It’s the most profitable 54 pages you could read in the next month. I’m talking about Josef Pieper’s, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. Pieper’s clarity and style – even the clunky passages woodenly translated from the original German – quickly induced me to welcome him as I would an old friend.
But first, some background if you haven’t read anything by Pieper. As a Catholic Social Philosopher, he was part of the neo-Thomistic revival of the twentieth century. Pieper isn’t well known among English-speaking Protestant Evangelicals, having spent the bulk of his career at the University of Münster where he taught from 1950 to 1976. Thereafter, until his death in 1997, he continued to lecture as Professor Emeritus. If you have hung out at SCL conferences, however, you’ve no doubt noticed on the table his better-known book, Leisure the Basis of Culture, an outstanding read that we’ll save for another day.
His gift to the German-speaking world was his translation of Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, suggesting his appreciation for brothers across traditions. His gift to us (one of them!) is this little reader nicely packaged in a thin 5×7 paper cover – suitable for your coat pocket. It’s so small it doesn’t even get notice on his Wikipedia entry, no doubt because it is a digest of his longer works on the virtues. As such, it’s a valuable introduction.
Pieper must be read with an awareness of some basic commitments. His sympathies are in the Scholastic tradition, notably with Aquinas, while remaining surprisingly more Platonic than Aristotelian. As Gilbert Meilaender noted in his obituary of Pieper in First Things, he had “inhabit[ed] a system of thought long enough to see the world in its terms. He had so digested Aquinas as to make him his own.” And, while Greek thought is not far beneath the surface, it is transcribed into theological constructs, viewed through the corrective lenses of biblical reflection. For example, Pieper says that “all duty is based on being. Reality is the basis of ethics. Goodness is the standard of reality” (11). In other words ethics is based on metaphysics.
The book begins boldly by asserting that “virtue is…the realization of the human capacity for being” (9). Thus, a “man is wise when all things taste to him as they really are” (21). Reality – and knowledge of it – is essential to an ordered and flourishing life.
When Pieper talks about reality, however, he doesn’t mean brute reality the way the Greeks talked about it. He insists that reality is the Triune God, and a Christian is one who, in faith, not only embraces this, but strives in hope for the fulfillment of his being in eternal life. This brings us to the heart of Pieper’s thought, the virtues: love, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. These are the means by which one apprehends the truth of God. “Becoming a moral person occurs in the individual’s appropriate response to reality” (17). This is a common theme not only here, but across Pieper’s writings, the close connection between intellectual and moral virtue. In order to grasp the reality of God, which is ultimate and final, we have to become a certain kind of person. If Augustine taught us to believe in order that we might know, Pieper reminds us that we have to behave, in order that we might know. “For us, the…connection that links the knowledge of truth to the condition of purity has vanished from our consciousness” (42). For the classical, Christian teacher, the implications for moral formation in education are profound. We teach
in a culture that intentionally and powerfully attempts to separate a student’s behavior, and his loves, from his intellectual development. Pieper says that this cannot be done.
Drawn out in summary in the Reader, Pieper shows us progressively how the virtues link together as pathways to truth. I can reduce them to some axioms; you’ll have to read the book to connect the dots fully:
– On prudence: Prudence belongs to the definition of the good; it is the birth mother of all human virtue (14-15); false prudence is really covetousness, “the anxious se- nility of a frantic self-preservation bent on only its own assurance and security” (19);
- On justice – Justice is not merely giving each his due; the just man who is a recipient of the gifts of God, will alone be ready to fulfill to others what he does not owe (24);
- – On courage: Fortitude implies vulnerability; to be brave means to be ready to sustain a wound (25); fortitude protects a person from loving his life in such a way that he loses it (28);
- – On temperance: Abandonment of the soul to the sensual world wounds the fundamental capacity of the moral person to apprehend reality and respond to it appro- priately (42);
- – On hope: Human existence has the structure of hope;
we are “not yet” creatures.
And so on. Few have had the ability to navigate the world of the medieval mind. Pieper is one of them, and the Brief Reader is a gateway to that world.