Mel’s Meme: The Seeds of Society

In his book Leisure the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper lays out the founding of what we have come to know as “culture”. It was only when men did not have worry about every meal, when every moment was not spent securing the livelihood of a people, that they could begin to spend time – leisure time – studying.

And, eventually, creating. Art can only happen in a society organized enough to have leisure.

And this is my introductory excuse for having poor taste. When I looked deep, deep into my psyche, I discovered that my instinctive grabs would be;

Plato’s Republic,
Aristotle’s Politics,
De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

I am horrified.

I loathe politics. In fact, it might be rated up there with chickens.

In my most cynical moods, I tend to reject all forms of government.

But I do trust education. And maybe if every person in this surviving culture read about politics, it might work!

And the first thing to that a dispossessed society needs in order to stay a culture, is a working organization.

A system of government, if you will.

And it needs people who can think clearly and reasonably about the purpose and organization of government. It need both the information and the wisdom passed down through the ages, what Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead”.

The purpose of government is to serve the people: humans do not exist to serve the government. So yes, there are books that – as I have in the middle of exploring – make us human.

But if the world as we knew it suddenly ended and we had to start anew, it would be important not just to preserve the beauty that was but to rebuild lives, society, and culture.

John Adams, in the throes of organizing the fledgling United States of America, deftly describes this basis of culture in a letter to his wife.

My Dear Portia—

Since my arrival this time, I have driven about Paris more than I did before. The rural scenes around this town are charming. The public walks, gardens, &c., are extremely beautiful . . . I wish I had time to describe these objects to you, in a manner that I should have done twenty-five years ago, but my head is too full of schemes, and my heart of anxiety, to use expressions borrowed from you know whom. To take a walk in the gardens of the palace of the Tuileries, and describe the statues there, all in marble, in which the ancient divinities and heroes are represented with exquisite art, would be a very pleasant amusement and instructive entertainment, improving in history, mythology, poetry, as well as in statuary. Another walk in the gardens of Versailles would be useful and agreeable. But to observe these objects with taste and describe them, so as to be understood, would require more time and thought than I can possibly spare.

It is not indeed the fine arts which our country requires ; the useful, the mechanic arts, are those which we have occasion for in a young country as yet simple and not far advanced in luxury, although perhaps much too far for her age and character. I could fill volumes with descriptions of temples and palaces, paintings, sculptures, tapestry, porcelain, &c., &c., &c., if I could have time ; but I could not do this without neglecting my duty.

The science of government, it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation, ought to take place of, indeed to exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.


Thus concludes the excuse. I would like to have found that my heart of hearts wants to preserve Homer, or Shakespeare, or Dante. I believe that those are the books that teach us best what it mean to be human.

But no.

I suppose it is hope that makes grab political training manuals rather first.

Because if the Cylons do come destroy Earth and we must begin anew, I want to reach the point of culture as quickly as possible so that the new Homers, Shakespeares, and Dantes have a chance to create again.


6 thoughts on “Mel’s Meme: The Seeds of Society

  1. well-reasoned, and I agree. Despite the large amount of fiction in my theoretical backpack, I consider my choices to have a very practical bent. I feel that your choices have a very practical bent, too, and I like that. Yes, I would desire to preserve those books that have been the foundation of our civilization, but most of all I want the books on which our survival and sanity may depend in future, and organization (politics) is imperative. 🙂

  2. Oh, those are Great Books! I do not like politics either, but there is something beautiful in those books that transcends the common conception of the word and get at a bit of the heart of humanity.

    And as you said there must be civilization before to produce leisure and art! (Maybe you should add Peiper’s “Leisure”!)

    And those books are beautiful and poetic, in a very different sort of way :p

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  5. Aye, in preparing my own post, I found myself stumbling towards the reasoning you’ve enumerated. While it would be nice to bring along Shakespeare, and Homer, and Jane Austen, and Mark Twain, and Dickens, and Tolkien, and other great writers of fiction, not to mention works by other artists, they would not be as immediately important and practical as some foundational works in politics and political philosophy. Science and math might be more useful than fiction, and history too, but these can all, in some ways, be rediscovered once the society has organized itself and has some leisure. But first, the foundations of a strong and just society must be laid, and that’s such a difficult task!

    • Which is not to say the Shakespeare, Homer, et al do not have very important insights into the questions of government, organizational ends and sheer humanity!

      But – particularly after watching season one of Battlestar Galactica – I kept returning to the necessity of establishing order and justice before even the most basic arts – food growing/gathering, clothes making, etc – could flourish.

      For as much as I admire the Wild West and other times/places that elicit such rugged virtues, strengths, and adventures, Pieper is spot on in pointing out both the basis of Culture and then very human need to have develop the Arts.

      I do appreciate your reasoning for Aristotle rather than Plato. I do agree with Aristotle more than Plato, but have read more of Plato.

      And hopefully, in this new society, new artists can emerge who might rival even Shakespeare and Homer! (Flannery o’Connor does say that great art comes from those who have “lost the war,” who have suffered and confronted their own mortality. So imagine what great souls would come form such a challenge as that!)

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