Posts Tagged ‘Josef Pieper’

Favourites of 2019: Books

December 28, 2019

It is gratifying to arrive at year-end and discover that, against the odds, I have somehow managed to read quite a nice selection of books over the course of the past twelve months. Today I’d like to comment briefly on those I most appreciated.

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I have had three reading projects on the go this year: the first, a multi-year effort to read the complete surviving body of Old English poetry (in translation) I finished up in February. This was a very rewarding project that brought many delights and surprises with it, and I have written about it at some length in this space.

This was Year 3 in my on-going reading project in Roman history and literature. The entire year I passed in the company of the Augustan poets of the first century before Christ, reading the entire surviving poetic corpi of Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Propertius, and Tibullus. Of these, the work I enjoyed the most was probably Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but what most surprised me was the poetry of Propertius, a poet whom I’d heard little enough about but whose delightful, passionate, dramatic poetry strongly appealed to me. I am looking forward to continuing this project in 2020, when I plan to sojourn first with Seneca’s plays and letters before taking up the historical works of Tacitus.

A third reading project, launched in the latter part of the year, is focused on plays from the early modern period (roughly 1550-1800). I’ve started on the stage in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and, of the half-dozen or so plays I’ve got under my belt so far, the most impressive has been John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a masterful tragedy that I found totally convincing.

I suppose a fourth, less formal, reading project has been my tour through the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse. I began the year reading the annals of Psmith and close out the year mid-stream in the chronicles of Blandings Castle. But it seems churlish to deliberate about which of these choice morsels is most deserving of praise, so I’ll not try.

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I tackled two long novels this year, and mercifully they were both worth the effort. The Tale of Genji is an 11th century Japanese classic that inducts the reader into the hyper-refined world of the Heian court, where elaborate manners and self-control are the order of the day but, in subdued tones, all the passions and interests of human life are present under the surface. It’s a beautifully written (or beautifully translated) masterpiece that I found challenging but worthwhile.

The second was quite different: in Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo I found a gripping tale of injustice provoking a long and patient revenge, and I relished every page. It’s a story that seems tailor-made for the big screen, and somebody should really make a film about it. Hey!

I also read — well, finished — for the first time this year C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, and, despite my mild allergy to science fiction, I found much to admire in it. Like the medieval authors whom Lewis so admired, he found a way to pack a good deal of “sound instruction” into his fiction, and I liked that these books grappled with weighty philosophical and theological themes.

The last fiction book I’ll highlight is Richard Adams’ Watership Down. This was a great favourite of my sister’s when I was growing up, but I, for whatever reason, never read it. I ought to have done so. The story is exciting, but Adams takes the time to develop his characters in rich detail, and I loved how he created for his rabbits an elaborate social and religous culture. The book is also a pretty thoughtful meditation on politics and the common good, for those — not me — with a talent for thinking about such things.

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I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to find the time and mental energy to engage with substantial non-fiction, but I did finish a few good books. Two were re-reads: Lewis’ The Abolition of Man is an evergreen meditation on the foundations of moral judgment and on the probable consequences of the modern habit of pouring acid on those foundations; Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture is an essential book that excavates an ancient account of what a well-lived human life looks like, and what practices sustain it. These are two books to read again and again.

I spent a lot of time this year on David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility, a learned meditation on the nature and goals of education, especially as conceived prior to John Dewey; that was another country, and Hicks is an excellent guide. I also spent many a happy hour paging back and forth through Edward Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God, a volume that I can confidently recommend to readers in search of an accessible and concise treatment of the basics of philosophical theology. Finally, I enjoyed reading Jacques Barzun’s analysis of Romanticism as a cultural and intellectual movement in European history, and in human society more generally, in his Classic, Romantic, and Modern.

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That’s the kind of year it’s been for me. As usual, I’ve made a histogram of the original years of publication of the books I read this year, and it looks like this:

Not a bad spread this year, helped, of course, by the Roman, medieval, and early modern reading projects. Interesting that the 18th century almost got missed entirely.

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Trivia:

Longest book: Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo (1240 p.)

Oldest book: Horace, Satires (c.30 BC)

Newest book: Harts, The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla (Oct 2019)

Multiple books by same author: Thornton Burgess (11), Shakespeare (10), Wodehouse (6), Ovid (5), Horace (4), C.S. Lewis (4).

 

Pieper: Leisure, the Basis of Culture

November 14, 2019

Leisure, the Basis of Culture
Josef Pieper
(Fontana, 1965) [1948]
140 p. Second reading.

To a certain way of thinking, the idea that leisure might be the basis of culture is akin to the notion that leisure suits might be the basis of fashion — appealing, but probably not true. But of course much depends on just what one means by “leisure”, and among the many wonderful things about this book is its excavation of an older, nearly forgotten sense of the word that has deep roots in our history.

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In one sense, the common meaning of “leisure” — understood as “not work” — resonates with the meaning that Pieper is after. But any hint of slovenliness, triviality, or frivolity must be dismissed: for Pieper, leisure is a high and important business, the highest activity, indeed, that human beings are capable of participating in. Its domains are not sand beaches or movie theatres, but philosophy, poetry, and prayer.

Pieper approaches his subject through a series of traditional dichotomies.

Medieval schoolmen, for instance, made a distinction between two types of intellectual activities which they called ratio and intellectus. Ratio was discursive reason, “reasoning” in the prevailing sense, thinking logically from premises to conclusions. Intellectus, on the other hand, meant understanding, perception of the meaning of abstract concepts, intentionality, and knowledge of truth. The two are different — though not opposites, certainly, for intellectus is a precondition for ratio, which it underlies and informs. Ratio, like our ‘ratiocination’, is what a computer can be made to do — or could do, if it had intellectus, which it does not. To the medievals, ratio meant toil and labour, but intellectus meant illumination and possession. Ratio was a human activity, necessary in practical and speculative matters alike, but intellectus was on the boundary between humanity and higher realms, a kind of spiritual vision, undiscursive and unmediated, not earned by diligent effort, but received as a gift.

Perhaps this sounds esoteric, but I think the distinction in question is intimately familiar to all of us. It is one thing to laboriously work out the value of an integral, but quite another to understand the meaning of the number 3. It is one thing to prove a theorem about triangles, but another to understand what a triangle is. The two aspects of reason are both constantly present to our minds.

A related dichotomy which the medievals observed was between liberal and servile arts. Servile arts were practical in nature: farming, shoemaking, weaving, planning. There was nothing ignoble about them, for they required real skill and knowledge to do well, and, when used to the benefit of the common good, were good. But they were practical, means to certain specific ends, and derived their value from those ends. They were in that sense constrasted with the liberal arts, which had no such practical aim, required no economic justification, but were done because they were good in themselves, and were their own justification. Does such a sphere of activity really exist? There may be — there are — those who say that it does not, but the tradition of “leisure” is founded on the belief that it does. The liberal arts are rooted in leisure.

Or consider a third contrast — the most surprising thus far — which the tradition draws between leisure and sloth. We are today in danger sometimes of seeing these two as synonyms, but in the tradition they are antonyms. For St Thomas, for instance, sloth is closely related not to rest, but to restlessness, mindless activity. It is the condition of boredom, that peculiarly modern affliction that Pieper identifies as a consequence of the loss of the ability to be leisurely. The besetting vice of a workaholic is sloth, toil not ordered to a suitable and worthy good. The cardinal sin underlying sloth was called ‘acedia’, a word that has unfortunately no obvious cognate in English. Pieper relates it to Kierkegaard’s ‘despair from weakness’ (in The Sickness Unto Death): an unwillingness to be what one really is, a dis-integration of the self, a sadness in the face of one’s nature as a creature made by God. The opposite of acedia, and therefore of sloth, is not work, but instead happy affirmation of one’s being, love for the world, and love for God.

The highest form this affirmation can take is the festival, the communal celebration of the goodness of the world, and the highest form of the festival, in turn, is divine worship, praise of the Creator, which is the most intense form of affirmation of the world available to us:

“The most festive festival it is possible to celebrate is divine worship. And there is no festival which does not draw its vitality from worship and that has not become a festival by virtue of its origin in worship. There is no such thing as a festival ‘without Gods’ — whether it be a carnival or a marriage.”

We are not surprised to learn that festivals and divine worship are both closely allied to leisure as the tradition has understood it. (This angle is treated at greater length in Pieper’s wonderful book In Tune with the World.)

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What, then, is leisure? Pieper unfolds the concept slowly, showing one aspect here and another there, but gradually a picture emerges. It has something to do with contemplation: leisure means “to open one’s eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision”. It has about it a kind of passivity: “A man at leisure is not unlike a man asleep”. It is something that we can prepare for, but not something we can will to do; Aristotle said that a man could experience leisure “not to the extent that he is a man, but to the extent that a divine principle dwells within him”. Like intellectus, it is effortless apprehension and possession of truth, or goodness, or beauty. It is an end in itself, a step outside the everyday world of ends and means. It reverences the world as something surpassingly good, and, especially through divine worship, embraces everything essential to a full human life.

The primary examples Pieper gives to illustrate what he means by ‘leisure’ are aesthetic experience, artistic expression and enjoyment, philosophical reflection, love, and religious acts such as prayer and worship. These useless things are the highest to which we can aspire.

Reverence is essential: it is only possible to be leisurely, in this ancient sense, if we can look upon the world as something deserving our reverence, something on which we refuse to impose our will but are disposed to simply receive and behold. We allow our will to be formed by what we encounter, rather than the other way around. This is a reason why we in the modern West have lost touch with the tradition Pieper shows us: the whole thrust of modern thought since Bacon and Descartes has been in the opposite direction: “knowledge is power” and the main thing is to impose our will on the world so as to attain mastery over nature. But the older tradition valued doing and making less than seeing:

“Man’s real wealth consists, not in satisfying his needs, not in becoming ‘the master and owner of nature’ [Descartes], but in seeing what is and the whole of what is, in seeing things not as useful or useless, serviceable or not, but simply as being. The basis of this conception of philosophy is the conviction that the greatness of man consists in his being capex universi.

The ultimate perfection attainable to us, in the minds of the philosophers of Greece, was this: that the order of the whole of existing things should be inscribed in our souls. And this conception was afterwards absorbed into the Christian tradition in the conception of the beatific vision: ‘What do they not see, who see him who sees all things?’ [St Gregory the Great]”

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Pieper saw leisure as imperilled in his own day, embattled and eroded, of course, because of modernity itself, but facing a particularly acute challenge in his own time and place — post-war Germany — when an ideal of “total work” was gaining political and cultural strength. As the country tried to reconstruct itself, of what possible value could anything not contributing to that effort be? He saw leisure, with its children, philosophy and art, being attacked or discarded as useless. His distress at this turn, in fact, seems to have occasioned the writing of this book.

Today we are less threatened by a regime of “total work” — though I suppose that those required by their employers to carry around a cell phone might disagree. We are less threatened, at least, by this idea as a civic duty or moral obligation. But another threat has taken its place, especially in recent years. Let’s call it “total politics”. This is the view that no field of human action is finally apolitical: power and privilege infect all. It comes mostly from the left wing, where the premise is more widely accepted. Even a disinterested pursuit of truth, to this way of thinking, betrays an unjust privilege, for who but the privileged could afford to be disinterested? But if devotion to truth is just disguised oppression, then all is lost. By a self-fulfilling prophecy, we can fall back only on will and power. Moreover, if intellectual work is really always implicitly political, why should it not be explicitly so? Hence the drift of whole academic departments into advocacy. And art, too, finds it must pass muster with Vigilants, who police for compliance with political nostrums. And so the capacity for human activity to step outside the political, outside the kingdom of ends, becomes constrained. Those borders are patrolled. And leisure, in consequence, cannot unfold its wings.

We also, of course, face a juggernaut of “total distraction” powered by our communication technologies, an ocean of mental noise that drowns out the inner life and smothers leisure. But this is obvious.

It is a very real question whether intellectual work and academic freedom can, or should, survive in this kind of environment. Pieper in his day already perceived a devaluation in the very concept of “intellectual work”, as though one could hire a philosopher the way one hires an electrician. (We have heard of companies hiring ethicists to evaluate controversial practices. “The best ethicists money can buy.”) He saw academic freedom as contingent on the philosophical — that is, leisurely — character of academic work, and judged that it was abdicated to the degree that academic work became merely political or practical.

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If leisure is as important as Pieper thinks it is, and is as embattled as it appears, we will naturally ask what can be done to improve its fortunes. And here we run up against a conundrum, for we have already said that leisure is precisely that realm of human experience which is its own justification, an end, not a means. But this implies that we cannot cultivate leisure “in order that” this or that good result may be achieved or this or that bad result avoided:

“When a thing contains its own end, or is and end in itself, it can never be made to serve as a means to any other end — just as no one can love someone ‘in order that’.”

We are concerned with a realm of human activity that cannot be instrumentalized without destroying it; it must be sought simply for itself. The only path, therefore, or at least the clearest, to a recovery of leisure seems to me the personal: to love it and live it. As a practical matter (so to speak), it means setting aside time for encounters with beauty; it means pondering questions that admit of no technical solution; it means reading widely and deeply in the best that has been thought and said; it means developing a practice of prayerful and attentive silence, and, preeminently, it means honouring and praising the Creator for the goodness of the world given to us.

Or so it seems to me, and in truth I do, in my own life, in a manner consistent with my other duties and undoubtedly hampered by my many faults, try to do all of these things. I do so in some significant measure under the influence of this very book, which I first read many years ago. It would even be fair to say that this blog, for lo! these many years, has been one means by which I have tried to “work my leisure”, to use a phrase from Aristotle. Without claiming that I have been notably successful, for it is always sobering to contemplate the disparity between one’s ambitions and efforts and one’s actual progress, I nonetheless own a debt of gratitude to this book for its, on the whole, good effects in my life. It has been a joy to read it again and find its wisdom undiminished.

Favourites of 2017: Books

January 2, 2018

All things considered, 2017 was a pretty good year for reading. Long, difficult books were mostly off the table — there’s that volume of Kierkegaard I’ve been seeping through for 8 months — but I found some quite good, short, easier books that were worth reading.

For this year-end reflection, I’ve selected ten good books from among those I read this year. I list them randomly, or nearly so. Links, where present, usually go to my more extensive notes on the book.

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I’ll begin with Livy, whose writing was a thread that ran through my whole year. I began the first volume of his great Roman history Ab urbe condita in January or February, and I finished the fifth and last volume in December. This was a great book with which to kick off my Roman reading project; although it breaks off in the 160s BC, with much of the greatest drama still ahead, my understanding of the history of Republican Rome has improved greatly. I now feel I have context and at least some depth when I see a reference to Cincinnatus, or Camillus, or Hannibal, or Scipio, and a much better sense of how Rome grew from an Italian city among other, comparable, Italian cities to a superpower of the ancient world. I wrote fairly extensively about this history as I was reading. I am looking forward to continuing this reading project in 2018; I expect that much of the year will be spent in the company of Cicero and Julius Caesar.

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I was given as a gift a huge volume of Anglo-Saxon poetry this year, and I expect that it will be the center of gravity of my medieval reading in 2018, but this year my favourite medieval literature was The Song of Roland, a splendid heroic poem about a battle between the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army, led by Roland, and the Islamic army besetting them as they pass through the Alps. Although not a scrupulously historical poem, it does teach us about the attitudes of Christians toward Muslims a thousand years ago, gives us an intriguing example of the medieval effort to baptize the military virtues, and presents us with a wonderful portrait of Roland, a figure who loomed large in the European imagination for centuries.

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With my son I have been reading Thornton Burgess’ books about the inhabitants of the Green Forest and the Green Meadows. Beginning with Old Mother West Wind and continuing through the adventures of one little friend after another — Old Man Coyote, Paddy the Beaver, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, Sammy Jay, Jerry Muskrat, Grandfather Frog, and others — we have gradually come to feel quite at home in those woods. Though he is certainly less mercurial and virtuosic than, for example, Kenneth Grahame, Burgess nonetheless has a fine talent for diverting tales with memorable characters and moral weight. He wrote, I believe, about 100 of these books, and so our explorations are far from over. So long as my son is content to continue, I am as well.

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This year I continued my habit of reading — or seeing staged — one Shakespearean play each month. I ventured off the beaten trail and read “Pericles”, a late-ish play (probably c.1608) that was new to me. It was a very pleasant surprise. It has something of the character of a fable, complete with riddles, a beautiful princess, an evil king, miraculous events, and a happy ending. For some time I’ve been interested in the relationship between Shakespeare’s art and medieval literature and drama (I’ve been meaning to read this book, for example), and in no other Shakespeare play have I had such a powerful sense of being on medieval terrain, as though he had adapted a story from The Canterbury Tales. In fact the play is based on a poem of John Gower, Chaucer’s contemporary, and Gower himself appears in the play in a role something like that of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. It’s delightful. Thematically the play is about, among other things, what it means to be a good father, and in particular about the relationships of fathers to their daughters. The final act has a reunion scene that brought tears into my eyes. Highly recommended.

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Over the past few years I’ve been reading the Aubrey-Maturin sea-faring novels, and greatly enjoying them, but this year I also read The Voyage of the Beagle, a real-life account of a circumnavigation voyage in the 1830s, and I enjoyed it at least as much. It is true that Charles Darwin, the ship’s talented young naturalist, doesn’t tell us much about life at sea, but this particular voyage landed ashore at numerous locations along the Argentine and Chilean coasts, as well as at a few island archipelagos in the Pacific, and I found his many observations on natural history fascinating. The same author went on to write a number of other books on related topics, and it would be interesting to look into those some day as well.

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Perhaps because I spent a few months this year homeschooling our kids, I read several books on education. Among these the best was Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty in the Word, a remarkably rich and thoughtful exploration of the classical educational trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Some descriptions of classical education merely correlate these three subjects with the developmental capacities of children (as Dorothy Sayers did in an influential essay), but Caldecott goes much further, digging deeply into the relevance this general schema has for the child’s intellectual, moral, social, and even metaphysical formation. His organizing question is “What kind of education would enable a child to progress in the rational understanding of the world without losing his poetic and artistic appreciation of it?”, and it leads him to rewarding discussions of tradition, drama, technology, and liturgy, among many other things. If you think that education ought to be richly human, concerned with what kind of persons we should be rather than just what sort of things we might do, calling for the best and wisest counsel we can muster, this is a book for you.

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The conversion memoir is a genre with a distinguished history stretching back, for English speakers, to John Henry Newman, and further back, to St Augustine, in the wider tradition. These memoirs tend to have certain elements in common, and perhaps the most distinctive thing about Sally Read’s Night’s Bright Darkness is that it doesn’t follow the usual patterns at all. It’s an account of her conversion from comfortable atheism to astounded Catholicism in which, instead of passing over the ground between the two, as a normal person would do, she somehow tunnelled or teleported from one side to the other. This is a poor metaphor for the real substance of her story, which is grace. The other distinctive feature of this book is how beautifully written it is; Read is a poet, and brings a literary sensibility to the manner in which she tells her story.

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English speakers continue to receive, in translation, by dribs and drabs, literary crumbs that fell from the table of the great German Thomist and intellectual historian Josef Pieper. This year I sat down with a volume that appeared, a few years ago now, under the title The Silence of Goethe. As is so often the case with Pieper, the slender profile of the book belies its rich content, which consists of meditations on the value of reticence and silence for both public and private life, as culled from the voluminous writings of Pieper’s great countryman. Counsel to the effect that “You live properly only if you live a hidden life” has particular value for those of us living in the age of social media, in which the temptation to live even our private lives in public is seductive. That this, and allied, advice comes from a man who was himself one of the best-known figures of his age gives it a certain tried-and-true authority.

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I read a handful of Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels this year, and Thank You, Jeeves can stand in, on this list, for the lot of them. Published in 1934, it was the first of Wodehouse’s full-length Jeeves novels, and is a delightful tale about Bertie’s retreat to a country cottage in which to practice the banjolele. Jeeves is unable to abide the instrument, and so enters the employ of one or another of the characters circling around Bertie throughout the story, being replaced by a homicidal, drunk valet called Brinkley. Among the most pleasing characters in this mélange is Pauline Stoker, an American girl possessed of a “pre-eminent pulchritude”, to whom Bertie was briefly engaged on a prior trip to America, and for whom he now tries to play matchmaker. At stake are the sale of a run-down manor house and the future married happiness of several of Bertie’s friends. As usual with Wodehouse, the writing is superb and the invention never flagging. Some might take offense at the plot element involving Bertie and the “loony doctor” Sir Roderick Glossop wandering the grounds in black-face, but we are not so censorious.

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This was yet another year in which I did not read much theology or philosophy, but I did manage one of the early classics of Christian theology in St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. The aim of the book is to provide a defence of the fittingness of the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Christ against those who contended that these centerpieces of the Christian story had an arbitrary or even blasphemous character. Athanasius brings out beautifully the drama of Christ’s saving action as a descent into the world, a battle against evil, and a triumphant elevation of all things into the everlasting and unconquerable life of the Holy Trinity. It is a book that has become a touchstone for a Christian metaphysics of the good, in which Creation itself is caught up into the mystery of Christ.

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As in past years, it is fun to look at the original publication dates of the books (or plays) I read this year. Here is the histogram:

I skewed modern, as usual, but not so severely as in past years, and the classical and medieval books can at least be said to have made a decent showing. The 20th century was the big winner, as might be expected, but even there it was the early 1900s which got much of my attention, with the average post-1900 publication date being 1955.

Finally, a bit of trivia:

Most books by a single author: Thornton Burgess (12), Shakespeare (12), Terence (6), Wodehouse (5).

Pieper: The Silence of Goethe

August 28, 2017

The Silence of Goethe
Josef Pieper
(St Augustine’s Press, 2009)
xii + 67 p.

Some time ago I noted the origins of this little book: Pieper, finding himself confined in a German POW camp, but with access to the complete works of Goethe, passed the time by reading the volumes in their entirety. This in itself was remarkable, but perhaps even more striking was that he then put pen to paper to write about the silence of Goethe.

Silence was a theme that attracted Pieper; another of his books, and a rather good one, is The Silence of St Thomas (the subject of which is, once again, one of the most prolific authors in history). But whereas in that case Pieper focused on what Thomas’ silence — that is, the topics he did not write about, or that he thought could not be written about — told us about his metaphysics and his theology, in this book on Goethe the themes are more modest, the silences of Goethe, like his words, not being as pregnant as those of St Thomas.

In this book Pieper reflects on what Goethe said about the relevance of silence, and of reticence more generally, to a well-lived life. It takes the form of a series of brief reflections on passages gleaned from Goethe’s works.

One of the themes that emerges is that silence is necessary for the health and flourishing of an inner life, for it is a hidden source from which one draws strength:

“What is best is the deep stillness in which, against the world, I live and grow, and gain what it cannot take from me by fire and sword.”

Or,

“There is deep meaning in the mad notion that it is necessary to act in silence in order to raise and take possession of a treasure properly; it is not permitted to say one word, no matter how much that is shocking and delightful may appear on all sides.”

This reminds me of something I once read in St John of the Cross in which he counselled his readers “never to reveal to another what God is doing in your inmost heart”, for by such revelations one risks distorting or destroying that delicate reality. And Goethe, too, seems to have felt that one should be circumspect about the highest things, lest one speak of them inadequately. Writes Pieper, “Even with his closest and dearest friends he remained silent about the most exalted things.” His friends noted that he became silent when talk turned to divine matters, saying, “Our best convictions cannot be expressed in words. Language is not capable of everything.”

Part of what Goethe understood by silence was public silence — that is, staying out of the public eye. “You live properly only if you live a hidden life.” Again, there is a certain irony here inasmuch as Goethe was forever putting his books before the public, and he was one of the best-known men in Europe, but his books were not himself, were not about himself, and so retained a kind of reticence. But it seems he enjoyed the contrast he cultivated between private reserve and public persona: “This is then the great charm of the otherwise questionable life of an author: that one is silent with one’s friends and at the same time prepared a great conversation with them which reaches out to every part of the world.”

He also maintained a prudent silence because he thought that the public did not, by and large, deserve to know his thoughts on various matters, being too preoccupied with gossip and sensation. This might be thought contemptuous, but Pieper defends him by drawing on St Thomas, who, in his Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, said of the magnanimous man that “in his attitude to the throng he uses irony” and that he is rightly contemptuous of mean-spiritedness. “Such contempt is as little at odds with humility as it is at odds with truth, since no one’s just claim to honor is being injured.”

In the deepest sense, Goethe saw silence is a preparation for listening, for perceiving and receiving reality more clearly and fully. Says Pieper, “This listening silence is much deeper than the mere refraining from words and speech in human intercourse. It means a stillness, which, like a breath, has penetrated into the inmost chamber of one’s own soul. It is meant, in the Goethean “maxim”, to “deny myself as much as possible and to take up the object into myself as purely as it is possible to do”.” Pieper comments that “It is here that Goethe represents what, since Pythagoras, may be considered the silence tradition of the West”. There is a kind of hope implicit in this silence, since it waits in expectation of something true and good.

The second half of this (already very brief) volume consists of short excerpts from Goethe’s letters. Some of these continue the theme of silence, but others wander further afield. Since they present no clearly unified picture, I’ll conclude by simply quoting a few of those that struck me most forcefully.

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“For we really ought not to speak of what we will do, of what we are doing, nor of what we have done.”

“A person who is used to silence remains silent.”

“What a person must do allows him to show what he is inwardly like. Anyone can live arbitrarily.”

“We can do no more than build a stack of wood and dry it properly. Then it will catch fire at the right time and we ourselves will be astonished by it.”

“If I had nothing to say except what people want to hear, I would be completely silent.”

“There are three kinds of reader: one who enjoys without making a judgment, a third who judges without enjoyment, and, in the middle, one who judges while enjoying and enjoys while judging. This middle one reproduces a work of art anew.”

“An individual has to give an account of himself. No one comes to his aid.”

“To see people and things exactly as they are and to say exactly what is on our mind — this is the right thing. We should not and cannot do more.”

Aristotle: Politics

July 9, 2017

Politics
Aristotle
Translated by Benjamin Jowett
(Everyman, 1941) [c.325 BC]
264 p.

Obviously this is a great book, and these notes make no pretence to be anything other than jottings. I might begin by confessing that I’m not, all things considered, very interested in politics or political theory, but I chose this of Aristotle’s works because I’d already read some of those more interesting to me (Ethics, De Anima, Physics), and because some of the others more interesting (Metaphysics, Logic) looked too hard to tackle in my current state of life.

It had been some time since I last spent any extended time with Aristotle. I know people say that his works as they have come down to us lack personality – and may well not be from his pen at all – but that lack of personality is itself a kind of personality, and it was nice to be back in his company.

Aristotle can be counted on to state basic principles clearly. Sometimes these principles are obvious, and sometimes not, but anyway it is part of his thorough method to state them. It feels good just to say them aloud:

The state is a creation of nature, and … man is by nature a political animal. (Bk I)

Or

A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature. (Bk I)

Obvious, as I say, but contrary to the founding principles of much modern political philosophy, and refreshing. Or he says this of the rule of law:

Two parts of good government; one is the actual obedience of citizens to the laws, the other part is the goodness of the laws which they obey. (Bk IV)

With this consequence:

In some states the good man and the good citizen are the same, and in others different. (Bk III)

Sometimes his declarations have the force of aphorisms:

Man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all. (Bk I)

Or

The law is reason unaffected by desire. (Bk III)

Or

To be always seeking after the useful does not become free and exalted souls. (Bk VIII)

Or, in a claim that I am sure must be cited in The Abolition of Man:

Virtue consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright. (Bk VIII).

Of course, the Politics is more than just aphorisms; it’s a set of arguments. His principle purpose, as I understand it, is to inquire into the nature of states, and to survey different models of governance, studying their characteristic strengths and weaknesses.

Aristotle has a high view of the state. He writes:

If all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good. (Bk I)

This is broadly consistent with the political vision set forth by Plato in Republic, and once again at odds with the main trunk of modern political theory, which (insofar as I understand it) rolled back the state from pursuing a vision of the highest good, opting instead for a more modest role as custodian of peace and guarantor of certain individual freedoms. Of course, highest goods are hard to ignore permanently, and a reasonable argument can be made that those “individual freedoms”, which were originally an alternative to a politics of the highest good, have become in time themselves that highest good. But that’s another story.

Aristotle’s view that the state “embraces all the rest” gives his vision of politics an uncomfortably totalitarian flavour. Here, for instance, he comments on the place of the family and the individual in politics:

The state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part.” (Bk I)

The citizen should be moulded to suit the form of government under which he lives. (Bk VIII)

Neither must it be supposed that any one of the citizens belongs to himself, for they all belong to the state… (Bk VIII)

That first statement is the opposite of what I would argue: in fact the family is the most basic political community, prior to all others, because parts are of necessity prior to the whole. The second is less objectionable, and can be taken in a banal way – in a democracy, for instance, citizens should be virtuous, since they can hardly govern a polity well if they cannot govern themselves. But there’s something ominous about it too, especially that “should”. The third statement comes from his remarks on education, in which he criticizes the practice of parents deciding for themselves how to educate their children, and argues instead for public education specifically on the grounds that it is necessary to cultivate in children the virtues required for the preservation of the common good: “since the whole city has one end, it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all.” One can see the force of the argument, of course, but I’m wary of any attempt by the state to form the souls of children — especially my children.

The principal forms of government Aristotle analyzes are monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional government – rule by one, few, or many. He proceeds by looking at a number of real cases, as well as some theoretical ones (such as that described in Republic). He notes that each of these forms of government can become corrupted, with monarchy devolving to tyranny, aristocracy to oligarchy, and constitutional government to democracy. By “democracy” he doesn’t mean exactly what we usually mean, but specifically that form of “rule by the many” in which the will of the majority has the force of law (rather than operating under the law). He argues that, whatever the form of government, a healthy government is one that rules in favour of the common good.

As far as I could see, he took no strong position on which form of government was to be preferred, but he did express a mild preference for rule by the many, both because “passion perverts the minds of rulers, even when they are the best of men”, and because the many, on account of their wide variety of knowledge and experience, may be able to act more prudently and with better reason than the few. I do not find this entirely convincing.

Bad Aristotle makes a number of appearances in these pages. We get, for instance, his famous statement that slavery is natural (“the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master”). Those of us who admire Aristotle would like to chalk this up to limitations in the moral vision of the time and place in which he lived, and this is true to some extent, but he makes things more difficult by acknowledging (in Bk I, 3) that this view of slavery is contested. At least as reprehensible are his views on infanticide (“let there be a law that no deformed child shall live”). He would permit abortion, but only “before life and sense have begun”; he may be bad, but on this point he is, at least, not so bad as we are.

In the eighth and final Book, he has a very interesting discussion of leisure, and in particular of music-making and music-appreciation as leisure activities. As Josef Pieper argued in his wonderful book, Aristotle had a high view of leisure, seeing it not as a time for mere amusement, but for activities which are valued for their own sake. Precisely because leisure activities are intrinsically valuable, they are better than servile work: “The first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end” (Bk VIII). I’m not sure just what he means by calling leisure “the first principle of all action”, but when he says that leisure is the “end” of occupation, he means that we do our servile work in order to have leisure. I remember that Jacques Barzun somewhere says that it is the sign of a healthy soul to hate one’s job, precisely because for most of us it prevents us from spending our time on what is intrinsically worthwhile; this chaffing against employment obligations, while wearisome and frustrating, is fundamentally sound. And leisure, on this view, should not be confused with “idleness”, but might be very vigorous and even exhausting. Philosophy, for instance, is a good example of a worthy leisure activity, as are the arts, religion, and maybe even sports. Music enters into this discussion because it is one of those things which we can enjoy for its own sake. It amuses us, but also gives us a kind of intellectual enjoyment which is the special purview of rational creatures.

Music can also serve instrumental purposes, and in this role is crucial to education, in Aristotle’s view, because it has the power to influence and shape the soul and the character of the hearer. He discusses the different musical modes and their effects on listeners, and goes on to argue that its capacity to evoke emotional responses makes music of special value for teaching virtue, which, as was already said above, “consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright”. That music can bear resemblance to moral qualities is almost unique among objects of sense.

I knew that Plato gave attention to music in Republic because of its power to affect the soul, but I was not, until reading Politics, aware that Aristotle had done the same. It would be interesting one day to sit down and compare the two treatments.

**

I’ve done little more in these brief notes than skim the surface, picking out a handful of things that most interested me. There’s a lot of detailed argumentation in Politics about effective policies, principles, and objectives of different types of government. For the most part this was more than I wanted, but naturally that’s a reflection of my own limitations.

Carpe diem

February 27, 2017

Toward the end of World War II, Pieper was imprisoned and took the occasion to read through the fifty volumes of Goethe’s collected works.

— Ralph McInerny, introducing
Josef Pieper’s The Silence of Goethe

Hither and yon

March 30, 2016

A few interesting items that came my way over the past few weeks:

  • Joseph Pieper’s wonderful book Leisure, the Basis of Culture merits whatever loving attention it receives, but I never thought I would see an admiring appraisal illustrated with pictures from children’s books.
  • My heart rose when I heard that Bob Dylan would be releasing another album later this year, rumoured to be called Fallen Angels … and then it fell when I learned it would be another batch of Sinatra songs.
  • Meanwhile, Dylan has made available a cornucopia of notebooks and paraphernalia for scholarly study. Time to book that flight to Tulsa?
  • Fr Paul Murray, O.P. delivers a very fine lecture entitled “Aquinas: Poet and Contemplative”, in which he considers the devotional life of the great philosopher saint, especially as manifest in his Latin poetry. This is a side of St Thomas which we don’t consider often enough.
  • Matthew Buckley has begun a series of articles explaining the physics under study at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, where the Higgs Boson was discovered a few years ago. I’ve not known of Matthew Buckley before, but the first instalment in his series is a superb example of popular science writing.
  • The largest ever exhibition of the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch has opened at the Noordbrabants Museum in the Netherlands. I do love Bosch! The highlight of my visit to Madrid some years ago was spending a few hours in the Bosch room at the Prado gallery, and were I to be in ’s-Hertogenbosch in the next few months I’d be there to see those paintings, and others, again. In this overview of the exhibition, Michael Prodger argues that Bosch is not best understood as a Renaissance artist, much less a modern (as he has sometimes been said to be), but as a medieval artist through and through.
  • Roger Scruton, in an excerpt from a forthcoming book, writes about the relationship between two post-war German masterpieces: Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen.

For an envoi, let’s hear Metamorphosen, for 23 stringed instruments:

Pieper: On Justice

August 30, 2013

On Justice
Josef Pieper
(Notre Dame, 1966) [1955]
74 p.

This small book belongs to a series which Josef Pieper wrote on each of the cardinal and theological virtues. In it, as in the others, his purpose was not to make an original contribution to the subject, but rather to summarize  central claims of the Western tradition of moral philosophy. As always, Pieper’s lodestone is St. Thomas Aquinas (himself so often a superb reference for classical and medieval sources), but he does not neglect the modern period.

Stated briefly, justice is “the notion that each man is to be given what is his due”. As such, justice is dependent on a prior determination of what is or is not due to a person, and, even more basically, on the notion that something can be due to a person, that a person can have a “right” to something which another is obligated to respect. The tradition states that a thing can be due to a person either by convention (due to legal agreements, promises, and so on) or naturally (that is, independent of any particular legal body or political system). The idea of a “natural right” underlies the contemporary discussion about human rights in international affairs.

One to whom something is due must be the sort of thing that can claim a right. It makes little sense, for instance, to speak of a moral obligation to a stone or a flower. This implies that we cannot fruitfully speak about justice without a concept of human nature. Our tradition’s principal concept of the human person Pieper summarizes as “a spiritual being, a whole unto itself, a being that exists for itself and of itself, that wills its own perfection” and it is “created a person by the act of God, that is, an act beyond all human discussion.” There is perhaps some ambiguity here as to whether personhood derives principally from our origin (as creatures) or our nature. Pieper seems to argue that our nature makes us capable of claiming rights and of thereby entering the orbit of justice, but our origin, deriving ultimately from a source outside the human community, places limits on the scope of rights derived from convention or authority and provides an opening for natural rights. He quotes Kant: “We have a divine Sovereign, and his divine gift to man is man’s right.”

If justice is to give what is due, then to be just means “to owe something and to pay the debt”. The stress on action here — pay the debt — is appropriate, for justice resides in an external act, not in an intention or disposition. In this, it differs from several other classical virtues, notably temperance and prudence. One may intend to be just, but unless one follows through with the act of justice, one cannot actually be said to be just. Justice is, in this sense, a “public virtue”. Pieper remarks that in the sphere of justice, people rightly regard one another objectively, almost as strangers. And there is a reverse side to the public character of justice: “every external act belongs to the field of justice”.

According to our moral tradition justice is a virtue of higher rank than fortitude or temperance, and this for two principal reasons: first, because it has a wider scope, ordering not only individual lives but also the life of communities, and, second, because while fortitude and temperance are virtues related to the body, having to do with mastering appetites and desires and so forth, justice is spiritual in nature. Moreover, it is quite possible to imagine being very “moral”, in the sense of being self-controlled and courageous, while nonetheless being unjust. (Such, Pieper notes, is the traditional character of the Anti-Christ.) So justice is an essential element in the conduct of a truly moral life.

Pieper identifies three basic forms of justice: reciprocal (the justice one person owes another), distributive (the justice a community owes to individual persons), and legal (the justice individual persons owe to the community). Perhaps because of the post-war context in which he was writing, with the threat of totalitarian governments a matter of constant concern, he focuses most of his discussion on distibutive justice, which is concerned with what the social whole (not specifically the government, note) owes the individual.

We might be tempted to suppose that distributive justice is more or less served in society today by a government-supported welfare system, but Pieper makes a few pointed remarks that call this identification into question. First, he anticipates some comments which Pope Benedict XVI made in Spe Salvi when he states that the nature of distributive justice is endangered when one’s relationship to the community is conceived in impersonal terms, when we think of a “welfare system” operated by bureaucrats rather than a network of personal relationships with a human face. And a second doubt is raised by consideration of the nature of the “communal goods” with which distributive justice is concerned; we are apt to think this means money and other tangible goods, and it does (“food, clothing, shelter, means of communication, care of the sick, education”), but is means more too: “the bonum commune extends far beyond the range of material goods produced by mechanical means” to include the full measure of the human good, spiritual as well as material. It includes knowledge of truth and moral guidance, for instance. If we are looking for a model of what Pieper means I believe that we might advantageously look to the Church rather than to civil society; there, at least, one sees the attempt to minister to the full dignity and capacity of the human person.

An oddity about distributive justice is that it cannot be enforced, for the obligated party is ultimately the authority itself:

Since institutional precautions and controls could entirely prevent the abuse of power only by precluding any form of effective authority, there is nothing and no one that can restrain the man of power from doing injustice — if not his own sense of justice. In the affairs of this world, everything depends on the rulers’ being just.

This provides a good reason to hold those in authority to high moral standards, and the greater the authority the higher the standard.

The closing sections of the book take up a rich theme: the limits of justice. There are, of course, some debts which are not paid, some obligations which are not met in this life. A secular account of justice must concede that the reign of justice is only partial and incomplete, for sometimes injustice carries the day. A religious account — or at least a Christian account — extends the reign of justice so that it is ultimately triumphant: those injustices which appear to triumph in this life are themselves judged by the ultimate justice of God.

Yet in addition to debts which, for one reason or another, are not paid, there are some debts which cannot be paid, some obligations which, by their very nature, cannot be met, and these mark out additional limits on the domain of justice. Such limits are especially evident in a person’s relationship to God, for each person receives his or her very being from God, and no repayment can ever be adequate to this gift.

Now the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded thereon.” This must not be taken to be merely an edifying thought. It is a very precise description of man’s condition in the face of God. Before any subsequent claim is made by men, indeed even before the mere possibility of a human claim arises, comes the fact that man has been made a gift by God (of his being) such that his nature cannot ever “make it good,” discharge it, “deserve” it, or return it again. Man can never say to God: “We are even.”

And divine justice must be understood in another way as well, for if justice means “to owe something and to pay the debt”, then God cannot, in this sense, be called just, for he owes nothing. Unfortunately Pieper does not elaborate on this question of what it means to say that God is just — only, as above, that his justice is allied to mercy.

Pieper argues that the practice of religious sacrifice is rooted in this same basic inability to give adequate thanks for the gift of being. No human effort can ever overcome the debt. When Hector pours his wine on the ground to honour the gods, or when a priest offers an unblemished lamb to the altar, or when a pilgrim sets out in a spirit of humble trust in God, the very extravagance of the act highlights its inadequacy:

Helplessness and impotency prompt this extravagance; because it is impossible to do what “properly” ought to be done, an effort beyond the bounds of reason, as it were, tries to compensate for the insufficiency.

Religious sacrifice is thus seen, from this perspective, to be rooted in justice. (I am aware of other accounts of the nature and significance of religious sacrifice, but this is one which I have not considered before.) The same is true of piety, and for much the same reason: St. Thomas says that “It is not possible to make to one’s parents an equal return of what one owes to them; and thus piety is annexed to justice.”

*

This is a very good book. It is potent and concentrated, as Pieper’s books usually are.

I close with a few aphorisms lifted from the text, several of which are paraphrases or quotations from St. Thomas:

*

Thomas, via Seneca: “A person who wants to repay a gift too quickly with a gift in return is an unwilling debtor and an ungrateful person.” (ST, II, II, 106, 4)

Thomas: “Creation itself is not an act of justice; creation is not anyone’s due.”

“The common good requires every individual to be good.”

St. Thomas: “The purpose of power is to realize justice.”

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.’

Pieper: The Platonic Myths

August 20, 2011

The Platonic Myths
Josef Pieper
(St. Augustine’s, 2011) [1965]
Translated from the German by Dan Farrelly
95 p.

Into many of his dialogues Plato incorporated material which has been described as ‘mythic’. There are the famous allegorical myths of the cave (from Republic) and of the sexes (from Aristophanes’ speech in Symposium), and Timaeus contains an influential creation myth, for instance. Also in Symposium we find a story about man’s original state and subsequent fall. Three great dialogues in particular – Phaedo, Republic, and Gorgias – end not with a philosophical conclusion or even a philosophical question mark (as was typical in Plato’s early dialogues), but with extended presentations of myths about death, the other world, and judgment.

Why did Plato include this apparently ‘non-philosophical’ material in his dialogues? How should these myths be interpreted? What place, if any, should they be given in Plato’s philosophical programme? What significance can they have for modern readers? These are among the questions Josef Pieper takes up in this slender book. He is not the first to ask them, of course, and he notes that over the centuries readers have responded to Platonic myths in very different ways. Some have read them as poetic flourishes, included for their aesthetic value but not to be taken seriously as philosophy; others have seen them as concessions of futility and ignorance, as gestures toward an honourable alternative to a (failed) philosophical inquiry, perhaps with the suggestion that the myth is a second-rate substitute for genuine, but elusive, knowledge; still others have seen the myths as philosophically important in their own right, as expressing Plato’s belief that philosophy finally opens onto mystery, and that certain questions pursued by the philosopher find their answers only outside the philosophical tradition, in an encounter with the divine.

Pieper’s special concern is with the eschatological myths found in Phaedo, Gorgias, and Republic, in each of which Plato concludes an ambitious and probing philosophical discussion by presenting a myth about “the last things”: death, judgment, and divinity. All three myths include what Pieper takes to be the essential marks of myth: they are narrative, they are part of a tradition that has been passed down rather than being the invention of the narrator (Socrates says in each case that he has ‘heard’ the story he is about to tell), and they concern the relationship between humanity and divinity. Myth is thus closely connected to religion and sacred tradition. The basic conceptual contents of these myths are, in Pieper’s words, “the idea that all being proceeds from the ungrudging goodness of the Creator; the occurrence of primeval guilt and punishment; [and] judgment on the other side of death”.

The central claim that Pieper makes for these myths is that they should be taken straight: they are included because Plato considered them to be bearers of important truths. By including these myths in his dialogues, Pieper believes Plato is saying that the most deeply human things are rooted not finally in politics or in the intellect, but are linked to ‘the beyond’ and the unknowable, and find their fulfillment only there. This realm, in which there is an interchange between the human and the divine, is beyond our experience, inaccessible to our imagination, and even, except through metaphor and imagery, beyond language, which is why philosophical inquiry alone cannot reach it. Yet this reality, which is in one sense beyond philosophy, is in another sense a part of it, because philosophy moves us toward it. Sacred myth, in other words, is a part, and a legitimate part, of the philosophical project broadly considered.

These claims are, obviously, out of step with the temper of modern philosophy, which, like modernity itself, has a bad allergy to mystery and transcendence, and which is certainly unlikely to look to sacred tradition for its consummation. Yet it cannot be said that this understanding of Plato is wrong simply on that account, nor is it clear that this view of philosophy is really so foreign to our most profound thinkers. Rumours of glory are still heard from time to time. I think of Wittgenstein’s statement about the limits of philosophy: “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” Perhaps that is as far as modernity can go, given its other commitments, but it is not so bad: there are worse things than reverent silence. In any case, Pieper understands that his interpretation will encounter resistance, and he devotes considerable effort to careful analysis of the dialogues in defence of his view. Personally I found him pretty convincing, but, then again, I am not committed to a view of Plato, or of philosophy, that would rule this interpretation out of court. Also, I am a notorious rube.

The book closes with a few other observations and questions about Platonic myth. Pieper notes the sometimes striking similarities between the specific content of Platonic myth and Christian doctrine: the sense that some sort of past calamity has disrupted our relationship to the divine, for instance, or the idea that a final judgment will bring justice to the affairs of men. He also asks why it is that philosophy might be expected to encounter limits when it attempts to penetrate into the sphere traditionally presided over by sacred tradition, and his answer is disarmingly simple: certain truths cannot be expressed conceptually but only in the form of a story, and this is so because we are dealing not with ‘truths of reason’ but with actions along the borderline of the world of the gods and the world of men. Finally, he notes that a serious appeal to sacred tradition, whether in Plato or anywhere else, implies that the tradition is worthy of belief, and he asks who is believed when a tradition is judged worthy in this way. The answers to that question are only sketched here, but developed more fully in his fine book Tradition: Concept and Claim, about which I have written before.

Though not one of Pieper’s most profound books, I found The Platonic Myths to be well worth the short time it took to read. It was originally published in 1965, but I believe that this edition, from St. Augustine’s Press, is the first English translation. This volume also includes an introduction by James V. Schall, the much beloved political philosopher from Georgetown. Schall goes further in his praise for the book than I think really justified (“No philosophical book brings us closer to the proper understanding of how all things fit together”), but I do agree with him that it is a good book.