Posts Tagged ‘Josef Pieper’

Aristotle: Politics

July 9, 2017

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)


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)


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


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.

Around and about

August 26, 2010

Here are a few things that have caught my attention of late, but which I haven’t time to write about at any great length:

  • Did you know that the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki produced an illustrated version of Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill?
  • Speaking of Chesterton, Ignatius Press has just issued the third (and final?) volume of his poetry in their monumental and indispensable Collected Works. This would make a nice Christmas gift for yours truly.
  • Sufjan Stevens, whose album Illinoise took top spot in my retrospective Best of the 2000s a while back, released a new EP, All Delighted People, earlier this week. So far I’ve heard about half, and it is terrific. Though it is being called an EP, it clocks in at just under an hour.
  • Canadian pro-lifers are often perplexed by the public’s complacency about abortion, but a recent poll casts that complacency in a new light: two-thirds of Canadians do not know that Canadian law places no restrictions on abortion. When the current legal vacuum is explained to them, only 27% think it should stay that way. Evidently the first step in changing the status quo has to be education.
  • Josef Pieper has been dead for over ten years, but his books are still making their first appearances in English translations.  A case in point: next week St. Augustine’s Press will issue The Platonic Myths.  In my experience, anything Pieper wrote is worth reading carefully, and I’ve already placed my order.
  • Based on data from the Hawaiian Keck Observatory and the Chilean Very Large Telescope, a group of astrophysicists are claiming evidence that the fine structure constant, which is one of the fundamental constants of physics (related to the strength of the electromagnetic force), varies spatially. Variable “constants” is one of those peculiar possibilities that many speculative theories predict, but which hasn’t had any experimental support to date. This might go away too once more people take a hard look at the data, but it’s an interesting claim in the meantime.
  • Looking for the Office of Mayhem Evaluation? It’s somewhere in Asia. (Hat-tip: Light on Dark Water)
  • The National Post has run a pair of features on the “most overrated” and “most underrated” Canadian writers. Predictably, I haven’t heard of any of the allegedly underrated ones, but the article on overrated writers hits most of the big names and is hilariously over-the-top. As good as our Canadian novelists are (and there are some fine ones), our literati do tend to heap accolades on a certain kind of poetic pretentiousness, and it is funny to see that pretentiousness skewered, even if a tad too exuberantly. Poor Michael Ondaatje.
  • Since watching all five seasons of The Wire a few years ago, I’ve been convinced that nothing is likely to surpass the quality of that show.  Now I hear a few claims that a programme called Breaking Bad bears favourable comparison with The Wire.  Can it be true?  Anybody seen it?

Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, 2010

January 28, 2010

Here are several brief thoughts from St. Thomas, culled from Josef Pieper’s The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas: A Breviary of Philosophy:

  • Since the soul is only a part of human nature, it does not possess its natural perfection except in union with the body. (Spir. creat. 2 ad 5.)
  • A devil knows the nature of human thought better than a man does. (Mal. 16, 8 ad 7.)
  • Wherever there is intellectual knowledge, there is also free will. (ST I, 59, 3.)
  • Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe, to know what he ought to desire, and to know what he ought to do. ( (princ.))
  • The nature of virtue lies in good more than in difficulty. (ST II-II, 123, 12 ad 2.)

Last year’s batch.

Best of the Decade: Books

December 31, 2009

I had planned to crown this series of “Best of the Decade” posts by looking at books, but that plan has fizzled.  The trouble is that I’ve read very few books published this decade — so few, in fact, that the exercise hardly seems worthwhile.  I’ll give a short list, but mainly I’d like to use this post to solicit recommendations for good books published between 2000-2009.

My favourites, culled from a list of a couple of dozen eligible volumes, are these:

  • David Bentley Hart — The Beauty of the Infinite (2003): It took me about six months to work my way through this book, and I understood very little of it — I never grasped the meaning of analogia entis, and this proved a tragic fault — but it was still a great pleasure to read, if only for Hart’s brilliant rhetorical flourishes.  (Try this one.Millinerd agrees that it is a great book, and he says why.
  • David Heald — Architecture of Silence (2000): A book of black and white photographs of Cistercian monasteries.  It is a very beautiful and surprisingly instructive book that quietly conveys something of the spirit of Cistercian devotion.
  • Cormac McCarthy — The Road (2006): Quiet and austere on each page, but devastating in its cumulative effect, this was among the most memorable novels I read this decade. (Book Note)
  • Alex Ross — The Rest is Noise (2007): A fascinating overview of twentieth-century history told through its music.  (Book Note)
  • Tom Wolfe — I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004): An unpretentious and heart-breaking portrait of the moral decline and fall of a bright-eyed young woman on one of America’s elite college campuses.  (Book Note)

As I said above, I would like to hear about your favourite books of the decade.  Feel free to leave a comment.


If, for amusement’s sake, I relax the constraint I have been observing and admit for consideration anything I read this decade, regardless of when it was first published, I arrive at a different set of favourites.  Leaving aside those widely acknowledged as classics (The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, The Confessions, and so on), my list includes:

  • John Gerard, S.J. — Autobiography of an Elizabethan (1609): A fascinating first-hand account of life in the Jesuit underground during the reign of Elizabeth I.  (Book Note)
  • Søren Kierkegaard — The Sickness Unto Death (1849): A rather personal choice, this book found me at the right time, and has had lasting good effects in my life.
  • C. S. Lewis — The Discarded Image (1964): This is perhaps the best book I know about the medieval period in Europe.  Lewis, with great sympathy and insight, describes the worldview of medieval men, helping us to see the world as they saw it.  (Book Note)
  • Thomas Mann — Doctor Faustus (1947): A seriously great story about music, ambition, and the decline of Western culture.  Too big to grasp in one reading, but I grasped enough to recognize its worth.
  • Herman Melville — Moby-Dick (1851): A glorious and heroic eruption of a book.  Reading it was probably the greatest purely literary pleasure I had this decade. (Book Note)
  • Vladimir Nabokov — Pale Fire (1962): By a wide margin the best murder mystery that I have read.  It is an amazing genre-busting tour de force by Nabokov, and a hilarious one too.
  • Josef Pieper — Leisure, the Basis of Culture (1952): A book that brings together many of the central themes of Pieper’s work.  It is a tremendously insightful, wise, and thought-provoking book that ought to be far more widely read.
  • Kenneth Grahame — The Wind in the Willows (1908): Somehow I missed reading this when I was a child, but it is a book for adults too, and I took great delight in it.


Happy New Year!

Pieper: Tradition

November 16, 2009

Tradition: Concept and Claim (1970)
Josef Pieper (ISI, 2008; trans: E.C.Kopff)
128 p. First reading.

Our time is unfriendly to the idea of tradition, so much so that the word itself acquires in some circles a perjorative connotation.  Nietzsche said, “What is under the most profound attack today is the instinct and will of tradition.  All institutions which owe their origin to this instinct are opposed to the taste of the modern intellect.” Pieper’s tastes are rather different, and he is especially interested in traditions of teaching — that is, traditions which aim to preserve important truths.  This little book is an examination of the concept and the value of tradition.

The purpose of a tradition is to preserve something through time, passing it from one generation to the next.  Tradition requires two unequal partners: the one who “hands down” the teaching, and the one who receives it. The thing handed down is not an original contribution of the one who hands down, but rather something he himself received. “I received what I handed down to you”, as the Apostle says. The act of reception is not “learning”; receiving a tradition is not the same as gathering information.  The tradition is only received when the hearer accepts and appropriates the thing handed down.

A paradox in tradition is that a healthy tradition does not talk about itself as a tradition.  The tradition is not accepted because it is “traditional”; it is accepted simply and solely because it is true and valid.  Yet the one to whom a tradition is offered cannot independently know that the tradition is true; if he could, he would not need to receive it.  This means, says Pieper, that “accepting and receiving tradition has the structure of belief.”

Since participating in a tradition involves relying on the testimony of someone else, the question of authority necessarily arises.  (This is the point on which tradition runs aground in our culture, which is so allergic to authorities.  Tradition is incommensurable with the doctrine of the autonomy of the will.)  For the one who receives, the one who hands down acts as an authority.  Yet he himself relies on the word of the one who handed the tradition down before, and so on.  When we accept a tradition, therefore, the one in whom we ultimately place our trust is the one who stands at the beginning of this chain.  Plato called these originators “the ancients” or “the men of old”.  Yet their authority was not derived simply from the fact that they lived long ago, but from the fact that they received a divine gift:

This is the definitive platonic formulation about the status and authority of the “ancients”.  Their dignity consists in the fact that they received from a divine source a message, a pheme, something spoken, and handed on what they had received in this way.  This is the only reason why they are the “ancients”.

In this understanding, by accepting a tradition one places one’s trust in the divine source that originally spoke the truth which the tradition preserves.  This means that the concept of tradition is intrinsically related to revelation.  In fact, the only legitimate way something can merit preservation for all time is if it goes back to divine speech. By believing this word, we are in a real sense united to that divine source, for “whoever believes in another person by that act wants and realizes ‘spiritual union’ and communion with him.”

This analysis seems to imply that tradition is always at least implicitly sacred tradition, and Pieper does indeed want to define this strict sense of the word.  In this strict sense, Catholic Christianity is obviously an example of a tradition: it claims to possess a divine revelation which it preserves from corruption and forgetfulness through time, passing from one generation to the next truths of great and abiding value.  Yet Pieper points out that even Christian theologians acknowledge that other legitimate traditions exist: from its early days the idea has been put forward, renewed and emphasized again by Vatican II, that all people possess an “original revelation”.  All have heard, in one way or another, the divine Logos who is Christ.  This divine speech has entered into the respective myths and religions of different cultures, though “hidden beneath a thicket of fanciful additions”, and mixed with heterogeneous elements.  When Plato turns to myths in his dialogues, he seems to recognize that they are “only broken shards, fragments of a tradition which can no longer be grasped as a whole”.  Here, indeed, is the difficulty: this fragmented tradition cannot be restored to its original form without a further divine intervention.  (It is this further revelation that Christianity claims to have been entrusted with.)

The practice of handing down a tradition poses challenges to both parties.  The one who receives does not do so casually or uncritically.  It is natural and important that the value of the tradition be questioned and its claims probed if it is to be truly appropriated and its value truly appreciated.  This critical attitude, however, must remain humble, open to the possibility that it may reap a unique benefit from this gift that is offered.

The challenge is more severe for the one who hands down the tradition.  If the tradition is to be kept alive and vibrant, the truths it conveys must be presented in a compelling and credible manner.  To do so, especially in a culture that changes rapidly under the influence of powerful forces alien to the tradition, is extremely difficult.  Pieper quotes a Hebrew proverb: “Teaching the old is harder than teaching the new”.  We can draw a distinction between the core truths of the tradition and the external form in which they are presented.  Granting, and even insisting, that the relationship between these two elements, inner and outer, is not to be lightly tampered with, we must acknowledge that it is legitimate, and may at times be necessary, to alter the external form in order to preserve the inner substance.  To be stubbornly attached to a particular historically accidental form may hinder the transmission and reception of something truly worthy of preservation, and is, says Pieper, a form of decadence.  At the same time, the essence of what is to be preserved becomes naturally entangled with particular historical forms, and altering those forms risks altering or destroying the understanding of those essential truths.  It is a delicate business, then, requiring what Pieper calls a “very rare linking of prudence and courage”.

We can see this delicate interplay of historical forms and inner truths in recent Catholic history.  The liturgical changes that followed Vatican II are an obvious example: the outer form changed considerably, and to this day people argue about the degree to which our understanding of the theological truths conveyed by the liturgy has been damaged.  Another example is John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body”, in which he reformulated in modern, humanistic language the historic teachings of the Church with respect to human sexuality, teachings which had traditionally been presented with quite different language and reasoning.

With this understanding of the nature of tradition and the challenges it poses, we can briefly sketch the character of the ideal “critical traditionalist”.  We look for “a characteristic element of fundamental reverence and thankfulness”, for he recognizes his debt to those who have proclaimed and entrusted these truths to him.  His respect for tradition produces “distrust of that zero-point radicalism that fancies it always possible to start again from scratch with a tabula rasa, as well as distrust of the inclination to treat each new moment as a ‘completely new situation’, and so forth.”  A traditionalist makes a distinction between innovations in science or medicine, and innovations in our basic understanding of human nature, death, love, or God.  The former may be warmly welcomed; the latter provoke grave suspicion.

When a generation tries, as ours does, to emancipate itself from reliance on tradition, a consequence is that it loses sight of those truths which were the special province of the tradition.  If those truths were trivial or otherwise insignificant this is fine, but if they were of genuine value the result is inevitably an impoverishment.  Karl Jaspers remarked that divorced from sacred tradition philosophy was characterized by “an increasingly empty seriousness”.  Pieper cites the following aphorism by Viacheslav Ivanov: “Freedom achieved by forgetting is empty”.  “Empty freedom”: the phrase describes quite aptly the modern spiritual situation.

Although Tradition was written in 1970, this is (I believe) the first English translation to be published.  The translator, E. Christian Kopff, also provides a lengthy introduction and extensive notes and bibliography.  The length of Pieper’s text is just over half the length of the whole volume.