Archive for the ‘Josef Pieper’ Category


Leisure: The Life and Health of the Soul by Mitchell Kalpakgian

January 20, 2014
Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I has cut its black lines deep into the modern imagination. It shows a winged being who sits in apparent dejection, surrounded by unused objects of science, craft and art, holding a pair of dividers as she broods. Her face is a mask of darkness, but her bright eyes glare, revealing an acuteness of mind that contrasts with her exhausted pose. In 16th-century portraits, the head resting on hand pose was to become a universal image of the soul afflicted by sad thoughts – as in Moretto da Brescia's Portrait of a Young Man in London's National Gallery. The influence of Dürer's print is everywhere in Renaissance Europe. But what is equally amazing is the power of this 1514 work to fascinate us today, as when Günter Grass uses Dürer's print to meditate on modern politics in his 1973 book From the Diary of a Snail. Dürer's work of art continues to appeal because it is a diagnosis. It describes a malaise in the way a doctor might list symptoms. Sitting around, head in hand? Face a bit shadowy? My diagnosis: melancholia. Helpfully, Dürer even names this condition on the banner held aloft by a bat-like creature. Since people still suffer from melancholy – more likely calling it depression, the dumps or the blues – Dürer's image continues to resonate. As does his implication that melancholy afflicts the most ambitious human efforts, that it is a historical and collective, not just a personal, fate. The diagnosis that Dürer offers is rooted in medieval medicine. According to the notion of the "humours", melancholy was caused by an excess of black bile – hence the darkened face and the appropriate black ink. But Dürer offers something else not found in the old pseudo-science – a sense of a soul weighed down by its own intellect. In fact, the roots of his visionary masterpiece lie in Renaissance Italy, which he had visited and whose artists he knew well. In 15th-century Florence, philosopher Marsilio Ficino claimed that intellectuals, gifted and introspective souls like himself, were especially prone to the malaise of melancholy. He proposed various magical remedies to lift it – often invoking the power of the planet and goddess Venus to bring joy to the joyless. Dürer powerfully translates Ficino's idea of the sad intellectual into a heroic portrait of a great mind surrounded by unused tools of discovery and creation. Yet there is something more still. Dürer, we can guess from this print, knew the darkness of melancholy personally. He also knew it was the curse of one of the greatest artists of his time: his contemporary Leonardo da Vinci, whose art he had studied. Da Vinci notoriously suffered from a strange affliction that stopped him finishing his paintings. He fretted for years over a colossal statue of a horse that he never made, and started a battle painting that he left as a ruinous sketch on a wall in Florence. By 1514, he was a byword for mystifyingly irresolute genius. Is Melencolia I an allegorical portrait of the creative paralysis of da Vinci, the paragon of Renaissance art who Dürer aspired to emulate – flaws included? If so, this would be the first of many Germanic attempts to understand Leonardo, including Goethe's famous essay on The Last Supper, and Sigmund Freud's book Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood. Freud diagnoses Leonardo in modern clinical language. But nothing he says, there or elsewhere, is any more insightful than Albrecht Dürer's majestic and enduring study of the troubled human mind.

Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I has cut its black lines deep into the modern imagination. It shows a winged being who sits in apparent dejection, surrounded by unused objects of science, craft and art, holding a pair of dividers as she broods. Her face is a mask of darkness, but her bright eyes glare, revealing an acuteness of mind that contrasts with her exhausted pose.
In 16th-century portraits, the head resting on hand pose was to become a universal image of the soul afflicted by sad thoughts – as in Moretto da Brescia’s Portrait of a Young Man in London’s National Gallery. The influence of Dürer’s print is everywhere in Renaissance Europe. But what is equally amazing is the power of this 1514 work to fascinate us today, as when Günter Grass uses Dürer’s print to meditate on modern politics in his 1973 book From the Diary of a Snail.
Dürer’s work of art continues to appeal because it is a diagnosis. It describes a malaise in the way a doctor might list symptoms. Sitting around, head in hand? Face a bit shadowy? My diagnosis: melancholia. Helpfully, Dürer even names this condition on the banner held aloft by a bat-like creature.
Since people still suffer from melancholy – more likely calling it depression, the dumps or the blues – Dürer’s image continues to resonate. As does his implication that melancholy afflicts the most ambitious human efforts, that it is a historical and collective, not just a personal, fate.
The diagnosis that Dürer offers is rooted in medieval medicine. According to the notion of the “humours”, melancholy was caused by an excess of black bile – hence the darkened face and the appropriate black ink. But Dürer offers something else not found in the old pseudo-science – a sense of a soul weighed down by its own intellect. In fact, the roots of his visionary masterpiece lie in Renaissance Italy, which he had visited and whose artists he knew well.
In 15th-century Florence, philosopher Marsilio Ficino claimed that intellectuals, gifted and introspective souls like himself, were especially prone to the malaise of melancholy. He proposed various magical remedies to lift it – often invoking the power of the planet and goddess Venus to bring joy to the joyless.
Dürer powerfully translates Ficino’s idea of the sad intellectual into a heroic portrait of a great mind surrounded by unused tools of discovery and creation. Yet there is something more still. Dürer, we can guess from this print, knew the darkness of melancholy personally. He also knew it was the curse of one of the greatest artists of his time: his contemporary Leonardo da Vinci, whose art he had studied. Da Vinci notoriously suffered from a strange affliction that stopped him finishing his paintings. He fretted for years over a colossal statue of a horse that he never made, and started a battle painting that he left as a ruinous sketch on a wall in Florence. By 1514, he was a byword for mystifyingly irresolute genius.
Is Melencolia I an allegorical portrait of the creative paralysis of da Vinci, the paragon of Renaissance art who Dürer aspired to emulate – flaws included? If so, this would be the first of many Germanic attempts to understand Leonardo, including Goethe’s famous essay on The Last Supper, and Sigmund Freud’s book Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood.
Freud diagnoses Leonardo in modern clinical language. But nothing he says, there or elsewhere, is any more insightful than Albrecht Dürer’s majestic and enduring study of the troubled human mind.

Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian examines the deadly vice of acedia, its effects on the human mind and spirit, and why the art of leisure is so important, especially in today’s workaday society. Taken from the March 2009 Homiletic & Pastoral Review Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian has taught English literature for thirty-nine years at several colleges. He is the author of two books, The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels , and The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature (Neuman Press, 2000). He has published articles in the New Oxford Review, Culture Wars and The Catholic Faith.


To ignore the Third Commandment and not keep holy the Sabbath not only violates divine law but also forms the vice of acedia, that condition of the soul associated with apathy and joylessness. If a person does not enjoy periodic rest, cultivate leisure on festive occasions, or restore his soul by honoring Sunday as a day of celebration, worship and rejuvenation of body and spirit, he becomes prey to the noon-day demon that releases the various symptoms of acedia that afflict the soul.

The Latin word that corresponds to the deadly sin of sloth, acedia signifies a state of mind, body and soul that manifests tendencies like listlessness, lukewarmness, restless, sadness and despair; as Josef Pieper explains in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, the unleisurely person

“[is] not at one with himself . . . as the Middle Ages expressed it, sadness has seized him in the face of the divine Goodness that lives within him — and this sadness is that ‘sadness of the world’ (tristitia saeculi) spoken of in the Bible.”

A person who never plays or rejuvenates himself, who never distinguishes between work days and holy days, and who disregards the Greek distinction between living and living well invites an attack from the noon-day demon associated with the vice of sloth.

As the name suggests, the noon-day demon afflicts its victims in the middle of things — in the middle of the day when fatigue rules the body, in the middle of a journey when boredom or exhaustion destroys enthusiasm, and in the middle of life when ennui wearies the spirit. In this condition of being in the middle of things, the excitement and newness of the beginning have lost their freshness, and the anticipation of the end and the thrill of accomplishment have not whetted the appetite for joy.

Thus acedia inflicts upon the person in the middle of things the state of lukewarmness or indifference. The noon-day demon makes a person neither hot nor cold, neither fervent about loving the good nor passionate about hating evil. This dullness or apathy becomes oppressive and robs a person of joy and hope, easily discouraging him from completing his journey, fulfilling his duty, or honoring his vows.

Once acedia rules a person, he loses his resolution and purpose and fails to finish an undertaking with the conviction of the traveler in Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

“And I have miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep.”

Acedia also breeds listlessness. Because a person does not participate in the restorative leisure of Sunday or taste the rejuvenation of play, a person finds himself listless when not working. Time becomes burdensome and needs to be escaped by mindless activities that “kill” time and eliminate boredom.

Thus unleisurely, unsociable pursuits such as endless hours of television viewing or Internet browsing fill the vacuum. In the total world of work without leisure, the time away from work is considered merely a “break” or a period of recovery for the body to nourish itself with food and fortify itself with sleep in order to return to work and regain physical energy.

However, food for the soul and refreshment for the spirit do not receive their proper nourishment. In Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Bartleby — the epitome of the “workaholic” who lives in his office and works even on Sundays — only eats and sleeps in order to return to work, never enjoying friendship, recreation or beauty. Listless and unoccupied when not working, he lives to work rather than working in order to play, and in the process he becomes perfunctory in his habits and lifeless in his demeanor, confining his conversation to a single phrase: “I prefer not to.”

This listlessness of mind and spirit, however, can lead to restlessness or frantic activity — another trait of acedia. Chaucer’s famous description of the lawyer from the prologue of The Canterbury Tales summarizes this state of mind: “Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas/ And yet he semed bisier than he was.

“Just as passive, inane entertainment fills the void and combats boredom, constant movement and incessant busyness also dispel the monotony of time. Compulsive shopping, an unnecessary second job, an overscheduled day or week, involvement in more volunteer work and committees, and endless home improvements all provide substitutes for true leisure. A benefit of leisure is a change in rhythm, an opportunity to “be still” and recollected and experience the joys of an interior life and the pleasure of contemplation that Pieper describes as a “relaxed . . . purely receptive” beholding and “listening-in to the being of things.”

The purpose of leisure, then, is both social and contemplative, an occasion to enjoy the company and conversation of friendship and an occasion to “taste and see the sweetness of the Lord” and revel in the pure goodness of life’s simple pleasures. Like Alexander the Great’s obsessive preoccupation with more conquests and victories even after he ruled the Greek world and was proclaimed king of Asia — Alexander wallowed in sadness because his troops refused to cross the Ganges, as Plutarch records — compulsive activity enervates a person’s strength and robs the spirit of the regeneration that only leisure and play bestow.

The inspiration of the Muses and the power of Eros, as Pieper acknowledges, do not touch the listless, who waste time, or the restless, who never pause. They never experience the joy that Gerard Manly Hopkins celebrates in his poetry: “Glory be to God for dappled things . . . The world is charged with the grandeur of God . . . Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!”

Another by-product of acedia that follows the absence of leisure is sadness, a sense of world-weariness expressed in words like the German Weltschmerz, the French ennui and the Latin tristitia that convey a tiredness with life. Instead of affirming the goodness of creation or rejoicing in the simple pleasures of life, the unleisurely suffer a chronic melancholy, a type of sickness unto death.

This sadness does not proceed from natural causes such as death, tragedy or injustice, but from a jadedness from living, a feeling of déjà vu (“been there, done that”). The repetition of work without leisure, the busyness of activity without joy, and the regimen of living to work instead of working to play allow no opportunities to transcend the workaday world of getting and spending to experience innocent, wholesome, childlike fun or the highest joys of civilization that worship, beauty and learning proffer.

Unlike the ancient Greeks who, as Pericles observed in his famous “Funeral Oration,” cultivate beauty and play (“When our work is over, we are in a position to enjoy all kinds of recreation for our spirits”), the unleisurely neglect their emotional, physical and mental health. They do not avail themselves of the natural, God-given cures that combat world weariness and the sense of vanitas vanitatum.

Without the normal healing of the Sabbath and the sheer joy of exhilaration afforded by life’s natural experiences of goodness, beauty and truth, the human spirit suffers from melancholy and never recovers from sadness. In Plato’s words, when men ignore divine festivals “as a means of refreshment from their fatigue,” the weight of the world’s cares does not allow them to stand erect and “return to an upright posture.”

The most insidious and destructive dimension of acedia is despair, a symptom that explains the deadly nature of this capital vice. Chronic listlessness, perpetual lukewarmness, compulsive restlessness and deep-seated sadness lead the soul to the state of hopelessness. When a person never looks forward to a time of leisure and recreation, when nothing beautiful, good, noble or miraculous inspires love or wonder, and when no form of activity produces rest, repose and happiness, the future appears bleak — a state of consciousness that Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 experiences when he comments on the drabness of modern life:

“It struck him that the truly characteristic thing about modern life was not its cruelty or insecurity, but simply its bareness, its dinginess, its listlessness.”

In the totalitarian regime of Big Brother, Winston suffers the dreary flatness of daily life because he is deprived of every form of leisure and play. After his day of work at the Ministry of Truth, Winston spends his free hours performing more labors for the Party — demonstrations, rallies and other political functions that amount to drudgery.

The world in 1984 is devoid of beauty, art, poetry and great literature, for the classics have been banned to assure the proliferation of the Party’s ideological propaganda. As Comrade Syme explains, “The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron — they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be.”

In the secretive world of Thought Police and spy networks where everyone suspects and distrusts everyone, Winston enjoys no friendships and pursues no romantic relationships. In the godless world of Oceania, Winston never anticipates the leisure of a Sunday, the celebration of holidays, or the civilizing, humanizing pleasures that restore the soul and lift the heart.

The acedia he suffers because of Big Brother’s dictatorial control of every aspect of personal life from work to play to thought to romance leads to a crisis in Winston’s life, where he ponders the famous existential question of “to be or not to be” that Hamlet posed. Winston struggles in the novel to decide whether “to stay alive” or “to stay human” as he grapples with the temptations of despair.

A humane society, then, that cultivates leisure and works in order to play creates culture. Without the fruits of leisure human life lacks the power of renewal and regeneration that worship, beauty, hospitality, friendship, games and conversation provide the human spirit. This ideal balance of work and play, which creates civilization, epitomizes the art of living well that the ancient Greeks bequeathed to the West.

In Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus sojourns in the country of Phaeacia, he revels in the society of a cultured people who not only welcome him with the rituals of old-world hospitality and provide him all the comforts of the body but also invite his storytelling, conversation and knowledge as they marvel at the tales of his adventures. The music of the bard, the performance of the dancers and the exhilaration of the Olympic games inspire his wonder, lift his spirits and make his heart rejoice. The warm sociability of the Phaeacians, their worship of the gods and their appreciation of “the feast, the lyre and dance” all derive from their practice of leisure.

Symptoms of acedia like listlessness do not appear in this land, for the people are productive in shipbuilding and weaving and skilled in dancing; as King Alcinous declares, “How far we excel the world in sailing, nimble footwork, dance and song.”

Celebrating the feasts of hospitality and the athletic games, the Phaeacians do not suffer world weariness but savor the sweetness of life’s simple pleasures. As they honor their guest with a kingly welcome, they affirm their gladness at the joy of living and illustrate what Pieper calls “the cheerful affirmation by man of his own existence” — the sense that “man is not only in harmony with himself . . . but also in agreement with the world and its meaning.” Because of these many blessings of leisure, Odysseus feels human and civilized again after all his tribulations at war and dangers at sea.

Without leisure, a society becomes dehumanized, impersonal, perfunctory or barbaric. Just as Winston in 1984 loses his capacity to think, feel, play and love because Big Brother and the Party organize their society as a regimen of total work and no play and regard persons as functionaries, so also the cyclopes in the Odyssey degenerate into crude barbarians because their way of life lacks every vestige of culture or civilization that comes from leisure: no worship of the gods, no customs of hospitality, no sense of beauty, and no conversations or life of the mind.

Both Winston Smith suffering the stark loneliness of daily life in 1984 and the cyclopes living in the darkness of solitary caves without a social or political life are depictions of existence as mere survival, the struggle “to stay alive.” The social virtues that foster civilization have no place either in 1984 or the caves of the cyclopes, where no one experiences a sense of belonging to a family or to a society. The art of living well cannot flourish in a culture that does not value the festive experiences that unify people and remind them of their common humanity.

Without the mirth, joy and rest of leisure, man does not drink from the cup of blessings or taste the sweetness of life that the goodness of creation offers from God’s divine Providence. If, as St. Thomas Aquinas commented, “No man can live without pleasure,” then this deprivation robs persons of a civilized life that accords with man’s dignity as a creature who has been created to rest on the Sabbath, to recreate on festive occasions and to provide for the body in order to enjoy the fruits of the spirit.

Like all of the seven deadly sins, acedia awaits its opportunity to seduce human beings. The noon-day demon prowls everywhere in a workaholic society that knows only work and idleness and preys upon the tired, the bored and the apathetic who lack the time, the energy and the spirit to look above, to lift their hearts, and to fall in love with life again and again in the revel of mirthful play.

This great truth that leisure teaches is both simple and profound: the goodness of creation provides inexhaustible sources of renewal, regeneration and rejuvenation that are as plentiful as the myriad of stars. Just as play always gladdens the child, just as love always renews the heart and just as laughter always refreshes the spirit, leisure always liberates man from enslavement to work and releases him from the bondage to servile activities like earning money in order to contemplate the true, the good, and the beautiful.

The great mystery of leisure, then — to use a phrase from Xenophon when he refers to agriculture — is that it is “a generous art.” It gives so much, and it costs so little; “it is all a purchase, all is a prize.” So much exists to gladden and uplift the hearts of so many people. Just as the cycle of day and night requires man to eat, drink and sleep to replenish himself, the rhythms of the weeks and seasons also demand the food and drink and rest of the spirit that leisure provides.

As Pieper writes,

“The surge of new life that flows to us when we give ourselves to the contemplation of a blossoming rose, a sleeping child, or of a divine mystery — is this not like the surge of life that comes from deep, dreamless sleep?”

A jaded, listless world debilitated by work, worry and debt and indoctrinated with the ideas of the noon-day demon (“Let both man and woman work,” “Let them think they need more things,” and “Let them have no time except to eat and sleep”) needs this “surge of new life” again and again to resist the wiles of the deadly sin of acedia.


The Self-communicative and Relational Person – W. Norris Clarke

January 9, 2013
Relational Being, Human Touch

Relational Being, Human Touch

We have just seen the “introverted” side of the person, its abiding presence in the world as presence in itself and to itself, as self-possessing through self-consciousness and self-determination. Now we must turn to its “extraverted” side, its relational aspect, by which it is actively present to others, both by its self-communication and its receptivity.

All being, as we said earlier, is caught up in this unending dialectic of the within and the without, the in-itself and the toward-others, the inward-facing act of existential presence in itself, and the outward-facing act of self-expression and self-manifestation to others, by which it enters into a web of relationships with them.

So too the whole life of a personal being, even more intensely, revolves around this basic polarity of presence to self and presence to others. A person, like every other real being, is a living synthesis of substantiality and relationality, and the relational side is equally important as the substantial side, because it is only through the former that the self as substance can actualize its potentiality and fulfill its destiny.

This is especially true of the human person. For human consciousness does not start off in full, luminous self-presence, like the angels. It begins rather in a kind of darkness, somewhat like a dark theatre, in a state of potency toward knowing all things, in act toward none. To actualize itself, make it luminously present to itself in act, it must first open itself to the world of others, be waked up by their action on it and its own active response, as the Sleeping Beauty in the symbolic fairy tale must be waked up by a kiss from without. Only then, through the mediation of the other, can it return to itself, to discover itself as self-conscious “I,” as this unique human person.

I distinguish myself from the subhuman world around me by responding to it, by interacting with it and discovering that it is not like me, neither articulate, nor self-conscious, nor free, as I am. I discover positively what and who I am by engaging actively — and receptively — in interpersonal relations with other human beings like me who treat me as a “Thou” in an interpersonal social matrix of “I-Thou-We.” The pervasive role of the human community and human culture as indispensable in the coming to self-possession should be given due place here, and could be developed at length. But I am sure you are sufficiently acquainted with this aspect of human personality not to need detailed spelling out by me.

St. Thomas was quite explicit in stressing the social nature of human beings in general, how they need each other in an ordered social matrix to develop properly and satisfy their needs on all levels. He even has a lovely phrase about the spontaneous natural joy there is in human community when he remarks, “It is natural for human beings to take delight in living together (delectabiliter vivere in communi). But it was left to the contemporary existential phenomenologists and personalists to develop in more rich detail the indispensable role and unique characteristic of the I-Thou dialogue — as contrasted with the I-It dialogue with impersonal entities — in coming to know ourselves explicitly as persons, as “I.”

St. Thomas would have been delighted, I am sure, with such new developments in philosophy, and would have quickly integrated them into his own. These sensitive phenomenological descriptions have made it clear just how we come to the awareness of ourselves as “P” through the reaching out of another to us who is already a “P” and appeals to us to respond as another self, a “Thou,” not merely as the stimulus-response of an impersonal thing but as another personal “I” self-consciously and freely open to the other.

Unless someone else treats me as a “Thou” I can never wake up to myself as an “I,” as a person. I am thinking here of the analyses of thinkers like Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, John Macmurray, Emmanuel Mounier and the Christian personalists, Jean-Paul Sartre, and many others, whom I got to know while studying for my Ph.D. in Louvain just after World War II.

From all that the ancients knew, and we have learned since, of the social nature of the human person, it is clear that the entire development of personal life unfolds through active dialogue with an ever growing matrix of relations to other persons and the larger world beyond them. The growing child gets its self-confidence and sense of self-worth in response to the nurturing, caring love of its parents and immediate family and surrounding playmates — with all the chances of distortions and flaws in all these relationships, which can often leave permanent traces, both positive and negative, in the growing person’s attitude toward itself and the world.

Then the teenage person must struggle to find its own identity as distinct from its parents and in relation to its peers, especially of the opposite sex. So too the young adult must affirm itself and find its place in the vaster and more complex matrix of relations that is the adult world of ever-widening social communities, with possibilities of frustration, alienation, and isolation all along the way.

Everywhere our growth and development, positive and negative both, are mediated by relations — though not, we insist — simply reducible to them. No wonder that in the world of psychology and psychotherapy today the person is defined primarily, often exclusively, in relational terms. Finally, at the deepest level of its being and self-identity the human person must be defined in terms of its permanent relationship to God, the Source of all being, as the latter’s created image.

Who I am at my deepest level can only be understood in irreducibly relational terms: I am an image of God, brought into being by love, and called to transformation and final union with my Source. Mere introspection into my isolated inner consciousness loses itself finally in an impenetrable abyss of unlit mystery. Only the ultimate Light can light me up to myself at the deepest levels of my being and meaning.

In all of this apparently total immersion in relations to others, there is actually an alternating rhythm (or spiral movement, if you will) going on. Relations come into us and call us outward first; then we (should, normally) return to our own center to reflect on the result and integrate it into the abiding center of the self, expanding it and enriching it in the process.

This permits the enriched self to then reach out further to others, with a surer and more profound sense of self-possession and ability to communicate and share our own riches. So the spiral of self-development should ideally go on, alternating harmoniously between the two poles of the person’s being: self-possession and self-communication. As Josef Pieper has put it with his usual felicity of phrase, commenting on a pregnant text of Thomas himself:

The higher the form of intrinsic existence, the more developed becomes the relatedness with reality, also the more profound and comprehensive becomes the sphere of this relationship: namely, the world. And the deeper such relations penetrate the world of reality, the more intrinsic becomes the subject’s existence…. These two aspects combined — dwelling most intensively within itself, and being capax universi, able to grasp the universe — together constitute the essence of the spirit. Any definition of “spirit” will have to contain these two aspects as its core.
Josef Pieper, The Truth of All Things

Translate “spirit” as “personalized spirit,” or person as spirit, and he is making the same point as I am. Thus the life of every human person unfolds as a journey of the spirit through an ever-developing spiral circulation ‘between self-presence and active self-expressive presence to others, between the “I” and the world, both personal and subpersonal, between inward-facing self-possession and outward-facing openness to the other.

And, paradoxically, the more intensely I am present to myself at one pole, the more intensely I am present and open to others at the other. And reciprocally, the more I make myself truly present to the others as an “I” or self, the more I must also be present to myself, in order that it may be truly I that is present to them, not a mask.

The same creative tension exists, by the way, in the most fundamental relationship of all, that of the person to being itself. For the more I become aware of myself as related by intelligence and will to the whole order of being as intelligible and good, the more I come to understand myself as a human person, as embodied spirit, or “spirit-in-the-world”; and reciprocally, the more I come to take possession of myself as person, the more I wake up to my innate openness and orientation to the limitless horizon of being. Once again, to be is to be substance-in-relation.

Thus, a personalized being must obey the basic dyadic ontological structure of all being, that is, presence in itself and presence to others. But the outgoing,. self-expressive, self-communicating, relational aspect must be an equally intrinsic and primordial aspect of every person as is its interiority and self-possession. And although there is a priority of order of the latter over the former, still each aspect is of equal worth and value.


Catholic and American – Derek Jeter

October 3, 2012

In my takeaways from the Communio Study Group I mentioned the nature of Catholic communion and the internal unity of the Church that John XXIII was expecting to act as a as a leaven in order to restore the unity of the human race. John XXIII saw the world of the mid-twentieth century as a place of grave crisis. One of the more tragic periods of history, he said, was marked by a great disunity among the peoples of the world. “History that had been marked in recent decades by war and fratricide, by Nazism and racism, by Communism and class warfare,[it] had forgotten not only God; it had forgotten that the human race is one human family.” 50 years later one could be snarky and say not much has changed but in some ways the challenges to the Catholic Church are more clearly defined. And perhaps even easier to understand in this America of the 21st century.

A question that occurred to me was how my relationship with my country is different from my relationship with the Church. How is being a Catholic different from being an American? As an American I am an individual who participates in a democracy that grants me a privileged status as a Vietnam Veteran. Thanks to my war service I receive disability benefits and thanks to the payments I made to social security I get retirement benefits. In both those cases I belong to a group that the secular society has chosen to reward.

As a Catholic however I am marginalized by my government. My government supports abortion and uses my taxes to fund it both here and overseas. I find Catholic Charities, hospitals and social service agencies under siege as they attempt to fulfill the conscience and teachings of Matthew 25 in the public square.

Were gay marriage to become the law of the land I worry that the courts may direct my Church to perform the marriage sacrament so as not to be prejudicial against gay Americans. I have seen Catholic Charities in Boston close its doors to its adoption agencies for refusal to place children with gay couples. Will Churches be next? What about hospitals after Obama Care kicks in with its proscriptions against health care workers who wish to exercise a conscience clause and not participate in abortions or providing contraceptive medications?

HHS Secretary Sibelius has already gone on record to say that if they (Catholics) have a problem with doing those things they shouldn’t be working in health care in the first place. Will Catholic hospitals be sold so as to continue under the new Obama plan: At a public hearing on the sale of Caritas Christi, the health-care system of the Boston archdiocese, the director of the 6-hospital system admitted that he could not guarantee the continuation of the institution’s Catholic identity after the transfer. James Karam argued in favor of the sale, to the Cerberus capital firm, because he said the only alternative would be closing the hospitals

This article in the WSJ recently on events in Chicago as Obama Care rolls out:

On Monday, Catholic Charities of Chicago — the social-welfare arm of the archdiocese — joined other Illinois Catholic organizations to file a lawsuit against the Obama administration’s mandate that would force these Catholic groups to offer free contraceptives through their insurance, in violation of church teaching. The suit’s message is direct: Mr. President, your mandate will make it impossible for us to do our jobs.

Judging from how President Obama now sounds like George W. Bush when he talks about the Catholic Church, the president appreciates the political harm his mandate is doing. At a campaign stop last Thursday in Ohio, he repeated what has become a stock line: “When I first got my job as an organizer for the Catholic churches in Chicago . . . they taught me that no government program can replace good neighbors and people who care deeply about their communities [and] who are fighting on their behalf.”

In terms of religious liberty, the new lawsuit breaks no new legal ground. What it does is offer a window into how much the decency of daily American life depends on churches using their free-exercise rights. Our nation’s third-largest city provides an especially compelling example.

Chicago’s Catholic Charities employs 2,700 full- and part-time staffers delivering relief aimed at helping people achieve self-sufficiency. They do everything from stocking food pantries to helping people with HIV/AIDS, resettling refugees, housing seniors, and training people for jobs.

Last year alone, that translated into 19 million meals in the form of groceries for single moms, another 2.5 million meals served to the hungry or homeless, 458,000 nights of shelter for families and children, and 897,481 hours of homemaker services for seniors. And these numbers don’t include the thousands of inner-city children served by the archdiocese’s Catholic schools but not on the Catholic Charities budget.

When you ask the Rev. Michael Boland, president and CEO of Catholic Charities, what percentage of those he serves are Catholic, he answers that he doesn’t know, because they don’t ask. The Obama administration’s mandate would change that. Particularly galling, he says, is the charge that his church is engaged in a “war on women” — when 80% of those his organization serves are women and children.

As the lawsuit puts it: Enforcing the mandate could soon require Catholic Charities to “stop providing educational opportunities to non-Catholics, stop serving non-Catholics, and fire non-Catholic employees — actions that would betray their religious commitment to serving all in need without regard to religion.”

Yes, the bulk of the Catholic Charities budget these days comes from government funding. There’s a perfectly legitimate public question about what accepting that funding means for both society and the church.

It’s not, however, the only public question. Another important one is this: Will our society rely on civic institutions or the government to deliver these services? Does anyone really believe we would be better off turning over the work of Catholic Charities to states or the feds — with their higher costs, greater bureaucracy, and loss in efficiency?

In a recent report, Catholic Charities notes that it costs Medicaid (read: taxpayers) $43,000 per year for every senior in a nursing home. By contrast, Catholic Charities provides day care for seniors at $6,461 per year, home-delivered meals at $1,188 and services such as housecleaning for $4,028. Any one of these services can keep an elderly citizen in his own house instead of being sent to a nursing home (one of the great drivers of Medicaid’s escalating costs).

Overall, 92 cents of every Catholic Charities dollar goes to recipients, which is one reason Catholic Charities is so often chosen for contracts. The church can provide such value because for every staffer, it has nearly seven volunteers. That works out to a volunteer army of 17,000 people, larger than Chicago’s police force.

It’s worth asking what Chicago might look like if these religious volunteers were limited to employing and serving only those who share their faith. And not just Chicago. Across America, volunteers with other faith groups are also reclaiming lives and neighborhoods in a way that even Mr. Obama says is far superior to any government program.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York recently wrote:

Coercing religious ministries and citizens to pay directly for actions that violate their teaching is an unprecedented incursion into freedom of conscience. Organizations fear that this unjust rule will force them to take one horn or the other of an unacceptable dilemma: Stop serving people of all faiths in their ministries — so that they will fall under the narrow exemption — or stop providing health-care coverage to their own employees.

The Catholic Church defends religious liberty, including freedom of conscience, for everyone. The Amish do not carry health insurance. The government respects their principles. Christian Scientists want to heal by prayer alone, and the new health-care reform law respects that. Quakers and others object to killing even in wartime, and the government respects that principle for conscientious objectors. By its decision, the Obama administration has failed to show the same respect for the consciences of Catholics and others who object to treating pregnancy as a disease.

This latest erosion of our first freedom should make all Americans pause. When the government tampers with a freedom so fundamental to the life of our nation, one shudders to think what lies ahead.

So how does my life as an American contrast with my life as a Catholic? If the former features my identity as an individual with rights and privileges divvied up by my secular masters and fellow citizens then the latter is one where I explore my personhood and an anthropology that derives its power from who I am and the spiritual character of my soul. This is what John XXIII wanted to pass on to the world.

Our Lord’s account of redemption, restoring human nature from original sin and winning back for us what we had lost, has bought us something much greater than we could ever have lost. “And where sins abounded, grace did more abound (Romans5:20). Through Jesus Christ, who is the way to eternal life, anew creation was called into being. Man redeemed has become the brother and co-heir of the Son of God. This is why the Church begins one of her prayers in the Mass with the words, “O God, by whom the dignity of human nature was wondrously established and yet more wondrously restored.”… Original sin had destroyed man’s bridge of access to God, and only from God’s side could that bridge be rebuilt. Jesus Christ rebuild it.
Josef Pieper and Heinz Raskop, What Catholics Believe

As a Catholic, my religious tradition explodes from the Jewish Old Testament:

The divine Will is perfectly good and righteous and holy and just. God is the only god you can’t bribe. And since that is the character of Ultimate Reality — and since in order to be really real we must conform to the character of Ultimate Reality — therefore the meaning of life is to be holy, to be a saint. Morality flows from metaphysics because goodness flows from God. “You must be holy because I the Lord your God am holy.”

The connection is repeated like a liturgical formula in the Torah. Unlike the gods of the polytheists and unlike the god of the pantheists, God has no dark side. And that is why we shouldn’t have a dark side either. The consequences of the Jewish metaphysics for ethics have been world-shaking. The whole world got a Jewish mother, a Jewish conscience, because the world got the Jewish Father.

This divine goodness is not just perfect, it is more than perfect. It spills out beyond itself like sunlight. It is agape, generosity, altruism, self-giving, self-sacrificial love. God seeks intimacy with Man, God seeks to marry Man. “Your creator shall become your Husband,” says Isaiah (54:5). To that end, He makes covenants, to prepare for the fundamental covenant, marriage. No pagan ever suspected the possibility of such intimacy, even with their finite, anthropomorphic gods: that is, the relationship scripture calls “faith,” or fidelity. And therefore no pagan ever understood the deeper meaning and terror of “sin” either, for sin is the breaking of that relationship. Sin is to faith what infidelity is to marriage. Only one who knows the wonder of marriage can know the horror of infidelity.
Peter Kreeft, Jesus As Metaphysician

How else, but for Christ, could we have known that God loves us? I mean really loves us, not just with proper philanthropy but with utterly improper passion. Even if any man dared to hope this, what ground could there possibly be for such a crazy hope? What data do we have? What evidence? Certainly not nature (“nature red in tooth and claw” Lord Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam AHH), or human life (“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan), or human history (“the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples is sacrificed” Georg Hegel). The only data we have to know that God is love is Christ.
Peter Kreeft, Jesus As Metaphysician

That knowledge comes from our personhood and our very being:

Being is not just presence, but active presence, tending by nature to pour over into active self-manifestation and self-communication to others. And if personal being is really being itself only at its supra-material levels, then it follows that to be a person as such is to be a being that tends by nature to pour over into active, conscious self-manifestation and self-communication to others, through intellect and will working together.

And if the person in question is a good person, i.e., rightly ordered in its conscious free action, then this active presence to others will take the form of willing what is truly good for them, which is itself a definition of love in its broadest meaning, defined by Thomas as “willing good to another for its own sake.” To be a person, then, is to be a bi-polar being that is at once present in itself, actively possessing itself by its self-consciousness (its substantial pole), and also actively oriented towards others, toward active loving self-communication to others (its relational pole). To be an authentic person, in a word, is to be a lover, to live a life of interpersonal self-giving and receiving. Person is essentially a “we” term. Person exists in its fullness only in the plural. As Jacques Maritain puts it felicitously:

Thus it is that when a man has been really awakened to the sense of being or existence, and grasps intuitively the obscure, living depth of the Self and subjectivity, he discovers by the same token the basic generosity of existence and realizes, by virtue of the inner dynamism of this intuition, that love is not a passing pleasure or emotion, but the very meaning of his being alive.
Jacques Maritain, Existence and the Existent

Thus subjectivity reveals itself as “self-mastery for self-giving… by spiritual existing in the manner of a gift.”
Jacques Maritain, Challenges and Renewals

Josef Pieper has also caught well the intrinsic bipolarity of personal being as spirit, when, commenting on a brief sentence of St. Thomas, he unfolds it thus:

The higher the form of intrinsic existence, the more developed becomes the relatedness with reality, also the more profound and comprehensive becomes the sphere of this relationship: namely, the world. And the deeper such relations penetrate the world of reality, the more intrinsic becomes the subject’s existence. . . These two aspects combined — dwelling most intensively within itself, and being capax universi, able to grasp the universe — together constitute the essence of the spirit. Any definition of “spirit” will have to contain these two aspects as its core.
Josef Pieper, Living the Truth

Transpose “spirit” into “person,” as being itself existing on the spiritual level, and Pieper and I are both expressing the same insight.
Fr. W. Norris Clarke, Person, Being, and St. Thomas

Call it human soul or person or spirit, this is who we are and how we need to treat each other. It is precisely what the atheist secular society rejects in its insistence on the “individual,” “rights,” and “fairness” code words for excusing the worst sort of morality and behavior.

What would underlie the dialogue between Church and World? I will address that in my next post.


Sex and Despair – Josef Pieper

July 12, 2012

Originally published in Ober die Liebe (Munich: KSsel-Verlag, 1972). Translated by Lothar Krauth.


There is no need to declare the present “sexualization” of all aspects of public life as simply our fateful destiny; for too much in it is media hyperbole and commercial manipulation.

On the other hand, such “cutting loose” of sexuality as potential human deviation has, of course, been with us since time immemorial, not only as behavior — which we may find easy to understand — but also as doctrine.

This precisely is the background situation, for example, in one of the great and famous Platonic dialogues: a certain Phaedrus crosses Socrates’ path, a youth still shocked and under the spell of a meeting he has just attended in which avant-garde intellectuals discussed their convictions. Plato characterizes these intellectuals as people who use pompous arguments to reject traditional norms, who claim to lead an enlightened lifestyle, and who advocate total license for every human impulse.

Phaedrus is fascinated by the progressive and elegant tone of a speech given at that meeting by the “greatest author of our era”, and he tells Socrates about their “program”. Put in a nutshell, it proclaims these propositions: desire should be without love; the aim should be maximal enjoyment with minimal personal engagement; any erotic emotion, the passion of love, is seen as a romantic sickness that needlessly complicates things; and the refusal to accept any deeper commitment is explicitly declared to be the only “reasonable” attitude — indeed, this alone could properly be called “decency”, a virtue (arete).

It is clear, perhaps surprisingly so, that these propositions sound strikingly contemporary; more specifically, they express attitudes that men are obviously able to formulate and practice at any time in history.

Socrates listens quietly to the gullible Phaedrus and for a time pretends to be equally fascinated and impressed. Then he puts an abrupt end to this game of pretending: “Don’t you see, my dear Phaedrus, how shameful all this is? Just imagine a truly noble person had listened to our conversation, someone who is devoted in love to someone else likewise of noble mind. This person would have to presume, would he not, that he had just listened to people raised among galley slaves who have never grasped the true meaning of love among free persons. “

Contrary to all appearances, this setting of “free men” against “galley slaves”, of course, has nothing at all to do with the realities of a slaveholder society — I think this requires no specific explanation. “Slavery”, in this context, indeed means something that no social reform, no “emancipation” could ever overcome; it means, rather, something that can crop up in all social classes, as shown in our example of Athens’ upper crust. It means an attitude that in an ethical sense is base and vulgar, and whose facade of civilized refinement nonetheless hides barbaric rudeness and brutality.

What makes this consumer sex without eros so ugly and so inhuman is essentially this: it empties the love encounter of its inner significance within the larger framework of human existence, its essence of stepping out from self-centered limitation by opening up to — and becoming one with – another person. As mere partner in sex, however, the other is not looked upon as a person, a living human being with an individual human face. An American author has described this reality with the tongue-in-cheek yet accurate observation that from a playboy’s point of view the fig leaf has simply been transferred — it now conceals the human face.

The man who merely lusts after a woman does not, indeed, really desire “a woman”, in spite of the words. True yearning for the beloved, for togetherness with the beloved, springs from what philosophy calls the eros. Mere sex, in contrast, desires something impersonal, an object; not a Thou but a thing: “Just the thing in itself”, as the partners in George Orwell’s 1984 explicitly assure each other. “Let’s do that thing”, they say in one of Heinrich Boll’s novels.

Some speak right to the point of the “deception” in the encounter whose object is only sex. True, for a moment the illusion of “becoming one” may arise; but such an outward union, without love, leaves the two more thoroughly strangers to each other than before. No wonder, then, that “in a society where love is based on sex, where love is not the prerequisite for the gift of physical union”, sexuality is paradoxically “separating rather than uniting man and woman, abandoning them to more loneliness and isolation at the very moment when they thought to have surely found the other”. The surprise, or better, the disappointment inherent in this paradox — it only seems a paradox, of course — is intensified as sex becomes more and more a commodity available at any time.

Such a result, remarks Paul Ricoeur — loss of value by being readily available — was certainly not anticipated by the generation of Sigmund Freud when those sexual taboos were smashed. “Whatever facilitates the sexual encounter also helps it sink into irrelevance.” This should come as no surprise at all. It may well be an absolute principle that anything available “on demand” at almost no cost, and instantly to boot (the Americans use the rugged expression “short-order sex”) will necessarily lose not only its value but its attraction as well.

The director of a health center at an American state university, a psychiatrist by profession, relates this experience: promiscuous female students, when questioned, would answer, “It’s just too much trouble to say `no’.” At first this may bespeak enormous freedom, but what it really means is more like, “I don’t care, it’s all the same, it doesn’t matter.” This premise already contains its inevitable consequence: a sexuality not only lacking joy, but lacking pleasure as well. “So much sex and so little meaning or even fun in it!”

I mentioned that a generally valid principle prevails here. In his later years Goethe once put it this way, though in an entirely different context: “Every century tries to make the sacred vulgar, the difficult easy, the serious hilarious — which really would not be objectionable at all if only earnestness and fun were not both destroyed in the process.” Here we have it: the fun gets destroyed, too! And so it is frighteningly appropriate that the above-mentioned experience by that university psychiatrist was published under the title, The Roots of Student Despair.


Three Reading Selections from Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues

June 29, 2012

I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion.
(Proverbs 8:12)

 There are four primary moral virtues, which are called the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. The word cardinal derives from the Latin cardo, meaning “hinge.” Consequently, these four virtues are called “cardinal” because all other virtues are categorized under them and hinge upon them. The Book of Wisdom of the Old Testament states, “For [wisdom] teaches temperance and prudence, justice and fortitude, and nothing in life is more useful for men than these” (8:7).

Prudence, the “mother” of all of the virtues, is the virtue by which a person recognizes his moral duty and the good means to accomplish it. Actually, prudence is part of the definition of goodness. A person can be prudent and good only simultaneously. No other virtue can contradict what is prudent. Therefore, what is prudent is substantially what is good, and prudence is the measure of justice, temperance and fortitude.

A prudent person looks at the concrete reality of a situation with a clear, honest objectivity; references and applies the moral truths (e.g the Ten Commandments or the teachings of the Church); makes a moral judgment; and then commands an action. Moreover, prudence also seeks to accomplish the action in a good way — doing what is good in a good way.

Clearly, prudence is essential for the formation and operation of one’s conscience. To be a prudent person, one must know God’s truth, just as to have a good conscience, one must know God’s truth. One cannot do what is good if one does not know the principles of truth and goodness. Josef Pieper comments below:


[From The Four Cardinal Virtues]
The structural framework of Western Christian metaphysics as a whole stands revealed, perhaps more plainly than in any other single ethical dictum, in the proposition that prudence is the foremost of the virtues. That structure is built thus: that Being precedes Truth, and that Truth precedes the Good. Indeed, the living fire at the heart of the dictum is the central mystery of Christian theology: that the Father begets the Eternal Word, and that the Holy Spirit proceeds out of the Father and the Word.

Since this is so, there is a larger significance in the fact that people today can respond to this assertion of the pre-eminence of prudence only with incomprehension and uneasiness. That they feel it as strange may well reveal a deeper-seated and more total estrangement. It may mean that they no longer feel the binding force of the Christian Western view of man. It may denote the beginning of an incomprehension of the fundamentals of Christian teaching in regard to the nature of reality.

“Doing the Truth”
[From From The Four Cardinal Virtues]
Prudence, then, is the mold and mother of all virtues, the circumspect and resolute shaping power of our minds which transforms knowledge of reality into realization of the good. It holds within itself the humility of silent, that is to say, of unbiased perception; the trueness-to-being of memory; the art of receiving counsel; alert, composed readiness for the unexpected. Prudence means the studied seriousness and, as it were, the filter of deliberation, and at the same time the brave boldness to make final decisions. It means purity, straightforwardness, candor, and simplicity of character; it means standing superior to the utilitarian complexities of mere “tactics”.

Prudence is, as Paul Claudel says, the “intelligent prow” of our nature which steers through the multiplicity of the finite world toward perfection.

In the virtue of prudence the ring of the active life is rounded out and closed, is completed and perfected; for man, drawing on his experience of reality, acts in and upon reality, thus realizing himself in decision and in act. The profundity of this concept is expressed in the strange statement of Thomas Aquinas that in prudence, the commanding virtue of the “conduct” of life, the happiness of active life is essentially comprised. Prudence is that illumination of moral existence which, according to one of the wisest books of the East, is a thing denied to every man who “looks at himself”.

There is a gloomy type of resoluteness, and a bright type. Prudence is the brightness of the resoluteness of that man who “does the truth” But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:21).  

The Prudence of Love
[From The Four Cardinal Virtues]
In the Summa theologica we learn that upon a higher plane of perfection — that is, the plane of charity — there is also a higher and extraordinary prudence which holds as nought all the things of this world.

Does this not run completely counter to all that the “universal teacher” has said elsewhere about the nature of the first cardinal virtue? Is holding created things as nought not the exact opposite of that reverent objectivity which in the concrete situation of concrete action must attempt to recognize the “measure” of that action?

Things are nought only before God, who created them and in whose hand they are as clay in the hand of the potter. By the superhuman force of grace-given love, however, man may become one with God to such an extent that he receives, so to speak, the capacity and the right to see created things from God’s point of view and to “relativize” them and see them as nought from God’s point of view, without at the same time repudiating them or doing injustice to their nature. Growth in love is the legitimate avenue and the one and only justification for “contempt for the world”.

Unlike this contempt which arises out of growth in love, all contempt for the world which springs from man’s own judgment and opinions, not from the supernatural love of God, is simple arrogance, hostile to the nature of being; it is a form of pride in that it refuses to recognize the ordinary obligations which are made visible to man in created things. Only that closer union with the being of God which is nourished by love raises the blessed man beyond immediate involvement in created things.

At this point in our argument we approach a limit. Beyond that limit only the experience of the saints can offer any valid knowledge, any valid comment. We would only remind our readers how intensely the great saints loved the ordinary and commonplace, and how anxious they were lest they might have been deceived into regarding their own hidden craving for the “extraordinary” as a “counsel” of the Holy Spirit of God.

But even in that higher and extraordinary form of prudence which holds the world in contempt, there reigns unrestrictedly the same fundamental attitude upon which ordinary prudence entirely depends: the fundamental attitude of justice toward the being of things and correspondence to reality.

The eye of perfected friendship with God is aware of deeper dimensions of reality, to which the eyes of the average man and the average Christian are not yet opened. To those who have this greater love of God the truth of real things is revealed more plainly and more brilliantly; above all, the supernatural reality of the Trinitarian God is made known to them more movingly and overwhelmingly.

Even supreme supernatural prudence, however, can have only the following aim: to make the more deeply felt truth of the reality of God and world the measure for will and action. Man can have no other standard and signpost than things as they are and the truth which makes manifest things as they are; and there can be no higher standard than the God who is and his truth.


Book Recommendation: Happiness and Contemplation by Josef Pieper

August 20, 2010

You will want to buy this book. It will fit perfectly on any bookshelf and I can’t tell you how reaffirming it is to have a very thin volume devoted to Happiness…

“Happiness” Comprehends A Variety Of Meanings
There is nevertheless a fundamental significance, which should never be overlooked, in the very fact that a single word, “happiness,” comprehends such a variety of meanings: the immortal richness of divine life and man’s part in it, as well as the petty satisfaction of a fleeting desire. We venture to assert that this ambiguity reflects the structure of the whole of Creation. St. Thomas puts it this way: “As created good is a reflection of the uncreated good, so the attainment of a created good is a reflected beatitude.”
Now the “attainment of a created good” is  a thing that happens constantly, and in a thousand varied forms. It happens whenever a thirsty man drinks, whenever a questioner receives a flash of illumination, whenever lovers are together, whenever a task is brought to a successful conclusion and a plan bears fruit. And when men call all this “happiness,” they are close to the insight that each gratification points to the ultimate one, and that all happiness has some connection with eternal beatitude. Some connection, if only this: that every fulfillment this side of Heaven instantly reveals its inadequacy. It is immediately evident that such satisfactions are not enough; they are not what we have really sought; they cannot really satisfy us at all.
Andre Gide noted in his Journals  “The terrible thing is that we can never make ourselves drunk enough.”

“Contemplation Is Man’s Ultimate Happiness”
One might take the statement that contemplation is man’s ultimate happiness and say to oneself: “Very well, obviously this refers to the ‘happiness of the philosopher.’ Undeniably there does exist a happiness of knowledge and insight, just as there is happiness in action and ‘happiness of the senses.’ Certainly it can be maintained, with good reason, that the happiness of the perceptive mind surpasses all other forms of happiness in depth and value.”
All very well. Yet to interpret this sentence in this way, to put so special a construction on it, is to ignore its real meaning. For it says not a word about any special happiness that pertains only to the “philosopher.” The dictum speaks of the happiness of man in general, of the whole, physical, earthly, human man. And contemplation is not held up as one among other modes of happiness, even though an especially lofty one. Rather what is says is this: however the human craving for happiness may time and again be distracted by a thousand small gratifications, it remains directed unwaveringly toward one ultimate satisfaction which is in truth its aim. “Among a thousand twigs,” says Vergil in Dante’s universal poem, “one sweet fruit is sought.” The finding of this fruit, the ultimate gratification of human nature, the ultimate satiation of man’s deepest thirst, takes place in contemplation!

The Created Soul And Its Essence
The great teachers of the Occident have always contested (that nature and mind are exclusive concepts). They have steadfastly maintained that here is one being which is in a precise sense both mind and nature simultaneously. This being is the created human soul. “By nature” means : by virtue of creation. All being and activity is “by nature” which – from within the central core of things – flows directly out of the primal impulse of the act of creation, by which creatures have become what they are.
Part of the definition of the created soul, therefore, is that it has received its essence – and along with that its assignment in life – form elsewhere, ab alio, from the shaping and life-giving act of creation. It necessarily follows that in the center of the created soul something happens which is its own act, and therefore an act of mind, but simultaneously a natural process “by virtue of creation.” The desire for happiness is precisely this character; it is “willing by nature,” which is to say an act of the mind and a natural process at one and the same time.

Why Do You Want To Be Happy?
Those…who cannot accept the idea of a desire for happiness inherent in man’s composition; that idea appears to them a slur upon man’s autonomous spirit. Only if we understand man as a created being to the very depths of his spiritual existence can we meaningfully conceive that the will has not the power to not  want happiness. …First the natural desire springs from the innermost core of man’s being; it concerns man’s very own will, unrestricted by any coercion. Therefore it is free. …this desire points right through the human heart back to an ultimate origin which is not human.
Man has not by his own resolve set in motion his desire for happiness; it has not been given to him to desire otherwise. Therefore “freedom” is not the right term here…St. Thomas: The will strives in freedom for felicity, although it strives for it by necessity.” In desiring happiness, then, we are obeying a gravitational impulse whose axis is entirely within our own hearts. But we have no power over it – because we ourselves are this gravitational impulse. When we desire to be happy, something blind and obscure takes place within the mind, which nevertheless does not cease to be a light and seeing eye. Something happens “behind” which we cannot penetrate, whose reason we do not see, and for which we can name no reason. Why do you want to be happy? We do not ask because no one knows the answer.

Happiness Is A Gift
Because our turning toward happiness is a blind seeking we are, whenever happiness comes our way, the recipients of  something unforeseen, something unforeseeable, and therefore not subject to planning and intention. Happiness is essentially a gift; we’re not the forgers of our own felicity…Surely the “attainment of created good” can frequently be brought about by purposeful activity. By cleverness, energy, and diligence one can acquire a good many of the goods which are generally considered adjuncts of the happy life: food and drink house, garden, books, a rich and beautiful wife (perhaps). But we cannot make all these acquisitions, or even a single one of them, quench that thirst so mysterious to ourselves for what we call “happiness,” “reflected beatitude.” No one can obtain felicity by pursuit. This explains why one of the elements of being happy is the feeling that a debt of gratitude is owed, a debt impossible to pay. Now, we do not owe gratitude to ourselves. To be conscious of gratitude is to acknowledge a gift.

Stoic Self-Sufficiency As Happiness
Stoic self-sufficiency may still commando our respect and admiration. There is “greatness” in the unyielding resolve to desire only what is entirely ours, what we ourselves have acquired. As Seneca has expressed it, “The man is happy, we say, who knows no good that would be greater than that which he can give to himself.” Nevertheless the keener eye will not fail to observe behind all the brave banners and heroic symbols the profound non-humanity, the submerged anxiety, the senile rigidity, the tension of such an attitude. And our admiration becomes tinged with consternation and horror as it becomes apparent to us how closely such self-sufficiency verges on despair. “Suppose he lacks his miserable bread? What does that matter to one who lacks not the knowledge of how to go to his death?” (Seneca)

Happy By Virtue Of Being
When it is said that man by nature seeks happiness, the statement obviously implies that by nature he does not already possess it. “In the present life perfect happiness cannot be.” Man is not happy by virtue of his being. Rather his whole existence is determined precisely by the non-possession of ultimate gratification. That, after all, is the significance of the concept of status viatoris. To exist as man means to be “on the way” and therefore to be non-happy. …There is only one Being that is happy by His mere existence.  “To God alone may perfect beatitude be attributed, by virtue of His nature.”
The meaning of the statement is not solely that God is happy….He is his happiness…Any human being who is happy shares in a happiness that is not of himself. For God, however, being an being happy are one and the same; God is happy by virtue of His existence.

The Doctrine Of God’s Unassailable Happiness
“The beatitude of God consists not in the action by which He established the Creation but in the action by which He enjoys himself, needing not the Creation – creaturis non egens. (Aquinas). Belief that the world itself, its roots and the whole of it, is sound, plumb, and in order, could rest upon no firmer foundation than this doctrine of God’s unassailable happiness. If God were not happy, or if His happiness depended upon what happened in the human realm and not upon Himself alone, if His happiness were not beyond any conceivable possibility of disturbance; if there were not, in the Source of reality, this infinitely, inviolably sound Being – we would not be able even to conceive the idea of a possible healing of  the empirical wounds of Creation.
This is confirmed from another angle. The mind considering the course of the world, the mind seeking coherency and plunged more and more hopelessly into confusion by the incoherencies of the world, will in the end inevitably be tempted to  think (and this temptation comes precisely to the deepest and most consistent thinkers): God is not at one with Himself; God is not happy.
That confidence in the wholeness of being, on the other hand, which finds its ultimate support in the absolute happiness of God, is in no way an invalid simplification of historical reality. Rather, we may say that, far from simplifying things, it reveals them as enormously more complicated and tragic – since the incomprehensibility of evil in the world becomes fully apparent against the background of the indestructible happiness of God. Nevertheless, this belief means that as Paul Claudel has formulated it “The terrible words…. ‘In the end truth, perhaps, is sad.’ miss the underlying reality of the world; that, rather, “The great divine joy is the only reality.”

A Thirst For Happiness
Man as he is constituted, endowed as as he is with a thirst for happiness, cannot have his thirst quenched in the finite realm; and if he thinks or behaves as if that were possible, he is misunderstanding himself, he is acting contrary to his own nature. The whole world would not suffice this “natural” nature of man. If the whole world were given to him, he would have to say, and would say: It is too little. Too little, that is, to “gratify entirely the power of desire,” or in other words too little to make him happy….The long expected answer to (What would suffice this thirst of the whole human being?) is God….
(But) he interposes a concept (called) bonum universale. …Perhaps we may translate “the whole good” – goodness so very good that there is nothing in it which is not good, and nothing outside of it which could be good. Nothing than this bonum universale can quench completely and ultimately man’s deepest thirst… “The whole good cannot be found anywhere in the realm of created things; it is encountered in God alone.”

Joy And Happiness
Aquinas would say that Happiness without Joy is unthinkable; but joy and happiness are two different things. …Thomas takes it completely for granted that no full beatitude can be conceived without pleasure, gladness, enjoyment, rapture on the part of the physical, spiritual-sensual being which is man. How could the conceptions of physical well-being seriously be omitted by anyone who believes in the resurrection of the dead? …
We want to have reason for joy, for an unceasing joy that fills us utterly, sweeps us before it, exceeds all measure. This reason, if it exists, is anterior to joy, and is in itself something different from joy. “Joyousness” implies an “about something”; we cannot rejoice in the absolute; there is no joy for joy’s sake….Aquinas:  “Possession of the good is the causes of rejoicing.” This having and partaking of the good is primary; joy is secondary. Aquinas: “Therefore a person rejoices because he possesses a good appropriate to him – whether in reality, or in hope, or at least in memory. The appropriate good, however, if it is perfect, is precisely the man’s happiness…Thus it is evident that not even the joy which follows the possession of the perfect good is the essence of happiness itself…..All beings…desire joy for the sake of the good, and not the converse….Thus it follows that …every joy is consequent to a good and that there exists a joy consequent to that which is in itself the supreme good.”… The “supreme good” and its attainment – that is happiness. And joy is: response to happiness.

Our Participation In Happiness
What does indeed make us happy is the infinite and uncreated richness of God; but our participation in this, happiness itself, is entirely a “creatural” reality governed from within by our humanity; it is not something that descends overwhelmingly on us from outside. That is, it is not only something that happens to us; we are ourselves intensely active participants in our own happiness. …Happiness is an act and an activity of the soul. … But has it not been said that happiness is a gift? …(Aquinas’ reply:) If sight were given to a blind man, he would nevertheless see with his own sense of sight…Happiness is a form of acting which opens all the potentialities of man to fullest realization

An Activity Whose Effects Work Inward
Along with the doing of any work there is an effect which does emerge, but remains hidden within the doer himself, perhaps chiefly as a fruit of insight, as a verbum cordis. Perhaps this fruit can grow only in the course of a man’s dealing with the pliable or resistant matter of a garden, or potter’s clay, or marble; perhaps this is the only way in which it can grow And it may not be that in this processio ad intra in this inward fructation, lies the truly beatifying element which we rightly ascribe to all creative activity?
To repeat: the activity in which we receive the drink which is happiness is by its nature an activity whose effects work inward. This cannot be otherwise, for only in such activity does the acting person actualize himself. Action which reaches outward perfects thework rather than the person who acts. Under those circumstances what happens is that the perfection of the work “does not…include the creator; he is condemned to return to his  lesser ego.”

An Act Of The Intellect
“The essence of happiness consists in an act of the intellect.” …The fulfillment of the act takes place in the manner in which we become aware of reality; the whole energy of our being is ultimately directed toward attainment of insight. The perfectly happy person ….is one who sees…Man, physical, historical, “earthly” man, has a basic craving to see; strictly speaking he craves nothing else; …he lives purely as a see-er: in contemplation. ….Aquinas: “He is happy in that he has what he wants – which having, however, takes place by something other than an act of will.” …” “The happy life does not mean loving what we possess, but possessing what we love.” Possession of the beloved, Aquinas holds, takes place in an act of cognition, in seeing, in intuition, in contemplation. …Thomas is not alone is saying this. The same point is made by Augustine…
Old metaphysics was motivated chiefly by this one question: How is reality to be attained?…. Cognition is essentially seizure of the world, and grasping of reality.  To know is by the nature of knowing to have; there is no form of having in which the object is more intensely grasped…knowing is “the highest mode of having.”…
It is assimilation, the quite exact sense that the objective world, in so far as it is known, is incorporated into the very being of the knower. This indeed distinguishes cognitive from non-cognitive  being: the latter have nothing outside themselves, whereas the knower obtains a share in alien beings in that he knows them, that is to say, in that he takes them into himself and …possesses the “form:” of these alien beings. Material things have closed boundaries; they are not accessible, cannot be penetrated, by things outside themselves. But one’s existence as a spiritual being involves being and remaining oneself and at the same time admitting and transforming into oneself the reality of the world. No other material thing can be present in the space occupied by a house, a tree, or a fountain pen. But where there is mind, the totality of things has room; it is “possible that in a single being the comprehensiveness of the whole universe may dwell.” Aristotle: anima est quodammodo onmia, the soul is at the bottom all that is.” … “Eternal life is knowing Thee.” [John 17:3]

Love Is The Indispensable Premise Of Happiness
Happy is he who sees what he loves. It is only the presence of the thing or person loved that makes for happiness…without love there is no happiness…Love is the indispensable premise of happiness: …Love, then, is necessary for happiness; but it is not enough. Only the presence of what is loved makes us happy, and that presences is actualized by the power of cognition. …”Where love is, there is the eye.” …from the commentary Sentences written by a young Thomas Aquinas.
The meaning is that there are things which the lover alone observes; but above all, that the lover partakes of goods which are withheld from all others, which is to say that higher potentialities for happiness are open to him than to anyone else. Nevertheless, no matter what may be observable to his eye by virtue of love, the activity of the eye is still seeing and not loving…Contemplation is a knowing which is inspired by love….It is the living attainment of awareness. It is intuition of the beloved object.

Elements Of Contemplation
The first element of the concept of contemplation (is) the silent perception of reality. The second is the following: Contemplation is a form of knowing arrived at not by thinking but by seeing, intuition. ….it is a type of knowing which does not merely move toward its object, but already rests in it. The object is present – as a face or a landscape is present to the eye when the gaze “rests upon it.” In intuition there is no “future tension”, no desire directed toward the future, which desire corresponds with the nature of thinking. The person who knows by intuition has already found what the thinker is seeking; what he knows is present “before his eyes.”  This presence, however, this “spatial thereness,” may at any moment be converted into temporal “presence”, which is a tense-form of Eternity. …There inevitably intrudes into the midst of the peace of contemplation, the soundless call to another, infinitely profounder, incomprehensible, “eternal” peace. This is “the call to perfection of the imperfect, which call we name love.” (Aquinas)

Earthly Contemplation
Earthly contemplation …must be imagined as an inner gaze, undistracted by anything form the outside, but troubled within by the challenge to achieve a profounder but unattainable peace. It must be imagined as a satisfaction which desires nothing “else” and yet is not satisfied with itself because in its uttermost depths, yet insuperably remote, a still more complete satisfaction is sensed. This earthly existence can offer us an awareness of “the whole,” of the very essence of all that is “good” for us – a knowing of God, in other words which is the result neither of logical reasoning nor of simple faith. “Human happiness does not consist in the knowledge of God, which is to be had by logical demonstration.”….

Non-seeing “rather kindles the longing rather than gratifies it. The knowledge brought us by faith is knowledge of what is absent. Contemplation, however, including earthly contemplation, is able to quench man’s thirst more than anything else because it affords a direct perception of the presence of God; contemplation is the form in which we partake of the uttermost degree of happiness which this physical, historical existence of ours is capable of holding. “Imperfect beatitude, such as can be had here, consists primarily and principally in contemplation,” that is, in earthly contemplation. “As far as contemplation extends, so far does happiness extend.” …One corollary is that insightful knowledge, spiritual vision, intellectual intuition, is possible for man here on earth; that man’s method of grasping reality is not exclusively thinking, “mental labor…”  The epose of “simple intuition” does exist. This is by no means an incontrovertible assumption but to contest it is also to dismiss the idea of earthly contemplation…The inhumanity of totalitarian labor… based upon the fact… that man is considered as s “worker” even in his intellectual life; he is permitted spare time but no true repose.
Another premise is… we must in some manner be able to partake of the object of this act, the drink called happiness, which means that God is present in the world; He can appear “before the eyes” of one whose gaze is directed toward the depths of things…reality is a creation, and that consequently God is not “outside of the world,” not a Deus extramundanus, but the acting basis of everything that exists…For the Christian earthly contemplation means above all: that back of immediate phenomena, and within them, the Face of the incarnate Divine Logos is visible.

Contemplation Is Widespread
The common element in all the special forms of contemplation is the loving, yearning, affirming bent toward that happiness which is the same as God Himself, and which is the aim and purpose of all that happens in the world. The common element is an approach whose impetus bursts forth from the core of man’s being, feeds on the energy of man’s whole nature, and carries all the powers of that nature along in its dynamic movement. Within that common element the intrinsic force of the craving for happiness is united with the data of all the senses, with the play of the imagination, with the insights of reason, and with faith and the supernatural new life – both these last goods granted as free gifts. Without this love directed toward this object, the re is no true contemplation. Love alone makes it possible for contemplation to satiate the human heart with the experience of supreme happiness. ….
In contemplation, the multiple forces of human nature are always called upon, always at play, Who would wish to term “purely religious” the contemplation which underlies S. Francis of Assisi’s Song to the Sun, or the poems of St. John of the Cross? Nevertheless, it is true that such contemplation obviously has been kindled by meditation on the divine mysteries and by prayer….
The transfiguring experience of divine satiation can come to one in a host of ways. The most trivial of stimuli can bring one to this peak. And this being so, we are brought sharply to the arresting and indeed astounding realization – so opposed is it to everything we are in the habit of thinking about contemporary man – that contemplation is far more widespread among us today than appearances would indicate. The significant features of contemplation can be attained without anyone’s being conscious of it by that name. With this as a clue, more and more new forms of achieving contemplation manifest themselves.

Contemplation In The Precise Sense
Who among us has not looked into his child’s face, in the midst of the toils and troubles of everyday life, and at that moment “seen” that everything which is good, is loved and lovable, loved by God! Such certainties all mean, at bottom, one and the same thing: that the world is plumb and sound; that everything comes to its appointed goal; that in spite of all appearances, underlying all things is peace and salvation, Gloria; that nothing and no one is lost; that “God holds in his hand the beginning, middle, and end of all that is.” Such non-rational, intuitive certainties of the divine base of all that is can be vouchsafed to our gaze even when it is turned toward the most insignificant–looking things, if only it is a gaze inspired by love. That, in the precise sense, is contemplation. And we should have the courage to admit its identity.

The Soul Takes Precedence Over The Eye
The precision of these entries (in Gerald Manley Hopkin’s Journals) proves, among other things, how little contemplation need by-pass or blur the reality of the visible world by, say, premature “symbolization.” Rather, contemplation directs its gaze straight at the heart of objects. In so doing, it perceives in the depths a hitherto hidden, nonfinite relationship. And in that perception lies the peculiar essence of contemplation.

But what actually happens when the soul, as it were, takes precedence over the eye? No one has yet succeeded in providing an adequate descriptive account of that process…part of the nature of contemplation (is) that it cannot be communicated, It takes place in the innermost recesses. There is no observer. And it is impossible to “set it down” because no energy of the soul is left unengaged….

G.K. Chesterton, considering his life in retrospect, said that he had always had the almost mystical conviction of the miracle in all that exists, and of the rapture dwelling essentially within all experience. Within this statement lie three separate assertions: that everything holds and conceals at bottom a mark of its divine origin; that one who catches a glimpse of it “sees” that this and all things are “good” beyond all comprehension; and that, seeing this, he is happy. Here in sum is the whole doctrine of the contemplation of earthly creation.

The Active/Political/Practical Life
The active life contains a felicity of its own; it lies, says Aquinas, principally in the practice of prudence, in the perfect art of the conduct of life. But ultimate repose cannot be found in this kind of felicity …the ultimate meaning of the active life is to make possible the happiness of contemplation. …Aristotle: The whole of political life seems to be ordered with a view to attaining the happiness of contemplation. For peace, which is established and preserved by virtue of political activity, places man in a position to devote himself to contemplation of the truth.”….practical life if not only meaningful but indispensable; it rightly fills out man’s weekday life; that without it a truly human existence is inconceivable. Without it, indeed, the vita contemplativa is unthinkable…. “The truth is that as soon as we are no longer obliged to earn our living, we no longer know what to do with our life and recklessly squander it. (Andre Gide) “One thing is clear: when something is finished, it must be perfect –but what then?” (Gottfried Benn)

Common Features Of The Contemplative Man And The Happy Man
With great sureness of insight, the ancients have asserted that in the contemplative man may be found all the things which distinguish the happy man; and that ordinary speech attributes to both the same characteristics….
For example there is simplicitas, that simplicity peculiar to the gaze of contemplation. The whole energy of the seeing person gathers into a single look…. “Man’s happiness is based upon there being for him an indisputable truth.” (Nietzsche)  Here, in cognition, truth and happiness are conjoined under the aspect of simplicity. Disputation involves pros and cons, arguments and counterarguments, variety of points of view, yes and no. But an indisputable truth, not something that is merely not disputed out of mental sluggishness or doggedness, but a truth which is immune even to interior dispute – that is the simplicitas of possession. … (Aquinas:) man is not capable of an act continuing without interruption. But happiness is not happiness if it does not endure forever without loss; happiness demands eternity…
“There is always one thing which makes for happiness:…the capacity to feel unhistorically.” (Nietzsche)….the happy man needs nothing and no one…It was true of the Christian martyrs, of whom it is told that not even torture could tear them from the happiness of contemplation….Finally repose, leisure, peace, belong among the elements of happiness. If we have not escaped from harried rush, from mad pursuit, form unrest, from the necessity of care, we are not happy…Contemplation’s very premise is freedom from the fetters of workaday busyness. Moreover it itself actualizes this freedom by virtue of being intuition.

Concupiscence Of The Eyes
(Aristotle): “We prefer seeing to all else.”  If we did not already know that joy in seeing must be counted among the most elemental, irrepressible, coveted joys of mankind, we could deduce it from the everyday phenomenon of “concupiscence of the eyes.” the hypertrophy of visual curiosity, the morbidity of the contemporary craving to see. We can deduce from the extent of this degeneration which, it seems is imperiling specifically our most elemental and precious powers …” (Aquinas) This, incidentally, may suggest that the greatest menace of our capacity for contemplation is the incessant fabrication of tawdry empty stimuli which kill the receptivity of the soul….

All The Labor And History Of Man Crowned Only In Intuition
In his memoirs ..George Santayana relates how he used to accompany a friend versed in art through the great picture galleries of the world. And seeing his friend standing, completely absorbed and enraptured, in front of a masterpiece, he thought and says with great earnestness, and with the clear intent of stating a philosophical thesis: “My own load was lifted, and I saw how instrumental were all the labor and history of man, to be crowned, if crowned at all, only in intuition.

The World Unredeemable?
No one who thinks of the world as at bottom unredeemable can accept the idea that contemplation is the supreme happiness of man. Neither happiness nor contemplation is possible except on the basis of consent to the world as a whole. This consent has little to do with “optimism.”  It is consent that may be granted amid tears and the extremes of horror.


The Philosophical Act II by Josef Pieper

July 21, 2010

A continuation of yesterday’s essay on the nature of the philosophical act. Written over 60 years ago, but still relevant to asking the big questions in a world where the capacity to see the laws of material being seems to make us incapable of seeing the ethical message contained in that being. Let’s remind ourselves what the philosophical act is all about…

So, then: whoever philosophizes, takes a step beyond the work-a-day world and its daily routine.

The meaning of taking such a step is determined less by where it starts from as by where it leads to. We must ask a further question: just where is the philosopher going when he transcends the world of work? Clearly, he steps over a boundary: what kind of region lies on the other side of this boundary? And what is the relationship of the place where the philosophical act happens, to the world that is transcended and left behind by this same philosophical act? Is that the “authentic” world, and the world of work the “inauthentic”? Is it the “whole” as opposed to the “part”? Is it the “true reality” as opposed to a mere shadow world of appearances?

No matter how such questions could be answered in detail, in any case, both regions, the world of work and the “other realm,” where the philosophical act takes place in its transcending of the working world — both regions belong to the world of man, which clearly has a complex structure.

Therefore, our next question is, “What is the nature of the world of man?” — a question that cannot be answered if the human being is ignored. In order to give a clear answer at this point, we must begin again, and start as it were from the very bottom.

It is in the nature of a living thing to have a world: to exist and live in the world, in “its” world. To live means to be “in” a world. But is not a stone also “in” a world? Is not everything that exists “in” a world? If we keep to the lifeless stone, is it not with and beside other things in the world? Now, “with,” “beside,” and “in” are prepositions, words of relationship; but the stone does not really have a relationship with the world “in” which it is, nor to the other things “beside” which and “with” which it lives. Relationship, in the true sense, joins the inside with the outside; relationship can only exist where there is an “inside,” a dynamic center, from which all operation has its source and to which all that is received, all that is experienced, is brought.

The “internal” (only in this qualitative sense: the “inside” of a rock would refer only to the spatial location of parts) — the “internal” is the ability to have a real relationship, a relation to the external; to have an “inside,” means ability to be related, and to enter into relationship. And “world”? A world means the same thing, but considered as a whole field of relationships. Only a being that has an ability to enter into relationships, only being with an “inside,” has a “world”; only such a being can exist in the midst of a field of relations.

There is a distinctly different kind of proximity that obtains in the relationships of pebbles, which lie together in a heap somewhere beside the roadway and are “related” in that way, and, on the other hand, in the relationship of a plant to the nutrients which it finds in the vicinity of its roots. Here we see not merely physical proximity as an objective fact, but genuine relationship (in the original, active meaning of relationship): the nutrients are integrated into the orbit of the plant’s life — by way of the real internality of the plant, through its power to be related, and to enter into relationship. And all this — all that can be taken in by the relating-power of that plant — all this makes up the field of relationships, or the world, of that plant. The plant has a world, but not the pebble.

This, then, is the first point: “world” is a field of relations. To have a world means to be in the midst of, and to be the bearer of, a field of relations. The second point is, the higher the level of the inwardness or, that is to say, the more comprehensive and penetrative the ability to enter into relations, so the wider and deeper are the dimensions of the field of relations that belongs to that being; to put it differently: the higher a being stands in the hierarchy of reality, the wider and more profound is the standing of its world.

The lowest world is that of the plant, which does not reach beyond what it touches in its own vicinity. The higher-ranking, spatially wider realm of the animal corresponds to its greater ability to enter into relationships. The relation-ability of the animal is greater, insofar as the animal has sense-perception. To perceive something is quite extraordinary, compared with what the plant can do: it is a completely new mode of entering into relationship with one’s environment.

But not everything that an animal, as such, can perceive (because it has ears to hear and eyes to see) really belongs to the world of such an animal: it is not true that all the visible things in the environment of an animal with vision are in fact seen, or even can be seen. For “environment” as such, the perceivable environment, is still not a “world.” That was the typical belief, until the environmental researches of the biologist Jakob von Uexküll; until that time, as Uexküll puts it, “it was generally held, that all eye-equipped animals could see the same things.” But Uexküll discovery was that, on the contrary, “the environments of animals are not at all the whole expanse of nature, but resemble a narrow, furnished apartment.” For example, one could well imagine that a crow could see a grasshopper (a very desirable object for a crow) whenever the grasshopper came across its path, or to be more precise, whenever in came into view of its eyes. But that is not the case! Instead, to cite Uexkull, “the crow is completely incapable of seeing a grasshopper sitting still… we would first assume that the form of a resting grasshopper would be very well known to a crow, but because of the blade of grass in the way cannot be made out as a unit, just as we have difficulty seeing an image hidden in a picture-puzzle. Only when it jumps does its form ‘release’ itself from the neighboring shapes — or so we would think. But after further investigation, it can be shown that the crow does not even recognize the form of a resting grasshopper, but is only prepared to sense moving things. This would explain the ‘playing dead’ behavior of many insects. Since their resting-form does not at all appear in the sense-world of their predators, they escape that world completely and securely simply by lying still, and cannot be found, even if they are actively sought.”

This selective milieu, then, to which the animal is completely suited, but in which the animal is also enclosed (so much so that the boundary cannot be crossed — since “not even if it looks for something” — even if equipped with an excellent searching-organ, could it find something that does not correspond to the selective principle of this partial world); this selective reality, determined and bounded by the biological life-purpose of the individual or the species, is called an “environment” [Umwelt] by Uexküll (in distinction from a “surrounding” [Umgebung], and in distinction also, as we will later see, from a “world” [Welt]). The field of relations of the animal is not its “surroundings,” nor the “world,” but is its “environment,” in this special sense: a world from which something has been left out, a selected milieu, to which its dweller is at once perfectly suited — and confined.

Someone will perhaps ask at this point, what has this to do with our theme, “What is it to philosophize?” Now the connection is not as distant or indirect as it may seem. We last inquired about the world of the human being, and this was the immediate interest in Uexküll concept of environment — namely, that our human world “can in no way claim to be more real than the sense-world of the animal” (so he says); that, consequently, the human being is in principle confined to his world in the same way as the animal; that is, to a biologically selected partial environment, and that man cannot perceive anything that lies outside this environment, “not even if it was actively sought” (no more, then, than the crow could find the resting grasshopper). One might well ask how a being so enclosed in its own environment, so closed in on itself, could be able to perform scientific research on the nature of environments.

But we don’t want to engage in controversy on this point; rather, we can leave the point aside and ask another question instead, since our attention is directed to man and the human world to which he belongs: what is the relating-power of the human being? What is its nature? What power does it have? We said that the perceptive-ability of the animal, when compared with what is in plants, is a more far-reaching way of relating to things. Would not, then, the peculiarly human manner of knowing — for ages past, termed a spiritual or intellective knowing — in fact be another, further mode of putting-oneself-into-relation, a mode which transcends in principle anything which can be realized in the plant and animal worlds?

And further, would this fundamentally different kind of relating power go together with a different field of relations, i.e., a world of fundamentally different dimensions? The answer to such questions can be found in the Western philosophical tradition, which has understood and even defined spiritual knowing as the power to place oneself into relation with the sum-total of existing things. And this is not meant as only one characteristic among others, but as the very essence and definition of the power. By its nature, spirit (or intellection) is not so much distinguished by its immateriality, as by something more primary: its ability to be in relation to the totality of being.

“Spirit” means a relating power that is so far-reaching and comprehensive, that the field of relations to which it corresponds, transcends in principle the very boundaries of its surroundings. It is the nature of spirit to have as its field of relations not just “surroundings” [Umwelt] but a “world” [Welt]. It is of the nature of the spiritual being to go past the immediate surroundings and to go beyond both its “confinement” and its “close fit” to those surroundings (and of course herein is revealed both the freedom and danger to which the spiritual being is naturally heir).

In Aristotle’s treatise on the soul, the De Anima,[De Anima III, 8 (431b)] we can read the following: “Now, in order to sum up everything said up until this point about the soul, we can say again that, the soul, basically, is all that exists.” This sentence became a constant point of reference for the anthropology of the High Middle Ages: anima est quodammodo omnia [“The soul, in a certain way, is all things”. “In a certain way”: that is to say, the soul is “all” insofar as it sets itself in relation to the whole of existence through knowing (and “to know” means to become identical with the known reality -- although we cannot go into any further detail about this as yet).

As Thomas says in the treatise De Veritate (“On Truth”), the spiritual soul is essentially structured “to encounter all being” (convenire cum omni ente[Quaestiones disputatae de veritate I, 1]), to put itself into relation with everything that has being. “Every other being possesses only a partial participation in being,” whereas the being endowed with spirit “can grasp being as a whole.” [Summa contra gentiles III, 112] As long as there is spirit, “it is possible for the completeness of all being to be present in a single nature.”[Quaestiones disputatue de veritate III, 2] And this is also the position of the Western tradition: to have spirit [Geist], to be a spirit, to be spiritual — all this means to be in the middle of the sum total of reality, to be in relation with the totality of being, to be vis-à-vis de l’univers. The spirit does not live in “a” world, or in “its” world, but in the world: world in the sense of “everything seen and unseen” (omnia visibilia et invisibilia).

Spirit, or intellection, and the sum-total of reality: these are interchangeable terms, that correspond to one another. You cannot “have” the one without the other. An attempt to do just this (we mention only it in passing) — to grant the human being superiority to his surroundings, to say that man has “world” (Weld) (and not merely “environment” [Umwelt]), without speaking of man’s spiritual nature, or rather (what is more extreme), to maintain that this fact (that man has “world” and not only “environment”) has nothing whatever to do with this “other” fact, that the human being is equipped with intellection or spirit — this attempt has been made by Arnold Gehlen in a very comprehensive book which has received a great deal of attention: Man: His Nature and Place in the World.

In opposition to Uexküll, Gehlen rightly says that the human being is not closed within an environment but is free of his surroundings and open to the world; and yet, Gehlen goes on to say, this difference between the animal as environmentally limited and the human being as open to the world-as-a-whole does not depend “on the characteristic of. . . spirit.” Instead, this very power to “have the world” is spirit. Spirit by definition is ability to comprehend the world.

For the older philosophy — that is, for Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas — the connection of the two terms “spirit” (or “intellection” [Geist) and “world” (in the sense of total-relatedness) is so intimately and profoundly anchored in both directions that not only is it true to say that “spirit is relatedness to the sum total of existing beings”; for the earlier philosophers, the other truth, asserting that all things are essentially in relation to spirit, is just as valid, and in a very precise sense, which we do not dare to formulate in words as yet. For not only is it the property of the spirit that its field of relations includes the sum total of existing things; rather, it is also the property of existing things that they lie within the field of relations of the spirit. And to go further: for the older philosophy, it is all the same to say that “things have being” as to say that “things lie in the field of relations of the spirit, are related to spirit,” whereby is meant, of course, no mere “free-floating” spirituality in some abstract sense but rather personal spirit, a relating power that is well grounded, but then again, not only God, but the created, finite, human spirit as well. For the old ontology, it belonged to the nature of existing things to be within the field, within the reach of the spiritual soul; “to have being” means the same as “to lie within the field of relations of the spiritual soul”; both statements refer to one and the same situation. This and nothing else is the meaning of the old doctrine which has become so removed from us:

“All being is true” (omne ens est verum), and the other doctrine with the same meaning: “being” and “true” are convertible expressions. For what does “true” mean, in the sense of “the truth of things”? To say that something is true is to say that it is understood and intelligible, both for the absolute spirit as well as for the non-absolute spirit. I need to ask for your patience in simply accepting this for the moment, since it is not possible to justify these things in any detail at this point.

“Intelligibility” is nothing other than being related to a spirit that has understanding. So when the old philosophy states that it belongs to the nature of existing things, that they are intelligible and are understood, there could not be any being which is not known and knowable (since all being is true); when it is the said that the concepts “being” on the one hand, and “intelligibility” on the other, are convertible, so that the one could stand in the other’s place, so that it is the same for me to say that “things have existence” as to say that “things are known and intelligible”; in saying this the old philosophy also taught that it lies in the nature of things to be related to the mind (and this -- the concept of the “truth of things” -- is what matters in the context of our present inquiry). To summarize, then, what we have been saying: the world that is related to the spiritual being is the sum-total of existing things; this is so much the case that this set of relations belongs as well to the nature of spirit; the spirit is the power of comprehending the totality of being, as it belongs to the nature of existing beings themselves: “to be” means “to be related to spirit.”

What stands revealed to us, then, is a series of “worlds”: at the lowest, the world of plants, already locally limited to the surroundings they touch. Beyond this is the realm of the animals; and finally, transcending all these partial worlds, is the world related to spirit, the world as the totality of being. And to this ranking of worlds and fields-of-relations correspond, as we have seen, the ranking of the powers that relate: the more comprehensive the power, the more highly dimensioned is the corresponding field of relations, or “world.”

Now a third structural element is to be added to this twofold structure. For the stronger power of relating corresponds to a higher degree of inwardness; the power to relate is greater to the same degree as the bearer of that relation has “inwardness”; the lowest power of relating not only corresponds to the lowest form of being in the world but also to the lowest grade of “inwardness,” whereas the spirit, which directs its relating-power to the sum total of being, must likewise have a corresponding inwardness. The more comprehensive the power of relating oneself to the world of objective being, so the more deeply anchored must be the “ballast” in the inwardness of the subject. And when a distinctively different level of “world” is reached, namely, the orientation toward the whole, there too can be found the highest stage of being-established in one’s inwardness, which is proper to the spirit.

Thus both of these comprise the nature of spirit: not only the relation to the “whole” of the world and “reality,” but also the highest power of living-with-oneself, of being in oneself, of independence, of autonomy -- which is exactly what has always been the “person,” or “personality” in the Western tradition: to have a world, to be related to the totality of existing things -- that can occur only in a being that is “established in itself”: not a “what,” but a “who” -- an “I,” a person.

But now it is time to look back over the path we have taken and return to the questions from which we began. There were two questions, one more immediate, the other more remote. The first was, “What kind of world is the world of man?” and the second was, “What does it mean to philosophize?”

Before we begin again with our formal discussion, a brief remark is in order about the structure of the world that is related to the spirit. It is not, of course, by a greater spatial compass that the world that is spirit-related differs from the world that is related to the non-spiritual (a point that was not addressed when I distinguished “environment” from “world”). It is not only the sum-total of things; but it is also the “nature of the things,” with which the world related to the spirit is constituted. The reason why the animal lives in a partial world is because the nature of things is hidden from it. And it is only because the spirit is able to attain to the essence of things that it has the ability to understand the totality of things.

This connection was made by the old doctrine of being, whereby “the universe,” as well as the nature of things, is “universal.” Thomas says, “Because the intellectual [or spiritual] soul is able to grasp universals, it has a capacity for the infinite.”[Summa Theologiae L Q, 76, a. 5, ad 4um] Whoever attains to an understanding of the universal whole essence of things is thereby able to win a perspective from which the totality of being, of all existing things, are present and ascertainable; in intellectual understanding, an “outpost” is reached, or can be reached, whence the whole landscape of the universe can be taken in. We have reached a context into which we can take only a brief glimpse but which will also lead us into the very center of a philosophical understanding of being, knowing, and spirit.

But now, let us return to the questions which we set out to answer. The first step to take is to the more immediate question, “What kind of world is the world of man?” Is the world of man the world that is related to the spirit? The answer would have to be that man’s world is the whole reality, in the midst of which the human being lives, face-to-face with the entirety of existing things — vis-à-vis de 1’univers — but only insofar as man is spirit. But man is not pure spirit; he is a finite spirit so that both the nature of things and the totality of things are not given in the perfection of a total understanding, but only in “expectation” or “hope.”

But first, let us consider the fact that man is not pure spirit. This statement, of course, could be spoken in a variety of tones. Not seldom, it is said with a feeling of regret, an accentuation that is usually understood as something specifically Christian, by both Christians and non- Christians alike. The sentence can also be said in such a way as to imply that “certainly, man is not pure spirit,” but that the “true human being” is nevertheless the intellectual soul.

Now these. doctrines have no basis in the classical tradition of the West. Thomas Aquinas used a very pointed formula on this matter which is not as well known as it should be. The objection he raises is the following: “The goal of the human being is to attain complete likeness to God. But the soul when separated from the body which is immaterial would be more like God than the soul with the body. And therefore the souls will be separated from their bodies in their final state.” This is the objection, that the real human being is the soul, dressed out in all the tempting glamour of theological argumentation.

And how does Thomas reply to the objection? “The soul that is united to the body is more like God than the soul that has been separated from its body because the former more perfectly possesses its own nature.” [Quaestiones disputatae de potentia Dei 5, 10, ad 5] This is no easily digested statement, considering how it implies not only that the human being is bodily, but that the soul itself is also bodily.

If this is the case, if man essentially is “not only spirit,” if man is not in virtue of a denial, or on the basis of a departure from his authentic being, but really and in a positive sense a being in whom the various realms of plant-, animal-, and spiritual beings are bound into a unity — then man lives essentially, not exclusively, in the face of the totality of things, the whole universe of beings. Rather, his field of relations is an overlapping of “world” and “environment,” and necessarily so, in correspondence to human nature. Because man is not purely spirit, he cannot only live “under the stars,” not only vis-à-vis de l’univers; instead, he needs a roof over his head, he needs the trusted neighborhood of daily reality, the sensuously concrete world, he needs to “fit in” with his customary surroundings — in a word: a truly human life also needs to have an “environment” (Umwelt), as distinct from a “world.”

But at the same time, it pertains to the nature of body/soul being that man is, that the spirit shapes and penetrates the vegetative and sense-perceived regions in which he exists. So much so, that the act of eating by a human being is something different from that of the animal (even apart from the fact that the human realm includes the “meal,” something thoroughly spiritual!). The spiritual soul so profoundly influences all the other regions that even when the human being “vegetates,” this is only possible because of the spirit (neither the plant nor the animal “vegetates”). Consequently, this very non-human phenomenon, this self-inclusion of man in the environment (and that means, in that selective world determined solely by life’s immediate needs), even this confinement is possible only on the basis of a spiritual confinement. On the contrary, to be human is: to know things beyond the “roof” of the stars, to go beyond the trusted enclosures of the normal, customary day-to-day reality of the whole of existing things, to go beyond the “environment” to the “world” in which that environment is enclosed.

But now, we have unwittingly taken a step closer to answering our original question: What is it to philosophize? Philosophy means just this: to experience that the nearby world, determined by the immediate demands of life, can be shaken, or indeed, must be shaken, over and over again, by the unsettling call of the “world,” or by the total reality that mirrors back the eternal natures of things. To philosophize (we have already asked, What empowers the philosophical act to transcend the working-world?) — to philosophize means to take a step outside of the work-a-day world into the vis-à-vis de l’univers. It is a step which leads to a kind of “homeless”-ness: the stars are no roof over the head. It is a step, however, that constantly keeps open its own retreat, for the human being cannot live long in this way.

He who seriously intends to wander finally and definitively outside the world of the Thracian maiden is wandering outside the realm of human reality. What Thomas said about the vita contemplativa applies here also: it is really something more than human (non proprie humana, sect superhumana). [Quaestio disputata de virtutibus cardinalibus I] Of course, man himself is something more than human: man transcends man himself for the sake of the eternal, Pascal said; an easy definition does not go far enough to reach the human being.

But instead of developing these considerations, which may lead us too near to babbling nonsense, let us return to the question, “What does it mean to philosophize?” and attempt another approach to it, in more concrete fashion, and on the basis established by the foregoing. How does the philosophical question different from the non-philosophical question? To philosophize means, we said, to direct one’s view toward the totality of the world. So is that a philosophical question (and that alone) which has for its explicit and formal theme this sum-total of all existing things? No! What is peculiar and distinctive about a philosophical question is that it cannot be posed, considered, or answered (so far at least as an answer is possible), without “God and the World” also coming into consideration, that is, the whole of what exists.

Once again, let us speak quite concretely. The question, “What are we doing, here and now?” can clearly be intended in various ways. It can be meant philosophically. Let us attempt it, then. The question can be asked in such a way as to anticipate a technical-organizational answer. “What is happening now?” “Well, a lecture is being delivered during the Bonn Week of Higher Education.”

That is a straightforward, informative sentence, standing there in a clearly lit world — or rather, “environment.” It is an answer spoken with one’s attention directed to what is immediately at hand. But the question could also be meant in another sense so that the questioner would not be content with the answer just now given. “What are we doing right now?” One person is speaking; others are listening to what he is saying, and the listeners “understand” what is being said; approximately the same process is taking place within the minds of the many listeners: the statements are grasped, thought about, weighed, accepted, denied, or accepted with some hesitation, and then integrated with each person’s own fabric of thought. This question expects an answer coming from the special sciences; it can be meant so as to call on the psychology of sense perception, cognition, learning, mental states, and so on, and these sciences would provide the adequate answer.

An answer of this kind, then, would exist in a world of higher and deeper dimensions than the first answer, with its merely organizational interest. But the answers of the special sciences have still not reached the horizon of total reality; this answer could be given without having to speak at the same time of “God and the World.” But if the question, “What are we doing right now?” were meant as a philosophical question, such an exclusion would not be possible; for if the question is meant philosophically, then the question is about the nature of knowing, of truth, or even of the nature of teaching itself.

What, in the last analysis, is it “to teach”? Now someone will come along and say, “A man cannot really teach; just as when someone is healed from illness, it is not the doctor who has healed him, but nature, whose healing powers the doctor has, perhaps, allowed to operate.” Someone else will come up and say, “It is God who really teaches, within, on the occasion of human teaching.” Then Socrates will stand up and say that the teacher only makes it possible for the one who learns “to acquire knowledge from himself” through reminiscence; “there is no learning, only recollection.”[ Plato, Meno 85; 81] And still another one will say, “All human beings are confronted by the same reality; the teacher points it out, and the learner, or the listener, sees for himself.”

What are we doing here? What kind of phenomenon is taking place? Is it something of a socially organized nature, a part of a lecture series? Is it something that can be analyzed and researched in terms of psychological science? Is it something taking place between God and the World?

This, then, is what is peculiar and distinctive about a philosophical question, that something comes to the fore in it, touching the very nature of the soul: to “come together with every being” (convenire cum omni ente) — with everything that exists. You cannot ask and think philosophically without allowing the totality of existing things to come into play: God and the World.


The Act of Philosophizing – Josef Pieper

July 20, 2010

The reason why the philosopher can be compared to the poet is that both are concerned with wonder…
St. Thomas Aquinas

Josef Pieper

When the physicist poses the question, “What does it mean to do physics?” or “What is research in physics?” his question is a preliminary question. Clearly, when you ask a question like that, and try to answer it, you are not “doing physics.” Or, rather, you are no longer doing physics. But when you ask yourself, “What does it mean to do philosophy?” then you actually are “doing philosophy” — this is not at all a “preliminary” question but a truly philosophical one: you are right at the heart of the business. To go further: I can say nothing about the existence of philosophy and philosophizing without also saying something about the human being, and to do that is to enter one of the most central regions of philosophy. Our question, “What is the philosophical act?” belongs, in fact, to the field of philosophical anthropology.

Now, because it is a philosophical question, that means it cannot be answered in a permanent or conclusive way. It pertains to the very nature of a philosophical question that its answer will not be a “perfectly rounded truth” (as Parmenides said it), grasped in the hand like an apple plucked from a tree. Later, we will have occasion to discuss the “hopefulness” built into philosophy and philosophizing, but for the moment we cannot promise a handy definition, a comprehensive answer to our question. Indeed, our four brief essays [Found in Leisure, The Basis of Culture] will barely be enough to clarify the problem as a whole.

But, for a first approach, we can venture the following: a philosophical act is an act in which the work-a-day world is transcended. We must first explain what we mean by “work-a-day world,” and second, what we mean by “transcending” it.

The work-a-day world is the world of the working day, the world of usefulness, of purposeful action, of accomplishment, of the exercising of functions; it is the world of supply and demand, the world of hunger and the satisfaction of hunger. It is a world dominated by one goal: the realization of the “common utility”; it is the world of work, to the extent that work is synonymous with “useful activity” (a characteristic both of activity and effort), The process of working is the process of realizing the “common utility”; this concept is not equivalent to that of the “common good” (bonum commune): the “common utility” is an essential component of the “common good,” but the concept of the bonum commune is much more comprehensive. For example, as Thomas puts it [Commentary on the Sentences lv, d. 26, 1.2], there are people who devote themselves to the “un-useful” life of contemplation; to philosophize belongs to the common good, whereas one could not say that contemplation, vision, or philosophizing serve the “common utility.”

Of course, in the present day bonum commune and the “common utility” seem to be growing more identical every day; of course (it comes to the same thing) the world of work begins to become — threatens to become — our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.

If it is correct to say that the philosophical act is one which transcends the working world, then our question, “What does it mean to philosophize?” — our so very theoretical, abstract question — becomes suddenly, and unexpectedly, a question of utmost relevance. We need only to take a single step, in our thoughts or in physical space, to find ourselves in a world in which the working process, the process of realizing the “common utility,” determines the whole realm of human existence. Inwardly and outwardly, there is a boundary, very near and easy to jump across, in order to win entry into the work-a-day world, in which there is no such thing as genuine philosophy and genuine philosophizing — all this presupposes, of course, that it is correct to say that “philosophy transcends the working world” and that it pertains to the very essence of the philosophical act not to belong this world of uses and efficiencies, of needs and satisfactions, this world of “useful good” (bonum utile), of the “common utility,” but is, rather, to be incommensurable to it in principle.

Indeed, the more acute the incommensurability, the more obvious the “not-belonging.” It could even be said, perhaps, that this very opposition, this threat from the world of total work, is what characterizes the situation of philosophy today more than its own particular content. Philosophy increasingly adopts — necessarily, it seems — the character of the alien, of mere intellectual luxury, of that which seems ever more intolerable and unjustifiable, the more exclusively the demands of the daily world of work take over the world of man.

And yet, we have something more to say, something very concrete, about the incommensurability of the philosophical act, of this transcending the world of work, that takes place in the philosophical act.

Let’s recall the things that dominate the contemporary working day; no special effort of the imagination is needed, for we all stand right in the middle of it. There is, first of all, the daily running back and forth to secure our bare physical existence, food, clothing, shelter, heat; then, the anxieties that affect, and absorb, each individual: the necessities of rebuilding our own country, Europe, and the world. Struggles for power for the exploitation of earth’s commodities, conflicts of interest in matters great and small. Everywhere, tensions and burdens — only superficially eased by hastily arranged pauses and diversions: newspapers, movies, cigarettes. I do not need to paint it in any fuller detail: we all know what this world looks like.

And we need not only direct our attention to the extreme instances of crisis that show themselves today: I mean simply the everyday working world, where we must go about our business, where very concrete goals are advanced and realized: goals that must be sighted with an eye fixed on the things nearest and closest at hand. Now it is not our purpose here to condemn this world, from the standpoint of some “holiday-world” of philosophy. No words need be wasted on saying that this work-a-day world is very much with us, that in it the foundations of our physical existence are secured, without which nobody can philosophize at all.

Nevertheless, let us also recall, that among the voices which fill the workplace and the markets (“How do you get this or that item of daily existence?” “Where do you get that?” etc.) — in the midst of all these voices suddenly one calls out above the rest: “Why is there anything at all, and not nothing?” — asking that age-old question, which Heidegger called the basic question of all metaphysics. [M. Heidegger, Was Ist Metaphysik? (Frankfurt, 1943), p. 22. The formulation, of course, is not new: it was used by Leibniz: “Pourquoy il y a plust et quelque chose que rien?” Leibniz, Philosophische Schriften (Darmstadt, 1965, ff.), vol. I, p.426.]

Must we explicitly state how unfathomable this philosopher’s question is, in comparison with that everyday world of needs and purposefulness? If such a question as this were asked, without introduction or interpretation, in the company of those people of efficiency and success, wouldn’t the questioner be considered rather…mad? Through such extremely formulated contrasts, however, the real, underlying distinction comes to the fore: it becomes clear that even to ask that question constitutes taking a step toward transcending, toward leaving behind, the work-a-day world. The genuine philosophical question strikes disturbingly against the canopy that encloses the world of the citizen’s work-day.

But the philosophical act is not the only way to take this “step beyond.” No less incommensurable with the working-world than the philosophical question is the sound of true poetry:

In middle and ending ever stands the tree,
The birds are singing; on God’s breast
The round Creation takes its holy rest.
Konrad Weiss, In Exitu (first verses)

Such a voice sounds utterly strange in the realm of actively realized purpose. And no differently sounds the voice of one who prays: “We praise you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory…“ How can that ever be understood in the categories of rational usefulness and efficiency? The lover, too, stands outside the tight chain of efficiency of this working world, and whoever else approaches the margin of existence through some deep, existential disturbance (which always brings a “shattering” of one’s environment as well), or through, say, the proximity of death. In such a disturbance (for the philosophical act, genuine poetry, musical experience in general, and prayer as well — all these depend on some kind of disturbance) in such an experience, man senses the non-ultimate nature of this daily, worrisome world: he transcends it; he takes a step outside it.

And because of their common power to disturb and transcend, all these basic behavioral patterns of the human being have a natural connection among themselves: the philosophical act, the religious act, the artistic act, arid the special relationship with the world that comes into play with the existential disturbance of Love or Death. Plato, as most of us know, thought about philosophy and love in similar terms. And as for the close connection between philosophy and poetry, we can refer to a little-known statement by Thomas Aquinas in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics: the Philosopher is akin to the Poet in this, that both are concerned with the mirandum, the “wondrous,” the astonishing, or whatever calls for astonishment or wonder. [Commentary on the Metaphysics I, 3]

This statement is not that easy to fathom, since Thomas, like Aristotle, was a very sober thinker, completely opposed to any Romantic confusion of properly distinct realms. But on the basis of their common orientation toward the “wonderful” (the mirandum — something not to be found in the world of work) — on this basis, then, of this common transcending-power, the philosophical act is related to the “wonderful,” is in fact more closely related to it than to the exact, special sciences; to this point we shall return.

The closeness of this connection is so real that whenever one member of the system is denied, the others cannot thrive: the result is that in a world of total work, all the various forms and methods of transcendence must themselves become sterile (or, rather, would have to become sterile, if it were possible to destroy human nature completely); where religion is not allowed to grow, where the arts can find no place, where the disturbances of love and death lose their depth and become banal — there too, philosophy and philosophizing cannot survive.

But worse than the mere extinguishing or silencing is the distortion into false forms of the original; there are such pseudo-realizations of those basic experiences, which only appear to pierce the canopy. There is a way to pray, in which “this” world is not transcended, in which, instead, one attempts to incorporate the divine as a functioning component of the work-a-day machinery of purposes. Religion can be perverted into magic so that instead of self-dedication to God, it becomes the attempt to gain power over the divine and make it subservient to one’s own will; prayer can become a technique for continuing to live life “under the canopy.” And further: love can be narrowed so that the powers of self-giving become subservient to the goals of the confined ego, goals which arise from an anxious self-defense against the disturbances of the larger, deeper, world, which only the truly loving person can enter.

There are pseudo-forms of art, a false poetry, which, instead of breaking through the roof over the work-a-day world, resigns itself, so to speak, to painting decorations on the interior surface of the dome, and puts itself more or less obviously to the service of the working world as private or public “fashion poetry”; such “poetry” never seems to transcend, not even once (and it is clear, that genuine philosophizing has more in common with the exact, special sciences than with such pseudo-poetry).

Finally, there is a pseudo-philosophy, whose essential character is precisely that it does not transcend the working world. In a dialogue of Plato, Socrates asks the sophist Protagoras just what he teaches the youth who flock to see him? And the answer is, “I teach them good planning, both in their own affairs, such as how one should best manage his own household, and in public affairs, how one can best speak and act in the city-state.” [Protagoras 318 ff.] That is the classic program of “Philosophy as Professional Training” — a seeming philosophy only, with no transcendence.

But even worse still, of course, is that all these pseudo-forms work together, not only in failing to transcend the world, but in more and more surely succeeding in closing off the world “under the canopy”: they seal off humanity all the more within the world of work. All these deceptive forms, and especially such seeming-philosophy, are something much worse, something much more hopeless, than the naive self-closing of the worldly man against what is not of daily-life. Someone who is merely naively confined to the work-a-day may one day nevertheless be touched by the disturbing power that lies hidden in a true philosophical question, or in some poem; but a sophist, a pseudo-philosopher, will never be “disturbed.”

But let us now return to the path marked out by our initial question: when a question is asked in the truly philosophical manner, one asks about something that transcends the working world. This shows that such a question, and such a way of calling into question, possesses a special acuteness today, since the world of total work has emerged with demands more all-encompassing than ever before in history. And yet, this is not merely to make a criticism of a period of history. It is rather to speak of a misunderstanding that is fundamentally timeless in nature.

For Plato, the laughter of the Thracian maiden, who saw Thales of Miletus fall into a well while he was staring at the skies, is the typical response of feet-on-the-ground, work-a-day reasoning to philosophy. And this anecdote of the Thracian maid stands at the very beginning of Western Philosophy. “And always,” as Plato says in the Theaetetus, the philosopher is the butt of humor, “not only for Thracian maidens, but for most people, because one who is a stranger to the world falls into wells, and into many other embarrassments too.”[Theaetetus 174]

Plato does not only express himself explicitly, in formal statements: he prefers to use images. There is a certain Apollodoros, a character of secondary importance (as it seems at first) in the dialogues Phaedo and Symposium. Apollodoros is one of those uncritical, enthusiastic youths in Socrates’ circle, who may represent someone like Plato himself once was. We hear of Apollodoros in the Phaedo that he alone among the assembled burst into groaning and tears when Socrates put the cup of hemlock to his lips: “You know this man and his manner.”[ Phaedo59a-b]

In the Symposium [Symposium 172 f] Apollodoros says of himself that for years he was eager to know what Socrates said and did every day. “I ran around, and thought I was doing something, but was just as miserable as anyone.” But now, in a wonderful way, he has given himself over completely to Socrates and philosophy.

In the city now they call him “crazy Apollodoros”; he rails against everyone (even himself) but only spares Socrates. In complete naiveté, he lets it be known everywhere, “how happy he is, beyond all measure,” when he talks about philosophy or hears someone else do so; and then again, how wretched he is, that he has not yet attained to the real thing, to be like Socrates.

One day, this Apollodoros encounters some friends of his from earlier days — the very ones, in fact, who now call him “crazy,” the “madman.” As Plato expressly points out, they are business people, people of money, who know precisely how someone can succeed, and who “intend to do something big in the world.” These friends inquire of Apollodoros, to tell them something about the speeches about Love that were delivered at a certain banquet at the house of the poet Agathon. It is clear that these successful businessmen really feel no desire to be instructed about the meaning of life and existence, and certainly not from Apollodoros!

What interests them is only the witty remarks, the well-spoken repartee, the formal elegance of the debate. And on his part, Apollodoros cherishes no illusions about the “philosophical” interests of his old friends. Rather, he says directly to their face, how much he pities them, “…because you believe you are accomplishing something, when you really are not. And maybe now you are thinking, I am not very well off, and you may be right, but I do not merely ‘think’ the same about you, I know it for sure!” All the same, he does not refuse to tell them about the Love-speeches; indeed, he cannot be silent — “If you really want me to tell you, I will have to do it” — even though they may take him for a madman.

And then Apollodoros narrates…the Symposium! For the Platonic “banquet” has the form of indirect speech: a report from the mouth of Apollodoros. Too little attention, in my view, has been paid to the fact that Plato allows his deepest thoughts to be expressed through this over- enthusiastic, uncritical youth, this over-eager disciple Apollodoros. And the audience of the report is a group of moneyed, successful Athenians, who are not really prepared to listen to such thoughts or even take them seriously. There is something hopeless in this situation, a temptation to despair, against which (this is probably what Plato means) only the youthful, undistracted thirst for wisdom, the true philosophia, can take a stand. In any case, Plato could not have brought out any more clearly the incommensurability between philosophizing and the self-sufficient world of daily work.

And yet the incommensurability of this situation is not merely negative, for there is another side as well, known as.. . freedom. For philosophy is “useless” in the sense of immediate profit and application — that is one thing. Another thing is, that philosophy cannot allow itself to be used, it is not at the disposal of purposes beyond itself, for it is itself a goal. Philosophy is not functional-knowing, but rather, as John Henry Newman put it, [The Idea of a University, V, 5.] is gentleman’s knowledge, not “useful,” but “free” knowing.

But this freedom means that philosophical knowing does not acquire its legitimacy from its utilitarian applications, not from its social function, not from its relationship with the “common utility.” Freedom in exactly this sense is the freedom of the “liberal arts,” as opposed to the “servile arts,” which, according to Thomas, “are ordered to a use, to be attained through activity.”[Commentary on the Metaphysics I, 3.] And philosophy has long been understood as the most free among the free arts (the medieval “Arts Faculty” is the forerunner of the “Philosophical Faculty” of today’s university).

Therefore, it is all the same whether I say that the philosophical act transcends the working world, or whether I say, philosophical knowing is useless or whether I say, philosophy is a “liberal art.” This freedom belongs to the particular sciences only to the extent that they are pursued in a philosophical manner. Here likewise is to be found –both historically and actually — the real meaning of “academic freedom” (since “academic” means “philosophical” if it means anything); strictly speaking, a claim for academic freedom can only exist when the “academic” itself is realized in a “philosophical” way. And this is historically the reason: academic freedom has been lost, exactly to the extent that the philosophic character of academic study has been lost, or, to put it another way, to the extent that the totalitarian demands of the working world have conquered the realm of the university. Here is where the metaphysical roots of the problem lie: the “politicization” is only a symptom and consequence. And indeed, it must be admitted here that this is nothing other than the fruit…of philosophy itself, of modern philosophy. Of which theme, more will soon have to be said.

But first, something needs to be said on the theme of philosophy’s “freedom,” in distinction from the special sciences: and this means a freedom understood as not-being-subordinated-to-purposes. In this sense, the special sciences are “free” only insofar as they are pursued in a philosophical way, insofar, that is to say, as they share in the freedom of philosophy. As Newman put it, “Knowledge, I say, is then especially liberal, or sufficient for itself, apart from every external and ulterior object, when and so far as it is philosophical.”[Idea of a University, V, 5] Considered in themselves, however, the various particular sciences are essentially “to-be-subo4inated-to-purposes”; they are essentially relatable to a “use that is reached through activity” (as Thomas says of the servile arts)[Commentary on the Metaphysics I, 3]

But we can speak still more concretely. The government of a state can say, “In order to complete our five-year plan, we need physicists who can catch up with the progress of foreign nations in this or that special area,” or “We need medical doctors, who can develop a more effective flu vaccine.” In these cases, nothing is being said or done that is contrary to the nature of these sciences. But, if someone were to say, “We need some philosophers, who. . .“ Will do what? There could only be one possibility: “. . . will justify, develop, defend, such and such an ideology. . .“ To say this and act upon it would be a destruction of philosophy. And it would come to the same, if someone said, “We need some poets, who will. . .“ Who will do what? Again, it could only be one thing: “who. . . will [as the expression goes] use the pen as a sword, on behalf of certain ideals determined by reasons of state. .“ And if this was being said, we would likewise see the destruction of poetry. In the same moment, poetry would cease to be poetry, and philosophy would cease to be philosophy.

But this is not to say that no relationship whatsoever can be found between the realization of the common good of a nation and any teaching of philosophy that takes place in it! Rather, the point is that such a relationship cannot be instituted and regulated by the administrators of the common good; that which has its meaning and purpose in itself, that which is itself purpose, cannot be made the means for some other purpose, just as someone cannot love a person “for such and such” or “in order to do such and such”!

Now, this freedom of philosophy, this quality of not-being-subservient-to some purpose is intimately connected with something else (a connection which seems extremely important to point out): the theoretical character of philosophy. Philosophy is the purest form of theorem, or speculari (to observe, behold, contemplate), consisting in a purely receptive gaze on reality, whereby things alone are determinative, and the soul is completely receptive of determination. Whenever some existent is taken up into view in a philosophical way, the questions are asked in a “purely theoretical” manner, and that means a manner untouched by anything practical, by any intention to change things, and thereby be raised above all serving of further purposes.

The realization of theoria in this sense is, however, connected with a presupposition. For what is presumed is a definite relationship with the world, a relationship that appears to precede all conscious positing or setting-forth of some intention. For to be “theoretical” in this full sense (in the sense of a purely receptive contemplation, without the slightest trace of an intention to change things; rather, it is precisely the opposite, a willingness to make the “yes” or “no” of the will dependent on the actuality of being, which is to be brought to expression in the knowledge of being) — the vision of man will only be “theoretical” in this undiluted sense, when being, the world, is something other than him and is more than the mere field, the mere raw material, of human activity.

Only that person can view the world “theoretically” in upon habitually seeing the world as the raw material of human activity. When the world is no longer looked upon as creation, there can no longer be theoria in the full sense. And with the fall of theoria, the freedom of philosophy falls as well, and what comes in its place is the functionalizing, the making it into something “practical,” oriented toward a legitimation by its social function; what comes to the fore is the working character of philosophy, or of philosophy so-called. Meanwhile, our thesis (which can now be more clearly formulated), maintains that it is of the nature of the philosophical act, to transcend the world of work.

This thesis, which comprehends both the freedom and theoretical character of philosophy, does not deny the world of work (in fact, it expressly presumes it as something necessary), but it maintains that true philosophy rests upon the belief that the real wealth of man lies not in the satisfaction of his necessities, nor, again, in “becoming lords and masters of nature,” but rather in being able to understand what is — the whole of what is. Ancient philosophy says that this is the utmost fulfillment to which we can attain: that the whole order of real things be registered in our soul [Cf. Thomas, Quaestiones disputatne de veritate II, 2] – a conception which in the Christian tradition was taken up into the concept of the beatific vision: “What do they not see, who look upon Him, Who sees all?”[Gregory the Great, as quoted by Thomas in the passage just cited]


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