The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 08, 2015

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Josef Pieper’s Contemplative Assent to the World
(from MA 42:4, Fall 2000) - 05/10/11
We must know where to doubt, where to feel certain, where to submit. He who does not do so, understands not the force of reason. There are some who offend against these three rules, either by affirming everything as demonstrative, from want of knowing what demonstration is; or by doubting everything, from want of knowing where to submit; or by submitting in everything, from want of knowing where they must judge.—Blaise Pasca11

Pascal’s subtle limning of belief and doubt and the need to be firm in both would have appealed to Josef Pieper. Pieper approved of Pascal’s contributions to the seventeenth-century debate over the validity of tradition because it allowed for a clear distinction between the fact-based truth-claims of empirical science and the tradition-based truth-claims of theology.2If one understood the nature of these different truth-claims one would indeed know “where to doubt [and] where to feel certain.” The doctrine of falsifiability is integral to the self-understanding of the natural sciences to this day. Tradition, on the other hand, which for Pieper ultimately derives from revelation, proclaims certainties. Pieper’s long essay on tradition in the pages of Modern Age (Spring 1994) specifically endorses tradition as “a dynamic matter,” though, inviting reason to cooperate with faith in one’s willing acceptance of that which is handed down, the traditum. As American society at large uncritically applauds scientific progress for its own sake while endangering the skepticism which responsible science maintains at its core, Pieper’s decidedly untimely meditations on being-in-the-world, his habit of pronouncing the world good (“gutheißen”) and of affirming the value of the individual deserve reconsideration.

American readers encountering the life and work of Josef Pieper are required to perform the labor of cultural translation. As a German, a Catholic philosopher, a conservative sociologist, a writer of crisp and deliberate prose, a man whose lifetime measured the entire breadth of the twentieth century (1904–1997), Pieper may be no less remote from our world than Ralph Waldo Emerson with whom he shares the gift of clear and distinct expression though none of his other attributes. If all of Pieper’s attributes are potential obstacles to our appreciation of his work, they can at the same time become pathways for us to travel towards him. The adjectives used above to sketch Pieper can turn into key concepts whose clarification will bring us closer to his thought.            

Pieper’s German roots in Continental philosophy—his admiration for Pascal, for instance—place him in a scholastic philosophical tradition different both from John Locke’s empiricism and from Edmund Burke’s historical traditionalism. American readers have to make room for this difference. Similarly, Catholicism as a basis of intellectual endeavor has been fraught with its own specific set of obstacles in America until at least the middle of the twentieth century. Finally, a conservative sociologist who grew up in the German empire, lived through two wars, and practiced a lifelong aristocratic ethic is something very different from an American thinker who would earn that designation under the auspices of a continuous democracy.

The almost exclusive popularity in American circles of a single book of Pieper’s over the course of many years is a case in point that illustrates the difficulty of resuscitating the genuine Josef Pieper. Until the re-translation and re-publication in English of his large corpus over just the past few years, Pieper was known in America primarily as the author of Leisure, the Basis of Culture (1952), to the popularity of which T.S. Eliot’s gracious introduction had greatly contributed. Eliot recognized that part of Pieper’s genius lay in reclaiming philosophy as philosophy instead of employing it as the handmaid of mathematics in a misguided attempt to construct a symbolic ethics. Without mentioning Pascal, Eliot avers that his own youthful inquiries into philosophy perhaps lacked the distinction between knowing “where to doubt [and] where to submit”: “At the time when I myself was a student of philosophy . . . the philosopher was beginning to suffer from a feeling of inferiority to the exact scientist. It was felt that the mathematician was the man best qualified to philosophize.”3And Eliot uses the concept of submission explicitly when he marks out Pieper’s distinctive space: “[H]is mind is submissive to what he believes to be the great, the main tradition of European thought; his originality is subdued and unostentatious.”

Yet even though Leisure was masterfully translated by Alexander Dru, and the title is perhaps even inspired by marketing genius, Muße und Kult has a decidedly different ring in German. No one would mistake “Muße” for leisurely relaxation; instead, notions of contemplation and gazing inward form part of the associative cluster surrounding the term. “Kult” very specifically and anthropologically refers to a series of ritual actions performed in worship and other sacred rites. By contrast, “culture” in English can refer to anything from a supercilious high-brow attitude towards the supposedly uneducated to the sum total of artistic production of an entire society. Pieper’s specific concern with ritual festivity and with the living, breathing, vibrant enactment of tradition is not immediately discernible from the English title. Yet these concerns of his ultimately have their roots in German twentieth-century societal phenomena such as the Wandervogel youth movement of the twenties—decidedly not proto-Nazi—and in Pieper’s religious upbringing in a denomination that emphasized ritual, tradition, and a concept of God as remote and awesome over against a mainline Protestant American understanding that is scriptural, critical, and recognizes a personal concept of God. In other words, terms like Muße and Kult resonate with Pieper’s biography in such a way as to require cultural translation. Most important and potentially misleading, perhaps, is the manner in which the title Leisure, the Basis of Culture sets up a logical relationship between leisure as cause and culture as effect. By his characteristic adding of terms in Muße and Kult as well as in his later titles such as Hope and History, Happiness and Contemplation and others, Pieper avails himself of terms which together, as a pair, contain truth. The additive gesture reveals a philosopher steeped in a faith tradition that claims both scripture and tradition in lieu of a Protestant, Kierkegaardian either/or.

Pieper’s own extensive remarks on his personal, cultural, and religious experiences as a frequent guest on the North American continent can help us to calibrate our responses to what seems alien in his old-world picture. In the end, Pieper’s bedrock conviction which appears at first most remote may become the one we apprehend with greatest ease: Scholastic philosophy, coming to its fullest flowering in Thomas Aquinas, not only contains within itself the highest achievement of the occidental mind but also offers twentieth-century man the clearest view of the good. Pieper’s precept for the good life is a life lived in contemplative assent to the world.

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