How a Catholic Philosopher Anticipated Our Modern Cataclysm

Why Josef Pieper Needs To Be Read

There are two ironies that characterize the life and works of Josef Pieper. He was born in the year 1904 in the Westphalian village of Elte, a town so isolated that no train was available to take any of its citizens to any other part of Westphalia. Yet Pieper’s many books, in many translations, are well traveled and are read throughout the world. Secondly, though his philosophy is rooted in a 13th century thinker—Saint Thomas Aquinas—it is most timely. Speaking of his “hero,” he stated that the work of Aquinas “is inexhaustible and his affirmative way of looking at the reality of the whole creation seems to me a necessary correction modern Christianity cannot do without”.

Pieper passed away in 1997. His keen insight into modern liberalism, however, applies perfectly to the current crisis that reigns in 2021. “Enlightened liberalism,” he writes in Fortitude and Temperance (1954), “closes its eyes to the evil in the world: to the demonic power of ‘our adversary’ the Devil, the Evil One, as well as to the mysterious power of human delusion and perversion of will; at worst, the liberal imagines the power of evil to be not so ‘gravely’ dangerous that one could not ‘negotiate’ or ‘come to terms’ with it. The uncomfortable, merciless and inexorable ‘No,’ a self-evident reality to the Christian, has been obliterated from the liberalistic world view”. 

Today’s liberal believes that all man needs to prosper as a human being can be found in politics. In his view, politics replaces religion. He does not believe that he needs to overcome life’s difficulties through virtue.  To him, the ethical life unfolds “free from sorrow and harm”. Liberalism and naiveté go hand in hand.

The “liberal” conception of man does not include virtues, which are man’s moral life blood. Pieper, on the other hand, is perhaps most noted for his books on virtue, especially the cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. In fact, he has come to be known as “The Philosopher of Virtue”. “Surrender to sensuality,” he warns in The Four Cardinal Virtues, “paralyzes the powers of the moral person”. “Modern man,” Pieper writes, “cannot conceive of a good act which might not be imprudent, nor of a bad act which might be prudent”. Thus chastity, truthfulness, and courageous sacrifice appear to be imprudent, while lying, avarice, and ostentation appear to be prudent. 

We need to read the works of this eminent philosopher so that we can better understand what is happening in the present. In The Silence of Saint Thomas, he remarks that “the truth will be more profound as truth, the more vigorously its timeliness comes to light; it also means that a man experiencing his own time with a richer intensity of heart and fuller spiritual awareness has a better chance of experiencing the illuminating force of truth.”

Pieper has a remarkable ability to restate traditional wisdom in terms of contemporary problems. This is well documented in Belief and Faith, Happiness and Contemplation, The End of Time, and Guide to Thomas Aquinas.

T. S. Eliot, who wrote the Introduction to Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Society, pays the author high praise, crediting him with restoring to philosophy, “what common sense obstinately tells us ought to be found there: insight and wisdom.” The late Ralph McInerny avers that “No one has written more wisely on the relation between thinking and doing than Pieper, yet there are no obstacles of erudition between the reader and the presentation”. Pieper is not only worth reading, he is also readable.

The eminent psychiatrist, Karl Stern, was a good friend of Pieper. In his collection of essays, Love and Success, Stern recalls being on a plane after attending a convention which was a strange mixture of half-understood existentialism, sociology, group dynamics, anthropology, and psychoanalysis. “Reading Pieper on my way home,” he recalls, “I felt like someone who, with his ears still full of street noise, suddenly finds himself listening to The Art of the Fugue. I was back in a world of immutable harmony”.

We should read the works of Josef Pieper because he opens the door to that perennial philosophy which is the love of wisdom. He makes Aquinas understandable, and whets our appetite for wisdom. As a lover of words, Pieper points out that the word for wise in Latin is sapiens while its cognate, sapere, is the word for taste.  Wisdom is accessible to us, so much so that we can “taste” it. Pieper’s philosophy may be summarized in a phrase by Bernard of Clairvaux: “A wise man is one who savors all things as they really are”. “Taste and see that the Lord is Good.” (Psalm 34:8).

Photo by Christian Garcia on Unsplash

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Prof. Emeritus at St. Jerome’s University & Adjunct Prof. at Holy Apostles College & Seminary.  He is a regular columnist for the St. Austin Review.  His latest five books, How To Navigate through LifeApostles of the Culture of Life; Reflections on the Covid-10 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding; The War against Civility  (all posted on amazon.com), and, A Moral Compass for a World in Confusion. 

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