Leisure Versus Laziness

By: Mary Frances Johnson, alias Theresa Benedicta

Word Count: 4530

Rating: G

Summary: An analysis of the conflict in America between the Protestant work ethic and the Catholic idea of leisure.

Image Credit: photographyblogger.net/14-relaxing-hammock-photos/

In the 1500’s, there was much corruption in the Church, and resentment towards the Magisterium by many Catholics. Martin Luther, John Calvin and others recognized a real problem with those in power. But the reason that the Protestant Reformation was so significant compared to other times of corruption in the Church was because of the way that people went about addressing this problem. Before this time, most humans valued feast days, celebrations, and days of rest above labor. However, because of their ambition to make life in this world good and perfect, Protestants, in addressing the corruption of the Church, fell into a self-destructive attitude of the worker. Today in America, people seem to still be focused on hard work and gaining success. Is it true that this ideal really comes from the Protestants? To get the answer, it is necessary to trace this attitude from the founding fathers and on throughout America to the modern day. Modern America’s ideal of the hard worker springs from the conflict between the Protestant work ethic and the Catholic ideal of leisure.

PreAmerica: 1600-1800
The first surviving English colony in the New World was founded in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia. The purpose of starting this colony was for Britain to grow economically by working the land and producing crops to trade. Already, it is clear that hard work was valuable and that financial success in the New World was idolized. Although the mission was not apparently religious, it was started by Protestant England, where the political and church authority were one and the same. Therefore, work and financial success for England were a part of religion as well. Their religious mission is shown in writings to the settlers by the Virginia Company of London. These instructions explained in detail to the colonists how to be as efficient as possible in building their colony in order “to prosper and to Obtain Good Success” (1). They learned from natives such as Pocahontas how to be efficient. Then, John Smith came over and forced the settlers to work so that they might not fail in their economic venture. Thus did the people of Jamestown work hard building their homes, growing tobacco, and so establishing a successful, sustaining colony of hard-working Protestants.

A few years later, the never idle Puritans established two colonies in the New World. The first was at Plymouth in 1620, and the second was at Boston in 1630. John Winthrop, a Puritan minister, wrote rules for his people to follow, saying that the rich must work hard, give to the poor out of their abundance, and ensure that they provide first and foremost for the comfort of themselves and their families. He claimed that the end for which he and his people sought was “to improve our lives to do more service to the Lord,” and the means were, “a conformity with the work and end we aim at” (2).  In other words, Puritans were to work hard to ensure comfort in life so that by their work and comfort, God may be glorified. Then, he went into detail about why they cannot fail to gain success, lest the wrath of God be loosed upon them. He gave all these conditions for how they must live “always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work” (3).  Again, work was the most important thing, and the hard worker was the ideal for which Americans strived.

In the next century, America continued to evolve, growing larger and more powerful, still driven by the Puritan ideals of work. Poor Richard’s Almanack is filled with sayings which scorn idleness and praise hard work, and so most Americans lived by these ideals. Benjamin Franklin sort of set the standard for the country, because so many respected and admired him. He was a hard worker who volunteered in his community; he was a writer, and invented various useful things. As the United States gained her independence, began to expand, and made progress, it was prosperous people like Benjamin Franklin who became the ideal American citizens.

Another model American from the 1700’s was George Washington. He was the son of a prosperous family, a strong lad, and as a young man he worked as a surveyor. Later, he was appointed officer and led a successful militia in the French and Indian War. He inherited a huge plantation, Mount Vernon, and devoted much of his time to expanding his farm and enhancing the efficiency of his crops with new methods. He served his country well in the Revolutionary War and as the first President, all the time living the ideal life of a worker. Even after his retirement from being president, he returned to his home with the purpose of making his plantation as productive as possible. His death was befitting of his busy character (4), for it was due to an infection he developed after catching a cold while inspecting his crops in the rain. Up to the very end, Washington was a true American worker. As the country continued to grow, people strived to live in the footsteps of the strong and successful forefathers like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, who put their work at the forefront of their lives.

Early America: 1800-1900
In the early 1800’s, there was a crisis with the banks in America, and panic because of the many immigrants who kept coming into the country. This problem only strengthened the Protestant work ethic and established the ideal of libertarianism. According to historian Paul Johnson, this ideal, “based upon an underlying, total self-confidence in the future of the country,” was an attitude which “pervaded every aspect of American life at this time” (5). This is the same ideal which the Protestants first established in the Reformation, although maybe subconsciously. The American people were seeking happiness on earth by trying to solve every problem through effort in order to create a perfect society for the future. Was not the rebellion of the Protestants against the Church a first spark of this? Martin Luther rebelled because the Church was not perfect, starting the fire of this libertarian idea. The majority of American immigrants during the time of the Reformation were Protestants escaping the Catholics or other denominations of Europe. Thus, America’s ideals are largely influenced by the Reformation.

Protestant America continues to focus on building the country with hard work and success, always looking to the future of a perfect society on earth. This ideal continued in the mid 1800s with President Polk, who was a strong advocate of expanding the United States across all the lands of America. This workaholic politician was a firm believer in the ideals of Manifest Destiny, which declared America a powerful, successful country with all of the future ahead of her. John O’Sullivan wrote on Manifest Destiny in 1839, saying that to look to the ancients of the past is ridiculous, and that the people of the United States will look forward to make progress for themselves and their posterity. He claimed that America was destined for a glorious future of equality, freedom in business pursuits, and to be a nation of great progress: “Yes, we are the nation of progress, of individual freedom, of universal enfranchisement. . . We must onward to the fulfilment of our mission. . . All this will be our future history, to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man the immutable truth and beneficence of God. Who, then, can doubt that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity?” (6).

It is clear that Puritan ideals were at play here, since O’Sullivan called for prosperity and sought to glorify God by bringing success to his country. Also, there is strong evidence of libertarianism, seeking to fix the problems of the world to establish a future perfect society. Thus do the American people continue to build their society in the attitude of the Protestant work ethic.

Just a few decades later, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, hard-working Americans continued to strive for prosperity. Factories were producing goods with greater speed and ease, and people were learning that the efforts of their work increased productivity. Johnson said that “the archetypal hero of the age was Andrew Carnegie” (7), who, although not Protestant, was impressed by the Protestant work ethic. He was an emigrant to America inspired by her enthusiasm for work and wealth, with his mission being to learn the secrets of how to be a successful businessman. And what better place to look than the flourishing Industrial America? He wrote instructions on how to best benefit society in his book, The Gospel of Wealth. After giving a policy for businessmen to follow, he said that it “would work powerfully to induce the rich man to attend to the administration of wealth during his life, which is the end that society should always have in view, as being that by far most fruitful for the people” (8).

The focus, once again, is on worldly success and building a perfect society. Although Carnegie was agnostic, he was largely influenced by the Protestant work ethic, and helped to secularize their ideals. Therefore, the people who follow Carnegie and his methods for becoming rich are unknowingly living out Protestant ideals which go back to the Puritans of Boston. This time period marks a major turning point in the ideal of the worker, for it seemed to separate from religious motivation.

Modern America: 1900-Present
It should now be clear that the goal of the American people was to live up to the standards of the worker. An ideal American was one who gained wealth and prosperity by his effort, and contributed to the needs of society. With education reforms of the early twentieth century, this ideal was instilled in young Americans. In 1919, the Association for the Advancement of Progressive Education adopted educational principles promoted by philosopher John Dewey. These principles emphasize the importance of preparing children for their career and giving them the tools to be successful so that they can contribute to society. “Interest should be satisfied and developed through: (I) direct and indirect contact with the world and its activities, and use of the experience thus gained; (2) application of knowledge gained, and correlation between different subjects; (3) the consciousness of achievement” (9).

Education of Americans focused on making children useful rather than forming them as a whole person. Americans were determined to create a productive, successful nation, and they believed hard workers would do this. Therefore, children were equipped to become workers for the benefit of society. These educational ideas of Dewey were largely influenced by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. The book Kant on Education says that “all the natural endowments of mankind must be developed little by little out of man himself, through his own effort” (10). Kant speaks with great Puritan tendencies, saying: “Each generation. . . is able more and more to bring about an education which shall develop man’s natural gifts in their due proportion and in relation to their end, and thus advance the whole human race towards its destiny. Providence has willed, that man shall bring forth for himself the good that lies hidden in his nature, and has spoken, as it were, thus to man. ‘Go forth into the world! I have equipped thee with every tendency towards the good. Thy part let it be to develop those tendencies. Thy happiness and unhappiness depend upon thyself alone’” (11).

He was repeating the same ideals promoted by John Winthrop at Boston, who inspired his people to glorify God by making a successful life. He also wrote with the passionate tone of the Manifest Destiny movement by John O’Sullivan, and encouraged people to look towards the future happiness of mankind here on earth. Thus, Kant gives fuel to the already flaming world of total work in America.

The ideal American citizen was now agreed upon to be he who contributed to society’s needs to the best of his ability. W.H. Auden’s poem on the unknown citizen gives a great description of what the American worker would have looked like. He praises this American for his hard work and never causing problems for society:

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned
word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community. (12)

Auden makes it clear that the only thing that matters for the modern man to be considered good is for him to be a decent contributor to society. America attempted to abolish the separation of classes by allowing everyone to be functionaries in society. Proletarianism takes over, and every person is reduced to a worker. Josef Pieper points out in his book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, that the modern world confuses the concept of the common good with the common need (13). The common good is that which is not only useful for a nation to be prosperous, but also includes that which is good for human beings to live human lives. A common need is money, produced by the worker, but there are human goods beyond physical needs. For example, truth sought for its own sake is completely useless, just as art is useless, since it is merely an expression of man’s search for beauty. These things have no purpose in the world of total work, even though truth and beauty are those things for which man longs in the depths of his soul. When society instead focuses on the common need, anyone who is productive is a good citizen. No matter whether one is living in pursuit of goodness and truth, if he is not productive, he is not a good citizen. Therefore, work becomes the meaning of life for the American people.

Is this not still true today? The typical American who is idolized is the hard worker. Americans look up to people who have made their way in the world by effort. Successful businessman, hardworking farmers, and wealthy intellectual workers are honored by society. These have been the models of America since the founding colonies of Jamestown, Plymouth, and Boston. The New York Times published an article a couple years ago claiming that Americans are still Puritan even after all these years. It reports the results of a study lead by Psychologist Eric Luis Uhlmann, which found that Americans worked harder than Canadians when salvation was brought to their mind (14). It was concluded that “whatever these Americans explicitly believed. . . something like Puritan values seemed to be guiding their moral judgments” (15). It is clear that the American ideal of the worker comes from the Protestants. But is it true that these ideals were present from the very start of the Protestant Reformation? And how is the Catholic ideal of leisure opposed to this and yet also opposed to laziness?

Leisure vs Laziness
According to Catholicism, man is made for more than work. This is not just a part of the
Catholic faith, but also the belief of many philosophers, and the worldview of antiquity. The highest power of man, his rationality, involves two aspects: the intellectual work of reasoning and the receptive mode of understanding. Ultimately, man is made to understand, and the disposition needed to gain understanding is leisure. However, the word leisure is often misunderstood. It does not mean sitting on the couch watching TV all day. It is the state of openness to reality, involving a calmness and quiet which allows one to see things as they really are. It is a form of silence, or “listening to the essence of things,” as the ancient philosophers said (16). It is the exact opposite of the attitude of the worker, for it does not have any useful end in mind; work is an activity done for an end outside itself. Leisure recognizes that man earns nothing by his toil, but is totally dependent upon receiving his existence as gift. Man cannot accomplish anything by himself, but God can do wondrous things through man if he would only accept his nothingness and receive God’s gifts.

According to the Catholic faith, man’s final end is the Beatific Vision, which is contemplation of the Divine Nature for all eternity. Protestants, in their seeking to create happiness here on earth by their effort, pervert that end and become caught up in pursuing the ideal of the worker. On the contrary, the Catholic people believe that their end is not to be happy in this world but to know, love and serve God in this life so that they may be happy with God for all eternity. For Catholics, work is necessary, but it does not cause one’s happiness, and it is not the most important activity of man (17). Man’s greatest activity is to receive understanding from God as a gift, and so leisure is the mode of receptivity which allows for the gift to be received.

Idleness is actually antithetical to this, for in Catholic tradition, this is the vice of refusal to be what God wills. Since man is meant to be the receiver of God’s gift of happiness, and since the worker seeks to gain happiness by his own effort rather than as God wills, he who lives in order to work is in fact guilty of idleness. All of the work that Americans do serves no purpose if it is not based on leisure, and American society makes it seem like leisure is laziness and therefore wrong. The truth is, that work for work’s sake is real idleness. However, if work is based on leisure and directed towards leisure, it is good. Just as all of God’s works in creation were very good, on the last day He still rested: “On the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing. He rested on the seventh day after all the work he had been doing. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on that day he had rested after all his work of creating” (18). This is what Sunday is for, a day of rest from one’s work. It is not a type of ‘labor day’ where one only rests for the sake of being able to work harder. On the contrary, all of the work of the week is for the sake of this rest, and work only has a purpose when it is directed towards this: leisure.

Now, is it really true that America’s worker attitude springs from the Protestant rebellion against the Church? Well, what did the Protestants do in the Reformation? Luther and Calvin started it off with their declaration of predestination, the belief that God had already determined whether or not one was damned or saved. However, they also claimed that success was a sign of salvation. Beneath the surface of this claim, there is a subtler claim which was naturally bound to follow. If success is a sign of salvation, and success can be obtained by effort, then effort, or work, will gain one’s salvation. Maybe this is not what Luther and Calvin intended, but it is how most Protestants lived out their lives thereafter. Thus, at the very start of the Protestant Reformation, the worker ideal is born, and, as already shown, it matures and strengthens throughout American history with the Puritan colonists, the forefathers of the 18th century, the ideals of Manifest Destiny, progressive education, and on to the modern American world of total work.

This has always been a problem of humanity, the eagerness to earn one’s happiness and the refusal to accept gift. God warns mankind of this misconception early on in his existence by punishing him at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. This is a story of people who try to build a tower to reach heaven, all by their own toil and effort. They delude themselves into thinking that they can earn happiness if they just work hard enough to build this great tower: “‘Come,’ they said ‘let us build ourselves a town and a tower with its top reaching heaven. Let us make a name for ourselves, so that we may not be scattered about the whole earth.’ . . . Yahweh scattered them hence over the whole face of the earth.” God makes sure that man realizes he is not meant to make his way to salvation by his own toil and labor (19). He removes them even further from that happiness which they were attempting to guarantee for themselves. This ought to be a reminder of man’s dependence on God, and it ought to lead him to seek leisure, so that he may be open to receiving the gifts God wills to give him.

The Catholic Church provides plenty of time for leisure, most especially in the celebration of Mass, where man goes to step out of the workaday world in order to listen to the Word of Christ, and to receive Him fully in Holy Communion. This is the restoration of what was lost at the Tower of Babel, for then God scattered man over the earth because he sought unity and happiness by his own effort. In this sacrament, every man around the world who eats and drinks the body and blood of Christ is united to God in full communion and receives salvation totally as a gift.

Catholicism at its heart is very much opposed to the Protestant work ethic, and the American people who live in pursuit of work above all else are living in opposition to Sacred Scripture. Throughout Scripture, God points man to the contemplative life, the life of leisure: “Pause awhile and know that I am God” (20).  Jesus Christ himself praised Mary, “who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking,” saying that she “has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.” Although work is necessary and natural for man, his proper act is to listen and receive (21). He must avoid laziness, and he must seek true leisure above all else.

What should America do now to fix its problem of work for work’s sake? Of course, this is the question that a problem-fixing American would ask, but the problem-fixing attitude often springs from the problem itself. More work and effort will only add to the Protestant work ethic, so what America really needs is a contradiction to societal standards. While Protestant America trains its children to work hard and be successful, Catholics ought to be seeking true education. Man ought not focus on being useful and successful, but ought to seek an understanding of reality. As Josef Pieper says: “Training is defined as being concerned with some one side or aspect of man, with regard to some special subject. Education concerns the whole man, man capax universi , capable of grasping the totality of existing things” (22).  This does not mean that training is always bad, and man cannot be productive, but when man is reduced to a functionary and his ultimate meaning is found in his work, he demeans his own dignity. America will probably not even slow down enough to see that it is working and building a society that will never be complete. But even if only a few American people can find leisure, step out of the workaday world, and begin to seek wholeness, mankind will not be lost. What America needs is educated persons, not trained workers. Therefore, let every human being with an awareness of his dignity seek leisure in order to receive gift.



(1) “Instructions from the Virginia Company of London to the First Settlers,” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, last modified September 2011, accessed September 13, 2014, http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Instructions_from_the_Virginia_Company_of_London_to_the_First_Settlers_1606 .

(2) “John Winthrop, A Modell of Christian Charity, (1630),” Hanover Historical Texts Project, last modified August 1996, accessed October 8, 2014, http://history.hanover.edu/texts/winthmod.html.

(3) Ibid.

(4) History.com Staff, “George Washington,” History.com, A & E Networks, 2009, accessed September 25, 2014, http://www.history.com/topics/uspresidents/georgewashington

(5) Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 288.

(6) “John L. O’Sullivan on Manifest Destiny, 1839,” Mount Holyoke College, accessed October 8, 2014, http://www.mthholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/osulliva.htm .

(7) Johnson, American People , 550.

(8) “Andrew Carnegie: The Gospel of Wealth, 1889,” Fordham University, last modified August 1997, accessed October 8, 2014, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1889carnegie.asp .

(9) Larry Schweikart, “On the Principles of Progressive Education, Association for the Advancement of Progressive Education, 1919,” in The Patriot’s History Reader , ed. Larry Schweikart et al. (New York: Penguin, 2011), 268.

(10) Immanuel Kant, Kant on Education , trans. Anette Churton (Boston: D. C. Heath, 1900), accessed October 9, 2014, http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/kantkantoneducationx00fcberpx00e4dagogik .

(11) Ibid.

(12) The American Poetry and Literacy Project, “W. H. Auden” in 101 Great American Poems , ed. Paul Negri et al(Mineola: Dover, 1998), 79.

(13) Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 7879.

(14) Matthew Hutson, “Still Puritan After All These Years,” The New York Times , August 3, 2012, accessed October 9, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/05/opinion/sunday/areamericansstillpuritan.html?_r=0 .

(15) Ibid.

(16) Pieper, Leisure , 28.

(17) Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 9.

(18) Gen. 1:23, Jerusalem .

(19) Gen. 11:4,8.

(20) Psalm 46:10.

(21) Luke 10:39,42.

(22) Pieper, Leisure , 39.


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The American Poetry and Literacy Project. “W. H. Auden.” In 101 Great American
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