Josef Pieper’s Presentation of Purity

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                10 February 2019

Saint Scholastica (d. 543)

Agnes Muriel Hickson (d. 10 February 2009)

Epigraphs

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“With good reason it is said: only he who has a pure heart can laugh in a freedom that creates freedom in others. It is no less true that only he who looks at the world with pure eyes experiences its beauty. (Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991—first published in German in 1988), page 44—my emphasis added.)

***

“To be open to the truth of real things and to live by perceived truth: these constitute the essence of the moral person.” (Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, pages 42-43—my emphasis added.)

***

“For us men and women of today,…who scarcely regard as sensible the concept of an ascesis of the intellect—for us, the deeply intrinsic connection that links the knowledge of truth to the condition of purity has vanished from our consciousness. Thomas [Saint Thomas Aquinas] notes that the firstborn daughter of unchastity is the blindness of spirit. (Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, page 42—my emphasis added.)

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Intemperantia [the vice of Intemperance] and despair are connected by a hidden channel. Whoever in stubborn recklessness persists in pursuing perfect satisfaction and gratification in prestige and pleasure has set his foot on the road to despair. Another thing, also, is true: one who rejects [final] fulfillment in its true and final meaning, and—despairing of God and himself—anticipates nonfulfillment, may well regard the artificial paradise of unrestrained pleasure-seeking as the sole place, if not of happiness, then of forgetfulness, of self-oblivion: ‘In their despair, they gave themselves up to incontinence’ (Ephesians 4:19). That sin is a burden and a bondage is nowhere more apparent than in intemperantia, in that obsession of selfish self-preservation, which seeks itself in vain.” (Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), pp. 204-205—my emphasis added)

***

The German philosopher, Josef Pieper (d. 1997), had a fresh and vivifying way of presenting the concept and reality of purity, especially as a part of the Fourth Cardinal Virtue of Temperance. Given what has been happening in the Catholic Church over these last twenty-two years after his death, Josef Pieper’s perceptive thought and profound insight may yet help us today to understand and to live out the higher meanings of purity—and to combat various forms of hedonistic indiscipline and impurity.

I propose to be brief as I more closely consider two of Dr. Pieper’s writings: a chapter from his book, The Four Cardinal Virtues (1966); and one analogous portion of his shorter and later book, which is entitled A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart (1991).1

Over the grateful years I knew him (June 1974-November 1997), Josef Pieper always combated anything disordered that “stifles man’s primitive power of perceiving reality” (202) and impairs him from “reaching reality and truth” (202). For example:

Not only is the satisfaction of the [human] spirit with the truth impossible without chastity, but even genuine sensual joy at sensual beauty is impossible….However, that this [sensual] pleasure should be made possible precisely through the virtue of discipline and moderation—that is a surprising thought….Only a chaste sensuality can achieve true human capacity: to perceive sensual beauty, such as that of the human body, as beauty [in itself] and to enjoy it, undisturbed and unstained by any selfish will to pleasure that befogs everything….It is no less true that only he who looks at the world with pure eyes experiences its beauty. (43-44—my emphasis added)

With this form of simplicitas and affirmation and alacrity, we may now better appreciate an even more profound passage through the clear eyes of Josef Pieper:

Purity means that crystalline, morning-fresh artlessness and selflessness in relating to the world [sine dolo, without guile], as it becomes a reality in the person when the shock of deep pain brings him to the limits of existence or when the nearness of death touches him. In Sacred Scripture it says, “Serious illness sobers the soul” (Sirach 31:2); this sobriety belongs to the essence of purity. The most debated of Aristotle’s tenets points in the same direction: tragedy achieves purification, catharsis. The donum timoris [the infused “gift of fear”], the spiritual gift of fear, which Thomas [Aquinas] subordinates to temperantia, also cleanses the disposition as the blessed experience of the innermost peril to the person; it [virtuous temperance] has that purity as its fruit in virtue of which one renounces that selfish seeking after deceptive and false fulfillment. Purity is the unreserved openness of the entire being, from which alone the [sacred] word can be spoken: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). This supreme realization of purity is expressed in one of the most perfect (and one of the most unknown) German poems in an image of immaculate beauty and radiant authenticity: “Untroubled, the undaunted rose/ stays open in hope” (Konrad Weiss).

Here a new depth becomes manifest: namely, that purity is not only the fruit of purification but also comprises in itself the readiness to accept God’s purifications, perhaps terrible and deadly, with a brave openness of a trusting heart and so experience its fertile and transforming power. (45-46—my emphasis added)

In his earlier 1966 book on the cardinal virtues, Josef Pieper gives us further insights as well as some additional connections, especially about beauty, in his Chapter 10 on “The Fruits of Temperance.”

He says, for example, that the cardinal virtue of temperance is “the preserving and defending realization of man’s inner order” (203) and it is, thus, “particularly co-ordinated” with “the gift of beauty” (203—my emphasis added):

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….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 [the third cardinal virtue], is the virtue of mature manliness.

The infantile disorder of intemperance, on the other hand, not only destroys beauty, it 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. (203—my emphasis added)

Josef Pieper helpfully tries to convey to us in multiple ways that “Temperance…is liberating and purifying. This above all: temperance effects purification” (205—my emphasis added):

If one approaches the difficult concept of purity through this strangely neglected way and begins to understand purity as the fruit of purification, the confusing and discordant sounds [tones] which usually obscure this notion and move it dangerously close to Manichaeism [or “Catharism”] are silenced. From this approach the full and unrestricted concept of purity—so different from the currently accepted one—comes into view.

This is the purity meant by John Cassian [the learned Christian Monk of Marseille, 360-435; a contemporary of Saint Augustine of Hippo who died in 430] when he calls purity of heart the immanent purpose of temperance: “It is served by solitude, fasting, night watches, and penitence.” It is this wider concept of purity which is [likewise] referred to in St. Augustine’s statement that the virtue of temperance and moderation aims at preserving man uninjured and undefiled for God. (205—my emphasis added)

Such are some considerations of the ends of temperance–both the immanent and the transcendent purpose–answering, in part, the searching question: “What is temperance for?”

In this context, Josef Pieper will even help us to be more perceptive and to learn by way of contrast some of the different outward signs of a just man and of a temperate man, to include “the fruits of temperance” (203):

It is not easy to read in a man’s face whether he is just or unjust. Temperance or intemperance, however, loudly proclaim themselves in everything that manifests a personality: in the order or disorder of the features, in the attitude, the laugh, the handwriting. Temperance, as the inner order of man, can as little remain “purely interior” [hidden] as the soul itself [of a man], and as all other life of the soul or mind. It is the nature of the soul to be the “form of the body” [in Latin, “anima forma corporis”].

This fundamental principle of all Christian psychology [“anima forma corporis”] not only state the in-forming of the body by the soul, but also [states] the reference of the soul to the body. On this [principle], a second factor is based: the temperance or intemperance of outward behavior and expression can have its strengthening or weakening repercussions on the inner order of man. It is from this point of view that all outer discipline…obtains its meaning, its justification, and its [moral] necessity. (203-204—my emphasis added)

Such “outer discipline” is also a sign of a virtuous inner fortitude—the heroic capacity, not just to undertake open acts of aggressive bravery, but also– more fundamentally– to undergo and to endure inordinate injustice, and thus also to face “the innermost peril to the person” (such as the loss of eternal life). Saint Augustine once candidly said that fortitude itself presupposes injustice, the endurance facing the objective existence of injustice—as in the humiliating case and endurance of the Christian martyrs with their abiding hope. And with a grace-filled purity “open in hope.”

As we now conclude these cumulative reflections, we ask, now once again, “what does this unrestricted concept of purity stand for?” (205):

It stands for…that selfless acceptance of the world which man experiences when the shock of a profound sorrow carries him to the brink of existence or when he is touched by the shadow of death. It is said in the Scriptures: “Grave illness sobers the soul” (Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 31:2); this sobriety belongs to the essence of purity….

A new depth here opens to our view: purity is not only the fruit of purification; it implies at the same time a readiness to accept God’s purifying intervention, terrible and fatal though it might be; to accept it with the bold candor of a trustful heart [“open in hope”], and thus to experience its fruitful and transforming power.

This, then, is the ultimate meaning of the virtue of temperance. (205-206—my emphasis added)

There is never a false tone in beloved Josef Pieper’s writings, nor in his warmly candid character, in person. “Kein falscher Ton”—not a false tone in him!

CODA

One early morning when we were walking together to Mass from his beloved Westphalian home in Münster, Germany, Dr. Pieper unexpectedly said to me: “Today we shall be having a young, recently arrived priest to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass.”

I said: “Is he a good priest, Dr. Pieper?”

Kein falscher Ton!” These were Dr. Pieper’s only words.

(These words seemed so resonantly fitting to him, especially given his wholehearted and nuanced love of music– as was so evident from his first playing for me in his home Monteverdi’s Vespers— with his cherished wife also seated beside us, and so attentively and so graciously present.)

After first hearing Josef Pieper himself say “Kein falscher Ton” by way of a sincere tribute, I have always applied it to my own beloved mentor, Josef Pieper himself. “Not a false tone in him.”

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Further references to these two books will be placed in the main body of this essay above, in parentheses. The bibliographical notations of Josef Pieper’s two books are, as follows: The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966); and A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991).

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