Rediscovering Freedom: Unveiling the Essence of Leisure, Philosophy, and the Human Spirit

Today we don’t know how to live out the inner spirit of people. Especially I don’t know that the most important thing for people is to be free. The most important purpose of reading Xianshu is to regain people’s free nature and find a free world.

Let me first talk about the understanding of ordinary Chinese people. Xianshu is a “useless book”. Books that have nothing to do with work and cannot bring us practical benefits are Xianshu. When I used to teach philosophy, one of the most asked questions by students was, what is the use of philosophy? What I say is useless. Philosophy is a “useless knowledge”. All books in the humanities are, in a sense, useless.

For example, if I read a novel, I can neither use it to judge my professional title nor make money from it, so why should I read it? The reason is that we need to rest and read books that can relax us. In this sense, reading leisure books makes sense. Why isn’t the novel called Da Shuo? It’s because the novel is a useless thing. Therefore, people who read novels are quite transcendent and can enjoy this leisurely part of life.

Leisure is used for “contemplation” rather than relaxation

However, what I mainly want to introduce is not the Chinese understanding, but the book “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” by a German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper. This book is divided into two parts. The first part is about leisure and worship, and the second part is about leisure and philosophy. The West’s understanding of leisure is different from ours. We would call the part of leisure leisure, but they are opposed to this. Pieper divided a person’s life into three states: one is work, the other is leisure, and the third is leisure. Leisure is used for “contemplation” rather than relaxing oneself – this is a very important Western tradition.

In Western cultural traditions, understanding the nature of the world is regarded as the most important thing for a person. This is very different from the Chinese. Chinese people often appreciate the world and regard the world as an object that can be integrated with people. But this is not the case in the West. They believe that the essence of the world is composed of two parts: spiritual and material. People can grasp the essence of the world through observation and contemplation. This is a very important role of leisure. Another function of leisure is worship: through worship rituals, people integrate with God and grasp the essence of the world.

As Aristotle said very early on, the reason why we cannot be idle is for our ultimate leisure, because leisure is the essential pursuit of human beings. Why do we work? Work itself is not our purpose. Work is to allow us to have time for leisure and to think about what is behind the world in our leisure.

In the history of modern Western art, there is a very important figure, perhaps the number one figure – Marcel Duchamp. When he was very young, when his paintings could be sold for large prices, he gave up painting and entered a life of doing nothing. He spent thirty years finding someone to play chess at home and wrote a book about chess. As the founder of Dadaism, he believes that although many people love art, it is actually a very boring thing – many artists engage in artistic activities just to make money, make a lot of money, buy a mansion, Luxury cars, travel abroad.

Duchamp disapproved of all this. He felt that painting for the sake of making money was a behavior he looked down upon. So if someone puts the deposit for buying a painting in front of him, he doesn’t want it. He would rather be happy and just make a piece of work and put it out. For example, he hung up a urinal and put a label on it: Quan. This is one of his famous works of art. Dadaism means that there is no art and nothing can be explained. With such an act, he criticized and ridiculed all the artists of his generation.

Duchamp said that people can do without many things, including houses, cars, wives, money… He said, “I love breathing more than anything else.” All these words he said were actually talking about the noblest insistence in Western culture that has been forgotten by modern people – human purpose. Man’s purpose is not art or reading. Man’s purpose is himself. In order to strongly present this understanding, he lived his life into a work of art. He gave up wealth, status, etc. to defend human freedom.

In Duchamp’s time, there was another person who, like him, also understood the “noble spirit” in Western culture, and that was Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein was a man of great philosophical genius. A few years ago, philosophers around the world voted to choose the best philosopher in their minds, and the first place was Wittgenstein – his name was ranked ahead of Aristotle. When Wittgenstein was 30 years old, he first worked as a primary school teacher in a school, teaching students to read. Later, he felt that this kind of behavior was too utilitarian, so he quit his job and went to work as an assistant to the gardener in the flower garden. It was a very humble and useless job. A role of value. But he is willing to let himself have such an identity. Why? Because he feels that philosophers, professors, and those seemingly glorious identities are a constraint for him as a person.

This is done not only in the West, but also in the East, such as the founder of Japanese tea ceremony and tea sage Sen no Rikyu.

Nowadays, when many people drink tea or red wine, they will talk about where it comes from, how small the output is, how well made, how expensive the teapot is, and how amazing the teacup is – it was the same way in Sen no Rikyu’s time, showing off its extravagance, and maybe it was made of gold. Tea sets are used to drink tea, turning tea drinking into a way to show off wealth.

Sen no Rikyu despises such behavior. He believes that the essence of tea drinking is to drink good tea and return to the tea itself. His tea set is very casual. Just take a bowl and serve it when you want to drink. The tea room is also very simple, and the door of the tea room opens a little from the bottom. When entering, you have to kneel down and get in – why should you get in? It means that you have nothing to be proud of, You are just a tea drinker and should be humble.

Duchamp, Sen no Rikyu, Wittgenstein, all such people who are good at philosophical thinking can always enter the core part of the world very directly. The acquisition of such a philosophical spirit has a lot to do with taking some time for leisure. Leisure in this sense means using our innate intuition to observe the nature of the world.

Many people who have lived overseas have found that small shops abroad close on Sundays, and the ones that do not close are all Chinese shops. Why do Westerners close their doors on Sundays? One reason is that Christianity says that the seventh day is for rest. This is not a day for relaxation, but for mental tension. This is a day for you to become one with your essence.

Chinese people are basically working machines now. We are deeply, deeply poisoned by work. We think labor is beautiful. You ask a person, why do they work so hard? Because they want to earn a lot of money. Why make a lot of money? Because I want to buy a house. Why should I buy a house? Because my house is not big enough – so I keep working and become an “alienated person”. Alienated people are purposeless people, fragmented people.

Today we don’t know how to live out the inner spirit of people. Especially I don’t know that the most important thing for people is to be free. The most important purpose of reading Xianshu is to regain people’s free nature and find a free world.

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