Woman of Leisure

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Sometimes a book puts down such deep roots in one’s soul that it seems always present, providing categories whereby one views the world, even when one has not read it in many years. Such a book for me has been The Culture of Narcissism, by Christopher Lasch, that renegade sociologist who should have been or would have been Christian, had he only lived a little longer — for he was moving toward the Lord.

One of the chapters of that book is an analysis of contemporary feminism as being not at all revolutionary but a capitulation to the narcissism of what Lasch called late-stage capitalism. We derive our sense of worth, Lasch pointed out, not from our relationship to God, nor from those human loves and human works that build a family, but from the flash of self-importance, of being seen, reflected upon us by our being visible in a bureaucratic labor force. Feminists, of course, were outraged. When Elizabeth Fox-Genovese of happy memory, herself en route to Jesus, traveled to New York to visit Lasch and give a lecture, the members of her Women’s Studies program at Emory took the occasion of her absence to remove her from her chairmanship. That, despite the fact that Professor Fox-Genovese had founded the program, the first such in the nation.

Then, years later — after Lasch’s death and Fox-Genovese’s conversion to the Catholic Faith — I read a book that had long been on my must-do list: Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. There I was stunned to learn that, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, sloth was “the sin against the Sabbath,” because it was a violation of the spirit of rest and celebration that the Sabbath is meant to foster. Sloth, as I should have understood from my training in medieval literature long before, is not physical inactivity but spiritual torpor, sluggishness of soul, an inability to take joy in those things that should bring us joy. As such it is not only compatible with what Pieper called a culture of “total work”; It is that culture’s most characteristic vice.

It is also not surprising that the same viruses that infect the culture of narcissism infect the culture of total work. For there is something self-effacing, or rather self-forgetting, about the true feast. When we celebrate, we rejoice precisely in what comes to us as a gift, what is not wholly in our power to provide for ourselves; and that is even the case when reapers clear the fields and lie back in the shade with bread and wine and song, or when fishermen haul their nets ashore and drink deep at the public house. A feast without the divine, says Pieper, is quite simply unknown; and for that same reason, it is impossible to manufacture joy from the raw materials supplied by the self alone, and impossible to manufacture love.

 

And yet it is taken for granted, even by Christians, that all young people, both men and women, must “do” something, by which they mean must find salaried (and preferably prestigious) employment. In my observation, it is not simply, or even principally, for money. It is considered necessary for the building of a “real” life with a real self. That suggests instead a real spiritual poverty, a restlessness, an inability to take delight in those often small and lovely things that should bring us joy.

My college, though we are proud of our Catholic heritage and have worked to establish a genuine difference between ourselves and our secular counterparts, nevertheless showcases on its Web page only those alumni who have (note the ugly and revealing figure of speech) made something of themselves. So we have judges, professors, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. We do not have carpenters, masons, plumbers, receptionists, maids, or electricians, and we certainly do not have housewives.

I recall a remarkable article in the self-advertising magazine of my mater ferox, the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Usually I turn straight to the back of the magazine, to make sure that none of my classmates has died, and then I file it in the appropriate place, in the receptacle under the kitchen sink. This time I read one of the articles, featuring an alumna — a careerist of some sort I have forgotten — who had a small child and worked from home. The child was instructed to approach her during one half hour in the afternoon, set aside, one supposes, for the development of his humanity. Otherwise, she had to be left alone. This practice, she said chirpily, taught the little boy that mommy’s work was important. Alas, what it really taught him was that he himself — or perhaps, the human being generally — was not important.

But what is this life for, after all? The poet John Keats, of dubious Christian faith, called it the “vale of soul-making,” and in that regard he was closer to the truth than we are. It is not the vale of body building, or of career crafting, or of job enhancement, but of soul making, and if we take the lessons of our faith seriously, that can only be by humility, opening ourselves up to the beauty and wonder of the world, and deigning to love those most beautiful and wondrous creatures, our fellow human beings. Certainly we can do that in our work — I am not saying that any arena of human endeavor is shut off from grace. But let us beware. The tendrils of work for work’s sake and of self for self’s sake have long been maddeningly entwined. If we heed the wisdom of Pieper and Lasch, we will labor most fruitfully when we learn the blessedness of leisure, and we will become most ourselves, most magnanimous, when we learn again the littleness of the child.

Whether this lesson is more easily learned by women than by men, I do not know. I look at my beloved wife, who has borne out the wisdom of Chesterton in our family life, choosing — rather than teaching the rule of three to a room full of strangers’ children — to bring the universe to her own. What is she to us? What is she not? Teacher, chef, decorator, nurse — all those things, but mainly the one person most responsible for showing our children that they are loved: that they, whom we have not made for ourselves, are our deepest joys, not because they will be great in the world, but just because they are who they are. She calls herself, half in jest, a woman of leisure. Yes, exactly.

Anthony Esolen

By

Professor Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. He is a senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine. His most recent books are The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press, 2010) and, most recently, Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). Professor Esolen has also translated Dante.

  • Karen Edmisten

    Thanks.

  • Pilgrim

    Just the push I needed to read Leisure: The Basis of Culture again. It really is a must-read.

  • Gabriel Austin

    Egon Friedell referred to universities as turning out factory line savants, intended to work in one of the great bureaucracies: government, church, business, including the propaganda business.

    And of the annoyance of the graduates if they were denied such jobs.

  • Marthe L

    Beautiful article, that I needed to read at this time in my life. In addition, it is quite coincidental that it has been posted on the day following Canada’s Thanksgiving day: I think that it is quite fitting, actually.

  • Michael

    The ancient Greek word for business was ???????? [Askoolia] literally, absence of leisure; this shows the right outlook on life

    ?????? [Skoolia] or leisure, is the origin of our word “School,” a place to indulge disinterested curiosity and the free activity of the mind.

  • David L Alexander

    It is doubtful that many who even go to college end up as “carpenters, masons, plumbers, receptionists, maids, or electricians.” It is also doubtful that “housewives” of a Catholic college are not married to a classmate from that college, which raises the impression of her having gone there for the proverbial “Mrs” degree. I don’t believe that is fair to housewives, but it is something for a PR department of a Catholic college to overcome. “How is this graduate influencing the culture?” they will ask. Yes, we can all praise the value of motherhood and keeping the home and hearth, but many Catholics in positions of influence, if they are really honest with themselves, do not value that.

    I take no pride in this observation.

  • Denice C.

    It has been a long time since I’ve read a blog post 3 times. Thank you for a provocative and lovely piece.

    Love the art. Who is the artist?

  • Marthe L

    “One of the chapters of that book is an analysis of contemporary feminism as being not at all revolutionary but a capitulation to the narcissism of what Lasch called late-stage capitalism. We derive our sense of worth… not from our relationship to God, nor from those human loves and human works that build a family, but from the flash of self-importance, of being seen, reflected upon us by our being visible in a bureaucratic labor force.”
    I have a problem with this… I would agree that a part of feminism went too far in totally rejecting “the value of motherhood and of keeping the home and hearth”, but at the same time, I also agree that “many Catholics in positions of influence…do not value that” either.
    There does exist a profound human need for recognition, and there is no reason to acknowledge this need as valid only for men… However, for too long, too many women were actually treated as mere servants, or worse, by a male culture that considered it as a man’s due, because a wife was considered as a mere “dependent”, to take for himself all the benefit of a woman’s work in the home, without having to contribute anything other than “bring the bread on the table”, and even that, only grudgingly while trying to exert total control. I have often heard, in the course of my life, that since a woman’s financial contribution was usually lower than her husband’s, she did not have much of a voice in the taking of most decisions. I remember a textbook from the 60′s that enjoined wives to avoid “burdening” their husbands with matters concerning their children and family, because such concerns were “insignificant” in relation to the husband’s work. In great part, feminism was a reaction against such inequalities.

  • ben

    Thank you so much for writing this. I have shared it with my wife, and now it will be making its way slowly through the circle of homeschooling mothers in our traditional parish.

    One of the Spritual Works of Mercy is to comfort the afflicted. In so very may ways we must count housewives among the afflicted in this day and age. They are the invisible ones whose daily work preserves what is best about our civilization, and for this they earn the scorn and derision of their neighbors.

    You have done them a great service Dr. Esolen.

  • J. Lee

    As a homeschooling mother who 25 years ago willingly left a career as a geologist to help support my husband through law school and then to stay at home and raise and homeschool our children, I must say that when I closed that “career door” behind me, I had no idea of the rewards that lay ahead. Not only was I blessed to be an intimate part of the growth and development of our children, but the intellectual stimulation and spiritual development that homeschooling entailed have enriched me more than I ever imagined. The most surprising thing that I never would have imagined 25 years ago is that now I am doing geology again, on the computer. Thanks to Google Earth, Google Maps, and other wonderful geoimagery tools, I can pursue research that interests me, free from the limits that would be imposed on me by a “real” job. I now appreciate the value of the saying, “Sometimes you must give up ten things to gain eleven,” and I am so grateful to my husband for allowing me to be, like Mrs. Esolen, a woman of leisure

  • Kevin

    To define feminism as merely “the flash of self-importance, of being seen, reflected upon us by our being visible in a bureaucratic labor force” is extraordinarily ignorant and a great injustice. Perhaps Lasch viewed the struggle against racism or slavery in the same way? Should African Americans also be reviled because they too have ambitions, expect to escape abuse, and would like an education? Are these aspirations the result of narcissism? And are men being merely narcissistic when they’re inspired to pursue an interest they enjoy, even if it leads to recognition and material success.

    The idea that ALL women (as opposed to SOME women) should avoid higher education and the work force is, quite frankly, extremely stupid, given the realities of life. To assume that ALL men should be the breadwinners while the li’l woman stays home is equally stupid. There are situations where the traditional approach works very well, but it absolutely does NOT work for every family. Most men behave, but there are times when they abandon their families or abuse their wives and children. Sometimes they die. Women need to have a Plan B. I’s a terrible disservice to men to assume they can’t be the ones to homeschool children or run the home while their wives have careers. It’s bigoted to assume people should assume a particular role purely because of gender, and even more bigoted to assume it is only women who are “narcissistic” when they presume to the opportunities that men take for granted.

    The happiest family I know is one where both parents are university professors (meaning they get a lot of time off and very long vacations to spend with their families) and the kids attend an outstanding private school (which would certainly not be possible if either one of the parents chose to stay home.)

    Frankly, I don’t see anything good or Christian about Anthony Esolen’s frequent attacks on feminists.

  • Marthe L

    Thank you, Kevin, for your excellent comments. I have just learned that today, October 15, is the 81th anniversary of the “Persons Ruling” in Canada. This means that it has only been since 1929 that women have been legally considered as “persons” in my country. Even such an obvious recognition took years of “fighting the system” by a group of early feminists.
    It seems to me that some people, including some who posts comments and articles here, have a tendency to totally condemn a movement, feminism and environmentalism, among others, simply because some members of this or that movement are actually going too far, such as claiming that the earth would be in better shape if humans did not exist, or that women should be allowed to become priests. There will always be someone to take an issue way too far. This certainly does not mean that nothing positive happens when dealing with these issues.

  • A Mitchell

    Dear Martha,
    I am sorry that you think it required a government ruling that women were legally considered persons. I think it sad that anyone thinks that a person is declared so by a government.
    The truth is that the movement named the Feminist movement is not something any woman should be proud of. In memory of all the women suffering under Sharia law, used as sex slaves in an international community that is ever increasingly changing laws that protect the monetary benefits of those that use women as objects, (thank you Ontario!) we do need to confront those in power, those with a public voice who consider their most important goal to rid the world of unborn babies . We are not talking about a minority but a majority of those who call themselves feminists. Yes, we do need to condemn them.

  • lannej12@gmail.com

    Excellent and thought provoking.

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