The body needs food. All people go hungry some of the time. We often feel at least a tiny bit sorry for someone who has not eaten for a while, especially if it is someone whom we love deeply, like an aging parent or a child in from a long day of play. Some people go hungry much of the time. We should feel for them, even if too many of us do not, and are indifferent. If occasional hunger inspires sympathy, regular hunger is rightly seen as a great evil and, when it is politically or socially determined, an injustice. Humans living in civil society usually intervene individually and collectively to alleviate and limit the suffering of ongoing hunger, however insufficient the intervention may be. If they do nothing, we can be sure that those humans and their civil society have fallen deeply into sin and vice.
The soul needs food, too. It needs the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, what philosophers call the transcendentals. Anyone who lacks access to the soul’s food or, worse, who rejects it, is more than pitiable; he lives inhumanly. It is sad when an individual happens to not feed his soul, through negligence or lack of access; it is calamitous when large groups or, worse, entire societies do not. Like with physical hunger, a just civil society, undergirded by decent citizens, will do something to address spiritual hunger. Civil societies that do not are gravely sinful and vicious; those that programmatically undermine the pursuit of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful are downright wicked. Ours may not be downright wicked yet, but, I fear, it may be on its way.
But does spiritual hunger inspire sympathy in us? Maybe. Sometimes. I guess. Even those of us who recognize that human experience is flattened and the inner life hollowed out whenever men are spiritually deprived may feel disdain and disgust, more than genuine care or sympathy, when encountering shallow and starving souls. They did it to themselves, we might think. We might even be correct. In turn, they undoubtedly think we are utterly mad for caring about abstract and abstruse concepts, as well as unkind and judgmental, unfit for social life, for believing their chosen lives are depraved. They, too, might be correct.
The view that human beings do not need to bother feeding, cultivating, and caring for their souls, if there even be such things, obtains most of the time. Disgust with shallowness is relatively uncommon; genuine sympathy is almost non-existent. Smallness of soul – pusillanimity – is, sadly, celebrated. The person who does not bother with abstractions, like the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, is praised as prudent, practical, “no-nonsense”, and someone who doesn’t take any guff (or something more crass than guff). In contrast, the person who pursues the transcendentals is, at best, not very serious. He wastes his time and will, for that reason, never be successful, which is to say he will never be wealthy or powerful, which is also to say he will fail in the only ways that really count to those who consider him unserious. He may be mocked or insulted over all his wasted time and talent. If he happens to pursue the transcendentals in school, at tax-payers’ or his parents’ expense, he will, in addition, be criticized for wasting other people’s resources.
Humans are, of course, composites of body and soul, but they are most properly souls. That is to say, what distinguishes humans from other animals is the richness of our interior lives, our capacity for knowledge, for aesthetic appreciation, for thought and language, for moral life, for love, and, above all, for prayer and worship. The life of the body is great; thus, eating and drinking are great, too. God gave us bodies. We should take care of them, making them as healthy and strong as possible. After all, the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians, 6: 19-20). Hunger should, accordingly, trouble us, whether it is ours or someone else’s. But God also gave us souls, and He gave the soul command and priority over the body. We are, thus, obligated to do more than promote mere physical health and longevity. It is our duty to pursue and partake of the transcendentals, to nourish the soul, and to prioritize doing so. Spiritual hunger, whether it is ours or someone else’s, should be intolerable to us, not just more or less worrisome. It is not, however, ground for disdain. We may rightly feel disgusted, but the plight of our fellow humans, starving for Truth, should inspire charity, not contempt. Any soul that pridefully looks down on those suffering without spiritual food can rest assured that his soul has been neglected, too.
Spiritual hunger, especially when it is ongoing and systematic, is incomparably more evil than physical starvation. A starving person will die. That is tragic – truly bad. But a fool will be worse off because he will live, possibly a long time, viciously, going about without purpose, meaning, and truth. And what about the person who, in his folly, also utterly cuts himself off from God, from the sacrifice of the Mass, from confession, from the lives of the saints, from prayer, etc.? That person is infinitely worse off than either starving or foolish men. This person, unless he repents and is reconciled with God by His grace, is damned. To be sure, these categories are not perfectly distinct: the starving man may be foolish, and the foolish man is almost certainly Godless, but the corruption of the soul, culminating in separation from divine Truth, matters more than the deterioration of the body, now and in the hereafter.
If the body needs food, the human person needs the conditions by which food can be acquired and prepared for eating. Humans need shelter, owned or rented; they need reliable access to food, whether purchased on the open market or harvested on their own property; they need implements for food storage and preparation; they also need some basic knowledge of cooking and nutrition. Humans need stuff, they need some measure of basic wealth, as well as the means to accumulate more in the future. For those who are not independently wealthy, that means we need jobs; we need to work. Protests from the communists and idlers notwithstanding, work is good, because it is the condition of many goods, including eating. There are certainly cases where some people cannot work; justice teaches that they, too, must be provided for somehow. But the latter does not gainsay the basic necessity and goodness of work. Anyone who wants to address physical hunger must address shelter, access to food, basic knowledge of food, and, underneath it all, work.
Likewise, the human person needs the conditions by which the soul can get its food, by which it can access the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. The human person, thus, needs access to education, religious practice, human companionship, books worth reading, art worth beholding, and much else besides. But how do we get these things? What is, if you will, the condition of these conditions of spiritual satiation? Like work is to eating, what is the underlying condition by which we can access the places where spiritual food is available?
We can only get the soul’s food when we are not working. This even applies to people, like me, who are remunerated for pursuing, at least for some hours every week, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Even we can only pursue the transcendentals when we are not busy caring for the body and engaging in the mundane tasks of the workaday world. My intellectual pursuits are much more fruitful when I am not worried about publishing, grading, sitting on committees, reading enrollment spreadsheets, or any of the other functional tasks associated, at least today, with academic life. I do not complain about these tasks. I simply point out that they are tasks, work-like in form and somewhat burdensome in execution. The business – and busyness – of university employment can be rewarding, but one does not discover the transcendentals there, let alone help others discover them.
Josef Pieper often remarked that academics are paid honoraria, not wages. His point is that the task of pursuing the truth and teaching it cannot be instrumentalized by assigning it a cash value. He’s right. However instrumental the life of a professor is or becomes, at core it cannot be work. Truths can only be pursued, learned, and taught when the business of the “job” is put aside, even if only temporarily. The soul needs the opportunity to find and consume its food, and this cannot happen when the human person is concerned with earning the wages needed to satisfy his own and his family’s basic needs. The time and space protected from the exigencies of the workaday world is called leisure. Anyone who wants to address spiritual hunger must address religion, education, art, books, and, underneath it all, leisure.
We need leisure, not for survival, but for flourishing, to realize our human potential. Whenever leisure is missing, its absence is experienced as a great loss, though not always understood as such. Even the so-called workaholic wishes for some downtime, a vacation to recharge and have some fun. He seems to recognize that mere survival is not enough. His sense of leisure is corrupt, as he sees it as free time for amusement and for gratifying physical pleasures, not for caring for the soul. His soul remains unfed, though his intuition is right: work, good as it is, is not enough.
So much of contemporary life, however, betrays a profound lack of concern about leisure and its absence. The hustle and bustle of modern life would seem to suggest we don’t much care for leisure; we seem to not understand that its absence is a loss, and is experienced as such, whether we acknowledge it or not. I might not realize my life is shallow or be able to articulate what is missing from it, but I will feel its shallowness one way or another. We sometimes call this experience a crisis of conscience. Malformed consciences, caused by hungry souls, are very likely to experience such crises.
Today, the absence of leisure does not inspire sympathy, let alone the outrage it should. But whether we realize it or not, humans desire leisure, and we do so because of our human nature, not because of any idiosyncrasies or particularities about us. This is not to say that people without leisure cease being human persons, but that they lack a condition by which they can realize their potential as humans. This is why the absence of leisure is such a tragic loss. Not having an opportunity for leisure is inhuman; the systematic erosion of such opportunities is anti-human.
This particular brand of anti-humanism is no longer hypothetical, if it ever was. For instance, we no longer need to merely imagine what it is like to lose access to our churches and to the sacraments. I admire resilience. Everyone who responded to the doors of our churches being locked by intensifying their prayer lives, reading the Bible, and studying and applying the lessons from the lives and works of the saints should be commended. But we were literally being starved. All passably good Catholics know that. We made do, but suffered for it. We were deprived of the most important form of leisure, the one that is prefigured by all the others and can sustain us on its own: worship of the One True God.
Humans need leisure; they need it to cultivate themselves, to develop rich cultures, to produce beautiful art, to philosophize, to study, to celebrate religious festivals, to deepen spiritual life, to grow in faith, hope, and charity, and even for the sake of moral self-development. Humans can survive without leisure, but they cannot thrive without it. Without leisure, a basic condition of our being properly human is missing, the condition to reach and consume the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, which for us means to encounter and remain close to our Lord.