Josef Pieper

German philosopher (1904-1997)

Josef Pieper (4 May 19046 November 1997) was a German Catholic philosopher, at the forefront of the Neo-Thomistic wave in twentieth century philosophy.



Leisure, the Basis of Culture (1948)

Translation by Gerald Malsbary of two linked studies, Musse und Kult and Was heisst Philosophieren? (both 1948). South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine's Press, 1998

Leisure, the Basis of Culture

  • We can begin, like the Scholastic masters, with an objection: videtur quod non … "It seems not to be true that ..." And this is the objection: a time like the present [i.e., a few years after the Second World War, in Germany] seems, of all times, not to be a time to speak of leisure. […]
    That is no small objection. But there is also a good answer to it. […]
    For, when we consider the foundations of Western European culture (is it, perhaps, too rash to assume that our re-building will in fact be carried out in a "Western" spirit? Indeed, this and no other is the very assumption that is at issue today), one of these foundations is leisure. We can read it in the first chapter of Aristotle's Metaphysics. And the very history of the meaning of the word bears a similar message. The Greek word for leisure (σχολή) is the origin of Latin scola, German Schule, English school. The names for the institutions of education and learning mean "leisure."
    • pp. 3–4
  • "We work in order to be at leisure." […] Doesn't this statement appear almost immoral to the man or woman of the world of "total work"? Is it not an attack on the basic principles of human society?
    Now I have not merely constructed a sentence to prove a point. The statement was actually made — by Aristotle [Nichomachean Ethics X, 7 (1177b4–6)]. Yes, Aristotle: the sober, industrious realist, and the fact that he said it, gives the statement special significance. What he says in a more literal translation would be: "We are not-at-leisure in order to be-at-leisure." For the Greeks, "not-leisure" was the word for the world of everyday work; and not only to indicate its "hustle and bustle," but the work itself. The Greek language had only this negative term for it (ά-σχολία), as did Latin (neg-otium).
    The context not only of this sentence but also of another one from Aristotle's Politics (stating that the "pivot" around which everything turns is leisure [Politics VII, 3 (1337b33)]) shows that these notions were not considered extraordinary, but only self-evident. […] Could this also imply that people in our day no longer have direct access to the original meaning of leisure?
    • pp. 4–5
  • What happens when our eye sees a rose? What do we do when that happens? Our mind does something, to be sure, in the mere fact of taking in the object, grasping its color, its shape, and so on. We have to be awake and active. But all the same, it is a "relaxed" looking, so long as we are merely looking at it and not observing or studying it, counting or measuring its various features. Such observation would not be a "relaxed" action; it would be what Ernst Jünger termed an "act of aggression." But simply looking at something, gazing at it, "taking it in," is merely to open our eyes to receive the things that present themselves to us, that come to us without any need for "effort" on our part to "possess" them.
    • p. 9
    • The Ernst Jünger quote is from Blätter und Steine (Hamburg, 1934), p. 202.
  • Not only the Greeks in general — Aristotle no less than Plato — but the great medieval thinkers as well, all held that there was an element of purely receptive "looking," not only in self-perception but also in intellectual knowing or, as Heraclitus said, "Listening-in to the being of things."
    The medievals distinguished between the intellect as ratio and the intellect as intellectus. Ratio is the power of discursive thought, of searching and re-searching, abstracting, refining, and concluding [cf. Latin dis-currere, "to run to and fro"], whereas intellectus refers to the ability of "simply looking" (simplex intuitus), to which the truth presents itself as a landscape presents itself to the eye.
    • p. 11
  • [I]f knowing is work, exclusively work, then the one who knows, knows only the fruit of his own, subjective activity, and nothing else. There is nothing in his knowing that is not the fruit of his own efforts; there is nothing "received" in it. […]
    It is the mark of "absolute activity" (which Goethe said "makes one bankrupt, in the end"); the hard quality of not-being-able-to-receive; a stoniness of heart, that will not brook any resistance — as expressed once, most radically, in the following terrifying statement: "Every action makes sense, even criminal acts … all passivity is senseless."
    • p. 14
    • The Goethe quote is from his Maximen und Reflexionen, ed. Günther Müller (Stuttgart, 1943), no. 1415. The other quote is from Hermann Rauschning's Conversations with Hitler (Gespräche mit Hitler, 1940).
  • We should consider for a moment how much the Christian understanding of life is based on the reality of "Grace"; let us also recall that the Holy Spirit Himself is called "Gift"; that the greatest Christian teachers have said that the Justice of God is based on Love; that something given, something free of all debt, something undeserved, something not-achieved - is presumed in everything achieved or laid claim to; that what is first is always something received — if we keep all this before our eyes, we can see the abyss that separates this other attitude from the inheritence of Christian Europe.
    • p. 20
  • Now the code of life of the High Middle Ages said something entirely opposite to this: that it was precisely lack of leisure, an inability to be at leisure, that went together with idleness; that the restlessness of work-for-work's sake arose from nothing other than idleness. There is a curious connection in the fact that the restlessness of a self-destructive work-fanatacism should take its rise from the absence of a will to accomplish something.
    • p. 27
  • Against the exclusiveness of the paradigm of work as activity, first of all, there is leisure as "non-activity" — an inner absence of preoccupation, a calm, an ability to let things go, to be quiet.
    Leisure is a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. […] Leisure is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real.
    • p. 31
  • Leisure lives on affirmation. It […] includes within itself a celebratory, approving, lingering gaze of the inner eye on the reality of creation.
    The highest form of affirmation is the festival; and according to Karl Kerenyi, the historian of religion, to festival belong "peace, intensity of life, and contemplation all at once." The holding of a festival means: an affirmation of the basic meaning of the world, and an agreement with it, and in fact it means to live out and fulfil one's inclusion in the world, in an extraordinary manner, different from the everyday.
    The festival is the origin of leisure, its inmost and ever-central source. And this festive character is what makes leisure not only "effortless" but the very opposite of effort or toil.
    • pp. 33–34
    • The Kerenyi quote is from Karl Kerenyi, Die antike Religion (Amsterdam, 1940), p. 66.
  • Leisure stands in a perpendicular position with respect to the working process — in just the same way as the "simple gaze" of intellectus does not consist in the "duration" (so to speak) of ratio's working-out process, but instead cuts through it at the perpendicular (the ancients compared the ratio with time, the intellectus with the "always now" of eternity).
    • p. 34
  • In leisure — not only there, but certainly there, if anywhere — the truly human is rescued and preserved precisely because the area of the "just human" is left behind over and over again — and this is not brought about through the application of extreme efforts but rather as with a kind of "moving away" (and this "moving" is of course more difficult than the extreme, active effort; it is "more difficult" because it is less at one's own disposal; the condition of utmost exertion is more easily to be realized than the condition of relaxation and detachment, even though the latter is effortless: this is the paradox that reigns over the attainment of leisure, which is at once a human and superhuman condition). As Aristotle said of it: "man cannot live this way insofar as he is man, but only insofar as something divine dwells in him." [Nichomachean Ethics X, 7 (1177b27–28)]
    • p. 36
  • Let us now pose the question again: is recourse to the "human" really enough to preserve and firmly ground the reality of leisure? I intend to show that such recourse to mere Humanism is not enough.
    It could be said that the heart of leisure consists in "festival." In festival, or celebration, all three conceptual elements come together as one: the relaxation, the effortlessness, the ascendancy of "being at leisure" […] over mere function.
    • p. 50
  • To experience and live out a harmony with the world, in a manner quite different from that of everyday life — this, we have said, is the meaning of "festival." But no more intense harmony with the world can be thought of than that of "Praise of God," the worship of the Creator of this world. Now, as I have often experienced, this statement is often received with a mixture of discomfort and various other feelings, but its truth cannot be denied. The most festive festival that can be celebrated is religious worship or "cult," and there is no festival that does not get its life from such worship or does not actually derive its origin from this. There is no worship "without the gods," whether it be mardi gras or a wedding.
    • pp. 50–51
  • The statement is made with certainty: a festival that does not get its life from worship, even though the connection in human consciousness be ever so small, is not to be found. To be sure, since the French Revolution, people have tried over and over to create artificial festivals without any connection with religious worship, or even against such worship, such as the "Brutus Festival" or "Labor Day," but they all demonstrate, through the forced and narrow character of their festivity, what religious worship provides to a festival. […] Clearer than the light of day is the difference between the living, rooted trees of genuine cultic festival and our artificial festivals that resemble those "maypoles," cut at the roots, and carted here and there, to be planted for some definite purpose. Of course we may have to prepare ourselves for the possibility that we are only at the dawn of an age of artificial festivals. Were we [in Germany] prepared for the possibility that the official forces, and especially the bearers of political power, would artificially create the appearance of the festive with so huge an expense in external arrangements? And that this seductive, scarcely delectable appearance of artificial "holidays" would be so totally lacking in the essential quality, that true and ultimate harmony with the world? And that such holidays would in fact depend on the suppression of that harmony and derive their dangerous seduction from that very fact?
  • Within the world of total work, the "festival" is either "a break from work" (and thus only there for the sake of work), or it is a more intensive celebration of the principles of work itself (as in the "Labor Days," and thus belongs, again, to the working world). There will naturally be "games" — like the Roman circences — but who would dignify the amusements for the masses with the name of "festival"?
    • p. 53
  • In the effort to regain a space of true leisure, to bring about a fundamentally correct attitude and "exercise" of leisure, the real difficulty of this so-often despaired-of project consists in the fact that the ultimate root of leisure lies outside the range of our responsible, voluntary action. The fullest harmony with the world, to be precise, cannot come about on the basis of a voluntary decision. Above all, one cannot simply "make" it happen for some ulterior purpose. There are certain things which one cannot do "in order to ..." do something else.
    • p. 58
  • Worship itself is a given — or it does not exist at all.
    • p. 59

The Philosophical Act

  • 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.
    • p. 63
  • 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.
    • P. 63
  • Of course in the present day […] 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.
    • pp. 64–65
  • 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.
    • pp. 65–66
  • 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 no one 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 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! 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?
    • pp. 66—67
  • No less incommensurable with the working-world than the philosophical question is the sound of true poetry. […] The lover, too, stands outside the tight chain of efficiency of this working world, and [so does] whoever else approaches the margin of existence through some deep existential disturbance (which always brings a "shattering" of one's environment), or through, say, the proximity of death.
    • pp. 67–68
  • 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 [I, 3]: 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. 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 towards 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.
    • pp. 68–69
    • The Aquinas quote cited — "The reason why the philosopher can be compared to the poet is that both are concerned with wonder" — is the epigraph of "The Philosophical Act".
  • 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.
    • p. 94
  • How does the philosophical question differ 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 the 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.
    • p. 95
  • Since "the answers of the special sciences" do not reach "the horizon of total reality", they are given "without having to speak at the same time of 'God and the world.'
    • p. 96
  • And in this, that philosophy begins in wonder [Plato, Theaetetus 155d], lies the, so to speak, non-bourgeois character of philosophy; for to feel astonishment and wonder is something non-bourgeois (if we can be allowed, for a moment, to use this all-too-easy terminology). For what does it mean to become bourgeois in the intellectual sense? More than anything else, it means that someone takes one's immediate surroundings (the world determined by the immediate purposes of life) so "tightly" and "densely," as if bearing an ultimate value, that the things of experience no longer become transparent. The greater, deeper, more real, and (at first) invisible world of essences is no longer even suspected to exist; the "wonder" is no longer there, it has no place to come from; the human being can no longer feel wonder. The commonplace mind, rendered deaf-mute, finds everything self-explanatory. But what really is self-explanatory? Is it self-explanatory, then, that we exist? Is it self-explanatory that there is such a thing as "seeing"? These are questions that someone who is locked into the daily world cannot ask; and that is so because such a person has not succeeded, as anyone whose senses (like a deaf person) are simply not functioning — has not managed even for once to forget the immediate needs of life, whereas the one who experiences wonder is one who, astounded by the deeper aspect of the world, cannot hear the immediate demands of life — if even for a moment, that moment when he gazes on the astounding vision of the world.
    • pp. 101–102
  • If someone needs the "unusual" to be moved to astonishment, that person has lost the ability to respond rightly to the wondrous, the mirandum, of being. The hunger for the sensational, posing, as it may, in "bohemian garb," is an unmistakable sign of the loss of the true power of wonder, for a bourgeois-ized humanity.
    • p. 102
  • It should now be clear that "wonder" and philosophizing are connected with each other in a more essential sense than may at first appear in the statement, "Philosophy begins in wonder." For wonder is not merely the beginning, in the sense of initium, the first stage or phase of philosophy. Rather, wonder is the beginning in the sense of the "principle" (principium), the abiding, ever-intrinsic origin of philosophizing. It is not true to say that the philosopher, insofar as he philosophizes, ever "emerges from his wonder" — if he does depart from his state of wonder, he has ceased to philosophize.
    • pp. 105–106
  • He who knows does not feel wonder. It could not be said that God experiences wonder, for God knows in the most absolute and perfect way.
    • p. 106
  • Wonder is defined by Thomas [Aquinas] in the Summa Theologiae [I-II, Q. 32, a. 8], as the desiderium sciendi, the desire for knowledge, active longing to know.
    • pp. 106–107
  • "None of the gods philosophizes," Plato has Diotima say in the Symposium: "nor do fools; for that is what is so bad about ignorance — that you think you know enough." "Who, then, O Diotima, I asked, are the philosophers, since they are neither those who know nor those who don't know?" Then she answered me: "It's so obvious, Socrates, that a child could understand: the philosophers are the ones in between." This "in-between" is the realm of the truly human. It is truly human, on the one hand, not to understand (as God), and on the other hand, not to become hardened; not to include oneself in the supposedly completely illuminated world of day-to-day life.
    • p. 109
  • Now this structure of hope (among other things) is also what distinguishes philosophy from the special sciences. There is a relationship with the object that is different in principle in the two cases. The question of the special sciences is in principle ultimately answerable, or, at least, it is not un-answerable. It can be said, in a final way (or some day, one will be able to say in a final way) what is the cause, say, of this particular infectious disease. It is in principle possible that one day someone will say, "It is now scientifically proven that such and such is the case, and no otherwise." But […] a philosophical question can never be finally, conclusively answered. […] The object of philosophy is given to the philosopher on the basis of a hope. This is where Dilthey's words make sense: "The demands on the philosophizing person cannot be satisfied. A physicist is an agreeable entity, useful for himself and others; a philosopher, like the saint, only exists as an ideal." It is in the nature of the special sciences to emerge from a state of wonder to the extent that they reach "results." But the philosopher does not emerge from wonder.
    Here is at once the limit and the measure of science, as well as the great value, and great doubtfulness, of philosophy. Certainly, in itself it is a "greater" thing to dwell "under the stars." But man is not made to live "out there" permanently! Certainly, it is a more valuable question, as such, to ask about the whole world and the ultimate nature of things. But the answer is not as easily forthcoming as for the special sciences!
    • pp. 109–111
    • The Dilthey quote is from Briefwechsel zwischen Wilhelm Dilthey und dem Grafen Paul Yorck v. Wartenberg, 1877–1897 (Hall/Salle, 1923), p. 39.
  • Now one may ask, How could a Christian philosophy have something over a non-Christian philosophy, if it does not reach to a higher level of solutions, if it cannot get handy answers, if the problems and questions are still there? Well, perhaps a greater truth could be present in its ability to see the world in its truly mysterious character, in its inexhaustablity. It could even be the case that here, in the very experience of being as a mystery, that it is not to be grasped in the hand as a "well-rounded truth" — herein is reality more deeply and truly grasped than in any transparent system that may charm the mind of the student with its clarity and simplicity. And this is the claim of Christian philosophy: to be truer, precisely because of its recognition of the mysterious character of the world.
    In no way, then, does philosophy become easier. Plato appears to have discovered and felt that too — if a certain interpretation of Plato is correct, maintaining that Plato understood philosophy to be something tragic for this reason, that it must constantly have recourse to mythos, since the teaching of philosophy can never close itself into a system.
    • pp. 127–128
    • The "interpretation of Plato" referred to is that of Gerhard Krüger, Einsicht und Leidenschaft (Frankfurt, 1939), p. 301.

Happiness and Contemplation (1958)

  • “The essence of happiness consists in an act of the intellect.” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica) … What is implicit in this sentence? This is implicit: the fulfillment of existence 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, the one whose thirst has been finally quenched, who has attained beatitude—this person is the one who sees. The happiness, the quenching, the perfection, consists in this seeing.
    • p. 58

The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance (1965)

Translations of four studies previously published separately: Traktat über die Klugheit (1937), Über die Gerechtigkeit (1953), Von Sinn der Tapferkeit (1934), Zucht und Mass (1939)
  • "Being precedes Truth, and … Truth precedes the Good."
  • Modern religious teachings have little or nothing to say about the place of prudence in life or in the hierarchy of virtues.
  • The truth is the good of our knowing mind, upon which the mind fixes itself by nature; it is not granted to the mind to choose or not choose that good (truth!) on the basis, again, of knowledge. The finite mind does not comprehend itself so profoundly, and does not have such power over itself, that it follows its own light.
  • A friend and a prudent friend, can help to shape a friend's decision. He does so by virtue of that love which makes the friend's problem his own, the friend's ego his own (so that after all it is not entirely "from outside"). For by virtue of that oneness which love can establish he is able to visualize the concrete situation calling for decision, visualize it from, as it were, the actual center of responsibility. Therefore it is possible for a friend - only for a friend and only for a prudent friend - to help with counsel and direction to shape a friend's decision or, somewhat in the manner of a judge, help to reshape it.
    Such geniune and prudent loving friendship (amor amicitiae) - which has nothing in common with sentimental intimacy, and indeed is rather imperiled by such intimacy - is the sine qua non for geniune spirtual guidance. For only this empowers another to offer the kind of direction which - almost! - conforms to the concrete situation in which the decision must be made.
  • 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.
  • Justice is a habit (habitus), whereby a man renders to each one his due with constant and perpetual will.
  • To the virtue of temperance as the preserving and defending realization of man's inner order, the gift of beauty is particularly co-ordinated. Not only is temperance beautiful in itself, it also renders men beautiful. Beauty, however, must here be understood in its original meaning: as the glow of the true and the good irradiating from every ordered state of being, and not in the patent significance of immediate sensual appeal. The beauty of temperance has a more spiritual, more austere, more virile aspect. It is of the essence of this beauty that it does not conflict with true virility, but rather has an affinity to it. Temperance, as the wellspring and premise of fortitude, is the virtue of mature manliness.
    The infantile disorder of intemperance, on the other hand, not only destroys beauty, it also makes man cowardly; intemperance more than any other thing renders man unable and unwilling to 'take heart' against the wounding power of evil in the world
  • All just order in the world is based on this, that man give man what is his due.
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