Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 82 (April 1998): 16-17.
On November 6, 1997, the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper died at the age of ninety-three. Hearing that news reminded me of the first time I read his work. In a graduate course I had been assigned to read some sections on the virtues from the Summa Theologica and then, in addition, to read Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues. Dutifully I carried out my assignment. St. Thomas baffled me almost entirely; I understood very little of what I read, and the system seemed dry and obscure. By contrast, The Four Cardinal Virtues was profound and compelling, even though I knew it was in many respects a reworking of the (to me) foreign world of the Summa. What I learned about the theory of the virtues from all this I’m not sure, but I did learn something of what it means to inhabit a system of thought long enough to see the world in its terms. That was what Pieper had done. He had so digested Aquinas as to make him his own.
At the beginning of The Silence of Saint Thomas Pieper captures succinctly the impression Aquinas so often makes upon his readers. Reading the Summa one may, Pieper says, be tempted to ask: "Were these sentences really set down by a living man or did not rather the objective content formulate itself undisturbed—neither blurred nor warmed—by the breath of a living thinker?" St. Thomas lived in chaotic times, and his own life was largely shaped by controversy. Yet, Pieper writes, "it is certainly clear that the Summa Theologica can only be the work of a heart fundamentally at peace."
Josef Pieper likewise lived in turbulent times. A German reaching the peak of his adult powers in the mid-twentieth century—some of whose early works were confiscated by the Nazi government—he eventually found a wider readership in countries other than his native land. And the very form of his writing—succinct, distilled, simultaneously clear and elusive—gives evidence of a heart that was, despite the turbulence, fundamentally at peace. The truth of things, he believed, can be clarified because they have their origin in an infinite light. But that same truth remains elusive, beyond our complete comprehension, because the things whose truth we seek to know are bathed in an abyss of light into which we cannot look directly. Only in the beatific vision—the end toward which philosophy, the love of wisdom, is oriented—will those limits be overcome. That is the fundamental attitude Pieper found in St. Thomas and transmitted in his own writing.
His death provides the occasion to re-commend his work to readers. His writings on the virtues are especially full of wisdom. He wrote not only on The Four Cardinal Virtues—prudence, justice, courage, and temperance—but also on the theological virtues. About Love, in particular, is a small gem of a work, and it—together with his small books on faith and hope—are now available in a single volume (from Ignatius Press).
Pieper emphasizes the close connection between moral and intellectual virtue. Our minds do not—contrary to many views currently popular—create truth. Rather, they must be conformed to the truth of things given in creation. And such conformity is possible only as the moral virtues become deeply embedded in our character, a slow and halting process. We have, he writes on one occasion, "lost the awareness of the close bond that links the knowing of truth to the condition of purity." That is, in order to know the truth we must become persons of a certain sort. The full transformation of character that we need will, in fact, finally require the virtues of faith, hope, and love. And this transformation will not necessarily—perhaps not often—be experienced by us as easy or painless. Hence the transformation of self that we must—by God’s grace—undergo "perhaps resembles passing through something akin to dying."
However important the life of virtue may be, though, the more we attempt it the more we will realize its limits. Virtue is not, Pieper insisted, its own reward. It brings with it a kind of happiness, but no one can live by that happiness alone. "The ‘Titan’s’ arrogance which wants nothing as a gift demands in reality not too much but too little." Consequently, the path toward virtue is an endless one never achieved solely by our own effort, and the virtue of hope—which teaches us that we are "truly en route as a viator up to the very moment of . . . death"—is essential. Indeed, in the face of death we realize the limits of the philosphical life. As Pieper put it in Death and Immortality: "Death cannot be overcome by thinking, nor by theological reflection. If it can be conquered at all, then only by something real, by life itself."
On the one occasion when I spoke with Pieper he told me a story that he also recounts in the first volume of his autobiography. In October of 1943, when he was temporarily on leave from military service and at home with his family in Münster, he and his wife decided to take their three young children to the zoo on a lovely, almost summery, afternoon. He took along his camera for the occasion and had taken pictures of the children just a few hundred yards from the house when they heard the air raid sirens begin to sound. As they got down into a trench, he suddenly recalled that he had not closed the garden door of the house. Running the short distance back to do that, he saw the American planes over the very center of Münster, and in a matter of moments the heart of the city was ablaze. Camera still in hand, he ran to the attic and took pictures of the city in flames.
And so it happened, he recalled, that on a single roll of film the contradictions of our century—and of human life more generally—are captured. Pictures of happy young children with their parents, heading off for an afternoon’s enjoyment on a lovely October day. Pictures of the burning cathedral and town hall—surely not military targets—in the heart of the city. This is the world in which justice is hard to discern, courage not easy to come by, and hope difficult to sustain.
In the mind and the writings of Josef Pieper the Greek philosophical tradition and the Christian theological tradition met and enriched each other. In one of his characteristically succinct formulations Pieper himself once stated the connection in a way especially fitting if we seek to contemplate the significance of his life’s work: "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?’"
Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University.