In Companionship with the Gods

Author: Roland Hill


Roland Hill

It was certainly unusual for the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper to attract compliments from two well-known writers in England, T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis, for expressing his views with such clarity and style. Undoubtedly their agreement with Pieper's philosophy lay behind this tribute. "The establishment of a tight relation between the philosophy and theology which will leave the philosopher quite autonomous in his own area is I think one of the most important lines of investigation which Dr. Pieper has perused.... He restores to their position in philosophy what common sense obstinately tells us ought to be found there: insight and wisdom." Thus T. S. Eliot wrote in his preface to Pieper's <Leisure, The Basis of Culture>, the first of his books to be translated into English.

Pieper's approach is very German, different from the more empirical ways of writers in the English-speaking world, where a given subject would generally be treated less sympathetically perhaps, but with more regard for easing the reader's understanding and retaining his attention. But what impressed readers above all in the writings of Josef Pieper was his grounding in Plato, Aristotle, and the scholastics; he presented a genuine philosophical viewpoint which was close to the existentialist thought popular after World War II, while upholding "the wisdom of the ancients" in the thought and form of the <philosophia perennis>, the eternal philosophy.

His approach remained a humble one; he has never claimed a particular originality in his writings, he seeks agreement rather than disagreement with other thinkers. His writing is always sober, true to the character of his native Westphalia. He was born in 1904 and looks forward to his 90th birthday next May 4. He was schooled in the Greek classics and the works of Thomas Aquinas. He had studied philosophy, law, and sociology, and taught at the University of Munster in Westphalia after 1946 until his retirement. Intellectually he was very much a part of the general emergence of Catholics everywhere from their isolation in the 19th century, largely self-imposed by the Church in reaction to the onslaughts on organized religion by growing secularization and unbelief, Biblical criticism, and the apparent victory of science that seemed to make religion superfluous at best, "the opium of the people." Christian apologists were on the defensive. Every branch of human study became ever more specialized and subdivided. With all the new scientific knowledge suddenly opening up, it became impossible particularly in the religious perspective to see the woods amid the trees.

The spiritual liberation

An important factor in Josef Pieper's formation was his meeting with the great German Catholic writer Romano Guardini (1885-1968). Both belonged to the Catholic renewal movement in the 1920s in liturgy and theology. From Guardini, Pieper first heard the quotation from Plato that made a special impact on him: "Never mind about Socrates—but mind about the truth." Pieper chose this as the title for a series of television plays about World War II in which he illustrated that message.

But Guardini's influence on the younger man was significant also because of his position as a leader of the German youth movement who in the bleak post 1918 Germany of revolution, unemployment, and inflation opened up new spiritual and intellectual horizons. Rothenfels, the medieval castle at the river Main, was a meeting place for young Catholic men and women. There they found common ideas— singing around their campfires, debating, sharing the new liturgical ideas which only since Vatican II have become universally accepted throughout the Catholic world.

For the life of the mind of German Catholics the first decades of the 20th century were tantamount to an exodus from the ghetto. Suddenly they were able to see the Church and themselves, and realized the extent of the spiritual-greenhouse existence by means of which they had deceived themselves about the reality of religion in the modern world. From non-Catholic authors like Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky they learned about the anguish and despair of modern man for whom God was dead and for whom the traditional bonds of Church and religion had become meaningless. They were searching for new or renewed ways of understanding Christ's message, less blinkered than they had been by their previous notion of the Church as a bastion of the faith uncontaminated by the evil world around them. They learned that they were part of this world and had to try to save themselves within it.

The problem in Germany was that others of the First World war generation, too, were breaking with old social conventions, religious and political barriers. Many were unbelievers, nihilists, Marxists, Communists, nationalists who became followers of Hitler and other false prophets who would lead them into some promised land. The disastrous effects of these totalitarian idolatries were felt in the Second World War and its aftermath That Guardini, Pieper, and countless other "good Germans" failed against these mightier forces of evil was the special tragedy of German Catholicism.

From a lecture on Goethe and Thomas Aquinas delivered by Guardini at Rothenfels in 1924, the young Pieper got the idea for his first book Its thesis was that the spiritual goal of man, what man ought to be, must be founded on his being Good is what corresponds to reality Those who want to know what is good must orient themselves to the world of being as it is, not to some "ideology" of it, not to some arbitrarily formed private "conscience," "values," "ideals," or "human models."

Human and divine virtues

Among some 50 books which Pieper has written—mentally and physically alert he continues to lecture at Munster once a week, although he has long been emeritus professor of his university—there are nearly 30 very short ones, about 100 pages long, which typify his approach to the faith. His books can be subdivided (not necessarily in chronological order of their appearance) into three groups.

There are the books dealing with the virtues: first the four Platonic and scholastic virtues: justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude; second, the three "divine" or God-given virtues: faith, hope, and love, mentioned in the 13th chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians. Then there are his books dealing with. the nature of man, sin, redemption, but also with what lies outside, beyond human concerns— for example enthusiasm, religious tradition, contemplation, death, immortality. Finally there are books about Thomas Aquinas the thinker: for example <The Silence of St. Thomas>, <Guide to Thomas Aquinas>, <Scholasticism.> Thomas Aquinas was for Pieper as Aristotle was for Dante <il maestro di color che sanno>, the master of those who know.

Furthermore—and cutting across Pieper's three major themes—there are his philosophical tracts on man as a being in the world and as a religious being, entitled <Belief and Faith>; <On the Difficulty of Believing Today>; <The End of Time>; <Leisure, The Basis of Culture>; <Abuse of Language-Abuse of Power>; <Self-Discipline and Moderation>; <Living the Truth>. Pieper's motto, taken from Aristotle, is: "He who wishes to learn must believe."

St. Anselm of Canterbury, the great scholastic of the 11th century, expressed his ideal, "<Credo ut intelligam>" (I believe so that I might understand), but having investigated modern man's difficulty in believing, Pieper knows that the reverse is also, and today especially, true. "<Intelligo ut credam.>" I understand so that I may believe.

The problem of faith

The difficulty of believing is, he finds, an age-old condition of man. In modern times it has taken on new forms, largely because of the "devastation caused by theology," as Hegel termed it, but also because of the enlightened and biblically informed agnosticism of modern man. He has embraced the "theology without faith," powerfully foreshadowed for example in the novel <The Imposter> by Georges Bernanos.

The average man's chance of believing is rendered particularly hopeless by the multitude of false religions and pseudo-prophets. The act of faith, however, is comparable neither to a leap into the unknown nor to some final argument. No one, Pieper says, is ever forced to believe by the laws of logic. Truth cannot enforce its acceptance. I may believe because of someone else's credibility, and this credibility can be checked to a certain extent, but I am not required to believe. The act of faith is based on a free act of the will, and since this is so it may seem questionable to associate belief or non-belief with rational argument.

What ultimately decides belief are personal factors. Believing always means believing someone, a witness on whom we can rely, on accepting tangible but not measurable natural facts. These facts mean something; they are not irrational, not necessarily based on subjective impressions or on hallucinations but on real insight. However, they may be quite meaningless to a third person. These personal facts are often linked to a place.

Someone may find the certainty of belief in the splendors of Chartres' cathedral, another through the vision of God as reflected in the face of a child receiving Holy Communion. That, for instance, was how Simone Weil, a woman of great intelligence, was converted to Christ.

Pieper accepts the obstacles to believing today. Man's questioning and searching approach to religious truths may itself act as a barrier. But we cannot disinvent or dispense with our rational, scientific apparatus, anymore than this serves adequately to explain man's intellectual existence. Hearts are hardened in various ways against belief.

Frequently it is rejected because people just can't be bothered. Skepticism is indeed modern man's natural attitude; indeed it is superstitious in accepting all kinds of unproven beliefs. The experience of powerful advertising, public relations industries, and political and religious propagandists provides rich evidence. There is no accounting for what some gullible people will swallow. Actually it requires quite an effort to disbelieve in the traditional sense of withholding assent to a truth divinely explained. For if man by nature is open to supernatural intervention and if God is a personal being able to reveal himself, God speaking to man and being heard should not be impossible.

Poverty of the intellectuals

What man finds most shocking and frightening is precisely this way of revealing himself. Man may be able to accept an impersonal God, better still a God of truth and goodness within himself, a formless life-force at his command. But a living God who pursues, hunts man, a king or bridegroom—that is more than many people can take. It is their Rubicon, as Pieper says, quoting C. S. Lewis.

What appears to be most difficult is how that which claims to be divinely revealed is really of divine origin. While the traditional evidence (miracles, prophecies, authenticity of the Bible, the Church as an historical phenomenon) is undoubtedly indispensable, in isolation from man's existence within the whole of reality, it is, according to Pieper, as good as useless. Moreover, modern man lacks the impartiality and openness needed for unprejudiced discussion.

The isolated individual is often incapable of recognizing truth when he sees it, on his own. He needs help to find it. But those able to help him, those "who know," intellectuals who are themselves believers, often do not realize that these truths cannot be demonstrated positively, but can only be defended. Pieper observes that believers on their defensive are comparable to the martyrs of the early Church, not out of some desire for heroic posturing, but in their attitude of silent defenselessness; they simply do not want to lose and miss what revelation means for them and what can be achieved in faith alone: not only partaking of the knowledge of God, but also sharing in his life.

Pieper's response to nihilistic despair is to offer "a sense of the world based on theology." He loves and cares for the world but does not cling to it. Christian hope impels him to look beyond some catastrophic end of the world, unlike the Roman philosopher sadly meditating on the ruins of Carthage and on man's destiny. The Christian's attitude is one of compassionate resignation. The Christian must be on guard because of the warning in the Apocalypse that the Antichrist at the end of time will, even more than other false prophets "deceive the very elect." Never has it been more difficult to distinguish between good and evil, truth and falsehood. The very mass of false beliefs enticing man today recalls G. K. Chesterton's remark that when man ceases to believe in God he does not believe in nothing, but in anything.

Distinguishing true and false beliefs might require a complicated critique of these beliefs, for which few people have all the information needed. Pieper instead recommends the dialogue which Socrates conducted with the Sophists, those precursors of our intellectuals, our "chattering classes." What the Sophists of Greece in the 5th century BC have in common with those of today is their misuse of language.

Language no leisure

In one of his essays Pieper equates the misuse of language with the misuse of power.

Flattery is used by the Sophists to persuade man to make particular choices. And it works to the advantage of the flatterer (advertisers, propagandists) that people buy and consume what they are told and believe is good for them—what keeps them young, good looking, good smelling, elegant. And there is another kind of flattery of man's sensual nature, vanity, curiosity, sentimentality, his sexual wants, also of his baser instincts such as cruelty, violence, the corrupting effects of greed and political power.

Corruption occurs wherever such flattery is at work.

The flatterer is the salesman, in Plato's sense, of fictional reality in literature, entertainment, in every sphere of human activity. To counter the sophists of today, man has to be able to see things clearly, as they are and as they are meant to be, for his real good beyond what is merely partisan, emotionally and ideologically heated, clever, fashionable. While the sophist of antiquity whispered his counsel into the tyrant's ear, his modern successor plays upon the instincts and wants of the masses through loudspeakers and infinitely more sophisticated means. They are on the way to becoming tyrants themselves, in a diabolical travesty of Plato's king-philosopher.

In his <Leisure, The Basis of Culture>, Pieper shows leisure to be one of the foundations of Western culture, but points out that leisure in its original Aristotlean conception has become unrecognizable in the world of planned diligence and "total labor," in which the intellectual and the manual worker have themselves become mere functionaries. Leisure is a mental and spiritual attitude, not just the result of spare time.

It implies a phase of inward calm, a form of silence which is the prerequisite of apprehending reality. It is a contemplative state, providing happiness and delight within the very fragmentation of life and the world, allowing man to be at one with himself and thus also with the world. God, as we are told in the first chapter of Genesis, looked upon his creation and "found it very good." It follows that the justification of leisure is not just the better functioning of functionaries, but enabling man to continue to see life as a whole and the world as a whole, thus fulfilling himself.

"But how is this ideal to be achieved in our kind of society full of latent dread, stress and anxiety?" Pieper asks. Liberation is needed from a certain state of mind affecting all levels of our society. Wage earners, proletarians, must be de-proletarianized, become less wage slaves—that is, be able to save and to acquire property. The powers of the state must be curtailed, and the impoverishment of the individual's mind must be overcome.

The core of leisure, according to Pieper, is "celebration," the effortless, calm, relaxed state akin to divine worship. The day of rest in the biblical sense is reserved for divine worship, and divine worship is the deepest of the springs on which leisure is nourished. "Culture lives on religion through divine worship." And when culture itself is endangered, and leisure is called into question, there is only one thing to be done: to go back to the first and original source. Such is the meaning of Plato's quotation which Pieper puts at the beginning of his essay: "But the gods, taking pity on mankind born to work, laid down the succession of recurring Feasts to restore them from their fatigue, and gave them the Muses, and Apollo their leader, and Dionysius, as companions in their Feasts, so that nourishing themselves in festive companionship with the gods, they should again stand upright and erect."

Unable to furnish a practical guide to action, Pieper points to what we need to do: to reawaken a feeling for genuine worship, the <cultus>, not by way of reviving some antiquated cult, still less by founding a new religion. For the Christian there is, as it were, no other choice but the given form of worship, the sacramental sacrifice. "Our hope," he concludes, "is that the true sense of sacramental visibility in the celebration of the Christian <cultus> should become manifest to the extent needed for drawing the man who is within us and who is 'born to work' out of himself.. into the sphere of unending holiday, and should draw him out of the narrow and confined sphere of work and labor into the heart and center of creation." Josef Pieper can justly claim to be one of the great liberators of the Christian mind in the 20th century.

Roland Hill is a former editorial writer for <The Tablet>.

This article appeared in the January 1994 issue of "The Catholic World Report," P.O. Box 6718, Syracuse, NY 13217-7912, 800-825-0061.