A Search for the Sublime
Harcourt, $22, 224 pp.
Great paradoxes are those that stop, startle, and gain intuitive acceptance well before essential understanding. Take, for instance, the maxim that “the first principle of all action is leisure.” It is something W. C. Fields might have said as easily as Aristotle, the kind of line you take in with a wry smile when you see it in the newspaper or on a sign at your neighborhood pub. But a society already manic over its own amusements can easily miss the point—one that has been articulated many times over the centuries. Aquinas was on to it when he explained that virtue’s essence lay in the good, not in the difficult. And his formulation, as well as that of Aristotle, lies at the root of Josef Pieper’s influential 1952 disquisition on leisure as the basis of culture. How can that which makes us uniquely human ever grow and flourish, Pieper asked, when it is constantly trod upon by the plodding boots of toil? Living closer to a time when the Protestant work ethic was more reality than cliché, the German Pieper distinguished indolence and shiftlessness, which are rightly scorned, from the necessary state of free contemplative restfulness that formed the subject of his work. Constant industry not only discredits the still life, Pieper argued, but stifles it. And without stillness, there is no life, at least not a genuinely human one.
Patricia Hampl’s Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime takes the seed of this...