace, its back to the window.

Their teacher, who is not their father, but is her employer, is the off-putting (at least to her mind) Man in the Wing Chair, is quizzing them in Latin and Greek, giving lessons in sword fighting, and having them sketch masterworks of art from memory, all in a demanding sort of way. Responding to her protestations on his method and demands, he replies simply: “My only aim is that the children should one day become all that modern schooling is incapable of producing.”

I share these vignettes from the book because my wife and I have devoted our lives to teaching; consequently, our primary access to understanding the cultural moment is by observing students, their habits, studies and fears. And what we see are students wracked with a kind of anxiety and fear. Some years ago, when my oldest child was still in a high chair, Amy and I were lunching at a restaurant when a group of chatty, vivacious children clattered in, apparently travelling with a teacher for a field trip. While they exhibited all the usual peculiarities of middle schoolers, Amy and I noted their “bright eyes.” There was none of the bored indifference, the cool, the vacant, the dull, the mercenary about them. For us, ever since, the standard against which we judged failure and success in raising and educating our little brood has been bright eyes, that is, how much they love and how large the world they care about.

We don’t see all that many bright eyes among our students, though, even brilliant and accomplished students from very fine schools. Why is this?

In a widely-noted essay, William Deresciewicz, then of Yale University, warned parents “the nation’s top colleges are turning our kids into zombies.” While Deresciewicz noted that many of his students were “bright, thoughtful, creative kids,” “most of them seemed content to color within the lines. Very few were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery. Everyone dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice.” Deresciewicz seconded David Brooks observation that these students struggled to find joy in the education. As one Ivy League student told Brooks, “Sometimes we feel like we’re just tools for processing information. That’s what we call ourselves—power tools.”

Driven, accomplished, talented, disciplined, successful, capable; yet, claims Deresciewicz:

Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. … The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential.

Or, as a friend, Mark Shiffman, chair of humanities at Villanova, once termed it, contemporary students at all institutions, not just the elite schools, are “majoring in fear.” Of course, says Shiffman, Hunger Games is the novel of their generation.

The trilogy [Hunger Games] depicts adolescents rigorously trained by adults for desperate but meaningless life-or-death competitions. Its dark emptiness resonates with students’ latent unease and dissatisfaction with their educational regimen, as well as with their worry that they’re all honed up with no place to go. Afflicted with a desperate compulsion for competitive advantage, they rack up majors, minors, certificates, credentials, and internships to keep them in the running for what they feel to be an ever more elusive success. They’re driven by fear.

While I hesitate slightly before saying it, these passages do not describe lives lived well. I note, too, that they’re describing not merely the lives of American college students but of many Americans. I’m not making a claim about students only but about our society. Many of us are like this now—hurried, hasty, anxious, uncertain of our purpose. That is, our lives are without leisure.

Those familiar with Joseph Pieper, a Catholic philosopher of the previous century, are likely to recall the title of his most famous book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, in which Pieper suggests that societies of total work, whether totalitarian or capitalist, are unlikely to have genuine culture inasmuch as they lose the capacity for leisure. It’s an odd claim, perhaps especially to those of us formed in the contemporary West, well described by John Paul II as a society in which doing and having are paramount values, having long replaced the older value of being. That is, we judge a person’s value not so much by who they are but rather by what they have or do or produce or consume. It seems to matter little that she is a just woman or he is a courageous man; instead the college they attend, SAT scores, professional attainment, or incomeare valued. What is had and what is done matters more than who they are in their character.

Consequently, our society praises attainment over all else; including, at times, success rather than character. It is perhaps all but inevitable that there will be a sort of anxious striving, where everything is done instrumentally, as a tool or tactic for the sake of some other purpose. We oughtn’t be shocked when we learn of college students putting off marriage, or treating sex as nothing more than a tool for pleasure or relief, or that learning is not sought for its own sake but merely for what it provides, or for an easy kind of relativism. Years ago, the Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce predicted what such a culture, ours, would be like, arguing that it would have embraced a kind of negative critique of thick moral value, deriding and deconstructing nobility, sacrifice, courage, honor, steadfastness, and fidelity, without having much to replace those destroyed norms other than an open-ended and endless quest for choice, comfort, and satisfaction. It would be a disenchanted world lacking a sense of purpose.

While allowing for unprecedented technical and economic progress, it leads also to what Charles Taylor describes as “a wide sense of malaise, thinking of the world as disenchanted, a sense of it as flat, empty,” lacking meaning or purpose, “accepting no final goals beyond human [satisfaction], nor any allegiances to anything else beyond this.”

Here’s a more simple way of putting it. For many modern people, the world is not understood the way that God understands the world. In Genesis 1, God repeatedly declares his creation to be good, good, good, very good. He takes delight in it. Recall the old line from Chesterton about why our world is so old—it’s because God, like a little child, calls out with delight at the beginning of each new day, “AGAIN! DO IT AGAIN!” But for many modern people, the world is not seen as good, as something in which to delight; it seen as a competitor, a threat, a danger, or perhaps as mere resource, something to use.

This attitude spills over into human relationships as well. In his Theology of the Body, John Paul II describes Adam seeing Eve for the first time and proclaiming, “AT LAST!”[MOU1] —this is good! He sees her with delight, he approves—and they know each other and she conceives. How different from the experience of sexually using and abandoning a hook-up partner, or of fleeing from the possibility and responsibility of parenthood, or of divorcing another, or of refusing to accept the entirety of their embrace through the use of contraception. Family, a spouse, children are not seen as good—again, again, yes, at last—but as threats, resources, objects to use or avoid as one sees fit.

Those of us observing the loss of joy and wonder in so many of our young people are increasingly hesitant to send our own families down this rabbit hole of unhappiness, thinking, like the Man in the Wing Chair, that a successful parent (or teacher, or priest, or grandparent) might in fact be one who helps their children avoid becoming what our own culture and its education seems hell-bent on producing—anxious seekers of accomplishment and security who struggle to receive the world, family, a spouse, children, as good gifts of God, and who seem to view the moral limits given by God for our own good as threats to our happiness rather than what they are, the path to happiness and well-being.

And so, many of us are attempting to recreate the town in which Miss Prim has taken residence, in which, the novel says, “it was the families themselves, each according to their background, ambition, and means, who were in charge of their children’s intellectual development.” This echoes the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s insistence that because “the right and the duty of parents to educate their children are primordial and inalienable,” there is a corresponding obligation of parent to be the primary educators and have the “first responsibility” in their education (CCC 2221-2224). As a character in the novel puts it, you have to “safeguard all that work, to preserve and protect it. In other words, to ensure it doesn’t get spoiled … if you were convinced that the world had forgotten how to think and teach, if you believed it had discarded the beauty of art and literature, if you thought it had crushed the power of the truth, would you let that world educate your children?”

I’d like us to consider for a moment, although it hardly makes for easy conversation, the following claim: The world has forgotten the power and necessity of leisure, with terrible consequences for the well-being of our young, their ability to resonate with the faith, their likelihood of happiness and good character. And correspondingly, it is a serious and grave responsibility of families to educate themselves and their children in leisure.

What is leisure? First a few things that it is not.

Leisure is neither rest or laziness. It is not doing nothing, and it is especially not doing nothing so that you can return to work ready to do more. Pieper is quite explicit about this—only a person utterly captive to the world of total work views leisure as a kind of recharging the batteries so as to be ready to work again all the harder.

Second, leisure is not entertainment. In our own age, leisure is very likely to be thought of as equal to entertainment—the movie, the television show, go-carts, a trip to Disney. Those may be fine and good things, but they are not leisure. Now, my own temptation is towards total work, and I often must remind myself that the home is neither a workhouse nor a monastery, and that entertainment has its proper place, especially for children. Bright and cheerful homes err toward entertainment rather than boredom or doldrums, and, yet, entertainment is not the same as leisure.    

So, the ground being cleared, what is leisure?

Leisure is a kind of contemplation, a recognition of the goodness of things, and the goodness of things for their own sake rather than for their usefulness. When I test a tool for its efficiency, I judge the tool as good not for itself but for what it can do—just the way the Ivy League “power tools” referenced by David Brooks judge themselves and others. When I view another person as an object of sexual pleasure, as a conquest, as a resource, I view them as a tool, good only insofar as they are useful, and once no longer useful no longer good.

Leisure is a kind of contemplative training to recognize the goodness of things for their own sake, not for what they can do, but for what they are. As such, leisure is the sort of activity which seeks to know and love things for themselves, which sees things as God sees them in Genesis 1, with a delighted, “this is good.”

Leisure seeks that which is good for no other reason than it is. But we have a hard time seeing what is good; our contemplative eyes, according to Joseph Pieper, have gone dim, we struggle to see reality as good, wonderful, joyous. Not, he insists, that our physiological sense is impaired, but, rather, “the very integrity of human existence is threatened” by a kind of existential poverty.” Our society is not materially poor, but we are spiritually impoverished, existentially impoverished. We have thick wallets but thin and starving souls. And in order to become enriched, we need leisure, but we don’t know how to be leisured because we are too impoverished—a catch 22. So how can we recover enough existential richness—or how can we help our children gain enough existential richness—to embark on the life full of leisured approval so as to become ever more full and rich? 

Here are a few suggestions—some concrete practices that may be of assistance.

First, keep the Sabbath. In fact, all of my suggestions are really Sabbath suggestions, things we could do to recover Sunday as a day of leisure—not rest, entertainment, or play—but leisure.  Another way of putting it: parents and grandparents and priests ought to exert the full range of their intelligence and will to making Sunday a day of rich and fecund leisure rather than a day of rest, entertainment, shopping, laundry, or business as usual.

Second, study and story, especially on Sundays. The reading of good books, especially spiritual reading, has made more than a few saints, but we tend not to study very much. During a time in which many cannot see, it is possible that they must become gradually accustomed to the light; we first read living books to bring life to souls—sometimes those souls are little and need to grow, and sometimes those souls are blind and need to learn to see.

              Or perhaps to taste. Taste might be a better metaphor. They need to develop the taste for the true, the good, the lovely. In fact, there’s reason to think that the Latin word for wisdom—sapientia—shares a root with the word for taste, such that to have wisdom is to have a taste for the right things. So the first and most important gift we can give is a kind of taste, a wisdom of how to apprehend what is good, especially by drawing in the emotions—well-formed, educated, reasonable emotions, which tend to be formed by stories, images, symbols.

Such taste does not come from argument or theory. There’s an old saying that “Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” meaning, of course, that the virtues given to young men at play determined the ability and virtues of grown men at war and at government. During battle there’s no time to reason, to think, to ponder, to debate; one must act, and one must act from the habits one already has. Aristotle, rightly, teaches that the beginning given to a child doesn’t just make a difference, it makes all the difference, for the habits and taste determine what will be done when it counts.

C. S. Lewis, in his wonderful Abolition of Man puts it this way:

As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’. The head rules the belly through the chest …  of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

Appetites are powerful and tricky things, and before you realize it they can be governing your life. But the person who is able to be angry at the very thought of acting shamefully is the person most capable of acting and living well over the long haul. The books we choose for our children—these living books—teach them what sorts of things to love and what sorts of things they ought not love. Those clever little birds in Burgess, naughty Peter Rabbit, the moral heroes and villains in Plutarch, stories of King Aelfred, brave little toy canoes that make their way through streams and rivers, persistent turtles in Aesop—these are all living tales—not only in the sense of being interesting, but in teaching how we go about living well.

A just education begins with fairy-tales about gods and heroes and noble men so as to educate taste, to educate a love of what is noble but hesitation about what is ignoble. This is an education of the moral imagination, for in stories these tastes are formed, and in turn tastes inform our loves—and what is loved will sustain much longer and much deeper than what is merely thought.

In the end, a bookish life is not about knowing books nearly so much as is sometimes suggested. We’re not trying to make pedants, but persons, men and women. The point is to live well, not to be merely well-read.

If sabbath is first, and study and story second, then beauty is my third suggestion. One of the great fractures of contemporary society is its loss of beauty, and perhaps no aspect of our society has experienced this more abruptly than Catholics, whose tradition of architecture, art, and sacred music was broken in a great calamity. It’s no accident that film and television tend to portray religion—either good or bad—as Catholic, and no accident that the Catholicism they portray is the Catholicism of chant, polyphony, stained glass, Gothic architecture, votive candles, Caravaggio, and St. Peters. One notices these things, they strike us as shocking, notable, aweful.

Too often, the word beauty implies a certain snobbishness. That’s not our hope. We are not hoping to form our children so that they have a kind of dilletantish smattering of cocktail-party conversation about cave-drawings, opera, and the hammer dulcimer. Those are all interesting things, of course, and worth knowing. But the real goal is to put our children in touch with REALITY, with the deep, wonderous truth, beauty, and delightful goodness of the world, so that they can care about it, and as they care more broadly and deeply their little souls can stretch and deepen.

In his Republic, Plato makes a case for why an education in music is so important. He claims, rightly I think, that music insinuates its way deeply into us, almost tuning our souls in a certain way. (Plato insisted that a change of music could not but change a society since it would change the people’s loves.) Plato says that education in music forms a kind of rhythm or harmony in our character, such that a good inner-harmony makes us akin to the true and good, so that we can recognize or almost preternaturally participate in goodness without needing to think much about it. The contrary is also true.

Plato goes so far as to suggest that a young person needed to be surrounded by this kind of harmony or rhythm in everything: in art, architecture, construction, furniture, dance and so on. That is, the young needed what he called paideia, or what we might call culture, that symbolic force which carries and inscribes what we believe to be valuable. Everything speaks of what we value, and teaches this. Culture, in this sense, is not snobbishness, but a training in what is loveable, and an enchanted culture is an antidote to the bored and disenchanted.

A child given an iPad learns to view the world as owing him distraction and entertainment. A child in a majestic cathedral, or in the woods, listening to Tallis, or looking at the starry heavens, is taught to view the world as worth our respect and interest. Learning to draw a leaf, the child learns that it is intelligible, interesting, valuable. Taught to recite poetry, a little one learns to find their voice, humor, and that an active mind is more interesting than an entertained mind. 

Fourth, feasting. Catholicism loves stuff; it’s a religion of water, wine, and food—salvation comes through bread which is no longer bread, and our entire life is organized around this. No accident then that we feast, with the meaning of those feasts a kind of extravagance recognition of the magnanimous goodness of God. When one feasts, one does not count the costs, one does something because it is good to do—leisure. A feast is a training for the Eucharist, a training to be like God who gives and delights, a training to have joy.

Perhaps I should put it more directly—we need to outjoy our cultured despisers.. So our Sundays should be full of feasting, and especially feasting with dancing (not the awful isolating dance of the contemporary club, but communal dancing.) You can do this at home: turn off the TV, make sure a grandchild knows how to play the piano and another how to fiddle, push back the couches, and dance on a Sunday afternoon.

 After a bout of folk dancing with friends, I once wrote the following:

It was an ironclad rule of the schools and religious communities of my youth that dancing was forbidden, a prohibition enforced with the same rigor as the edict to not “drink, smoke, or chew. Or go with girls who do.” So I don’t know how to dance.

Recently, my wife and some friends threw a party culminating in traditional line dancing. I’d not done that before, and went to the party somewhat hesitant. But there we all were, jammed together in an overheated room, stomping and clapping, bowing and twirling to the fiddle and guitar.

Mostly, though, we were exulting. I held my youngest daughter—to her shrieking delight—as her older sister and I do-si-doed and promenaded, and a triumphant son somehow convinced an older (and quite pretty) partner to stoop for him. Unlike other days, teenage boys could not escape their mother’s arms—and I saw moms so jubilant and merry and relieved at this feat that they were paraphrasing Simeon: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace.” Grandfathers and granddaughters, husbands and wives, friends; a few yearning adolescents with hearts beating time to another, more ancient reel.

In that sweltering, overcrowded room, you could hear the music and see us leaping, joined in circles, feet rising and falling in mirth, the association of man and woman, holding each other by the hand or arm. We were—I was—drunk with it. Flushed of body and soul, delighted with the others, thrilled with reality; we were not, as I had feared, ironical or skeptical, but approving. We approved, in the old sense of the term, in that we recognized goodness—probus—and loved it, willed that it should be, should exist, should continue. In the handing off of one partner to the next, we handed on—traditio—the rhythms of the good reality that preceded us, following the patterns long set down by others. And it was good.

On another occasion, a parish dance, I wrote this:

I was with several dozen members of my parish celebrating Oktoberfest. Lederhosen and beer, a roasted pig, and oom-pah-pah dancing. My son was so proud, so manly, so roosterish, as he lead his older and younger sisters around the floor. Never mind that he knew none of the steps, he danced out of joy. Most strikingly, my youngest wove and bounced her way around, joining eyes and hands with other dancers somewhat willy-nilly. Hers was the way of affirmation, a deep and child-like sense that all was well, all was well, all manner of things were well, and thus she could keep the feast.

This way of affirmation is leisure. It is hardly “shallow optimism” nor does it deny the tragic, but still festivity lives “in affirmation,” even the feasts for the dead depend on faith that “all is well” with the world.

We want our children to learn normalcy. We want them to know that spring flowers and public dancing are educations in romance and eros. We want that for them (don’t we?) for no other reason than that they are good. We want our children to learn to celebrate good things as they are meant to be celebrated, alongside the trained and training eyes of their parents, their culture, their inheritance?

But how will they learn to live, to love, to taste, to be wise, to be well, to enter into the deep beating ordered loveliness of a reality so true, so good, so beautiful as to astound if we don’t offer it to them? It will not be offered by the dreary anti-culture of our time. The anti-culture would take it away, turning children into consumers, the innocent into the experienced, the wondering and delightful into the skeptical and distant, persons into tools. This we reject.

I’d ask you to consider how to offer leisure to your children and grandchildren, your nephews and nieces, your students and parishioners, your friends. I’d ask that next Sunday you start small, perhaps reading some poetry aloud at lunch, and perhaps making an old recipe you remember your mother cooking on Sundays. My father-in-law talks about Sunday gravy (Italian red sauce) that would be simmering on stove as they left for Mass. Mass meant Eucharist, it also meant gravy, the good stuff, the best his mother had to offer. So Sunday left a good taste in his mouth—this was sapientia, wisdom. For the Sunday after that, plan a dinner party with friends, not to impress them, but to have a leisured Sabbath feast. Turn off your TV that day, buy some good wine, have them to dinner, serve Sunday Gravy. The Sunday after that, invite your priest over for dinner. Read some poetry, serve good food, perhaps sing a folk song or the Salve Regina after dinner. The Sunday after that, teach your grandchildren a dance step, best if you have live music, but a recording will do in a pinch.

Make the Sabbath sing. Make it taste good. Make it be like the way God is, generous and delightful. God, in our Catholic understanding, is a community of love and joy—that’s what the Trinity is in the end—but we can’t recognize God if we don’t have a taste for joy and love and generosity and hospitality. Catholic culture has always been good at that, far more so than Protestant culture—think of the food of Catholic countries (Spain, Italy, France) compared to Protestant ones (Britain.) Make the Sabbath Catholic so that you, your children, grandchildren, friends, can taste and see that the Lord is Good.  To do so, you’ll have to provide them leisure, not entertainment. 

The Awakening of Miss Prim hardly touches on religion, although there is an abbey where the Man in the Wing Chair takes his charges to Mass, but Miss Prim is awakened through books, food, friendship, song, and beauty. The book became a bestseller and the author receives notes from readers asking where this town is because people want this, if we offered it they would come, just like Miss Prim. The book is fiction, there is no such town. On the other hand, the book is not fiction, this town exists wherever there is a Catholic Church, either a parish or family, the domestic church. Remember those great lines from Hillaire Belloc and have them be a reminder of how Catholics live out, in leisure, the gospel.

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There always laughter and good red wine.
At least I have always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino!

On this Sabbath, and for every Sabbath, I hope you can make the Catholic sun shine in your own leisure. Benedicamus Domino!