Festivity and Easter

April 8, 2007

In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity
Josef Pieper (St. Augustine’s Press, 1999)
104 pp. First Reading.
Originally posted 3 June 2006.

Friedrich Nietzsche, who in so many ways perceived the shape of things to come, once said, “The trick is not to arrange a festival, but to find people who can enjoy it.” There is more to a festival than its outward trappings; the heart of a festival is the spirit of the festival, a spiritual disposition that cannot be commanded or prescribed, and without which the occasion is not truly festive. In this small but substantial book, Josef Pieper inquires into the roots of festivity, its nature, the conditions which make it possible, and the place of festivity in the modern West.

We should first clarify what is meant by this word ‘festival’. Traditionally, a festival, or a feast, is a day set apart, a day that interrupts the everyday world of work, and into which that world — the world of labour and of practical ends and means — cannot intrude. Festivals have in history been intimately linked with sacrifice (if only the sacrifice of the yield of the suspended labour), with lavishness, and the giving of gifts. Festivals, especially the great occasions in which whole cultures participate, have been mainly religious in character. A festival is a manifestation of existential richness, for not only does it require something to celebrate, but also the spiritual capacity for celebration.

More precisely, a festival is a joyful occasion. But joy is not sovereign; it is by its nature secondary, for we must have a reason for joy: “…the longing for joy is nothing but the desire to have a reason and a pretext for joy.” Why do we rejoice? Pieper argues that joy is intimately related to love, for the reason for joy is “possessing or receiving what one loves, whether actually in the present, hoped for in the future, or remembered in the past.” In any case, without love there can be neither joy nor festivity. St. John Chrysostom made this point admirably: “Ubi caritas gaudet, ibi est festivitas.”

Yet even this insight does not tell us the real source of festive joy. Joy springs from love, but love of what? What makes something worthy of celebration? Here we encroach on the central thesis of the book. The key, says Pieper, is goodness. To celebrate, we must be able to affirm the goodness of the thing celebrated. But, more than that, a truly unreserved joy must affirm and approve not only the particular occasion or object, but must, if it is to be whole-hearted and rational, implicitly affirm that the world itself, as a whole, is good. Here Nietzsche comes unexpectedly to our aid: “To have joy in anything, one must approve everything.” In other words, the ultimate foundation of festivity, the spiritual well-spring from which it draws life, is the capacity to say, “Everything that is, is good, and it is good to exist.” “To celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole.

It is worth pausing to think this through. Is it true that we cannot really entertain the festive spirit without assenting to the deep, underlying goodness of things? At first I thought that Pieper had overstated the requirements, yet the more I consider it, the more inclined I am to agree with him. Is it really possible to be festive in a meaningless universe? If the world has at its center a dark heart, can we truly celebrate? If death is the ultimate victor, can we truly rejoice? To be sure, something like festivity may be possible under those circumstances, either because we avert our eyes from the larger context, or because the abandon of despair can disguise itself as festivity for a time. But if, as Pieper says, festivity is to be “whole-hearted and rational”, then these simulacrums fail the test.

It is also important to clarify what is involved in this approval and assent to the world which lies at the heart of festivity. It should certainly not be confused with mere optimism or cheerfulness. It does not turn a blind eye to the evil in the world. It is not an approval of any particular situation or arrangement. Rather, it is an affirmation that, deep down, and despite appearances, the world is truly good.

Let us stress again that this affirmation is not the same thing as approval of any pragmatic situation. Often enough, pragmatic states are characterized by their lack of reality. Rather, what is meant is affirmation of the true creaturely Being of the world, of things and of man, the Being on which all pragmatic states rest.

This approval is metaphysical, and may manifest itself in many ways, not all of which are obvious. The martyr, even as he is silenced, may by his death be announcing his conviction that the world is fundamentally good.

A curious corollary follows from the identification of festivity with approval and love of the foundational goodness of being. After all, if this affirmation is present, it cannot be confined to a single day or occasion, just as it refuses to be confined to a single object. It seems, then, that the possibility of any true festival necessarily implies that every day is a potential day of festival. The reason for rejoicing, if it is present at all, must be always present. We live in a world of ongoing, everlasting festival. And this conclusion, extravagant and surprising as it seems, is not new. “We spend our whole lives like a feast day,” wrote St. Clement of Alexandria. “We have unending holiday,” said St. John Chrysostom. “In domo Dei festivitas sempiterna est,” wrote St. Augustine. If the world is truly good, it must be so.

Seeing festivity as the fruit of approval of the world also clarifies why festivals are, empirically, mostly religious in nature. For what more appropriate form may the joy of assent to Creation take than praise of the Creator? And since this affirmation is universal in character, it naturally presses for a public, communal expression. Thus Pieper identifies public, ritual praise as the most fitting and natural expression of the festive spirit. The Christian ritual fulfils this role in our culture. Throughout the liturgy we find exclamations of ‘Amen!’ and ‘Alleluia!’, in which the approval is explicit. But more importantly, the center of the Christian — or at least the Catholic — liturgy is eucharistia, or thanksgiving. “Christian worship sees itself as an act of affirmation that expresses itself in praise, glorification, thanksgiving for the whole of reality and existence.” The great Christian festivals are Sunday and, in an intensified form, Easter. Sunday is a day of rest, on which work is set aside in favour of worship; it is a day of affirmation and praise of the world, on which we remember that God declared the world ‘very good’; it is a day of hope, an image of the peace of God’s coming kingdom when the corruption of Creation will be healed, and the world will stand forth once again in its true glory; Sunday is, like the Sabbath, a gift of God, a “day which the Lord has made”. In all these respects, Sunday, and by implication Easter, bears the distinguishing marks of a true day of festival.

But to describe a festival as a day on which we give praise, implicit or explicit, to God and the world he made, is to miss an essential point. For we not only give, but we also receive. Why do we wish one another well on a festival day? Is it not because we tacitly acknowledge that there is something special to be received from the special day? Pieper argues that this special something, the fruit of ritual praise, is refreshment and renewal of spirit. The most important thing about this renewal is that it cannot be obtained by effort. If you aim at it, you will miss it. It cannot be organized, packaged, or assured. “No amount of effort, no matter how desperate, can force festivity to yield up its essence. All we can do is prepare ourselves to receive the hoped-for gift…” Ultimately both the occasion for festivity and the inner harvest of the festival are gifts.

In the concluding chapters of the book, Pieper turns to examine the plight of festivity in the modern world. Generally speaking, he is not sanguine. He notes that the early modern period saw the invention of new ‘festivals’ that were to celebrate humanity’s self-sufficiency, a direct contradiction of the festive spirit we have described. He devotes a number of pages to descriptions of the strange rites of Reason that arose in France after the Revolution, all of which naturally died after a short time. By and large, these festivals were modeled on traditional Christian ritual, and retained some of the vitality of the Revolutionary spirit. For all their absurdities, they seem today to have been rather innocent and quaint. More insidious is the modern phenomenon of artificial festivals decreed in violent dictatorships. Pieper describes the origins of the Communist May Day ‘celebration’, promoted as a ‘holiday’ of unpaid work! Festivals decreed by governments to suit their own ends are characterized by threats against non-participants, and frequently accompanied by displays of military might. Sustained by coercion and intimidation, these events are a far cry from genuine celebrations.

What of our own society? Even if we grant, as I readily do, that we are better off than a military dictatorship, are we a society that is able to celebrate a festival in a true, festive spirit? I think we must acknowledge that all is not well. We also witness the announcement of artificial festivals: International Women’s Day, Black History Month, and so on. Not being enforced, these occasions are mostly ignored. Yet in their commemoration of various social causes and political programs they share what Pieper identifies as the defining characteristic of the false festival, namely “the claim that man, especially in the exercise of political power, is able to bring about his own salvation as well as that of the world”. More serious is the decline in observance of the main festivals of the West: Sunday, which is now rarely a day of rest in urban centers; Christmas, over which fierce battles of religious freedom and public religious expression are now fought, and which is in any case thickly overgrown with commercial interests; and Easter, for which the drama of suffering, death, and resurrection has been, in the public sphere at least, displaced by the absurdly contrasting Easter bunny. We have said that a festival is more than its external trappings, but if we cannot have even those, can we really have the festival?

It seems to me that modern nihilism, of which we have now had nearly two centuries, has seeped into too many areas of life to really permit a widespread, communal festival of the type that our ancestors have known. Nietzsche knew that this would happen, which is why he devoted thought to the problem. If we do not affirm the Creator’s existence, we cannot affirm his goodness, nor his handiwork. We have said that festivity expresses itself naturally as public, ritual praise. In a culture like ours, which refuses that praise, festivity dies, replaced by occasion-less parties and exploited by commercial or political interests. A true festival has the power to lift a person out of their everyday life and give them a wide view of reality as a whole; the modern substitute is ‘entertainment’, which escapes from the world toward less reality, not more.

And yet, despite all these problems, Pieper sees reason for hope. If, as he believes, true festivity is possible at all, it remains possible always. Even in a culture which denies, more or less explicitly, the ultimate ground of festivity in the goodness of Creation, there remain certain experiences which serve as preludes, foreshadowings, reminders of the festival’s ever-present possibility. These experiences — the transport induced by great art, the shattering experience of love, the contemplation of death, and the practice of genuine philosophy — all lift us out of the world of practical ends, which is necessary, for we cannot approve of the world as a whole if we do not see it. And if we want to live so as to defend the possibility of festivity, Pieper concludes with this advice:

For the sake of what prospects there are for true festivity in our time, it is essential to resist the sophistical corruption of the arts, the cheapening of eroticism, the degradation of death, as well as the tendency to make philosophy a textbook subject or an irresponsible juggling of big words.

As principles for living go, one could do much worse.

In my opinion, this is an excellent book — Pieper’s books always are. There is an arresting insight or revealing turn of phrase on nearly every page. I’ve done a reasonably thorough job of summarizing the argument in this note, so you can judge for yourself whether you think it praiseworthy. I do.

[The foundations of festivity]
“…while man can make the celebration, he cannot make what is to be celebrated, cannot make the festive occasion and the cause for celebrating. The happiness of being created, the existential goodness of things, the participation in the life of God, the overcoming of death – all these occasions of the great traditional festivals are pure gift.”

“…the reason and occasion for this festival is that in Christ’s Resurrection something began by which man’s life ever since, and today and for all the future, received that incomprehensible exaltation that the language of theology calls Grace and New Life. And therefore in the Christian celebration of Easter quite particularly an affirmation of the whole of existence is experienced and celebrated. No more rightful, more comprehensive and fundamental an affirmation can be conceived.”

[The proper spirit for celebrating a festival]
“…a special spice, essential to the right celebration of a festival, is a kind of expectant alertness. One must be able to look through and, as it were, beyond the immediate matter of the festival, including the festal gifts; one must engage in a listening, and therefore necessarily silent, meditation upon the fundament of existence.”

6 Responses to “Festivity and Easter”

  1. […] as he points out the failure of secular society to produce anything to rival them (a failure with deep roots). Indeed, these essays burst with wit, laughter, and jolly exuberance, for Chesterton was much more […]

  2. […] feast has been set aside by many.  There are deep and complicated reasons for that, and there are reasons too why what remains grows ever more frantic and shallow.  Various strategies are tried to invest […]

  3. […] reading: Josef Pieper – Scholasticism Josef Pieper – On Prudence Josef Pieper – In Tune with the World Josef Pieper – Happiness and Contemplation Possibly related posts: (automatically […]

  4. […] our ideas and experiences at arm’s length, warily, we find that we lack purpose. We are not in tune with the world, not at home. As Ulrich describes himself, For a long time now a hint of aversion had lain on […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: