Pieper: Happiness and Contemplation

August 25, 2011

Happiness and Contemplation
Josef Pieper
(St. Augustine’s Press, 1958)
125 p.

These notes first written 25 February 2006.

‘No matter how much you labour, you labour to this end: that you may see.’

These words, delivered by St. Augustine in a sermon on the Psalms, are a convenient précis of this book, for they capture a number of its central themes: our life’s activity is directed toward an end, which is happiness; happiness is vision (that is, contemplation); and we do not achieve happiness automatically, but must seek it.

Anyone unfortunate enough to have been exposed to the cloying nonsense that fills the ‘Spirituality’ and ‘Self-Help’ shelves at the local bookstore could be forgiven for recoiling from a book tactless enough to call itself Happiness and Contemplation. A look at the cover of this book only seems to confirm the prejudice: a forest pond dappled with autumn leaves, into which one might gaze placidly and at length. Yet to pass over this book on that account would be a serious mistake.

Josef Pieper, who was professor of philosophy at the University of Munster for many years, was an extraordinary man through whom the Greek and medieval philosophical traditions found an articulate advocate and were brought into conversation with contemporary thought. His books are always rich and filled with illuminating remarks. Though they are brief, they demand and reward close reading; they are dense with argument and implication. Pieper himself had little original to say — that, one might suggest, was his great virtue — but in my experience he is unparalleled as an archaeologist of ideas. As T. S. Eliot once said of him, ‘He restores to their position in philosophy what common sense obstinately tells us ought to be found there: insight and wisdom.’ In this book he turns to address the largest question of all: what is genuine happiness, and how can we attain it?

Happiness and Contemplation proceeds systematically. The first half of the book is devoted to an examination of happiness: its linguistic usage (ranging, as we know, from the banal to the profound), the nature of our desire for happiness (we desire it by nature, we cannot not desire it), the metaphysics of happiness (the possibility of happiness and the goodness of Being stand or fall together), the cause of happiness (possession of a good), the relationship between happiness and joy (cause and effect), and the means to happiness. This means, argues Pieper, is contemplation: an intuitive perception of the bonum universale inspired and sharpened by love. This startling thesis is the theme of all that follows.

After introducing the idea of contemplation — or rather, after gradually assembling the idea by analysis of the demands of human happiness — he devotes several chapters to further unfolding the meaning of this word. Contemplation, according to Western tradition, is an activity of the mind; it has no practical aim; it is intuitive, not discursive; it is a kind of perception whose natural context is silent attentiveness; it is accompanied by amazement and, surprisingly, unease. In his own words, it is ‘a focusing of the inner gaze, undistracted by anything from outside, but troubled from within by the challenge to achieve a profounder … peace.’

This teaching that contemplation, which is supposed to be the means to happiness, is not a state of untroubled bliss, but is, as he says, ‘troubled from within’ seems contradictory, and merits closer attention. The first error to avoid is to misconceive happiness as an emotion; in Pieper’s meaning it is not. Happiness is possession of a good; the fullest happiness is possession of ‘the whole good’ (in theological parlance, God); emotion may, in the form of joy, accompany the attainment of happiness, but should not be confused with it. But even if we grant that happiness, not being an emotion, can co-exist with a sense of unease, why should it?

We said earlier that, as traditionally understood, contemplation is accompanied by amazement, and this turns out to be crucial to answering this question. Why should we feel amazement when our interior gaze rests on ‘the whole good’? Because, says Pieper, it is beyond our comprehension.

Earthly contemplation is imperfect contemplation. In the midst of its repose there is unrest. This unrest stems from man’s experiencing at one and the same moment the overwhelming infinitude of the object, and his own limitations. It is part of the nature of earthly contemplation that it glimpses a light whose fearful brightness both blesses and dazzles.

One might say that its very vastness is a silent call to venture further in, to desire possession of more and more of it. And, says Pieper, the Catholic theological tradition has interpreted it in just this way. He cites a statement of the poet Paul Claudel: the unease in contemplation is ‘the call of the perfect to the imperfect, which call we name love’. And so a picture emerges in which contemplation, being directed and sustained by love of the good, is, in attainment of its object, met by a complementary love that beckons it on. It is the meeting place, then, of that human love of which Augustine spoke (‘my love is my weight’) and that other love of which Dante spoke (‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars’).

Pieper continues by considering contemporary examples of the contemplative spirit (for in our time the word is rare, though the experience is not — or at least not so rare as the word). Interestingly, in this discussion the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins looms large. He then devotes a chapter to various objections that could — and are — raised to the very idea that the highest human happiness is really to be found in contemplation. Alternatives that he considers are: happiness is found in work and accomplishment; happiness is found in living virtuously; happiness consists in selfless love for one another; happiness is crowned in artistic creation; happiness is fulfilled in loving God. All these, for various reasons, he rejects.

Finally, as a sort of a posteriori argument in favour of the thesis that happiness and contemplation really are found together, he closes with a disarming comparison between popular notions of ‘the happy man’ and the contemplative.

In his last pages, he reiterates a central point of the book. The modern world raises, he says, one final high-minded objection to the supremacy of contemplation — indeed, to the very notion that one ought to pursue happiness: suffering in the world.

Ought not a generous person who does not care to deceive himself about what is going on in the world day after day — ought not such a person to have the courage to renounce the ‘escape’ of happiness?

If, he says, the world is fundamentally unsound, and if therefore contemplation and happiness are empty escapes and delusions, then indeed this objection is decisive. The important implication is that the whole conception of happiness and contemplation developed here relies on the premise that the world is fundamentally good and harmonious. This sets it profoundly at odds with much contemporary thought, from Nietzsche on down. But that only increases its merit in my eyes.

In fact, this is a superb book; I have not done in justice. A fresh wind blows through it, and it is full of matter ripe for reflection. It assumes, and therefore encourages, a magnanimity on the part of the reader to seriously consider these great themes: happiness, love, and God. And it has been, not least, a very salutary reminder of the depth and humane dignity of pre-modern philosophy. ‘No matter how much you labour, you labour to this end: that you may see.’

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One Response to “Pieper: Happiness and Contemplation”

  1. Francesca Says:

    One of my all time favourite books


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