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.

whither can I flee from thy presence?

Reading in the Psalms yesterday, I was struck by the resonances between Psalm 138 and Anselm’s project in the Proslogion and Cur Deus Homo.  My read of Anselm here is shaped heavily by Burcht Pranger’s interpretation of the saint’s thought.  Not coincidentally, I recently attended a lecture by Prof. Pranger on Anselm, thus these ideas were percolating around my mind as I read the Psalms.  During the Q&A, he was asked about the potential connections between Anselm’s poetics and the Divine Office, but unfortunately I had to leave before I could hear his answer.

Anyway, the psalm reads:

Whither can I go from thy spirit
whither can I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend into heaven, thou are there;
if I am prostrate in the abyss, thou art there.
(Ps. 138:7-8)
It’s that final line, “in the abyss, thou art there” that strikes me.  In seeking for the unum argumentum of the Proslogion, Anselm is reduced to despair in the absence of God, but it is precisely from this absence that God’s presence becomes manifest.  It is the denial of the possibility of the unum argumentum which reveals it, from the preface:

Although I often and earnestly directed my thought to this end, and at some times that which I sought seemed to be just within my reach, while again it wholly evaded my mental vision, at last in despair I was about to cease, as if from the search for a thing which could not be found. But when I wished to exclude this thought altogether, lest, by busying my mind to no purpose, it should keep me from other thoughts, in which I might be successful; then more and more, though I was unwilling and shunned it, it began to force itself upon me, with a kind of importunity. So, one day, when I was exceedingly wearied with resisting its importunity, in the very conflict of my thoughts, the proof of which I had despaired offered itself, so that I eagerly embraced the thoughts which I was strenuously repelling.

Similarly, in Cur Deus Homo:

The first contains the objections of infidels, who despise the Christian faith because they deem it contrary to reason; and also the reply of believers; and, in fine, leaving Christ out of view (as if nothing had ever been known of him), it proves, by absolute reasons, the impossibility that any man should be saved without him. Again, in the second book, likewise, as if nothing were known of Christ, it is moreover shown by plain reasoning and fact that human nature was ordained for this purpose, viz., that every man should enjoy a happy immortality, both in body and in soul; and that it was necessary that this design for which man was made should be fulfilled; but that it could not be fulfilled unless God became man, and unless all things were to take place which we hold with regard to Christ.

The necessity of the Incarnation becomes clear when our knowledge of it is denied, just as God’s attributes emerge from the unum argumentum precisely when we both deny Biblical revelation, proceeding sola ratione, and even the search for reason altogether.  God is still there, in the abyss.

Unfortunately, I was unable in my admittedly cursory research to find the precise schedule of the hours which Anselm would have been reading, but in my breviary the Psalm is sung during Vespers on Friday.  Vespers is traditionally associated with the removal of Christ from the Cross and it’s hard to imagine a moment of greater dejection, a deeper abyss, than that.  Perhaps it’s at this very moment, a moment of utter despair and absence, that God’s presence shines through most clearly, if we have eyes to see.

This line of thought has also led me to become convinced that Boethius is engaged in a fundamentally similar project in the Consolation, and I hope to post more thoughts on that sometime in the near future.

Letters to a Diminished Church, Dorothy Sayers

I enjoy Dorothy Sayers and think she’s underrated as a thinker, though I haven’t read all that much.  Her suggestions in her article on the Trivium have always struck me as eminently reasonable.
Anyway, this is a collection of her essays.  Within she offers a number of wonderful insights and images, this is my favorite:
But, if theologians had not lost touch with the nature of language; if the had not insensibly fallen into the eighteenth-century conception of the universe as a mechanism and God as the great engineer; if, instead, they had chosen to think of God as a great, imaginative artist-then they might have offered a quite different kind of interpretation of the facts, with rather entertaining consequences.  They might, in fact, have seriously put forward the explanation I mentioned just now: that God had at some moment or other created the universe complete with all the vestiges of an imaginary past.
I have said that this seemed an extravagant assumption; so it does, if one thinks of God as a mechanician.  But if one thinks of him as working in the same sort of way as a creative artist, then it not longer seems extravagant, but the most natural thing in the world.  It is the way every novel in the world is written.
But let us suppose a novelist with a perfectly consistent imagination, who had conceived characters with an absolutely complete and flawless past history; and let us suppose, further, that the fossil remains were being examined by one of the characters, who (since his existence is contained wholly within the covers of the book just as ours is contained wholly within the universe) could not get outside the written book to communicate with the author.  (This, I know, is difficult rather like imaging the inhabitant of two-dimensional space, but it can be done.) Now, such a character would be in precisely the same position as a scientist examining the evidence that the universe affords of its own past.  The evidence would all be there, it would all point in the same direction, and its effects would be apparent in the whole action of the story itself (that is what, for him, would be “real” history). There is no conceivable set of data, no imaginable line of reasoning, by which he could possible prove whether or not the past had ever gone through the formality of taking place…Indeed, he could not by any means behave otherwise because he had been created by his maker as  a person with those influences in the past.
Conceiving of the comos as a story, rather than a machine has always appealed to me.
To the most obvious objection:
Probably, theologians would have been deterred by a vague sense that a God who made his universe like this was not being quite truthful.  But that would be because of a too limited notion of truth.  IN what sense is the unwritten past of the characters in a book less true than their behavior in it?  Or if a prehistory that never happened exercise on history an effect indistinguishable from the effect it would have made by happening, what real difference is there between happening and not happening?  If it is deducible from the evidence, self-consistent, and recognizable in its effects, it is quite real, whether or not it ever was actual.
Indirectly, I think that conceiving of things like this also eliminates many of the issues revolving around free will.
Sayers is also greatly interested in work, and takes a similar tact to Josef Pieper in his excellent writings on leisure.  Two selections to mull over:
“work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do.” (126)
“The Church’s approach to  an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays.  What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”(131)
Another of her repeated emphases is the affinity of the human mind as creator with God as creator, an idea explored a lot during the Tolkien course I TA’d for.   Through some meandering meditation on this insight, I’ve become convinced that this entails that the liturgy is the highest mode of human expression.  It seems plausible enough.


I place before my inward eyes myself with all that I am--my
body, soul, and all my powers--and I gather round me all the creatures
which God ever created in heaven, on earth, and in all the elements,
each one severally with its name, whether birds of the air, beasts of
the forest, fishes of the water, leaves and grass of the earth, or the
innumerable sand of the sea, and to these I add all the little specks
of dust which glance in the sun beams, with all the little drops of
water which ever fell or are falling from dew, snow, or rain, and I
wish that each of these had a sweetly-sounding stringed instrument,
fashioned from my heart's inmost blood, striking on which they might
each send up to our dear and gentle God a new and lofty strain of
praise for ever and ever. And then the loving arms of my soul stretch
out and extend themselves towards the innumerable multitude of all
creatures, and my intention is, just as a free and blithesome leader of
a choir stirs up the singers of his company, even so to turn them all
to good account by inciting them to sing joyously, and to offer up
their hearts to God. "Sursum corda."
- Henry Suso, The Life of Blessed Henry Suso by Himself. XI