Josef Pieper, A Brief Reading on the Virtues of the Human Heart

I’m not a fan of most modern philosophy.  No one ever seems to just come out and say what they mean, instead burying their points in a mass of verbiage so difficult to penetrate that when you do, it’s inevitably a disappointment.  More, they seem to have forgotten the fundamental duty of philosophy, to inform how we live.  As John of Salisbury says in the Metalogicon, ” Any pretext of philosophy that does not bear fruit in the cultivation of virtue and the guidance of one’s conduct is futile and false.”

Pieper is an exception to this, remarkable in his clarity and concision.  You ought to read him, and his Brief Reader on the Virtues is a good place to start, though I’d recommend this anthology as a better place to get a more complete image of his thought.

In class, we’ve recently finished discussing Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethicsitself a fantastic bit of philosophy, and it’s interesting to compare Pieper’s summation of the virtues to Aristotle’s.  They shouldn’t be understood as standing in opposition to each other, but rather as stages of development, Aristotle (consciously) re-imagined and supplemented by St. Thomas and then passed onward to Pieper:

First: the Christian is on who, in faith, becomes aware of the reality of the triune God.  Second: the Christian strives, in hope, for the total fulfillment of his being in eternal life.  Third: the Christian directs himself, in the divine virtue of love, to an affirmation of God and neighbor that surpasses the power of any natural love.  Fourth: the Christian is prudent; namely, he does not allow his view on reality to be controlled by the Yes or No of his will, but rather he makes this Yes or No of the will dependent upon the truth of real things.  Fifth: the Christian is just; that is, he is able to live, “with the other” in truth; he sees himself as a member among members of the Church, of the people, and of any community.  Sixth: the Christian is brave, that is, he is prepared to suffer injury and, if need be, death for the truth and for the realization of justice. Seventh: the Christian is temperate; namely, he does not permit his desire to possess and his desire for pleasure to become destructive and inimical to his being.
A big point for Pieper, and one of the reasons I enjoy him so much, is his emphasis on morality as rooted in the reality of things.  To be virtuous is simply to live in awareness of and in accordance with the truth.  This can probably be best illustrated by the contrary.  When we do wrong, don’t we know, at least deep down, that we’re acting on a lie?  Also, witness how doing wrong leads to the proliferation of falsehoods, lies we tell ourselves, lies we tell others, tangled webs.
Two more passages, both of which hit uncomfortably close to home.  The first reminds me strongly of The Transylvanian Trilogy, a series which I enjoyed deeply and have always promised myself I’d write about someday.  The quote certainly applied to the subject of the Trilogy, the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy immediately before the First World War (another example from a favorite of mine, the inter-war aristocrats of Evelyn Waugh), does it apply to us as well?:
The connection of licentiousness of the desire for pleasure with the indolent inability to get angry is the distinctive mark of complete and genuinely hopeless degeneration.  It shows itself wherever a social class, a people, or a culture is ripe for ruin.
The last is a painful mirror for myself, as I sit here with a dozen open tabs and multiple screen blaring:
The “concupiscence of the eyes” reaches its utmost destructive and extirpative power at the point where it has constructed for itself a world in its own image and likeness, where it has surrounded itself with the restlessness of a ceaseless film of meaningless objects for show and with a literally deafening noise of nothing more than impressions and sensations that roar in an uninterrupted chase around every window of the senses.  Behind their paper facade of ostentation lies absolute nothingness, a “world” of at most one-day constructs that often become insipid after just one-quarter of an hour and are thrown out like a newspaper that has been read or a magazine that has been paged through; a world which, before the revealing gaze of a sound spirit uninfected by its contagion, shows itself to be like a metropolitan entertainment district in the harsh clarity of a winter morning: barren, bleak, and ghostly to the point of pushing one to despair.

2 responses to “Josef Pieper, A Brief Reading on the Virtues of the Human Heart”

  1. […] The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper – My previous post outlined why I’m a fan of Pieper, this is perhaps his most famous work.  You’ll never […]

  2. […] Pieper – I’ve written about Pieper a number of times, and specifically about this book back in January.  An excellent, very brief primer on […]

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