Philosopher of Virtue | Josef Pieper (1904-1997)
Philosopher of Virtue | Josef Pieper (1904-1997)
Josef Pieper was born on May 4th, 1904, in the small Westphalian village
of Elte, Germany. At that time not even a local train connected the isolated
spot in the middle of the heath with other towns of Westphalia; whoever
wanted to reach the next station had to cross a river in a small ferry-boat.
Pieper's father was the only teacher at the only school of this village.
Josef Pieper went to the Gymnasium Paulinum in Münster, one of the
oldest German schools, which has existed for more than eleven hundred years.
His son took up that tradition as a pupil of that old institution, the buildings
of which, however, were completely destroyed during World War II.
A teacher at the Gymnasium Paulinum, a priest, convinced Pieper to read
the works of Thomas Aquinas. "At that time," Pieper wrote, "I was foolishly
fond of Kierkegaard, whom we used to devour, my friends and I, naturally
without quite understanding him; and it was this paternal friend and teacher,
who directed me with a sort of violent, ironical, and humorous intensity
to St. Thomas'
Commentary to the Prologue of St. John's Gospel. Being a youngster
of eighteen, I set about reading this work and, in fact, finished it, of
course, again without understanding it perfectly. But from that moment the
work of St. Thomas has accompanied me through life." Years later he translated
this Commentary to the Prologue of St. John's Gospel into German.
Pieper went to the University of Münster in 1923, and later on he went
to Berlin. The plan of his first book which he ultimately submitted
to the university in order to obtain his doctorate in philosophy
was born during a lecture on Goethe and Thomas Aquinas, given by Msgr. Romano
Guardini at the Jugendburg Rothenfels on the Main in 1924; the lecture was
entitled "About Classical Spirit." Pieper's first book, Die Wirklichkeit
und das Gute (Reality and the Good; contained in Living the
Truth [Ignatius Press, 1989]) based on St. Thomas' works, tries to show
that the good is nothing else but what is in accordance with the reality
Pieper deviated from this path of "pure philosophy" for some time; social
problems fascinated him so much that he applied himself to the study of
law and sociology. He became an assistant at the Institute of Social Research
at the University of Münster. When, in 1931 the papal encyclical Quadragesimo
Anno was published, Pieper wrote a few booklets explaining the fundamental
idea of the " Entproletarisierung." Pieper said he would have devoted himself
entirely to the social sciences if National Socialism had not come into
power. From 1934 on, it became impossible for a Christian author to speak
in public about the problems of social life.
Fortunately, Pieper returned to his work in philosophy, attempting to build
up from the elements of Western tradition as it has been formed especially
by St. Thomas Aquinas a philosophical and ethical doctrine of man,
which might be comprehensible to modern people. In 1934 he wrote a small
book about the virtue of fortitude, Vom Sinn der Tapferkeit. "At
first," wrote Pieper, "the manuscript was refused by all editors (later
on, this fact proved to be a good example for explaining to my children,
what a boomerang is) till at last one editor, Jacob Hegner (Leipzig), who
made known in Germany the works of Claudel, Yeats, and Bernanos, accepted
the book and at the same time asked me to treat in the same way all seven
Pieper next wrote about hope. The small book was published in 1935, being
just in time for the day of his wedding. During the years preceding World
War II, two other works were published: one about the first cardinal virtue,
prudence (Traktatrüber die Klugheit) and the other about the
fourth cardinal virtue, temperance (Zucht und Mass). "To write about
justice was quite impossible then in Germany," explained Pieper, "yet, in
any case, I had put aside this treatise until later, for it seems to me
just as difficult as that about love and up to now I have not yet written
During the first year of World War II, he brought out only a little biography
of his hero, St. Thomas Aquinas, titled Guide
to Thomas Aquinas.
Pieper joined the army and during the time he was in service a volume of
the Summa Theologica or the Quaestiones Disputatae always
accompanied him, and in the course of these years he succeeded in putting
together two breviary-like collections of short sentences, chosen from the
whole work of the Angelic Doctor, but they were not published until the
end of World War II. One of these "breviaries," the more philosophical one,
was published both in England and the United States under the title, The
Human Wisdom of St. Thomas.
His other scientific work, which he also finished during World War II, dealt
with the idea of "veritas rerum" and its history. This work was of
special use to Pieper after the war in procuring a professorship at the
university, which, under the Nazi regime, had been impossible for him. In
1946, Pieper became lecturer of philosophy at the Pedagogical Institute
of Essen (Ruhr), at the University of Münster, and later on professor.
The result of the experiences with afterwar university-life and of those
of instruction found expression in two small books. The first one, Musse
und Kult, develops two theses: first, that culture is founded on leisure,
secondly, that leisure has its roots within the region of cult. The second
book, Was heist philosophieren? draws the consequences of these theses
for the study of philosophy. The primer for Christians, containing short
essays on Catholic dogma and ethics as well as on the history of the Church,
written in collaboration with Heinz G. Raskop, appeared in August 1951 under
the title What Catholics Believe, with an introduction by Reverend
Gerald B. Phelan, and in November of the same year, Leisure:
The Basis of Culture, with a preface by T. S. Eliot. This is considered
by many to be Piepers greatest work.
Another classic is Faith
Hope Love, a collection of Piepers famous treatises on the
three theological virtues. Each of these treatises was originally published
as a separate work over a period of thirty-seven years, and have been brought
together in English for the first time in the Ignatius Press edition.
The first of the three written, On
Hope, was produced in 1934 in response to the general feeling of
despair of those times. His "philosophical treatise" on Faith was derived
from a series of lectures Pieper gave in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
His most difficult work, one that he struggled with for years and nearly
abandoned was On Love. Pieper felt that it is the most important
book he has written. In it, he discusses not only the theological virtue
of caritas-agape, but also of eros, sexuality, and even "love" of
music and wine.
"St. Thomas is still my hero," wrote Pieper in the early 1950s. "I think
his work is inexhaustible and his affirmative way of looking at the reality
of the whole creation seems to me a necessary correction modern Christianity
cannot do without. Yet my admiration of Plato is likewise growing continually.
And one theme not expressly treated by St. Thomas and the whole scholastic
school is becoming more important to me than ever: the philosophy of history."
Piepers interest in this topic would eventually result in the publication
of Über das Ende der Zeit (The
End of Time: A Meditation on the Philosophy of History) and Hoffnung
und Geschichte (Hope
and History). He also wrote some books engaging the thought of Plato,
of Language, Abuse of Power and Divine
Madness: Plato's Case Against Secular Humanism.
Pieper died at the age of ninety-three on November 6, 1997. In a tribute
"A Philosopher of Virtue," published in First Things,
Gilbert Meilaender summarized some of Piepers core principles:
Pieper emphasizes the close connection between moral and intellectual
virtue. Our minds do notcontrary to many views currently popularcreate
truth. Rather, they must be conformed to the truth of things given in
creation. And such conformity is possible only as the moral virtues
become deeply embedded in our character, a slow and halting process.
We have, he writes on one occasion, "lost the awareness of the close
bond that links the knowing of truth to the condition of purity." That
is, in order to know the truth we must become persons of a certain sort.
The full transformation of character that we need will, in fact, finally
require the virtues of faith, hope, and love. And this transformation
will not necessarilyperhaps not oftenbe experienced by us
as easy or painless. Hence the transformation of self that we mustby
Gods graceundergo "perhaps resembles passing through something
akin to dying."
[Note: A substantial portion of this profile has been based upon the sketch
of Josef Pieper that appears in Catholic Authors: Contemporary Biographical
Sketches, edited by Matthew Hoehn, O.S.B., B.L.S., and published in
1952 by St. Marys Abbey.)
Josef Pieper books published by Ignatius Press:
Pieper: An Anthology
of Language, Abuse of Power
Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart
Madness: Plato's Case Against Secular Humanism
End of Time: A Meditation on the Philosophy of History
to Thomas Aquinas
Human Wisdom of St. Thomas
Defense of Philosophy: Classical Wisdom Stands Up to Modern Challenges
Search of the Sacred: Contributions to An Answer
The Basis of Culture
the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation
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